Monday, March 30, 2015

Bookstores, Book Orders, and Knowing Your Marketplace

I live in the suburbs around the Twin Cities area. My experiences tell me it’s not that different here from what one would find surrounding any other decent-sized city, which is to say a largely generic commercescape with occasional hidden pockets of culture. And sadly in this kind of environment, bookstores can be hard to come by. Which isn’t to say we don’t have any. Barnes and Noble, Half Price Books, the rare funky indie store...we’re covered. As far as the world of children’s literature goes, we’re lucky to have some extraordinary bookstores in our Cities (Shout out to The Red Balloon and The Wild Rumpus!).

I love browsing and discovering in bookstores. Back before the Borders location that was only half a mile (!!!) from my house was closed, I was there so frequently and for such long stretches of time there was talk amongst the employees about charging me rent. But unfortunately there aren’t as many bookstores as there used to be, and the ones that have survived have downsized the number of children’s titles along with everything else. When I think of my students, I’m sure that the closest thing many of them have had to a bookstore experience is walking down the one or two aisles of our local Target store representing the publishing world. Because of this, and since at nine years old they aren’t exactly ready to do any heavy-duty Internet shopping, one of the only ways many them have to get their hands on a book they can call their own is through school book orders.

Book orders are great. I clearly remember when my elementary teachers gave them to us, and how approximately two weeks later our new books would magically appear on our desks, waiting in neat piles when we arrived in the morning or came inside after recess. I love sharing that same excitement with my students now when I pass out the orders. My favorites are the ones turned in with the invoice roughly torn away from the form, marked off in crayon or with a barely-sharpened pencil, and stuffed into a plastic bag with a handful of coins and maybe a couple of crumbled bills. You know when you see those orders the kids are spending their own money on books they really want.

So what DO the kids today really want? What can be learned about publishing trends from perusing a monthly order form as a random sample? Just like any business, a book club is going to push the products they know their customers will buy. Here’s a category breakdown I did of the last book order I sent home with my students, just weeks ago, because it’s testing season in the world of elementary school right now and apparently I can’t stop myself from viewing things through a data-filtered lens. As of March 2015, here’s what’s being pushed based on how frequently these categories were represented:

Non-fiction books, mostly about science, animals, or history: 15
Books that are a part of a series: 12
Things that aren’t books at all, such as spy cameras, hair chalk, or invisible ink pens: 10
Movie or television tie-ins: 7
Animal characters: 5
Contemporary fiction: 5
Toy tie-ins: 5
Video game tie-ins: 5
Classic novels: 3
Illustrated novels: 3
Packaged series collections: 3
Diaries: 2
How-to-draw books: 2
Games or puzzles: 2
Sports: 2
Superheroes: 2
Fantasy: 1
Poetry: 1

I wasn’t surprised by these numbers. High-interest non-fiction has always been a reliable gateway for reluctant readers, and buying an entire series like Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson, either all at once in a collector’s package or a few books at a time isn’t so far removed from binge-watching several seasons of a television show. As a teacher I can’t say I’m thrilled by the number of “not book” items in the order, but I totally get that business is business.

For a long time I’ve entertained the fantasy of seeing a book I wrote show up in one of the book orders I'll pass out to my students in the future. Maybe the best way to make this happen would be to write a non-fiction series featuring recurring animal characters that are somehow tied to a popular TV show, then package each book with origami paper, hand buzzers, glow-in-the-dark stickers, or novelty erasers. Hmm...I think I may have just stumbled onto my next project....

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