A Great Idea

Josie Leavitt -- June 3rd, 2010

This past week before BEA officially began, a publisher invited 12 booksellers to their offices for 4 hours to talk about books. The publisher of a division, the higher-ups in marketing, and the head of sales were all in attendance and they were all ready to listen. We talked about their books and how they could help us sell them more effectively. This discussion wasn’t just about them, it was also about us, the booksellers, and what we needed from the publisher to make selling their books easier, more profitable and more enjoyable.

I must confess, these kinds of meetings are my favorite kind of meetings. Things can actually happen at these. People in a position of power, eager for bookseller input, listen in the hopes of making things better.

The meeting began by age, with picture books. Are they selling? If so, in what format? What I found the most intriguing were what the other booksellers from all over the country had to say. Where I have a hard time selling hardcover picture books, some stores only sell them and their market expects that from them. Another store doesn’t discount anything, at all, ever. Oh, how I wished that were my store. Different regions have different behaviors and the publisher was learning that just as I was.

Chapter books came next, and again the responses were varied. I sell them by the fist-full in paperback, but not so much in hardcover, while other stores sell mostly hardcovers. One thing we all said that there needs to be a longer format picture book that is packaged more like a chapter book. Longer picture books are lovely books, but there’s a been a shift with consumers who think any picture book is too “babyish” for their seven or eight-year-old who just wants to leap ahead into chapter books, but would still adore a longer format picture book. We strategized with the publisher on how to create a market for this very important genre.

One thing I can’t convey is the energy in the room. These booksellers were a fabulous mix of fairly new to seasoned store owners. Ideas were bouncing around and one person’s idea spurred someone else’s great idea. I learned different ways to treat the oddball books you love that aren’t easily categorized. One store has a section, “Keeping Austin Weird, One Book at a Time section.” I adore this idea. It says so much about the section that, if I lived in Austin, I would always check out that section first.

The gratifying part of this whole session for me was being heard. I got to vent about excessive packaging on galleys, others got to vent about other issues near and dear to them. The publisher was incredibly amenable to helping the store work with libraries more, going so far as to suggest sending galley sets with multiple copies for libraries or school groups to use. This is the sort of useful thing that publishers could do more of to help indies secure the school and library markets.

We had a minutes-long discussion about what customers prefer as giveaways: buttons or stickers. I prefer stickers, while other stores waxed rhapsodic about how well buttons work in their stores. I think this confused the publisher: what will get used more? Well, it really depends on the store, and that makes it hard for the publishers to know how to spend their promo dollars for things that will get used. I know it sounds silly to talk about buttons versus stickers, but this highlights the challenges we all face: how can we use the promo items we’re given in a way that works for us? How many times has my store gotten pencil packs that I’m supposed to be give out every time someone buys that book and forgotten to give out the pencil? The bottom line from all the booksellers was: make it simple for me and my staff, whatever it is.

We talked about middle grade mysteries next. It was interesting because this conversation turned into a wide-ranging discussion about middle grade novels in general. We concluded that the lines between YA and middle grade have become blurred and middle grade is often starting to feel like YA-lite. We all expressed desire for a chart of some sort that let us know what the content really was, so we can sell with confidence any middle grade novel. Every publisher is different and not all middle grade novels are necessarily age-appropriate when it comes to content. This publisher was incredibly receptive to helping create a content/theme chart for stores to use. This was particularly welcome at stores that sometimes have non-children’s booksellers covering the kids’ department.

The last thing we hashed out was how to make the last week of December more profitable. While the publisher was insistent that the last week of December could be a great time to release a hot new title, all the booksellers tried really hard to dissuade them from this idea. A hot book, one that could sell for the holidays, should come out before Christmas and Hanukah, so we can sell to folks who are looking for present ideas. By the last week of December booksellers are understaffed, exhausted and generally dealing with returns and exchanges. This was a fascinating discussion because for the first time, the booksellers and the publisher were on opposite sides. But through really talking it out and everyone listening, we all came up with ways to make a book release the last week of the year work for all parties. And we’ll have to wait until later in the year to see if it works out.

The publisher left the meeting invigorated and the booksellers felt heard in a meaningful way. This was a win-win for all involved. One way for publishers to have more “face time” with booksellers is to come to the regional association meetings and set up meetings with a panel of  booksellers. I think it’s important for publishers and booksellers to meet periodically to remind each other that we are all working toward the same goals.

9 thoughts on “A Great Idea

  1. angela pena dahle

    I adore the longer Pb’s I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the shorter ones ( love those too) but I am having a hard time finding agents and editors to take my longer PB manuscripts for this very reason.

    I am interested in learning more about HOW to get that longer PB format to work or come back to the shelves. I’d love to know how you all “strategized with the publisher on how to create a market for this very important genre.” I so hope this type of book makes a BIG comeback! This was all very informative! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  2. Louise

    As a writer, I find this post an interesting MRI inside the “brain” of publishers. Perhaps this discussion explains why some publishers decline or accept to buy certain well-written manuscripts.

  3. Stephanie

    If all publishers were to hold such meetings, they’d be doing the entire world of children’s books a favor. It’s a pretty gloomy measure of today’s climate when ambitious parents declare picture books babyish for 8-year-olds. Poor 8-year-olds.

  4. Josie Leavitt

    For those of you who are wondering why I didn’t mention the publisher’s name, I have two reasons. First, it was a private, by invitation only meeting and more importantly, I neglected to ask anyone from the publisher’s office in attendance if I could blog about the meeting. So, those two constraints have kept me from saying who the publisher was. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter who they were, it matters that all publishers start meeting more booksellers face to face.

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