Rescued Treasures

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 5th, 2009

As booksellers, we see and hear it all the time: that gasp of recognition, the soft "Ohhh!," the excited "Oh my gosh!" when a grownup encounters a long-lost friend in the form of a book. To witness a gruff 65-year-guy get mushy about Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, or a grandmother reminisce about The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, or a mom or dad sharing one of their own old favorites with their brand-new children — these are some of the small moments that make being a children’s bookseller the best job on the planet.

Customers love the real deal, the books that touched a chord in their own childhood hearts and still manage to be favorites with each new generation. When we opened our store in 1996, we wanted to make sure that books with enduring appeal had priority on our shelves. Let other stores carry the movie and TV tie-ins we didn’t have space for; we would always be a place you could find Harry the Dirty Dog and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. And for the most part* by far, that approach has paid off. (*I admit we’ve had to beef up our superhero tie-in selection, or risk disappointing a lot of little boys.)

But for every worthy book we love that lasts through the decades, we’ve also seen others come and go. There were some individual titles that sparked back into life — Wende Devlin’s charming How Fletcher Was Hatched — and then died out again. In our 12 bookselling years, the marvelous Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright has been in and out of print a few times—currently in print, thanks to Macmillan’s Square Fish imprint. There have been great re-releases of books by Astrid Lindgren, Don Freeman, Eleanor Estes and Ezra Jack Keats, among others. Now that they’re back, I want them to stay! And there’s the rub — those books have to move, just as newer books must sell to earn their place in warehouses. But they generally have smaller promo budgets to back them, and many publishers are still looking for ideal ways to harness the relatively inexpensive power of the Internet to reach the school and library markets.

Back when I had eyes bigger than my stomach (must have been a LONG time ago, ha), I imagined starting a small publishing company to bring back some golden oldie favorites. I wished — no, yearned — for certain titles to find their way back into print: Ruth Carlsen’s delightful Mr. Pudgins, Scott Corbett’s entire Trick series, the Ruth Chew chapter books, and many more —all perfect for those insatiable new seven- to nine-year-old readers. To that end, several years ago, I started a thread on the Child_Lit listserv, asking those fine folks which books they’d like to see back in print. The responses poured in; I still have a thick file of replies from teachers, librarians, parents, and other booksellers.

Top requested titles? The Mummy Market, aka The Mother Market in the U.S (pictured at right) and the Ruth Chew books. Though my small publishing dream took a backseat to the bookstore, fortunately, there are many publishers, large and small, bringing books back into print. And so my next best bet is to harangue, cajole, urge, and plead for a few more kind, sharp-eyed, promo-savvy publishers to see the magic in these books, whose popularity and worthiness has already been proven, and whose readers are today’s Baby Boomer older parents. Boomers, as we know, do not shy away from nostalgia; nor do Gen X-ers.

 And so now would be seem to be the perfect time to capitalize on all that nostalgia we Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers are so fond of. There are at least 78 million of us, and we want those happy memories, even at a cost. Entrepreneur.com’s June 2008 online issue had an article about this market for our palmy pasts, noting that "…[T]wo things seem remarkable about the current craze for nostalgia. First, it’s likely to get even bigger as 78 million baby boomers with $2.5 trillion in spending power grow older and more wistful for the "golden days" of their youth. If consumers look back most fondly on their early 20s, as some research suggests, then aging boomers should drive a renaissance of all things 1960s-related. Even more noteworthy is this: Younger people seem to be just as nostalgic. Sprott found that his research participants responded to nostalgic advertising themes even though their average age was only 21. And those folks who turn out for a Play Date evening of Chutes and Ladders? They tend to be in their peak earning years, not their golden years."

So publishers, hear our plea! Scan your archives for the true gems that deserve a second chance. Bring them out and then let everyone know about them! And please let them build their audience more slowly than your frontlist titles. I know there are obstacles. Backlist, even brand-new backlist, isn’t as sexy as the "great new thing," from a marketing standpoint. Therefore, promotional budgets are small. Rights can be a problem to track down and obtain, and might explain why some series are available in part but not in full. And I’m sure there are other considerations, too, about which I know nothing. But with the kinds of relatively free advertising opportunities available online (websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and the word-of-mouth power of blogs, I’d think a campaign targeting tech-savvy teachers, librarians, booksellers, and baby boomers could help drum up the volume of sales needed to keep these books alive. Or consider bringing them back as P.O.D. titles, but with terms that we smaller stores (who will be handselling them like crazy) can afford.

One important note: covers are vital. Most wouldn’t need an update—you don’t want to lose that nostalgic thrill of recognition on the part of your buyers—but others might need a visual facelift. Look at the success that Quentin Blake’s re-illustrated covers have had on the Edward Eager and Roald Dahl series. Since 1996, I have been hoping for a similar revitalization of most of the E. Nesbit covers. (Side note: I still dearly miss Nancy Eckholm Burkert’s edition of James and the Giant Peach, and while I like Blake’s paperback art for Half Magic, I am happy for the original N.M. Bodecker art on the hardcover edition. I think there’s a place for both versions in the marketplace.)

Later this week, I’ll be doing a post on upcoming releases of back-in-print books and the publishing houses that specialize in them. In fact, this will be a recurring theme in the ShelfTalker blog.

Readers, what books would you LOVE to see back in print? Booksellers, which ones do you just know you could handsell? Teachers and librarians, which out-of-print books are you dying to have back in your classrooms, and what’s the best way for us to let you know about them?

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