Building a “Best of 2019” Book List

Cynthia Compton - November 18, 2019

It’s that time of year when “Best Books of 2019” lists are as rampant as holiday bazaars, and every retailer in the country, it seems, has added an endcap display of bestsellers. Yesterday, on my way to staff our booth at our local Junior League Holiday Mart, I stopped at the hardware store for a package of AA batteries and some packing tape for today’s tear-down. Right next to the register was a book rack — not manuals on home repair and the many miracle uses of caulk, but an honest-to-goodness NYT bestseller display.

As I waited in the checkout line, I entertained myself by imagining all the funny signage that a real bookstore staff would have used for this display: “Get Some Pliers with your Patterson!” “Buy 2 Tubs of Wall Patch, Get a Patchett!”  or “Child, extend your Reach(er) with a new Tape Measure!” Sadly, while the picture on the side of the beef jerky package was pretty amusing (who knew that jerky is a stocking stuffer?) there was nothing funny about finding that book selection in the place I buy sidewalk salt and that thingie for the back of the toilet tank that makes the water stop running. The gaps between copies indicated to me that this literary product placement was WORKING… folks buy books where they find them, when they need them, and when they are told what’s popular or good.
The use of “Best of” lists and “top 10 books” are guaranteed media winners at this time of year, and serve as click bait on every social medial platform. Customers looking for easy ideas in book purchasing rely on these lists as shopping guides, and while they might not discern between blatant marketing pitches and carefully considered lists created by literary review publications, there is no questioning the power of a short, exact list of “this is what to buy” during the season of long gift lists and short available shopping time. Many stores, mine included, develop “top 10” lists, or “staff picks of 2019” and publicize these lists to their own customers, and also to every media outlet that can be convinced to pay attention, in the hopes that this is the list that customers will print and carry into our stores for their holiday gift buying.
Some years ago, we developed a three-list program in our store for the 4th quarter, and it has become a staple of our holiday buying and marketing. As a children’s store, we don’t have the luxury of just one reading level to market toward — so we develop three “staff favorite” lists: one for picture books, one for middle grade titles, and one for young adult books. Truthfully, we also create a board book “top 10,” but that is more for store display purposes than publication. We have found, over the years, that these staff lists are expected by our customers, circulated through our own social media and used as shopping lists by parents and grandparents in our community (yes, I’m sure that Amazon makes some money on my picks), but they are also annual fodder for local media outlets looking for easy articles and interview topics — any of my staff can perch on a stool, look at the camera,  and espouse the virtues of this year’s Top 10 picks… and most of my crew are a lot funnier and more photogenic than me.
We begin compiling our three lists in August each year. Someone (currently Emilie, because she’s the queen of Google Docs) starts the list, and everyone on staff is invited to add their favorite books of the year to each category. We know, of course, that the first draft will be much too long, but try to get a few nominations from everyone on our team (because everyone will be handselling these, and I want the list to be a genuine reflection of our entire staff’s taste). The list grows through September, and then someone (usually Hannah, because she was vaccinated at birth with a strong dose of practicality) labels the titles by genre, noting how many are historical fiction, what the balance between male/female/non binary gender protagonists looks like, and checking to see if we have one or two paperbacks as picks in each category. I readily admit the final book lists are “adjusted” for balance, and even tell customers this behind-the-scenes information when I am handselling. “I know that your daughter loves fantasy, and honestly, all three of these were on our original Top Ten list…. but in the interest of balance, these two titles were set aside. Because, you know, we had to keep all those realistic fiction people happy. But here are the best three, and don’t just take my word for it, ask anyone on staff, because we almost came to blows over which one of these made the final cut.”
Staffer Lori adds “mom credibilty” as she tests titles with her own young children as readalouds, and student staff members Haley and Caroline have strong opinions about book cover aesthetics, as well as what their peers are reading. Typically, I get two unquestioned picks on each list as “benevolent bookshop dictator,” but because my own reading is so influenced by the most dog-eared ARCs on the stockroom shelves, I think the staff may be getting the upper hand in the selection process anyway.
I love the process of developing these lists, because each staff member is allowed to add titles, and I’m always surprised about the books they feel strongly about. I am also always gratified by how their handselling numbers follow those recommendations, and how customers will ask for a particular bookseller’s choices, since “they did such a good job for my kids last year.”
Once October 1st arrives, we get serious about winnowing the lists to 10 titles each, for by Halloween, I want all those cases of books in the stock room. Knowing what our top titles will be adds value to our fall buying, for we can order case quantities without concern, and the extra margin this allows lets us play fast and loose with last-minute distributor special orders and experiments (“Cynthia… we need some picture books with weasels on the covers for a display I want to do on election week… can I just order these titles, even though they might be short discount?”).
On or about the first of November, we add the final lists to the back of our printed monthly activity and event calendars, and by Thanksgiving weekend, all three displays are set up in the store. Those tall stacks of 10 titles in each section are a godsend to distracted customers on a gift-buying spree and the busy booksellers who are helping them. It’s so easy to say “well, let’s start with our staff favorites, shall we, and then I’ll grab a few other titles for you to consider” when waiting on four customers simultaneously on the floor. Some of our regular customers just head in and start stacking books from those displays, for they know that eventually, they will pick up each and every title for their kids. And that is the kind of holiday handselling that makes my Top 10 list of favorite things — may we wrap these for you?

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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