Children’s books have been a bright spot for independent booksellers ever since a budding wizard boarded the Hogwarts Express from platform 9-3/4 at King’s Cross Station 15 years ago. More recent series like Twilight and the Hunger Games, as well as one-off books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, have kept both young-adult and middle-grade fiction selling briskly to children and adults.
Although the children’s section has eclipsed the fiction section in sales at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café in Asheville, N.C., according to children’s buyer Caroline Green, and most stores report that their children’s sales are on the rise, booksellers are looking for ways to boost them even further. To help, PW spoke with children’s buyers at stores around the country about what they do to promote their chapter-book and teen sections while positioning their stores to take advantage of the forthcoming implementation of Common Core.
Cutting to the (Common) Core
To date, the impact of Common Core State Standards, which were developed so that students in public schools could learn what they need to know in English-language arts and mathematics in order to compete in a global economy, has been negligible for most booksellers. Typical is this assessment from Richard Corbett, new book buyer for children’s at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore. “We have tried some titles. These have not sold and so far there does not seem to be any customer demand.”
While Oregon, where Powell’s is located, and 44 other states plus the District of Columbia are participating in Common Core, four states opted out at the beginning—Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, and Alaska. Minnesota is only participating in English, and as the fall 2014 implementation date gets closer, the opposition to Common Core has grown more vocal, particularly in Florida. In May, Indiana voted to put the brakes on implementation, and Michigan could be next to slow the initiative.
Despite foot-dragging by some states, booksellers are beginning to get ready for Common Core. At Book Culture on Broadway, in the Morningside Heights section of New York City, co-owner Annie Hedrick began devoting more space to children’s nonfiction this spring. “I think it’s a good opportunity to expand nonfiction, give it a better spot in the store, and add more signage,” she says. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, with three stores in the greater Cincinnati area, has taken a similar tack. “We are maintaining stronger stock for historical fiction and nonfiction titles in our stores so teachers, librarians, and parents can shop for books to which Common Core Standards apply,” says children’s product manager Rebecca Waesch. Common Core will likely become part of the stores’ twice-yearly teacher and librarian events as well.
Scholastic is among the many publishers aiding bookseller efforts with lists of potential Common Core titles organized by grade and topic, such as informational text, language, or history/social studies. Julie Shimada, children’s and sidelines buyer at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo., appreciates the help. “I can’t just read a bunch of books and decide where in the curriculum they would fit. I need that information from publishers. As a buyer, if it could be flagged in Edelweiss Notes, that would be helpful,” she says.
The ABC Children’s Group at the American Booksellers Association, too, is working on a project to make it easier for booksellers to identify Common Core titles. Manager Shannon O’Connor is creating a searchable Excel spreadsheet from publisher submissions that will include a variety of backlist titles aligned to and appropriate for classrooms using Common Core. She expects it to be completed by early fall and will make it available on BookWeb.org. “I also host a spreadsheet that is shared among several ABC Group booksellers, and it concerns frontlist titles with future publication dates,” says O’Connor, who encourages other ABC members to contact her about joining and adding to the list.
Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, is even more proactive, and his efforts have already begun paying off in sales. He got into the game relatively early, he reports, in March 2012, when he was approached by a high school librarian who wanted to make a big nonfiction purchase. “Her first priority was to get books that would circulate,” says Brechner. With her and other education partners in mind, Brechner created a new Learning Resources section for the store, which includes a number of titles that meet the Common Core standards. He also revamped the store’s Web site to include a Common Core Informational Textapalooza section. Not only does it provide information on individual titles but also offers help for teachers and librarians to keep up with new books coming out that fit Common Core through its two Ahead of the Curve programs. One enables educators to buy a subscription for anywhere from $500 to $5,000; the other offers grade-specific packages.
“You have to remember the Common Core is not a curriculum,” Brechner advises, “and it’s being applied differently in different districts. Just like you would if you were handselling to a customer, you have to find out how it looks to [educators]. If you can help them in a material way, you’ll get the business.”
