Yesterday we hosted the PBS Kids Go! Writers at our store. Every year our local PBS station runs a writing contest for elementary school kids in Vermont. Each of the children had written and illustrated their own story and submitted them to PBS earlier in the year. Seven writers from first through third grade came to the store to read their stories aloud. They came with their families to celebrate their writing.
Part of the celebration that’s always fun for me is to see the different approaches kids have when they read aloud. Nerves were a factor for all but one child. Grayson (all the kids’ names have been changed), a very outgoing third-grader, read like he’s been doing this his whole life. His story, about a cowboy and a sombrero, was complex and full of dialogue. His voice was strong and clear and he even added a few steps like a pony at the end to show how the cowboy left town.
The first boy, Adam, read as fast as he could with his head down. At the end of his reading he picked his head up and whipped through his book showing us the pictures he had drawn. Then he practically catapulted back to his seat. Then a girl, Kiki, who had gotten her story bound in a small hard cover, got up to read. Her mom came with her and Kiki got the biggest case of stage fright that rendered her practically mute. We all gently nudged her, but she would have none of it and sat back down. Kiki tried again, and again she hid behind her mother. I suspect she might have gotten spooked by Dad’s massive video camera. I know it would have thrown me.
What struck me about these young writers was how good their stories were. There was one about a flying pencil with activity issues read by a quiet boy with a slight lisp. The ninja story written by Matt was a little hard to follow, but the drawings were amazing but not seen until the end. These kids were all under nine and to read in front of strangers, in their Sunday best clothes, can be really daunting.
And the reading ended with Kiki standing to the side of her mother in front of the crowd with her book fully obscuring her face while she read her story. But her case of stage fright ended with a wry smile when she read her author note and then waited several long seconds before saying, “The End.”
(Side note: I loved BookExpo this year, and my next post will share some of the most fun highlights and photos from the trip. So if you’ve been waiting to hear about it, I promise, you will!)
One of the fun things about being a bookseller is the opportunity to notice how readers (at least in one’s own market) respond to book covers, titles, and handselling “pitches.” So much can be learned from observing what makes a customer’s eyes glaze over, as well as what perks them up. Day after day, we see which books are snatched up eagerly by young hands and which books kids will shrink away from even touching with a pinky finger. (This is, sadly, literally true. I’ve seen kids recoil from a cover they dislike. Nothing is sadder for an enthusiastic booktalker than seeing a book undermined by its own packaging.)
The immediate-appeal factor of a book usually has most to do with cover art, but titles can be surprisingly important to a book’s success. As always, matters of personal taste come into play, and nailing down titles that work or don’t can be more elusive than assessing successful cover art. But since a terrific title can get readers to pick up a book whose cover art isn’t ideal, finding the right one is critical.
The best kinds of titles seem to be:
- Titles that are very clear about their subject matter — The Boyfriend List, The Candy Shop War, Fablehaven, Wereworld, The House with the Clock in its Walls, Rapunzel’s Revenge, Evil Genius
- Titles that work in concert with the cover art to paint an inviting idea of what the story is about — My Side of the Mountain, Chasing Vermeer, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Sea of Trolls
- Titles with words that appeal to kids, like “spy,” “clue,” “game,” “secret,” puzzle,” “ghost,” etc. — 11 Birthdays, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Westing Game, Harriet the Spy, The Golden Compass, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lightning Thief
- Titles that intrigue — From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Mango-Shaped Space, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears, Inkheart, The House of Scorpions, The Game of Sunken Places, A Great and Terrible Beauty
- Titles that delight or surprise or amuse — The True Meaning of Smekday, Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Whales on Stilts, Toad Rage, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
- Titles that are pleasing to the ear, even if they don’t immediately reveal too much about the story — Alabama Moon, Grave Mercy, Journey to the River Sea, The Star of Kazan, Artemis Fowl, The Starry River of the Sky, The Amulet of Samarkand
I’m reluctant to list examples of titles that tank, because that would make the authors and publishers feel terrible. So I’ll give a couple of examples of books we sell really, really well despite titles we have to overcome. One is Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan. I may have griped about this title here before, because, while it does point to one aspect of the story, it is too broadly, vaguely romantic and conveys none of the sharp wit and crisp pacing of this addictive YA fantasy. I’ve had to work hard to get my smart, funny readers (this book’s demographic) past the title. Once they do, however, they’re in. Customers actually phone the store to tell me how much they love it.
Books whose titles don’t give a reader something solid to hook into can be problematic. Another fantastic book and strong seller by a superb writer is Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now. If that book hadn’t been by an award-winning author, it might have struggled more, because — at least for me — there just wasn’t enough to connect the title to the subject matter of the story.
