Saturday, October 9, 2010

Of Course Picture Books Aren't Dead, But Why Aren't They Selling?

Apparently, Peewee's secret word yesterday was "picture books" thanks to a New York Times article about their languishing sales.

Seeing as I follow a bunch of bookish types and librarians, my twitter stream was full of NOT IN MY HOUSE! NOT IN MY LIBRARY! PICTURE BOOKS LIVE!

I'm thrilled that picture books are still important in your family's life. They are important in mine too. This is why we are friends. We have a similar appreciation for great books and great art.

But I tell you truth: picture book sales are down. They were down in my store. I've talked to dozens of other booksellers who say the same of their stores. If sales were keeping pace, do you really think B&N would be shrinking their sections? I may have doubts about their ability to properly sell books, but they can sure as heck read sales figures.

And it's not just a slumping economy, although I'm sure that plays a part. But the drop in picture book sales is out of proportion with the rest of the children's department.

So instead of proclaiming to each other how important picture books are (OF COURSE they are!), why do we think sales are down & how do we go about changing the sales trends?

(All of my evidence here is anecdotal. Sorry, statisticians, but what can you do?)

It seems that over the past couple years, the picture book section has been treated more and more like a library. Even our good customers, who would buy a stack of YAs and MGs for their older kids, would read picture books with their kids, then not buy. They would point out books that they checked out over and over from the library, but still not buy.

Why not? Yes, I think price is a factor. No matter how many times these books are going to be read, people see an $18 + price tag on a 32 page book and they balk.

So the first impulse is, how do the prices get lowered? Again, can only report what I've heard here, but... Dust jacket. Dust jacket is one of the things that adds to the cost, and is one of the first things discarded in a house with a toddler. It's also the first thing to get damaged at a bookstore. But the funny thing is, even for people who immediately take the dust jacket off, they often see the absence of a dust jacket as a sign that it's a lower quality book, so it's suddenly not even worth that new lower price. This makes no sense to me. It's frustrating as hell. But I've seen it so many times and I don't know how to change that perception.

So what about paperback originals? Or board books? (I see soooo many hardcover picture books that are really meant to be board books). I gather that this is similar to the trade paperback original vs hardcover in the adult world. I don't know the economics of it, but I've been told by publishing folks that it's very hard to make money on a tp original. I'll just have to trust them on that.

So, unless someone else has some genius ideas, I'm tapped on the lower-the-prices front. But I'm not a publisher.

So how do we change people's minds to convince them that these books are worth the money?

Right now, the hardcover picture books we do sell, are often sold as gifts. Grandmas like to buy books for Christmas. So how do we get those people already buying them to buy more?

I think one genius idea that a few indie bookstores have started are book subscriptions. Instead of buying a few books at Christmas, why not a subscription for a hand selected book to be sent each month throughout the year?

For those people who think that Christmas isn't Christmas without a bunch of toys under the tree... could local bookstores make a deal with their local toy store? Ask them to do a joint promotion... anyone who buys (whatever big flashy toy they are trying to promote) can get a picture book discount coupon. Can you do a shelf swap? Offer to devote a shelf in your store to their products and they will do the same for yours.

Those people who value picture books and are borrowing them at libraries, how do we get them to purchase?

There would need to be an added value to owning a physical copy. I've seen so many offers from pubs for opening orders of x number of books get author signatures, but for the most part, this has been on the adult side. Why not picture books? Why not author & illustrator signature with a small drawing, as illustrators often do at signings? I know it's a lot of work, but we're trying to sell books here.

If we had a signed first edition club, as more and more stores are doing, could we submit name lists, so they are personalized & signed? Again, lots of work, I know, but I think people would be willing to pay even more for that service.

The other category of picture books we continued to sell in huge bundles was our local books. If a book named our town on the cover, it didn't matter how bad it was, the sucker sold. So as we enter the brave new world of print on demand and smaller batch publishing, why not books that are linked to place? Why not, when I purchase my copy of the next Pigeon book, couldn't it have a page after the title page that says "Purchased at the Bunch of Grapes" with a store-specific message/logo etc? (okay, so I know this is financially impossible now, but why not in the coming years?) So this book is not just the story and art being purchased, but a souvenir of place and the experience of purchasing it...

And since we are thinking of the book as it is connected to the experience, what if bookstores who do a story time had their own story time bookplates? You could have a bookplate that is only available for the book being read at story time... with your store logo and a space for the child's name, the date of the story time, who was the reader, what grown up brought them... You know, "My mommy brought me to story time with Katherine. We made pink piggy noses and I got this book!" Whatever... and with how easy it is to print these type of things on a color printer these days, you could even do an official-looking printed out one while they wait at the store. (More time at the store is always a good thing.)

What I wish I had from publishers to help sell individual books... More flexible electronic tools... by that I mean that publishers often send us pre-made shelf talkers or bookmarks. I wish what I got was easy access to a jpeg of an illustration from the book, so that I could use the artwork in making shelf talkers or bookmarks that had my own staff's or customers' comments. If publishers had a site that we could easily find and download a little chunk of artwork instead of just the whole cover, that'd be fantastic.

Many publishers send posters, coloring and activity sheets for their big books. Those are nice, but I more often wished for an idea for an easy construction paper project.  On your website, or even in your catalogs, with each book, say, "Story time craft: Fold paper plates in half, cut teeth along the edge, color the outside green and add google eyes for your very own Hungry Dinosaur", then suggest two other books from the list or your backlist that would complement the book for story time.  And then it wouldn't just be the big books that get pushed for story times.

Perhaps the most important thing for picture book sales is already happening... fewer picture books are being published. I know that sounds like a negative, but long term, it will be a good thing. The fact is, there have been picture books coming out that shouldn't have. I'm not even talking about those bad celebrity books or the not-so-hot books from adult authors trying their hand at kid books (because, hey, even if they never sold at my store, apparently they sold somewhere, and it's those books that foot the bill for the amazing ones that don't sell so well). But there are books by unknown authors that have come out... overly precious, or obvious morals, or lacking any cleverness, you name it. Weeding out those lesser efforts can only be good for picture books as a whole, as customers realize that publishers are actually being gatekeepers, booksellers are being curators, and that customers can trust that gems are the norm and not the exception even among the non-classics.

How can librarians and teachers help? If it really is a problem that parents are steering away from picture books because they are perceived as "too easy", librarians and teachers can work to remind parents of the value of picture books, even to kids who are reading for themselves at this point.

Could libraries and bookstores hold story times at non-school hours specifically aimed at the 6+ crowd? Read the more sophisticated books and have more sophisticated activities. Use the books as leaping off points for writing and drawing their own stories. Create backstories to the one you're reading. Or sequels, alternate endings. Encourage the kids to read the books to each other... if you have a group of regulars, you could even have a long-term project. Have them turn the book into a performance. Once a month, they could put on a show for their parents.

Can we help by shelving differently?  Instead of having one huge picture book section, can we pull out a shelf of books that are better suited to the elementary school crowd? Perhaps even locate the shelf with the chapter books so that they are more easily stumbled upon? Or if you want to go really nuts (and have magical shelves), alphabetize them in with the chapter books.

This is such a long, rambling post. But I think it's important for there to be a discussion of what we can do to improve sales, not just the repeated claims that picture books are awesome. Which they are.


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