Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What I've Learned As A Children's Bookseller

What I've learned as a children's bookseller...
About a year ago I took a part-time job in a local independent children's bookstore. As an author, naturally, I love books, and children's books are no exception. I love the humor, the beautiful illustrations, the sweet innocence of the tales in children's books. I remember fondly the hours I spent reading to my young son throughout the day, but especially at bedtime. The love of reading starts at an early age, and children's books offer a wide range of topics and writing styles to indulge that passion from an early age.
As I've worked at the children's bookstore, I've noticed things from a booksellers point of view that I recognized from my experience as an author of adult fiction. I'll call this list "Things I've Learned As A Children's Bookseller," although, to be more accurate, they were all concepts I already knew, but I've had reinforced from a different perspective.
1) The importance of hand selling.
A large number of the customers who come into the children's bookstore aren't sure what book they want to buy when they arrive. They simply know they need a gift for a grandchild or nephew or baby shower. As a bookseller, I ask them if the child has any special likes or favorites, what occasion the gift is for, what age the child is. I can steer them toward books about dinosaurs or ballet, books for bedtime or about the first day of school. Once we narrow down what sort of book the customer is looking for, I suggest specific favorite titles, fun features (lift flaps or moving pictures for example) or popular authors. Most of the time, the customer will go with a book that I have recommended.
Hmm, I'll think. Bookseller recommendation leads to sales...
Where have I heard this before?
2) Reader loyalty to authors and/or series
Another large portion of our customers know exactly what they want when they come into the store. Their child is a fan of Junie B. Jones, and they're looking for a book in that series. Or they heard there was a new Fancy Nancy book available. Or they want the newest release by Stephanie Meyers. The point is simple and universal: When a reader finds something they like, they stick with it. Young readers do it, and so do adult readers. Moral for authors: Establish yourself as an author readers can love, and they'll come back. Stories with some connection as a series help sell the next book.
3) Sales are seasonal
This summer, our business dropped way off. Summer is a notoriously slow time for most independent retailers. However, near Christmas, at the end of the school year, and conversely, at the start of the school year, the store does a brisk business. The reason is clear. These are the times of year customers are buying Christmas gifts, when summer reading assignments are made and people are buying graduation gifts, and when in-class reading assignments are made, respectively. Likewise, I've learned that the adult book market's sales can be affected by what season it is. Sales slump in January, post-holiday when bad weather often keeps people home and off the road. Sales pick up in the spring when people head off on spring break or summer vacation and need a beach read. Therefore, the timing of a book's release can affect its sales. Again, nothing I didn't already know but saw in practice as a bookseller.
4) Bestsellers help everyone
As an author, I've privately envied the sales certain stars of the industry garner at the release of a new book. Wouldn't I love to sell a million copies in a week? But guess what? When those fans come in to the store to buy the latest Stephanie Meyers or J.K. Rowling (or Nora Roberts or Christine Feehan), many times they will buy other books in the same purchase. Or once they've had their appetite whetted by a bestselling author, readers will look for similar reads to feed their love of books until the next blockbuster hits the shelves. Bestsellers bring readers into the store and find new readers for other authors. A win-win.
5) Illustrations (or covers) matter
When I'm helping a customer pick a book or when that customer is browsing the shelf for themselves, bright colors and clever illustrations often catch their eye and lead the customer to pick up a book. Marketing departments of publishers everywhere know this concept and have studied the phenomenon I see in practice every day. Certain colors, images, and subjects in illustrations or on covers attract attention, and the first step to selling for a new or mid-list author is to get the reader to pick up the book and look.
Having seen these basic tenets from both sides of the fence, I'm more convinced than ever how important the relationship is between an author and the booksellers who are your link to customers. Nurture those relationships. It is good for your business and theirs!


  1. You should check out Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks.
    There's lots going on too:
    This Month Storybox has guest illustrator Helen Oxenbury featured.

    There's a Readathon happening in UK and Ireland - http://discoveryboxbooks.com/readathon.php
    There's a Ghost Drawing competition in AdventureBoxBooks assiciated with the Polka Theatre ( http://www.adventureboxbooks.com/competition.php )

  2. Hey Beth-

    Really intersting blog! It offers yet another side to the world of publishing we're all in now. Thanks for sharing@


  3. Long ago I worked in a small, privately-owned bookstore myself and I agree with you totally. Readers asked for my opinion on things to try, and while they always picked up their bestselling author favorites, they usually also grabbed three or four more by less known authors and were always interested in finding something new. It's too bad that the major chain bookstores, at least here in my neighborhood, keep their employees parked behind cash registers far, far away from the actual stacks of books.

  4. Beth,
    I've been in contact with a few booksellers since this all began, and their help can be very valuable!
    Thanks for your insights!

  5. I had a bookseller remember who I was when I stopped to ask her a question (behind the counter). She asked when my books were coming out again! That was a cool moment! Obviously, she's one I'll keep in touch with!

  6. Beth, this is so helpful. I must say I have found most booksellers to be friendly and helpful, even in the bigger chain stores. When I talk to the cashiers, they are quite often excited to know I am an author, and some of them are writers, and they love to talk about their writing.

    Booksellers are clearly important members of the team. Thanks so much for this post, it really helps me to understand what happens on the other side of the counter.

  7. Great blog, Beth! Booksellers are definitely our friends.

    Robin :)

  8. Great post Beth I don't think I would ever cope without reading and my dream job would be to work in a bookstore or even own my own romance bookstore I would love that LOL

    Have Fun

  9. Interesting blog.

    And about the importance of handselling, I agree. Whenever I'm in B&N I strike up a conversation with other customers. I ask them what they're looking for and then point them to a Casablanca book in that subgenre.

    Sometimes, they look at it and put it down. Sometimes, they carry it to the checkout. Either way, that title and author has been lifted out of the undifferentiated mass.

  10. Hi Beth,
    Thanks for this interesting insight to the bookseller's POV. I've had the wonderful fortune of befriending the author liaison at my local B&N, who is a dedicated bookseller and tireless author advocate. Now when I'm in the store, I ask for her just to say hello. We always have a great chat. I feel like she's an excellent professional contact as well as a potential new friend.

  11. Thanks for all the great feedback. I've had a blast selling children's books and getting a peek at "the other side" of the business.
    Have a great week!
    Beth C.

  12. Excellent post Beth! I don't think we can ever underestimate the importance of book store owners/workers. And the average customer. I know in my day as a reader I have been turned on to more novels than I can count by striking up conversations with another customer who is lurking in the same aisle. Not always is this trustworthy, but getting that semi-personal feedback bears such incredible weight. Thanks for the reminder of how important it is to just be willing to chat with strangers.

  13. As an avid reader there is nothing more annoying than going into a bookstore and having no clue what to get. Your tired of the same authors (or else have read all their books), and are looking for something good in that genre and NOBODY in the store knowing anything about that genre.

    So kudos to you for knowing and recognizing those points. It makes you a better bookseller.

  14. I also love the humor and beautiful illustrations that can be found in Children's books. For instance, tonight I read the most beautiful book to my 3 kids.... "Frankie, the Walk 'N Roll Dog," by Barbara Techel. Beautiful story about a disabled dog- the illustrations were beautiful and the story was inspiring, in teaching children to have compassion for others. I love children's books.