I’ll also say that books with overused words (“water,” “shadow,” “bone,” etc.) can struggle by getting lost in the crowd. However, these words are overused precisely because they resonate — so if the rest of the title is distinctive, they can be effective.
What are your experiences with titles? Are there other categories of titles that make a book fly off your shelves? Aspects of titles that always grab you — or leave you cold?
In recent years at BEA, a really fun and kind of crazy event takes place: Author Speed Dating, in which tables of booksellers and librarians are visited by up to 20 authors, one at a time, for three minutes each. The authors deliver a pitch for their upcoming novel or nonfiction or picture book, and we take notes (and take home advance reading copies of these books), and then the gong sounds and the author moves to the next table for a repeat performance. This is an exhausting but giddy marathon for the authors; happily, they are fueled by excitement and the desire to serve their work and their publishers well. Often, these are debut folks, trying to introduce themselves to 200 strangers and give a sense of who they are and how their book stands out from the crowd — in just three minutes. Can you imagine having to deliver the pitch for your upcoming novel or nonfiction or picture book 20 times in a row, especially if you’ve never done it before?! It gets a little silly by the last few sessions, and I imagine the authors collapse in a collective heap afterward.
Sometimes the three minutes fly by; every once in a while, they drag. During the event, I noticed a few things that might be helpful for both authors and booksellers.
- Do introduce yourself with your full name. We’re seeing a lot of people, and we want to remember you.
- Do bring your book with you to each table. You want us to be looking at that cover (and the interior art, if applicable) the entire time you’re talking about it. This helps anchor it (and you, connected to that book) in our brains.
- Go easy on the hard sell; telling booksellers how many books your events will “definitely” move undercuts your purpose and is more of a turn-off than an enticer. Focus on the story.
- Do share a fun tidbit or two about the making of the book; everyone loves those behind-the-scenes glimpses, and they help us remember you and your book.
- Be confident! Your book (and you) deserve to be at the table. Your publisher wouldn’t be highlighting you at this event unless the house was excited about your book. Know that we are delighted to meet you and hear about your upcoming work.
- Remind yourself around Table 10 that this crazy — and, we hope, fun — nightmare will eventually end. Just close your eyes and think of England. Oh, wait, I mean, open your eyes and pretend you’re introducing your baby to a room full of potential godparents eager to meet her.
- Sometimes the author (or publicist) will ask the table to introduce ourselves. Do use your full name, your store name, and your store’s location. That’s more helpful to them than a friendly, “Hi, I’m Lucy.”
- Do try to have a question at the ready in case an author flags. By the 15th table, an author might need a little help.
- Look engaged. Nothing is harder than talking to a blank wall, so let your face show that you appreciate the author’s effort.
- Don’t take up time soliciting events for your store. A bookseller friend at another table was annoyed by someone who monopolized much of the authors’ precious three minutes trying to arrange store visits. Since each author is accompanied by a PR person from the publishing house, just write a note to the publicist on the back of your business card and hand it over as they head off to the next table.
- For the love of all things holy, please don’t text at the table while the author is talking. (Note-taking is fine; just remember to look up now and then to re-engage with that hardworking author.)
Kudos to the brave souls who engage in Author Speed Dating! And thanks so much to Shannon O’Connor at the Association of Booksellers for Children and the fine folks at the Children’s Book Council for arranging such a fun event.
We have a rule here at the Flying Pig: put your hand on the book before you tell someone we have it. Why we have this rule is quite simple. Inventory, while delightful, is not always accurate. This rule applies to people calling for books (especially for them) and for folks in the store.
Our store is not that large, but I think we all know that books can migrate. Just yesterday, I found Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City in the adult sports section. Whether this was a simple mistake or someone making a joke about serial killers, I’ll never know. But what I did know was, several of us looked high and low for the last copy of the book in the store for the customer who was starting to tap her toes while three people looked around the store for it.
Misshelved books are the bane of every bookstore. Sometimes, staffers mis-shelve books because it’s not clear just where that funky non-fiction book should actually go. And sometimes customers are being “helpful” and put the book back where they think it goes. Often they are right, but when they are wrong they can be spectacularly wrong. This makes finding books harder than it needs to be.
We all cheat and look up the book before we embark on the search. It’s surprising to me how many times I used to be looking for a particular book and thought it’s red, when in fact it’s got a blue spine. This one mistake can cause me to overlook the needed title because it doesn’t look right. But once I saw one of my staffers look up the cover of a book and thought: that’s genius. Now, it’s the only way I set about on a search.
So, while it might take a little bit longer for a definitive yes when someone calls for a book, customers can rest easy knowing that the book will be on the special order shelf when they come in for it.