Bringing Middle Grade Front and Center
Even with all the attention given to YA lately, middle-grade fiction for ages 8 to 12—or chapter books, as the category is also called—can be a store’s bread-and-butter. “Middle-grade fiction is one of our top-performing categories across the whole company,” says Waesch of Joseph-Beth. “We encourage all our booksellers to read the new middle-grade fiction and familiarize themselves with a selection of backlist titles, so they can always have at least one title to recommend to customers.”
For many booksellers, that’s not a hardship: it’s one of their favorite sections. “I love the imagination, the enthusiasm, the stories in all genres that are in this section,” says Margaret Brennan Neville, children’s and YA book buyer at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. “Even better, I love how the readers reflect those same characteristics back at me when they find a book they love. This is the stage when a reader is truly born.”
“There is a certain amount of innocence and new discovery about life contained in the best of [these] books, [which] appeals to me,” adds Corbett at Powell’s. “There are more classics—E.B. White, The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, the Little House series. The majority of Newbery [Medal books] are middle grade.” He recommends that children’s book buyers be prepared to pick up on trending titles like Wimpy Kid. At the same time, he notes, “for this section, always stock the standards, because the trends will come and go.”
Larger stores like Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a sizeable portion of its 8,500 sq. ft. devoted to children’s, are able to offer a lot of face-outs, which can help sell books. A 2013 Pannell Award–winner, Nicola’s changes its displays weekly as new titles come in, to keep the section fresh. “Teens and adults can shop several times a week and find new titles,” says children’s buyer Linda Goodman. The store’s summer reading book club, which gives kids who read 10 books a free book valued at up to $6.99, also brings children back into the store frequently.
But it’s not just kids who shop for and read middle-grade fiction, or children’s novels, as the category is called at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex. The store, which is divided down the middle with adult books on one side and children’s on the other, shelves middle grade in the back of the store with YA. “The name is generic enough that it precludes any age restrictions,” says children’s/YA specialist and events coordinator Cathy Berner. “Middle grade is for everyone who loves a good story, from early readers to adults.” Nonfiction for this age group is shelved separately by category, such as history, biography, and animals. Last year middle-grade sales increased 5%–7% at Blue Willow, and Berner expects strong continued growth.
One thing that can be tricky is what to do about series titles. “Do you keep all 12 books, just because the last two are selling?” asked Shimada of Maria’s Bookshop, who saw middle-grade sales increase 10% last year. At her store, where space is tight, she stocks the first and last title in the series and offers to special order additional books. She refers those who have to have immediate gratification to a bookstore around the corner, YESS the Book Hutch. But her biggest tip on selling to children comes from the middle-grade classic Peter Pan: “Don’t grow up.”
Tegan Tigani, children’s book buyer at Seattle’s newly opened Queen Anne Book Company, prefers to integrate series with stand-alone titles. “I love this innovation,” Tigani says. “Shelving and browsing are simpler. Series lovers know to look for the rows of matching books. It also means my backlist favorites get to share shelf space with the hot series. So Bunnicula is waiting patiently nearby when you’ve finished the latest Warriors.”
The store also decided to spotlight children’s by making it a straight shot from the entrance and putting it next to the register. “It’s easy for staff to connect with customers headed in that direction,” observes Tigani, who finds proximity to the cash register particularly important. “[It’s] great for preventing damage, keeping an eye on kids when parents are browsing, and fast-tracking checkout for parents whose younger kids are on the brink of a breakdown.”
Like her colleagues, Tigani recommends that booksellers listen to their customers. “If you ask a young reader what book they wish they could read again for the first time, you’ll get a lot of information about what to recommend. But you’ll also remember what it was like to be a kid falling in love with a book. That passion and delight will give you the energy it takes to tackle reshelving those board books and 8x8s.”
