Booksellers Share Successful Strategies for Book Subscription Clubs and School Registries

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

At Winter Institute 10, the ABC Group at ABA presented the session “Creating Successful Book Subscription Clubs and School Registries.” Panelists Leslie Hawkins of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina; Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, joined moderator Holly Weinkauf of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, to discuss how to implement and manage book-of-the-month clubs and online registries for schools and individuals.

Spellbound began its Book-of-the-Month Club about a year ago, with the intention of marketing to grandparents, said Hawkins. The store now has 50 subscribers to its service and offers 6- or 12-month subscriptions for board books, paperbacks, or hardcovers. It also offers a holiday subscription that includes the recipient’s birthday plus five holidays selected by the giver.

“The vast majority of the buyers of the subscription are relatives sending to children living someplace else,” said Hawkins. Givers include grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles who purchase subscriptions for children for birthdays, holidays, or even good report cards. Each book is gift-wrapped, and the store tries “to make sure that we’re always reminding the child who it is who actually sent this to them,” said Hawkins.

The price of the club is determined by the average price per book, plus postage, shipping materials, and gift wrapping. Subscribers pay a one-time flat fee up front for the subscription, starting at $80 for a six-month board book subscription and ranging up to $295 for a 12-month hardcover subscription. Dropdown menus on Spellbound’s Book-of-the-Month Club webpage allow customers to view all price levels and format options. Once a customer orders a subscription, Hawkins sends a thank you note and confirms the address the books should be sent to, as those giving gift subscriptions often mistakenly enter their own address.

Hawkins finds it easier to take payments upfront for the service, because it means just one transaction has to be made and it gives the store some extra cash flow around the holidays. As a title is pulled from the shelf each month, Hawkins removes it from the inventory system and records it as a store credit sale. Hawkins also recommended that booksellers re-evaluate pricing levels after the first year to ensure enough profit is being made. “You might have to adjust as you go along,” she said.

Politics & Prose’s Children & Teens Book-a-Month Gift Program has enrolled nearly 300 subscribers in the 10 years it has been offered. Each month, staff members devote 10 to 20 minutes per book club subscriber in order to select a title specific to that child’s interests. “It’s actually quite a lot of effort,” said Poore. “We consider it personal shopping for our customers.”

Customers can sign up to gift a hardcover book once a month, every other month, or quarterly for 6-month, 12-month, or indefinite periods; information on the recipient’s reading preferences, favorite books and writers, and interests and hobbies is collected at the time of sign-up. Customers get charged once a month based on the price of the book sent, plus shipping. Poore noted that the store does see about 20 credit card declines each month, usually due to a change in the credit card number or an expiration date, and these usually require phone calls to correct. Politics & Prose also offers a Signed First Editions Book Club for children.

Greenlight Bookstore offers a First Editions Club for adults, through which customers can receive a signed first edition with collector packaging once a month. Originally offering 6- and 12-month subscriptions, Greenlight recently converted to an ongoing subscription.

“That helps a lot with preventing the drop-off because people forget to renew their six-month subscription when it expires and it’s easier to ask people to spend $20 to $30 a month than to ask them to spend $250 or $500 right up front, which is what we were charging,” said Stockton Bagnulo.

Greenlight charges book club subscribers one cent to sign up, which stores their credit card information and allows the store to put through the charge for the actual book, plus shipping, each month thereafter. The books selected for the program are chosen based on their quality, presumed collectability, and the availability of the author to sign copies.

“It’s great for us to be able to offer this special thing for our customers, but also to highlight the books that we think are really important and are going to be collectible in the long term,” said Stockton Bagnulo. “We sell more of those books aside from subscribers because we use the Greenlight First Editions Club in a lot of our marketing.”

Greenlight also offers customers the ability to create personal wish lists or public gift registries, said Stockton Bagnulo. Wish lists and registries are used to create specific gift lists for holidays, birthdays, baby showers, weddings, or for schools hosting book fairs or looking to build their libraries through donations.

Individuals can create their own private wish lists that are not accessible by store staff, but can be shared with friends and family members; only those selected can see the list. Alternatively, public gift registries are set up and managed by the store. Titles appearing on public gift registries can be selected by the recipient, and the registries are given customized URLs and are featured on Greenlight’s website for easy finding.

School book fair registries allow parents to purchase titles online and pick them up at the school during the fair or review the online registry to know ahead of time what will be at the fair. When a school is collecting book donations for its library, Greenlight will box donated books purchased online and deliver them to the school as they accumulate. Greenlight also uses online registries as a sort of pre-order form for schools hosting author events, with pre-purchased books being delivered to the school for pickup at the author’s event.

As part of their full-time responsibilities, two staff members manage the subscriptions programs at Politics & Prose, but any staff member with extra time will take a look at the program binders to help hand-pick books each month. A bonus, said Poore, is that “it’s a wonderful training tool for new staff,” as it is a way to learn the store’s inventory and vary the selections made for subscribers. “You don’t want to sell the same books all the time, so having different staff members do that helps to sell different books.”

A half-sheet featuring the First Editions Club or Book-a-Month program is on Politics & Prose’s checkout counter at all times. During the holidays, the shelf space that would be dedicated to in-store events is taken over by a full display featuring the clubs. However, “Word of mouth is probably the biggest advertisement,” said Poore.

To encourage new customers to sign up for Spellbound’s Book-of-the-Month subscriptions, Hawkins features it on a poster in the store, highlights in newsletters and on social media, and attempts to work it into conversations with customers. When Hawkins realized that most orders were coming in online from people all over the country, she carefully reviewed the store’s webpage to make the ordering information clearer, “and tweaked search terms to make it easy to find,” she said.

Once Spellbound receives payment for a subscription, the store sends out a welcome packet to the recipient, including a questionnaire and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to learn more about the reader’s age, reading level, and interests.

When it comes time to hand-pick a title for a Book-of-the-Month subscriber, Hawkins walks around the store with the child’s file, which includes the preferences questionnaire, a list of titles sent so far, and any response cards from earlier shipments that were sent back by the reader. “The more specific they are about what they like, the easier it is to have a really customized selection for them because it’s like personal shopping,” said Hawkins.