Kids' Booksellers Give It Away to Get It Back

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Children's booksellers (l. to r.) Diane Capriola of Little Shop of Stories, Shannon Mathis of San Francisco's Books Inc., and Shelly Plumb of Harleysville Books.

Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC) Executive Director Kristen McLean encouraged booksellers at the ABA Day of Education session "Give It Away to Get It Back: Using 'Thought Leadership' Marketing to Build Your Children's Business" to be themselves, to freely share their knowledge, and to become ambassadors for children's books in order to create a strategy that "cuts through the noise" directed at potential customers from innumerable sources.

These strategies, she stressed, should neither be viewed as a sales approach nor advertising. Rather they are key elements of Thought Leadership Marketing (TLM), which focuses on making the most of community outreach opportunities to build genuine relationships. "Thought leaders, McLean said, " are widely recognized for innovative ideas that they share broadly within their organizations or communities," and most children's booksellers are already, to some extent, doing just that.

Among bookstore services that can be considered part of a TLM strategy, said McLean, are professionally run book talks, teacher in-services for continuing education credits, value-added programming in schools, book review columns in local papers, providing space for local community information centers, and leadership of local programs, including Buy Local campaigns.

Customers today can buy books from hundreds of possible channels and get information from thousands of places, most of which booksellers aren't seeing, said McLean. So, "the same old thing isn't good enough. You need to figure out what your customer wants or needs." Key is creating a "perception of real value" and a sense of hospitality. "Customers must feel engaged."

The three keys to a successful TLM strategy, McLean stressed, are:

  • Make education and information sharing core missions, not just add-ons
  • Generously give away knowledge and share your expertise
  • Create value for the consumer

Panelist Shelly Plumb, owner of three-year-old Harleysville Books, located in a very family-oriented community in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, said that she had focused much of her store's marketing efforts on children's books. Plumb partnered with a retired teacher to create programming that gives teachers continuing education credit. The program introduces teachers to books for children at all reading levels, she said, and explains how the titles can be used in a multidisciplinary approach. As an example she noted how a book of poetry was also tied into a science class. The bookstore, which had to apply to the state for program approval, worked closely with a retired teacher who was instrumental in helping them through the process of accreditation.

Teacher participation in the continuing education credit program also helps increase business at bookfairs, which Harleysville runs for pre-schoolers through elementary school grades. At the fairs, Plumb gives away catalogs and coupons so kids can go home and order online.

Plumb also cross promotes with other local organizations and businesses. In one instance, she has worked with an art studio, which does a theme a month. Harleysville provides the art studio with a booklist flier relating to that month's theme and promotes the studio and its programs at the bookstore.

McLean added, "A flier that you can exchange with another business is very cost effective." As an example she mentioned how one bookstore provides fliers with relevant titles to a pet adoption program.

To build contacts with teachers, McLean suggested booksellers ask for a table at a "new hire" fair. In this way, one bookseller has built a mailing list of hundreds of teachers over the last three years, she explained.

Diane Capriola, owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia, also stressed how important it is for indie booksellers to get out into schools. "You can provide a really quality bookfair," she said, with an emphasis on quality. "We don't include all of the really junky things [that some bookfair companies do], and the kids don't miss them."

Although, she said, her store's school bookfairs "don't generate a lot of revenue, they do generate a lot of goodwill."

To bring indie bookstores to the attention of teachers and others in the local community, Capriola suggested booksellers provide summer reading lists, create or contribute to a teacher newsletter (e.g., how and why to use graphic novels), and participate in any community, family-friendly event.

"Store staff can become like rock stars" to kids, she explained, using as an example a program in which Little Shop of Stories staff become "mystery readers" at local schools. Students eagerly anticipate the arrival of the mystery someone who is going to read a story to them, and they're thrilled when a staff member from Little Shop of Stories appears. "Put [staff] out there, but not to sell," she encouraged.

Capriola also suggested those in attendance be willing to help promote other indies. When Atlanta's A Cappella Books was selling books in connection with an event at The Carter Center, Little Shop of Stories helped publicize the event -- a gesture of goodwill that didn't go unnoticed by others in her local community.

She also urged booksellers to "get in on ideas even if you think they might not work." As an example, she pointed to the Decatur Book Festival, now one of the five largest independent book festivals in the country. When the organizers who had no previous book festival experience announced their plans, there were skeptics, but the fair has grown into a three-day celebration featuring thousands of authors, booksellers, publishers, and readers. And, Capriola said, one of the most popular events is the Children's Stage.

Shannon Mathis, children's book buyer at San Francisco's Books Inc., told attendees in the three years since the store ramped up its bookfair efforts, bookfairs have become "a huge part of our business" and the store now has to turn away some requests.

As with the other indie panelists, Books Inc.'s emphasis is on providing quality, handpicked titles. For parents at bookfairs, Books Inc. offers booktalks featuring store staff presenting their favorite titles of the season over light refreshments (for example, Lattes & Literature and Bagels & Books). Three-hour in-store bookfairs are also offered, with profits donated to the sponsoring nonprofit.

Books Inc. staff also presents the titles they're excited about at "Teachers Night Out" events, where wine and cheese is also a draw. "Teachers are hungry to get authors in schools," said Mathis, so they are very happy to work with indie bookstores to make this happen.

An extensive calendar of book club events, including several aimed at young adults, also ensures Books Inc.'s connection to the local community. There are Mother-Daughter clubs, a Middle Reader club, and the Not Your Mother's Book Club™ aimed at 7th- to 12th-graders. "The goal of [NYMBC™] is to bring the best YA authors to the store to meet kids," said Mathis. And, as a result of these efforts, Books Inc. has become "a trusted resource for teen lit for librarians and teachers."

Learn more about Thought Leadership Marketing from ABC's "Give It Away to Get It Back" session handout, available on --Rosemary Hawkins