Reaching Teen Readers
Much has been made of the number of teens reading on Kindles and cell phones. But there’s no doubt that YA remains a hot category. “We still sell stacks of it,” says Heather Hebert, manager of Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., which is about to start its 25th year. “The kids who read YA read voraciously.” In her store, there is no signage for YA, or any section. “We want customers to come to us and ask about the book,” Hebert says. “We don’t even have shelf talkers. In our heads we consider YA our high-school section, ninth to 12th grade, although we sell some to seventh and eighth graders.”
But that doesn’t mean Hebert doesn’t handsell plenty of YA to adults. The adult and YA sections are next to each other. “Nine times out of 10,” she says, “adults will pick up a book because they hear us describe it to a teen.” Right now that’s particularly true for David Levithan’s Every Day.
Stores that do use signage often place YA where it is easy for both adults and teens to find it. At Square Books, Jr., in Oxford, Miss., that means in the front of the store to the right of the entrance. “We put it there,” says buyer/bookseller Jilleen Moore, “so that teens and embarrassed adults can find the book they want and buy it without a great deal of interaction with other, younger customers.”
Like other booksellers, Moore is concerned about over-publication, a potentially bigger problem than placement. Because of it, she said, YA takes up more room than sales merit. “We want people to have all the great books available and give the new authors a chance, too. There is only so much room on the shelves and in the budget,” Moore explains. Fortunately, she’s begun noticing an uptick in YA sales. “I am selling more of what I order and therefore returning fewer copies,” she says. Hebert points to a different problem that emerges from too many books. “So much looks the same, the jacket copy’s the same. We’re lucky to have sales reps.”
South Florida’s Books & Books is one of the few stores to fully integrate YA into its adult section. The category occupies four bays in the adult fiction room and is the first section customers see. The store has combatted over-production of YA titles in a different way. “In 2012, we bought fewer books for this section, and sold more,” says children’s book buyer/children and YA events coordinator Becky Quiroga Curtis. “As of [mid-June], we have sold exactly half of what we sold [for all of] last year, and the winter holidays are when we sell the most. I see our sales trumping last year’s easily.” She likes to create book displays that make adults feel nostalgic, like a table of Sarah Dessen or Susane Colasanti with a sign that says, “Do you remember your first crush?”
Lauren O’Niell, who buys children’s books for both the Booksmith in San Francisco and its sister store, Kepler’s Books in Palo Alto, Calif., shelves books differently in the two stores because their customer bases are different. “We definitely don’t see as many teens at Booksmith,” she says, “while Kepler’s sees more kids in the actual store, as opposed to adults purchasing books for kids.” At Booksmith, YA is housed at the end of the fiction section, just outside the children’s area; sales in 2012 increased 15%. At Kepler’s, the teen section faces science fiction, and is far enough from the kids’ area to feel separate. Since the store reopened last October, says O’Niell, it’s been experiencing holiday-level sales in the children’s section. She expects that trend to continue right through December, when sales will peak.
In the last few years, BookPeople in Austin, Tex., has focused on its YA program. The store did a major expansion of the section, which is next to kids’ on the second floor. “I don’t think it suffers from [the placement],” says children’s and YA book buyer Meghan Dietsche Goel. “I see a lot of adult shoppers go up there.” To connect with teens, she met with school librarians to talk about how to get more teens involved. As a result, BookPeople started the Teen Press Corps, a group of 10 young people who also serve as the Teen Press Corps for the Austin Teen Book Festival. The group has its own Web site, which is linked to BookPeople.com; an e-newsletter; and in-store face-out display area with reviews on branded cards. Goel provides ARCs for the Corps to read and copies of author interviews. She also picks a buzz book—June’s was Bridget Zinn’s Poison—for the Corps to weigh in on. Although the books are selling and the teens are having fun, she still regards it as “a work in progress.”
One last strategy, from Neville of The King’s English, which holds true for all kids’ books: “Read! Read! Read! Handselling, especially in this section, can make a big difference.”