Anatomy of Buying a Picture Book

Josie Leavitt - January 28, 2010

It’s book buying time. Every January and February I spend a fair amount of time ordering books from the publisher’s summer 2010 catalogs. It’s always a little strange to be thinking about summer when we just got two feet of snow, but it’s also a great contrast to sub-zero temperatures.
I’m lucky that, with very few exceptions, I actually get to see sales reps in person. I find the face to face meeting to be more collegial (not that my telephone reps aren’t great, but it’s easier to build a relationship over coffee than on the phone) and probably more profitable for the publishers. Before I meet the rep, I usually get a sales kit in advance. This allows me time to actually look at the F&G’s (this means folded and gathered sheets, and it’s the galley equivalent of a picture book) without being rushed. I never have time to look at these kits at work, so I take them home. I learned a great trick from a fellow bookseller: I read through all the books in the kit and then two days later I go through the catalogs. Books that I remember get my attention, books I can’t remember, I don’t need to order. If I can’t remember it two days after reading it, then it doesn’t belong on my shelves.
Hardcover picture books have become increasingly difficult to sell, so I tend to buy only the books that I feel extremely confident I can handsell. I try to approach every buying session with several things in mind. Budgetary constraints do loom large these days, but I’ll never pass on anything I love. What budget issues do is make me really think about passing on books that I’m wavering on. Sadly, this usually means that the mid-list books, the books I might have gotten one or two of a few years ago, I’ll pass on now.
So, now I buy fewer titles, but more copies of books. This is risky, but there’s a comfort level customers see with multiple copies of a single title. It sends a message that we like this book enough to have five on hand. Multiple copies are also easier to display, thus making them easier to see and to buy.
In a perfect world I love every book I buy, but every buyer must keep their customers in mind. There needs to be consideration for the breadth of your collection. I don’t really care for tractors or trucks, but my customers do. So, it’s my job to make sure I have the best of the transportation books. The same thing goes for the princess and fairy books.
A picture book needs to work on many levels for me to buy it. I need to love the art, or at least see why a child would love it. The story has to be good, the rhyme needs to not be sing-songy. It can have a message, but not be preachy. There are lots of intangibles that go into me loving a book. Stunning art works for me: The Lion & the Mouse has rapidly become one of my all-time favorites. The level of detail is stunning. Funny books are a favorite of mine as well. Arnie the Donut is a favorite: full of fun art, great humor, this book pleases kids and parents alike. Skippyjon Jones is another treat because Skippy is such a great character and the story is great to read aloud.
Lastly, I listen to my rep. If I’m not in love with a book but she is, well, I’ll give it more consideration. Getting to know my reps and letting them get to know me and my store makes for a lovely relationship. After working together for years, I have reps who know exactly what will sell in my store and what I can pass on. They work for me and highlight local authors who might be available for store visits and whose books might be sleeper good sellers.
I love buying picture books. The only problem for me is, as I get older, I find ordering books six months before they come out means I won’t necessarily remember them until they come in. This makes for a lovely surprise when the boxes get unpacked, and that makes it fun all over again.

5 thoughts on “Anatomy of Buying a Picture Book

  1. Sherryl

    You said you were finding hardcover picture books harder to sell – does that mean you are selling more of those that are published as paperbacks? Are more picture books in the US going straight into paperback now? This seems to be the case in Australia.

  2. DebKincaid

    Josie~Thanks so much for this post. It helps me to understand the thinking of booksellers, as well as comprehend the difficult purchasing choices they make. I love hardcover books, but only those that are breathtaking–like The Lion and the Mouse–will motivate me to part with that much money. I know that book will be beloved for years. Other wonderful books although not quite superstar level, I prefer in softcover. That allows me to buy more of them. Especially if I know the book won’t have the “heart value” (for lack of a better term) for the child as much as a superstar book. Thanks again for the post. I learned a lot.

  3. Ferida Wolff

    I am a children’s author and one of my joys is reading picture books to kids. I hope you found my book The Story Blanket which won the 2010 Storytelling World Resource Award/Stories for Young Listeners.

  4. Sharon Mayhew

    Josie, What a wonderful job you have! When taught school buying books for my classroom was one of my favorite activities. When I left teaching, I donated about 900 books to my daughter’s elementary school. I kept about 200 of my favorites. What are your feelings onhistorical fiction picture books?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *