Posts Tagged ‘bookselling’

It doesn’t take a Nostradamus or a Jean Dixon (is anyone alive making a living doing predictions these day?) to figure out what the big sellers in children’s books are going to be this holiday season. Unless a child is a fanatical follower of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein the chances are they didn’t get these books the day they were released recently, and more importantly they won’t own these books until the holidays roll around. They may have a chance to see them in the library before then, but given the way these authors are constantly checked out they may not see them anywhere but while hanging around with their parents on those rare occasions they step into a book store.

Not to suggest that these brand-name, marquee-worthy authors don’t deserve the sales, but my prediction has more to do with what I know about bookselling and the behaviors of those who shop for children. There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a store full of nothing but books for children, being solicited for an opinion or recommendation on a title for a child as a gift, only to have the parent (or just as often a grandparent) say “Yes, well, what about (insert well-known children’s book title here)? Do you have that?” When it comes to books, adult shoppers, more than children, fear what they don’t know.

This actually gets trickier as readers get older. When parents are still reading to their children they at least have a sense of the quality and range for what’s available. With voracious appetites for another story, parents will grab stacks full of picture books from the library to read to their lap-sitters, but once those readers become independent and move into newer realms parents have less say and less knowledge about what their kids are reading. I suppose it’s understandable that adults don’t want to have to read middle grade titles to determine their appropriateness or quality, and maybe they shouldn’t read young adult novels so that teens still have their own private club that excludes their parents, but this creates a difficult divide for the book-buying adult to breach. How do they purchase books and encourage reading for the minors in their charge while at the same time retain their distance from actually having to read them?

As with anything, buy what you know.

The truth is, it’s difficult to top Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein. Any fan of these authors is hard pressed when looking for “something else like them,” as they often ask librarians and store clerks. And if it is difficult for younger readers its near impossible for adults to second guess what authors and titles are in the same realm as these authors. There are plenty of humorous poets who write for children, but when a child wants more Shel Silverstein they cannot easily be convinced that Jack Prelutsky is a worthy substitute.

So come the holiday season – which is just a polite way of saying, come the time of year we voluntarily agree to our tithing to the church of capitalism in the form of holiday-based purchases – as frantic adults go in search of gift books for their children and grandchildren, the familiar will win out over the new.

I could be wrong, I often am. We’ll see.


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Every time there is an award ceremony someone is always upset their favorite book/movie/president didn’t win and then whines about how it’s unfair, how the real winner was robbed, or how, clearly, the judges wouldn’t know a winner if it bit them in the ass.

This isn’t gonna be like that.

The ALA 2009 Youth Media Awards wew announced this morning at the ALA mid-winter conference in Denver, an event akin to the Academy Awards for the kidlit world, though nowhere near as brash.  In a simple ceremony that lasted under an hour (Motion Picture Academy, are you listening?) the American Library Association doled out its annual awards for the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery, and all the others people may (or may not) have heard of.  As always, there was buzz and speculation leading up to the event where the winning and honorable mentions are announced in breathless anticipation to a room full of librarians and an internet full of interested parites.  And as always there were surprises among the expected.

I’m not going to recount the winners here, nor is this going to become a political discussion about what did, didn’t, or should have won.  After a trip to my local indie bookstore, some careful consideration, and a shower I have come to see as clear as the morning air how these awards need to be fixed. Fixed implies there’s something broken, and there is.

When the awards are announced there are very few people who know in advance which books are even under consideration.  Publishers may get an inkling that something is up when calls are placed the day before on behalf of the committees asking for the contact information of an author so they can be, uh, contacted.  So outside of the committee members the first notion that a book is about to win trickles through less that 24 hours in advance.  That means that even the most ambitious of publishers isn’t really going to get a head start on priming warehouses for demand and sending books back to press.

This is key, because what happens is that on the day the awards are announced few booksellers have a majority of the winners on the shelves, much less in quantity.  There then comes the mad scramble to secure books from distributors, or calls placed on print runs, and a fickle buying public becomes too impatient to wait for something they want right then.  Interest in books wane, and then a book buying public just assumes to wait until a paperback edition with a little foil emblem appears or their local library finally gets a copy.

But there are solutions.

1.  Announce the shortlist a month in advance

Hollywood doesn’t get a lot right, but they understand how to make Awards work for them.  They announce their shortlist a month in advance of their ceremony, which gives studios time to flood movies back into theatres and wring some more money out of them.  They create interest, and people like to feel as informed as the Academy in these things.  Then, when the winner is announced, they can argue the merits, agree or disagree, and generally feel like they were part of the experience.

