In our CanLit on the Move series, Livres Canada Books interviews Canadian publishers about their foreign marketing activities and the role of Canadian books in the international marketplace. For this installment, we’ve caught up with Judy Brunsek from Owlkids Books who talks about what makes a successful children book internationally.
1. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Judy Brunsek and I am the Director of Sales & Marketing for Owlkids Books in Toronto.
2. Describe your publishing program in one sentence.
Owlkids Books publishes books for children aged 3-13 that are fun and engaging and tap into a child’s curiosity and love of learning.
3. What is your most successful title on the international market? What do you think makes that title successful? Generally, what makes an international success?
There are two books that compete for this honour: Why? The Best Ever Question and Answer Book about Nature, Science and the World Around You (2nd Edition, © 2010) and You Are Stardust (© 2012). Each has sold well for a variety of reasons.
Why? is an almost 200-page book that answers real questions from real kids, things they wonder about most. Owlkids is part of a company that also publishes magazines for kids aged 3-13, and that gives us, as book publishers, unprecedented access to those kids. The questions in our book are ones sent in to our magazines by readers. The real questions from real kids concept with the answers that satisfy the curiosity of children aged 5 to 8 is why (no pun intended!) this book works.
As for You Are Stardust, it is that magical kind of book, a picture book that deals with very big ideas for kids, respecting their capacity to understand such an idea. The book, which has unique artwork too, works to connect kids to the world around them by having them understand that the first star that burst – the Big Bang – is the basis of everything that has come after it, including us as human beings. The combination of poetic text and amazing art has made this one a winner.
What makes a book successful in the international market? That is a tough question, but I think it’s what makes books for children successful anywhere. Books need to tap into a child’s natural curiosity, respect his or her intelligence, and be fun and engaging. They need to find a universal theme or idea that kids anywhere in the world can understand regardless of the setting of the book.
4. Where are your primary export markets? What do you think makes these compatible with the titles you publish?
Owlkids Books has managed to quadruple its rights business over the past six years. We did this in a variety of ways, including expanding our publishing program, and having two people attend key fairs (Karen Boersma, our publisher, and me). Primarily we managed this by working to broaden our contact base of publishers to more countries around the world. Karen’s background in rights and contacts helped here, too. A few years ago, Korea was where we did most of our business. We still see lots of deals from Korea, but now, so many more countries license our books: Brazil, China, Colombia, Denmark, Holland, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and the UK are just some of the markets we have expanded to.
I think it is less about a market – although that’s important – than it is about finding an editor or publisher whose point of view aligns with our own, finding ways to license our books in their markets.
5. Name one of your books that you love to peddle on the foreign rights market? What titles from your publishing house are you currently excited about promoting? Why?
This is actually a question I can’t answer, because I love selling ALL of our books. The reality is no one book can be the focus of your presentations because you need to tailor them to the needs of the publisher you are talking to. It’s about them and finding what you have on your list that will work on their list. The fact is Owlkids has such a variety of great books – picture books, activity books, middle-grade non-fiction and, recently, middle-grade fiction – that it’s a pleasure to sell them all.
6. What are some of the greatest challenges you face in promoting books in international markets?
I will say two things: time and publisher contacts. My role at Owlkids Books means I am responsible for all sales (direct sales via our distributors in Canada and the US and all licensing) as well as being involved in overseeing our marketing, (very ably planned and executed by our marketing manager, Allison MacLachlan), I am on the pub board, need to do things like manage inventory across three different warehouses, and so on. Time is at a premium and trying to follow-up with people for licensing deals can be a challenge.
Finding publishers is something that takes time, and people who know me will know I am slightly impatient. I like to make things happen now! One of the great things about being at fairs like Frankfurt and Bologna is that other publishers are doing the same. Those “walk-bys” have often netted us some pretty terrific deals and ongoing relationships. Finding the time to do our own “walk-bys” can be a challenge with a full slate of appointments, but we use the breaks we have and sometimes time before the day starts to check out other publishers.
7. What is your favourite book event outside of Canada?
I have two. First, I think nothing beats the setting of the Bologna Book Fair. It’s Italy in the spring! The town is beautiful, the food is terrific and the event itself focuses on our core business, children’s books. It’s big, but not as big as Frankfurt, and that shared purpose gives the show a different vibe.
The second show I love to attend is EBMA, which moves every year. It is a meeting of all the institutional wholesalers in the US and publishers where there is a guarantee of a meeting with each wholesaler. It is a working show where you talk business and strategy and make connections. We have seen our business with some of the wholesalers double over the past couple of years. That is because of initiatives we developed for this customer base because we have better connections and knowledge of their businesses.
8. If you could recommend one Canadian book to an international reader, what would it be?
I have to be a homer about this and say You Are Stardust along with its companion book, Wild Ideas. Both books are superb and work to have kids understand where and how they fit into the bigger world. The author is Elin Kelsey, a PhD in science education and Canadian who travels the world teaching about science, and the illustrator is Soyeon Kim, who came from Korea as a teenager to study in Canada and is now a Canadian citizen. That makes for a nice reflection of Canadian-ness, don’t you think?