The Best Little Catalog in Town

Alison Morris - November 19, 2008

Each year the Association of Booksellers for Children puts together a fantastic full-color catalog of books selected by our group’s members as some of our favorites of the year. The front cover sports the bold heading ABC’s Best Books for Children and features a book-related illustration from a book published during that particular calendar year. (Click on the photo at right.) This year’s cover illustration comes from Ladybug Girl, by Jacky Davis and David Soman (Dial, March 2008) and couldn’t make a better, more eye-catching introduction to the pages that follow — pages that contain approximately 250 great book suggestions, hand-picked by we experts in the field.

ABC member stores are each entitled to up to 5,000 free catalogs for just the cost of shipping, which (if you ask me) more than offsets our membership dues. For a small imprinting fee a store can also have its custom imprint added to the catalog, making each one a sales tool that points customers directly to your store.

The biggest difference between this catalog and many of the other full-color affairs you’ll find available in bookstores is that in the latter, publishers generally pick the titles THEY want to promote and those are the titles that wind up featured on the catalogs’ pages. The trouble with this system is that we indie booksellers often have different ideas about what we think is going to work for our customers, and different opinions on the matter of what books "deserve" a place both on our shelves and in our marketing efforts. In the case of the ABC catalog, WE bookstore members pick the books we like, then we (meaning our fearless leader, Kristen McLean) go to the publishers and ask them to pony up sponsorship for some or all or at least one of their selected titles. The process results in a much less commercial and much more customer-friendly set of selections, making these catalogs a much more finely-tuned selling tool than most I’ve seen.

I recently asked Kristen to sum up the process for me, and she explained it this way:

We start with bookseller recommendations, then cross reference the list with major review media to make sure we haven’t missed anything (PW, SLJ, Horn Book, NYT, Kirkus, YALSA, VOYA), check in with key online book groups to see what folks are talking about (NECBA, Adbooks, The ABC New Voices Committee, and others), look at notable and award-winning books from the past year, and finally we throw in some spice in the form of unique small press books and other sleepers combed from the more than 6,000 or so books that pass through the ABC office in catalog or hard form every year.

In the end, we wind up with a list of about 600 or so books that we love, and we think represent the best out there. This list then is returned to the publishers in the form of a wish list for inclusion, and then publishers come back to us with their choices of what they will support with marketing dollars.

In the end the catalog includes about 250 fantastic books for kids from birth-18 years in a variety of categories, all vetted, and all great for the indie market.

Then, once we have the right mix of books in the right categories, we write all of the copy (40 hours easy), collect the jacket images, proof the publication information, define the layout and elements, and send it off to the designer. We also manage the store ordering process (120 stores/70 individual imprints), invoice and collect from the publishers, and oversee the printing and shipping process.

All in all, this project represents about 400 hours of labor spread out over 4 months, not including the designer or printer’s time, but it is well worth it I think.

I couldn’t agree more with that last statement. Our customers LOVE thumbing through these catalogs and asking us to point them in a particular book’s direction. Teachers and librarians beg for more copies to take back to their schools when we hand them out at book talks and conferences. The catalogs look professional, which makes US look professional, which makes people trust us all the more to be experts at making quality book recommendations.

For the first year our store is inserting the catalog into the local newpapers of our surrounding towns, which we’re hoping will drive more people our way in search of great children’s books. If nothing else they’ll be exposed to a selection of great books, while gaining an education about the benefits of shopping locally and supporting independent businesses. (Messages to that effect appear throughout the catalog.)

Keen to learn more about this, one of my favorite, favorite sales tools? Visit the catalog information page linked to the ABC website and read the catalog FAQ’s.

To see the pages of this year’s catalog up close, download a PDF of the 2008 catalog

To catch up on last year’s expert recommendations download a PDF of the 2007 catalog.

Better still, take a stroll through your nearest ABC member store (you’ll find a list on the ABC website), and ask them for a finished copy!

2 thoughts on “The Best Little Catalog in Town

  1. Michael Watson

    I grabbed a few from the Charlesbridge offices when I was in there. Publishers actually like to be in this catalog because of the reasonable cost for participation and the “honest broker” approach. They really do feel like their books are in with other quality selections, not a pure “pay to play” situation. Up to 5,000 copies for the cost of shipping for store members is a steal. I’m glad you posted on this, Alison. Michael

  2. Carol Chittenden

    This is the first year we’ve put them in the local newspaper. Data dump: I looked first at the cost for shipping and inserting 11,000, and found it was much lower than what we always used to spend on printing and mailing our own paper newsletter to 2500 customers. The insertion was 6 days ago, and the response was immediate. After January 1 I hope to review November and December sales of the titles and see if the whole thing really paid off. It turned out we already had about 2/3 of the titles in the store, and the cost of the others (save two I didn’t feel comfortable carrying, and one that’s turned out to be out of print) came to less than $1000, all of it returnable. On the whole it’s a pretty clear business decision, and I feel silly that we didn’t do it before now. Oh, that’s right — we were spending the energy of a pregnancy and the money of the same to do our own smaller, less attractive mailing. Now it all comes back to me.


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