If the ALA were to toss out a shortlist of TEN titles for each category six weeks in advance of their mid-winter conference, publishers would have a heads-up AND the opportunity to reposition these books for holiday sales.  What’s key here is that by announcing the titles up front they generate interest in titles for time on both sides of the award, where now they only score that interest after the fact.  Publishers, librarians, distributors, and booksellers would then be able to help guide readers (and buyers) toward titles that have been pre-selected as possibly the best in the field.  This isn’t as easy to do after the fact.

With books in stock up to the day of the announcement, booksellers are then able to best capitalize on the awards and keep customers happy, rather than sending them away feeling like a book that wasn’t available was too obscure to be on hand.  This perception cannot be underscored enough, because if a consumer goes into a store unsure of an unfamiliar title to begin with and they discover it is not available they will be less inclined to seek it out.  Conversely, studies have shown that if a person puts an item in their hand (or has one put there for them by a bookseller) they will be something like 70% more likely to purchase it.  Say what you will about the noble art of reading, books and publishing is also still a business and anything that encourages sales encourages reading and vice versa.

The reason for ten titles is so that the ALA can still award a winner and three or four (or five) honor titles and still maintain some mystery around which book will win.  It also generates controversy about those that don’t, because controversy is still talk, and talk is like advertising, and books could use all the PR they can get.

2. Drag the president into the fray

Why do the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series get to meet the president and book award winners do not?  Why can’t the president make a public acknowledgment of the shortlist in advance and then meet personally with the winners in a public ceremony with the press as part of his platform on literacy?  I don’t have the pull or the president’s ear, but someone has to, and for a guy who featured families reading to their kids at least three times in his paid political announcement it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities for this Obama guy.  Seriously, what’s the cost of something like this?  Nothing?  And what does it do for reading and publishing to have a president give the same amount of face time to writers of children’s books as he will for overpaid sports “heroes?”

3. Oprah

No, I’m not kidding.  I was working in a bookstore when Oprah’s magazine debuted and there was a small, one-paragraph article about a book called The Four Agreements among all the ads and fluff.  That mention in her magazine generated over half a million sales of that book in one week following that mention.  Prior to that the book hadn’t sold fifty-thousand copies in its previous two years.  That kind of power can be scary in the wrong hands but so far the big O has used her powers for good and not evil.

So why not a Oprah Book Club for kids, an O Jr.?  She could give some kidlit authors the same coverage she gives to jokers like James Frey and be promoting literacy at the same time.  Once a month she throws out some quality fiction for middle grade, YA, and picture book readers.  Then in the early part of the new year she does a show (or magazine feature) on the books nominated for the pending awards.  Instant interest, books flying off shelves, and more importantly, young people reading.

Ten years ago if I could have traveled into the future of today I would have slapped myself for saying such a thing, but Oprah cannot be ignored.  She has proven herself to be a champion of books and despite what anyone might think of the person, the advocate for reading that is Oprah cannot be denied.

It doesn’t seem likely that any of these three fixes will be put into place, but any one alone would be almost enough to send a seismic ripple through the publishing world in a good way.  Set aside the question about whether or not books or ebooks are the future of publishing, there will be no future without readers and the place to generate that interest should come from those most passionately concerned about literacy.

For those intersted in the results of today’s announcement you can go to the ALA’s unfriendly site and sort through the individual winners here, or sit through the entire webcast, or just wait a few months until the  books finally arive at your local bookstore with their little foil medallions attached.  If you still care.

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Lay – to place, set, or locate; Off – so as to be away or on one’s way.
Laid off – the temporary suspension or permanent termination of employment.

I have been sent on my way. Business in the bookstore is down enough that my part-time services have made me redundant. Further euphemisms include: downsize, rightsize, smartsize, workforce reduction or workforce optimization, simplification and reduction in force. For a brief period of time I worked in Human Resources (I thought I might be good at it) so I’ve seen my share. I’ve also managed retail businesses and have been forced to make and justify my hiring budgets, including periods of “planned layoffs” and “periods of known attrition” which had to do with the transitory nature of college student employees.

With luck, perhaps, I can return to bookselling in the fall. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the crappy economy caught up with me. It’s also fortunate that we’re moving to a new place this month, and that I’ve got my residency in a week, enough to keep me busy from feeling the blow of once again “being made available to the industry.”

I’ll be spending some idle times over the next couple of weeks reassessing my situation to see if there isn’t some way to continue with my education and still contribute financially to the household.

I understand there’s money to be had in setting up bank accounts for overseas interests, Nigeria in particular. All I need to do is give them my personal information…

Other suggestions will be entertained as well.

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