No Picture Book Sample? No Sale.

Alison Morris - March 23, 2009

I’m going to cut right to the chase here and just say it: I almost never, ever buy picture books if I can’t read them, myself, from start to finish. I will sometimes buy a picture book without reading it, if it’s by an author with an expert track record or an illustrator whose work I always enjoy, but these exceptions are few and far between. There’s just too much risk involved otherwise — too much room for errors in buying judgment. Yes, I’ll buy novels on spec, as there’s not time enough in the world to do otherwise. But with picture books, the time argument does not apply. Customers will want to flip through the pages of the picture book and read most (if not all of it) before they buy. Why, then, shouldn’t I want to do the same? I’m a customer too, after all.

This issue comes up every season because every season some of my sales reps are forced to show up to our sales calls with highly incomplete sales kits. Generally the books they aren’t able to show me are from very small publishers who just didn’t get things together in time to send the reps off with anything. To these publishers I say YOU ARE MISSING SALES and will continue to do so if you don’t give buyers something to go on. If you can’t send your sales reps out with finished books or F&G’s, at least make them color photocopies or (in a desperate situation) black-and-white photocopies. A manuscript-style page of the book’s text paired with one or two pages of illustration is just not enough.

Just because a picture book starts off well does NOT mean it’s going to end well. If I’m able to read just the first five pages of a picture book, how do I know it doesn’t fall apart somewhere in the middle? When I have to consider buying a picture book I’ve never read I ultimately wind up having to weigh the chance of whether or not that unknown-to-me book is likely to be any better than the majority of those known-to-me books already crowding our store’s shelves. Experience tells me those odds are incredibly slim, so…? I almost always pass.

Beyond just the simple need to know whether or not a book is any "good," there are other reasons that reading a book is a key part of a buyer’s work. When you read a book, you make connections and inferences to things, occasions, topics, or audiences that aren’t mentioned anywhere in the book’s catalog copy or printed on the jacket flap. When I read a book I will think, "This book is perfect for that teacher who wanted examples of the X writing technique," or "This book is perfect for all those customers who love Y." 

When you’re a good buyer, every book you read spills its sales secrets — some spill many, others very few. The books you haven’t read automatically offer fewer sales opportunities because you haven’t heard their secrets. Fewer sales opportunities = fewer reasons to take a chance on them.

Cue Abba music here.

12 thoughts on “No Picture Book Sample? No Sale.

  1. Joi from Gingerbread House, re-trying to

    Don’t “take a chance on” any of our titles! Hope you guys know that you can have examination copies from us ANYTIME. We thought to make a music video about this, but Abba beat us to it, and my high-heeled, over-the-knee boots are out being resoled. We provide complete bks or f&g’s to our reps at IPG, and we participate in ABA’s Advance Access, but we know that our little list misses some stops. The following won’t help, because–even if you bring binoculars to these movies, you might catch only a glimpse of our books, which are being used as set dressings–but we know that booksellers will cheer along with us if one of our covers shows up onscreen: “Motherhood,” w/ Uma Thurman, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” w/ Natalie Portman, and “The Baster,” w/Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman.

  2. Anonymous

    I think it’s unfair to assume that the blame rests entirely on the publisher. Authors and illustrators are sometimes late in delivering on schedule which may cause the delay in getting full materials out to sales reps in time for their appointments.

  3. Amen and thank you

    You are so right about getting F&G’s into the hands of the people that matter most. Plus, I’m a Mom. And I’m often asked what my kid is reading or what might be a good pick for our local library, where story time is like a bar scene for tots. Just yesterday, I brought home an F&G that my daughter totally digs. I can guarantee that when that title is available, I’ll sell it like mad. And about that last post, resting blame on the publisher, too bad. I once worked for a publisher and I can tell you that someone is just not doing their job. The bottom line: if sales matter, make the effort.

  4. Meghan

    If the author or illustrator is late then shouldn’t the book be moved to a new list? Isn’t it irresponsible to try to sell it w/out having much to show? As an author I would prefer that the book be moved! So yeah, I agree–no book no sale.

  5. Anne Rockwell

    I’m in complete agreement with Meghan. Yes, it is irresponsible. When I myself illustrate a book I’ve written, I make my deadlines. If I can’t for some valid reason, I let my publisher know I can’t in plenty of time to re-schedule. But I’ve found that isn’t always the case when the book is being illustrated by someone else. Too often illustrators don’t deliver on time, and don’t level with the publisher about when they will be delivering.

  6. Anonymous

    Wow, I am really put off by the self-congratulatory tone of Ms Morris’ rant. There are so many factors that go into every piece of this and so many reason why a publisher might not have all the materials ready to spoon feed the buyers. If that book is already built into that fiscal revenue, what choice do you have? Most often the reason for late materials is because of the illustrator. Often it is because sales is not communicating well with the creative teams. Is it fair to the author and the publisher and everyone who is counting on that revenue to push it off a season, or if it’s a seasonal book, a year? Ms. Morris needs to get off her high horse and remember that we in the business are all working towards the same goal.

  7. Bookstore Buyer

    A comment back to Anonymous: it may sound harsh, but it really does not matter whose fault it was, that a book is late enough or proofs are late enough so that a sales rep has to show up in my store without materials. The only thing that matters is: is there something I can see, to formulate a buying decision on? If there is nothing to see, I can’t. Whether it’s a late illustrator or the sales department not communicating with editorial, the end result is the same when I’m sitting at my desk with a rep and s/he has nothing to show me. It does not sound to me as though Alison is on a high horse or is happy not to buy a title. She is just being honest.

  8. Peter Glassman, Books of Wonder

    I am totally in agreement with Alison. Part of how I built Books of Wonder’s reputation was by being so careful with my buying. In over 30 years as a buyer and bookstore owner I have seen way to many picture books that fall apart on the final pages. As for Anonymous’s comments, I think it’s they who need to remember that we booksellers are in business — we can’t pay our rent or our staffs with books that don’t sell. 20 years ago, publishers financed the inventory of bookstores and had at least a half-decent argument that we should try such books. But ever since the mid 90s when they changed their collection practices and put over 2500 independent bookstores out of business, we’ve had to finance our own inventories and be much more careful in our buying. Sounds to me like Anonymous is just one more example of someone in publishing trying to blame booksellers for being as business-like as the publishers have been for the past 15 years.

  9. Anonymous

    Anonymous here again–the decline of the independent bookstores has greatly hurt the publishers, too (at least smaller and mid-sized pubs). Speaking from a small to mid-sized pub, we put a tremendous amount of support behind our indie book sellers and we are sad to see them closing. I think it is the large chains that have changes the face of publishing more than anything else.


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