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.