Q&A: Tracy van Straaten, executive director of publicity for Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing and Simon Spotlight Entertainment

Simon Spotlight Entertainment (SSE) is the offspring of media-rich Simon Spotlight, a division of Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster.

Simon Spotlight Entertainment (SSE) is the offspring of media-rich Simon Spotlight, a division of Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster.

The pop culture-laden imprint has already featured such hits as He's Just Not That Into You, written by two ex-Sex and the City writers and currently second on's book list; Poker: The Real Deal, authored by Phil Gordon, co-host of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown; and forthcoming books entitled The Hookup Handbook: A Girl's Guide to the Nondating Game, and I Hate The Gym. The press have been alternately kind (the Today show and Oprah has hosted the authors of He's Just Not That Into You) and cruel (Cindy Adams asked in her gossip column, "Lord, where's Charles Dickens when you need him?"). Van Straaten spoke to about the imprint's beginnings, why writers need to do promotion, and why nonfiction sells better to television than fiction. Q. How did Simon Spotlight Entertainment evolve? A. Basically, this imprint evolved from the passion of our editorial group, who consists of a very dynamic, useful group of people who pride themselves on having their hand on the pulse of what's hot. The imprint was conceived to target this elusive demographic of the 18-35s. The editorial philosophy is kind of "it takes one to know one." Everyone involved is in that demographic. Even though people in publishing are probably less reluctant to read than the readers we're trying to [attract]. But these are definitely books that hit readers where they live. That's what's made the books appealing and [helped them] strike a chord thus far. Q. Has there been a big push to get the imprint announced? I've noticed it mentioned in The New York Times and gossip columns. A. The imprint was announced about a year ago. But part of our publicity goal was obviously to try to get press for the launch of the imprint and the brand, in addition to the individual titles. We sent out releases very early. Publishers' Weekly does a daily edition at BookExpo and they did a piece on the imprint. We had a poker party with dealers and tables for Poker: The Real Deal by Phil Gordon, which is out in October. One of the books on the list is I Hate The Gym, so we made [branded] gym bags, which we handed out at BEA, along with the launch catalogue and some samples from the list. That was for industry awareness back in June. It's a layered process. We wanted to help people understand the hipness and coolness of the imprint and what it's about. Q. A lot of these books appears to have a lot of built-in publicity vehicles, which allow both the author and imprint a lot of ways to promote the book. A. The common thread with these books is that they're all either media- or pop culture-based. We also have media tie-ins. Many of our previously existing books with tie-ins - such as books on Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Charmed - have been folded into this imprint, along with some newer series, like American Dreams. With the other books, a lot of the authors are connected in some way to the media. The books are topical and lend themselves to some press. They're quirky, irreverent, hip, useful, and timely. What's fun about it is that many mainstream outlets will be interested in any of these books. There are also niche opportunities anytime you have something on a certain topic. With the poker book, you can have a big feature in All In, for example. There is always the common denominator press that will be interested in anything coming out of SSE. But then we'll tailor some of our targets to the actual subject at hand. Q. Outside of media outreach, are there a lot of event opportunities? A. Absolutely. We've working with Jane magazine and Southern Comfort. They're doing some events with the poker book in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. There definitely are unique marketing and publicity opportunities. Q. Are writers more likely to do their own promotions now? A. Most authors are willing to participate in the promotion of their books. The most important thing - no matter what book you're talking about - is that the expectations are appropriate for the book. When everybody agrees on the expectations in the beginning, there is less opportunity for disappointment in the future. We have some enthusiastic and well-connected authors, which certainly helps. It should be a team effort that can help a book along. A publisher can do a lot of things, but we welcome the author's input, feedback, and expertise in connecting us with potentially another world. I think it's extremely important for the author and the publicist to communicate. You find the best success when they're working in tandem. Things can get sticky if you're duplicating efforts or stepping on each other's toes. But the more communication there is, the more upside there is. Q. What's your reaction if a reporter doesn't get what SSE is trying to do or draws a parallel to the death of the novel? A. I don't think it's worth worrying about. I've actually been delighted by how everyone seems to get SSE immediately. There have been very few journalists who haven't. No one [at SSE] is suggesting that there's no room in the marketplace for literary fiction and no one is suggesting that people in this age group are not reading those things. But since people's interests have been diverted by multimedia, tastes change and evolve. These are books that can get some of those more reluctant or less obvious readers to pick up a book, and if it gets them into the bookstore, they may pick up something else while they're there. We've found the opportunity is tremendous in specialty sales outlets. A lot of people in this demographic aren't going into bookstores. He's Just Not That Into You is being sold at Urban Outfitters, and the poker book is being sold at Restoration Hardware. If that attracts a different audience, then great. It's not so much replacing existing books, it's expanding potential readers. Q. What's the process to work out agreements with nontraditional outlets? A. It's not even an agreement. Those are customers that we work with regularly, but it's just deeply competitive because they carry so few books. The special sales departments of publishers sell to those nontraditional book outlets. They're selling or presenting books across all divisions of Simon & Schuster. The buyers [outlets] are just choosing what's best for the audience. It's very competitive. Carrying books is not foreign to most of those stores. It's just a matter of what books they carry. They've found that their customers do buy books, and it's exciting for us to be able to provide them. Q. Some writers question the merits and effectiveness in doing book tours. How will SSE handle these events? A. Depends on where it is. In New York City, the public is offered such an embarrassment of riches as far as the talent that comes through the city. They won't just come out for anything. People tend to come out for something familiar. It's much more challenging to get the public to come out for an unknown writer of fiction. If a book is nonfiction, the author can be considered an expert, and then it becomes more of an "instructional appearance. The same is true with media. It's much easier to do a segment on TV about a topic than it is about a story because it's harder to talk about the experience of reading [or writing] a story. It doesn't always translate as well.

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