Your child brings home this notice from school: "We need 50 parents to sign up and help with the book fair. Last year we made $3,000. This year our goal is to reach $4,000. Won't you please help?"
You groan. How can you afford to give away three of the precious hours you've set aside for writing?
As a matter of fact, you can't afford not to. Here's an easy opportunity for you to study what's hot in children's publishing.
Think of the hours you volunteer at the book fair as market analysis time. You are there to see what kids and parents are buying, what teachers are looking for (and may not be on the shelves) and what booksellers are recommending.
What kids buy. Ellen Monahan, a former book buyer for Bedford Falls Toys and Books in Charlotte, NC, finds that on the elementary level, kids often gravitate toward the books with a TV or movie tie-in. Blues Clues, Rugrats, Teletubbies and Animorphs were big a few years ago. Kids were also attracted to books that were packaged with toys and "gimmicks" such as yo-yos, beads, or lanyard. Board books are popular with the pre-school set.
What parents look for. If TV tie-ins leave you depressed, don't despair. Mothers, the biggest group of buyers at book fairs, often look beyond their children's wish list and pick out quality fiction and hardcover picture books and holiday books (often given as gifts at a later date). Parents who have more than one child to buy for also purchase trade paperbacks in order to make the most of their dollars. "I buy in quantity," says Heidi McNinch, a parent of three, "so I don't usually buy hardbacks. I buy a variety of chapter paperbacks including sports, mysteries, and activity books such as "How To Draw" books. I don't like toy books," she added, "it's not the book the kids want, it's the toy."
What teachers want. "I like to find books related to our topic of study," says Chris Phillips, a fourth-grade teacher. "Scholastic's Study Field Guides on insects, mammals, and birds are good; I also like the [Dorling Kindersley] Eyewitness Books." In addition, Phillips likes to purchase books for her class library. She is a big advocate of historical fiction, and likes nonfiction about athletes and history. She said that the Animal Ark series (Ben Baglio) is popular, as is historical fiction by Jean Fritz (Shh...We're Writing the Constitution). "I don't want books with girlfriend/boyfriend situations or ones that feature drug and alcohol problems," Phillips comments. "Kids these days are growing up too fast; I don't want to give them literature that encourages a loss of innocence."
What booksellers stock. Monahan took pride in selecting the books that she offered to fifty schools in the Charlotte area. "I don't want to just push the latest fad series. I review titles and look for quality books. There is no better way than a book fair, to expose children to current books," she says. In fiction, Monahan looks for stories that appeal to the reader's imagination and challenges her interest; in nonfiction Monahan purchased books that were well researched, readable, and did not talk down to their audience.
By now you should be convinced that book fairs are good for market research. But is it a good place to sell your books? You bet.
Book Fairs Sell Books
Kathleen Duey, author of the popular middle grade The American Diary Series, tries to piggyback a school's book fair with author appearances. Not only will she speak to large groups of students, but also when time permits, she observes how teachers use the activities that she designed that correspond with her books. She has sold as few as 30 books at a fair, and as many as 300. "Sales will depend on audience affluence and if the school's staff prepares the students with send-home sheets and the importance of letting children buy books themselves," Duey says. Since books sold through book fairs are heavily discounted, Duey's income is not great. "The major benefits are increasing your audience and name recognition, as well as spending a day with the kids who read your books."
Gale Haley, an author and illustrator of more than 40 books and recipient of the Caldecott award in 1971 for A Story, A Story agrees with Duey that one of the main benefits of book fairs is being able to meet her audience. "Book fairs give me feedback from my readers," she says. It has also provided a way for her to meet other authors and illustrators, has helped her stay in the public eye, and has led to other invitations to bookstores and schools. "Writing and illustrating is solitary work. When I go out there and work with other people it opens me up in a new way. Writing is a way of sharing and communicating. If I know it, I'm going to give it away." In addition, Haley notes, "when you travel across the country you also get a sense of different localities." That is valuable information that can be used in future work.
Ken Compton, the author of several picture books including Granny Greenteeth and Noise in the Night, has been successful selling books at PTA meetings held in conjunction with book fairs. "The fairs that are before Christmas are very successful because people are there primarily to buy gifts," he says. He has also spoken on the creative process that he and his wife (his co-author) go through when creating a book. Since this presentation is designed to encourage creativity in his listeners, Compton can customize it and use it for PTA groups or school visits in conjunction with book fairs.
Bill Hooks is the author of many picture books, chapter books for middle-grade readers, and young adult novels. He suggests that when you are asked to go to a book fair, make sure that you go on the night when the parents are coming. "That's the big selling night," he advises. He also provides a book list to be sent home with the children before a school appearance. "You want the children to become familiar with you," Hooks says. "Presentations, storytelling, and book lists all help sell books."
Hooks cautions new writers that it isn't easy to get invited to book fairs. "For new writers with 1-3 published books, it is probably more likely that you'll be invited into a classroom and can bring your books with you, then to be asked to attend an out-of-town book fair," he says. But that personal contact, as many authors find, is invaluable in selling books and learning about your audience.
Ready to Sign Up?
At the end of your shift at the book fair you should be leaving with a new perspective on what's selling and what's not. You'll probably have a few books stashed away for birthdays and holidays. You may have even overheard a teacher or parent say, "If only there were more books on..." that triggers an idea for your next project. Plus, you'll have helped your child's school. Not a bad investment of three hours.
Now about that sign-up sheet...
There are two types of book fairs: public and private. Public book fairs are usually free or charge a small fee. They are generally sponsored by a large organization and are funded by local businesses. They usually feature authors who read and/or speak and who are available for book signings.
For example, in Charlotte, Novello is a week-long festival of reading that was created nine years ago to encourage adults and children to read. The local and national authors who are invited to attend speak at local schools and participate in a well-attended book signing.
Within the realm of private book fairs there are two types: ones which are supplied by local, independent book dealers and fairs that are run by large national companies such as Scholastic Books, Chinaberry and Troll. The independent book dealers choose a large variety of books to be sold and can fill individual requests by librarians and teachers. Unfortunately, small dealers often can't compete with the discounts provided by the large companies.
Book fairs run by Scholastic ship big displays of books to the schools without any emphasis on pre-ordering. But the selection process is done very carefully according to Suzanne Harrold, a member of the acquisitions committee for Scholastic. "I order from about 100 publishers. We are always looking for books that are new, innovative, and fresh." She is looking for historical fiction, coming-of-age books, and stories with engaging characters that are not overly controversial, particularly for the 7-9th grade audience.
In nonfiction, Harrold said the Magic School Bus series filled a need for elementary school teachers. "Many of these teachers are uncomfortable teaching science. These books are user-friendly." Nonfiction must be colorful with text that isn't too busy and engaging to children without being overwhelming.
For information on upcoming book fairs in your area, inquire at your local school or check out the American Booksellers Association web site: http://www.bookweb.org.
Copyright © 2002 Carol Baldwin
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.