Monday, March 19, 2012

Caroline Sun: How I Got into Publishing

I graduated from Colgate University with a BA in English Lit, a severe lack of motivation, and the typical post-collegiate contrarian belief that I would never EVER work for “The Man.” I thought I wanted to be a writer, so I signed up for some writing workshops and quickly learned that I had little talent, less patience, and a somewhat violent reaction to “constructive criticism.”
National Book Award Winner,
Newbery Honor, and New York Times Bestseller

I was living with my parents rent-free in Brooklyn which gave me a bit of time to “figure things out” so I took the opportunity to buff up my “life experience” category by getting various restaurant jobs in the city, hoping to meet some cool characters while also earning pretty decent cash. I juggled 3-4 jobs at a time: hostessing at a high-end sushi restaurant, bartending in the east village, cater waiter-ing at fashion events, “Evian Girl”-ing at the US Open, and the like. I was nocturnal for a solid two years and knew I wouldn’t last long on that schedule. Taking a break, I embarked on a backpacking adventure through SE Asia for a month or so, thinking that my travel journal would provide a solid springboard for a novel (this was pre-EAT, PRAY, LOVE, mind you). It was an exhilarating experience, but in the end I came home to my restaurant positions, threw in the towel on the writing, and a few months later my parents gave me the old “Hey, maybe it’s time you got a job with, you know, health insurance or something. You should also probably start paying rent.” I still had no idea what I wanted to do, so I applied to a host of random positions: a line-cook on the traveling train for Ringling Bros. Circus, a sales rep for a boutique high-brow greeting card company, a marketing assistant at Turner Sports, all to no avail. Knowing that I was in a bad spot (I had zero qualifications or applicable experience for anything really), I decided to tap my college alumni network for some leads.

I asked Colgate for a list of folks in NYC who worked in marketing/advertising (which seemed appealing enough) in various industries, and started making the rounds on informational interviews. I whittled down the list, weeding out what I was not interested in pursuing, and eventually found Noelle, a Publicity Manager at Penguin Group. I didn’t really know what book publicity meant, but it seemed to merge my two interests of marketing and books and I wanted to learn more. I asked some fairly idiotic questions at first—do you do those book ads in the subways? What exactly is an imprint? What do you mean by “Book Tour”? Does a press kit come with instructions?—clearly, I had not done my research (ALWAYS do your research!).
Heart and Soul in People
I worked in adult books for about three and a half years (at Penguin then at HarperCollins) before making the move to children’s books (for a myriad of reasons). I’ve moved around a bit, kind of like Goldilocks, to Macmillan Children’s, Penguin Young Readers, and finally here at HarperCollins Children’s Books where I have the honor of working with some pretty badass authors and illustrators such as Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein’s estate, Neil Gaiman, Colin Meloy & Carson Ellis, among many others.

I’ve also been given the opportunity to work on really diverse titles like Heart & Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth, and Walter Dean Myers’ tremendous backlist and frontlist (he was also recently named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature). And while watching Maurice Sendak outshine Stephen Colbert was one of my biggest career highlights, I will also say that seeing Kadir’s breathtaking tome featured in USA Today and People magazine, or watching Thanhha accept the National Book Award (then a Newbery Honor, THEN hit the NYT Bestseller list), or getting a beautifully literary, coming-of-age, LGBTQ novel set in Montana covered in EW and USA Today, have been moments of pride that I’ll not soon forget. The fact that many of these so-called “mainstream” outlets will step away from the current trends to acknowledge such deserving work is refreshing. I only wish there could be more of it, in more outlets, and that it would not be seen as so “unprecedented.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post in Entertainment Weekly

It’s certainly tough watching the print media shrink, book coverage/reviewers disappear, and sometimes it feels harder than baseball where batting .300 is considered amazing. Nonetheless, publicizing children's books helps me sleep well at night knowing that I’m fighting the good fight. I’m not landing planes, or driving ambulances, I’m not literally saving lives, but I’m helping to get books to those young readers and that’s pretty damn important (and for the most part, pretty fun too).  I may not have become a writer, but I married one (an author “of color” no less!), so I get all the perks without doing all the work. As a fellow publicist once put it: “Dude, this job is the best. We’re like…sexy kindergarten teachers!” I couldn’t put it better myself.

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