I love bookstores. I shop in bookstores. I’m in a bookstore every week without fail. Spending money in bookstores is easy.
Making money with bookstores is the challenge.
Most children’s book publishers do need bookstores for sales and credibility. In my experience, however, the key to a healthy bottom line is not relying on bookstores as the major source of income—those pesky returns will get you every time.
Stepping outside the traditional channel for selling children’s books can net you big rewards in terms of both large and small nonreturnable sales. Nonreturnable—a lovely word. And what about getting paid in 30 days instead of 60, 90, or more?
Now that I have your interest, we’ll launch a four-pronged attack on some of those so-called nontraditional channels, which include associations, book clubs, museums/historic sites, and schools. As you’re considering possibilities for your own titles, continually ask yourself:
Who is interested in reading my book, and . . .
What do they belong to?
The Encyclopedia of Associations (both a database and a print source) lists more than 100,000 membership organizations. Odds are excellent that at least one or two of them have a mission that would dovetail perfectly with the subject matter of any given book. Do you have a title about pets or animals? Try the ASPCA. Sports? Check the “Athletic and Sport” category. Is your children’s book educational? Category (05), “Education,” may have a perfect match. If your book has a religious theme, look through the entries for “Religious” (11).
Once you have a list of prospects, how can you get their attention? Do your homework. I can’t emphasize this point enough—you need to spend the time to learn about an association’s mission, structure, board of directors, and executive director. Then use this information—most of which you will be able to glean from the association’s Web site—to craft a proposal that emphasizes over and over again how your book will help it and its members. In the course of writing a proposal to a large national association for one of my titles, I pointed out how my book would help it achieve its goals in terms of every single sentence in its mission statement.
- What kind of offer do you make? The only limit is your imagination—and what you learned in your research about an organization. For instance, an association can use your books as:
- an incentive to get members to join or renew
- a product for its online bookstore
- a gift as part of an educational seminar
- a fundraiser
Your offer should focus on ownership while adding value and subtracting cost. Treat the organization as your partner, not just your customer—you want it to be vested in the project so that the staff sees your book as their book and thus will continue to order year after year. Add value at little cost by including a custom cover with the organization’s logo, a couple of pages in the front matter with a message from its executive director, and bookmarks that use the design for your own bookmarks but add the group’s logo.
Depending on the financial structure of the deal, you can also offer to donate a percentage of book sales revenue back to the organization. For example, an offer I made to a national not-for-profit group included not only an attractive price for the association’s quantity purchase but also an opportunity for individual members to purchase books and have me donate 15 percent back to the organization for each copy members bought through the association.
Of course, I took that into consideration when calculating costs, which brings me to perhaps the most important point regarding association sales, shared with me by Don Tubesing, former president of PMA:
Don’t underprice.No matter how anxious you are to make the sale, remember that you have content the group needs (you have shown them specifically why they need it). Set your price high enough to include a decent profit and to allow for some negotiating room.
Among the advantages of selling to associations are no returns, reduced unit cost (because you can add their orders to your print runs), and the credibility you will gain that you can leverage to use for the next association sale.
One other caveat—allow much more time than you think you’ll need. These kinds of sales can take more than a year to accomplish.
Where (else) do they buy?
There is a book club for every conceivable interest, including any interest a child may have. Book club sales are similar to association sales as they generally involve large quantities of books sold nonreturnable, but the discount requirements can be much greater—80 percent is not unusual. For our purposes, we’ll define book clubs as actual clubs that mail books to their members as well as large companies that sell books in nontraditional, nonretail outlets, such as schools, hospitals, and corporations.
Two large book clubs for children’s titles are the Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club and Junior Library Guild. Both work on a membership model, with Junior Library Guild targeting librarians and Children’s BOMC focusing on consumers. Both require submissions well in advance of your book’s publication—at least a year ahead, in fact, which means you will likely be submitting manuscripts with artwork if you have it.
The same advice in terms of crafting your cover letter applies here as it does to associations: focus on benefits. You may indeed have the greatest children’s book in the universe with the most beautiful illustrations, but what the clubs want to know is why their particular members will buy it.
Two of the better-known entities that sell children’s books in nonstore venues are Books Are Fun and Scholastic Book Clubs. Both employ a two-step process, first testing your book and then, if the test goes well, ordering thousands or even tens of thousands of copies.
The advantages of book club sales are similar to those of association sales—large quantities, no returns, lower unit cost when you add a club’s order to your own print run, and the cachet that comes from including “a selection of the Such-and-Such Club” on all your marketing materials. The downside is the pricing; with gigantic quantities come huge discount requirements, so be careful what you wish for. Crunch the numbers to leave some profit, and be sure you have the infrastructure in place to deliver the 80,000 copies you promise.
Where do they visit?
A 2005 Association of Children’s Museums Membership Survey found that more than 30 million children and families visit children’s museums annually. That’s a lot of potential book buyers for just one segment of this potentially lucrative and evergreen market. Depending on the topic of your book, museums and historic sites can be profitable outlets.
There is a multitude of types of museums, and once again, creativity is key in determining where to place your children’s book. Children’s museums and modern science museums are an obvious starting point, but remember, parents bring children to art museums, natural history museums, botanical gardens, state history museums, battlefields, U.S. history museums—the list goes on and on.
Resources that can help you find museums that are right for your book include:
- American Association of Museums (www.aam-us.org/index.cfm)
- Museum Store Association (www.museumdistrict.com)
- Official Museum Directory (www.nationalregisterpublishing.com)
- Eastern National, the major distributor to federal historic sites and National Parks shops (see the list of more than 150 bookstores that it distributes to at www.easternnational.org, and contact the company by phone or email for specific guidelines for submitting review copies)
Your mileage may vary, but in the six years we have been selling our Young Patriots series of historical fiction to museums, the percentage of returns has been well below average, and the sales have been well above average.
Again, it is crucial (and here comes yet another variation on the same theme) to target your prospects and focus on what your book will do for their customers.
Where do they go daily?
Sales to the school market are a topic for an article in and of themselves—in fact, entire books have been written on the subject—so I will focus on one of my favorite aspects of the subject, the school visit. Authors are the best ambassadors for their books, and nearly every school has some kind of writing event, writing program, or course of study that lends itself to a visiting author program.
The major advantage of school visits is that they often result in a double whammy in terms of revenue. The school may order books for its library and/or classrooms, and it may also give the author the opportunity to sell books to individual children and teachers on the day of the event. Plus, the author gets a speaking fee.
For our school visits, we create a flyer in advance for teachers to send home with their students (always with permission, of course). In the flyer, we generally provide a discount to the buyer and offer to donate one book to the school’s library for every 10 books sold—added value in terms of an incentive without much added cost. And since these are direct sales, you will net a relatively large portion of cover price even after the small discount.
No returns plus more income plus a speaking fee plus creating goodwill—add it up, and you’ll quickly realize why school visits can be a lucrative component of your children’s-book sales.
Where should I go to learn more?
Want additional details on how to sell more children’s books? Associations, book clubs, museums, and schools are only the beginning! For more tips and tricks, I urge you to attend Session 7G, Beyond Harry Potter: Selling to the Children’s and Y/A Markets at PMA’s Publishing University 2006 in Washington, DC, this May. Invest in your publishing education—you will benefit from those returns!