Forever Shelf Talking

Alison Morris - December 28, 2023

ShelfTalker, PW’s blog written by booksellers, is ending its long and successful run at the end of the year. When Diane Roback invited me to come back and write a final ShelfTalker post I was immensely grateful. I was also stymied, because after 13 years of not blogging, there is so much I’d love to say!

At Diane’s invitation I originated this blog back in March of 2007, during the decade in which I was the children’s book buyer for Wellesley Booksmith (now Wellesley Books). In my first ShelfTalker post I mentioned my then boyfriend (graphic novelist Gareth Hinds) to whom I got engaged then married during the 3 years in which I contributed to the blog, and in 2010 we moved to NYC where I joined the editorial team at Scholastic Book Clubs – a job I was offered because folks there discovered my expertise and writing by way of this blog.

ShelfTalker gave me a national stage in the days before social media was (in theory) providing such opportunities to everyone. But having a TikTok, webcam, and understanding of algorithms is still not the same as working for a trusted institution that will back your expertise, hand you a pre-existing audience, give you an excellent editor, and (the biggest of all) pay you for your work. I’m forever grateful that Publishers Weekly (and specifically Diane) did those things for me. And I’m grateful they did them at a pivotal mid-point in my career – I was 30 years old, with 8 years of industry experience under my belt and the certainty that this – putting books in kids’ hands – would be a thing I’d want to do in perpetuity. 

After 3 years in NYC, Gareth and I moved to Washington, DC, where today I’m in my 11th year as the Senior Director of Title Selection at nonprofit First Book. I oversee the buying of children’s and young adult books for the First Book Marketplace, helping put millions of books each year into the hands of kids in need, and helping build new generations of readers, book lovers, and (hopefully also) future book world colleagues.

The amazing indie booksellers who’ve been “shelf talking” here over the years (the wonderful Elizabeth, Josie, Kenny, Cynthia, Leslie, and Meghan) are in the same important business of reaching readers. They’re also creating lasting relationships with their communities and building book-centered ecosystems that center the needs of local kids and local families. Their work continues to make a critical difference, and I’m grateful that ShelfTalker provided them a place to share sage insights, great ideas, and funny anecdotes with those of us who don’t stand face-to-face with customers each day.

I’m hopeful that the posts we’ve shared on ShelfTalker are a reminder that we all should make space in whatever ways we can for motivated early- and mid-career booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals (in particular those from communities historically excluded from industry conversations) to have opportunities to share their ideas and opinions, expand their circle of industry connections, and learn from others. While ideally this means hiring them to do paid work (e.g. creating social media content for you or hosting online author events), it can also mean inviting them to cocktail parties, offering them free badges to conventions, arranging opportunities for them to Zoom with your editorial team or join your children’s book trivia team, or simply offering to talk with them about their jobs and the work they might want to do in the future. Actions like these help us continue to cultivate an industry of passionate and compassionate advocates for work that I think is more important and more impactful now than ever.

The children’s book industry has changed dramatically in the 16 years since ShelfTalker got its start, and so have the books themselves. Extensive efforts to diversify books and diversify publishing are creating what I truly believe is a golden age of children’s books – one in which kids across a broad spectrum of cultures, communities, identities, and experiences can now see themselves and their families reflected on the page and learn more about one another. My small team of buyers considers more than 10K new children’s and YA books each year from our 50+ publishing partners, and our task of choosing titles gets harder each year as the array of available books becomes more robust and more reflective of our world’s people and the very real needs of kids. To me that is the biggest, best thing I’ve seen happen to our industry in the past 16 years.

I think about that progress whenever I’m fretting about what our industry might look like 16 years from now. I am genuinely concerned about the impacts of book banning, advances in AI, publishing mergers, and the increasing pressures on (and lack of appreciation for) the hard work of thoughtfully creating, editing, choosing, and providing books to kids. Many of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in our industry are aging out, retiring early (not always by choice), and/or moving on. Meanwhile their mid-career colleagues are jumping ship because they’re overworked, underpaid, or (in the case of too many teachers, librarians, authors, and others) under threat. I worry about the expertise (or lack thereof) that’s left behind, and the impact it has on our long-term ability to meet kids’ needs. I also fret daily about the intentional erosion of public education in this country and what that means for book adoption by schools and libraries, for literacy rates nationwide, and (of course) democracy at large.

But we still have the books. I have not stopped (and will never stop) believing in the power of the book, and the printed book in particular. I still see how print books emanate their own tractor beam of interest (among kids fortunate enough to have them), through a technology that is great precisely BECAUSE it is designed to do just one thing and do it exceedingly well. We know books are like magic tickets to bearable bedtimes; tools that open doors, inform, educate, entertain, and provide escape – that introduce kids to ideas beyond their own and to people beyond their block, their school, their community, their country. 

When I was blogging for ShelfTalker people were predicting the end of the printed book, and they were dead wrong. The printed book is still alive – so much so that it’s now being treated like a snake in the Garden of Eden – something so alive that some want to cast it out for fear it might open kids’ eyes to reality. But reality is as beautiful and complicated and valuable now as it has ever been – and we need reality, honesty, truth to combat the falsehoods and false promises inherent to other forms of tech.

Whoever you are – whatever your role in this industry – please keep doing what you’re doing to create opportunities and access for kids to get their hands on books, so they discover art and words and stories and all of the good things that go hand-in-hand with those three critical elements of being human. Please also continue to pay humans to do what we do best – to empathize with one another and create art and words and stories that pull from that well of understanding. And please continue to support humans who are passionate about this work and eager to learn more, do more, connect more dots in this industry so we can continue to build, educate, inform, and inspire new generations.

To sustain this industry we have to plant the seeds of its future employees and the seeds of future authors and illustrators – the most capable of whom are not being made in a lab somewhere. They’re the ones sitting on a caregiver’s lap or curled up on a sofa, falling in love with a new favorite book.

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