By Sonia Benster
As a specialist children’s bookshop for over 38 years, we have been variously described as ‘an endangered species’ or, more positively, enjoying a ‘golden age of children’s books’. That was then – where are we now?
Recently, many general independent bookshops have closed their doors. However, dedicated children’s bookshops have hung on. The bookseller in February even reported several new start up ventures. These brave souls are to be applauded. They will have to compete for customers against behemoths such as Amazon, the major supermarkets, chain book stores – not to mention the world of digital delights – however ephemeral.
The book trade no longer builds businesses, authors and expertise. It is geared to cynical short term strategies for instant profit. Sadly, the public will eventually get what they pay less for; bargain prices, speed, convenience. Unless, before too late, they come to value knowledge, service, plus an intelligent, extensive stock range – albeit at a marginally higher price. If the cheaper route prevails, monopolies will reign, choice will contract and publishers will also be subsumed, further reducing opportunities for fledgling authors. Amazon are really only interested in publishing and promoting what sells.
Hopefully, children’s booksellers can continue to blaze an alternative trail. Our shops will have to respond to local needs in communities and schools. We must continue to champion the best debut author/illustrators. Authors, themselves, can spear head this revival in partnership with shops and libraries, if they bear in mind the art of the possible. Without authors, the book trade would not exist! My apologies, therefore, for my presumption in putting forward the following suggestions for aspiring writers to address in an increasingly competitive world.
You’ve had an idea for a book. Next move is to haunt libraries and bookshops to check similar work. Avoid overcrowded markets and current popular genres. It is no use coming in on the tail end of a popularity wave – e.g. post Harry Potter or the dying fall vampires and angels. I would even venture to suggest that gritty young adult and dystopian novels are waning. Ask yourself, does posterity need another cosy picture book featuring anthropomorphic bears at bedtime? Be original, its your unique selling point.
Research done, you’ve gone ahead and now have a book/illustrations ready and revised. Time now for an agent or publisher. Check the recent output of mainstream publishers. Be hypercritical yourself, it saves pain later on. Will your putative audience be prepared to pay hard earned cash to share your story? Beware computer generated books. Amateurish productions have absolutely no chance in the sophisticated glossy world of modern publishing If you decide to self-publish, you will absolutely have to match the prevailing standard.
All these hurdles are behind you and publication date looms. Even a publication date needs thought. Are the dead days of January going to allow your book to stand out like a beacon? Would midsummer be better with holiday reading needed; schools at this time have other priorities, school trips, exams, even shortage of money due to family budget going on school photographs. Once schools have settled in around September/October is probably the optimum time, but will your title get lost in the avalanche of new publishing?
Whichever date is selected, its time now to promote yourself relentlessly. Forget shyness. Develop a slick routine which you can offer schools and groups. Make the publicity department your friends. Be available – don’t ask for fees initially. Pester radio,TV, newspapers, social media with your newsworthy story. Check out the Federation of Children’s Bookgroups – their annual conference in the Spring is perfect for networking.
Always, always be agreeable, however chaotic arrangements appear – however small the audience. You re learning all the time what people want. If your book is good, then momentum WILL build.
You may feel now that it is time for support from bookshops to introduce your new talent to their customers. Provided your book suits their stock profile, they can arrange window displays, school and library visits and both review and recommend to teachers and readers. The ubiquitous shop signings need to be approached with caution. In a busy world, few people are tempted into a shop for a basic signing which can be very dispiriting.
If you yourself, can rally a core audience of around 30 family and friends, then most shops will be happy to use that nucleus to interest their regular customers in a glass of wine, a chat or a brief reading.
Recently, we teamed up with a donkey charity to publicise a Christmas donkey book. The bitterly cold day kept numbers down, but pre-orders had been taken, much fun was had on the day and the books (duly signed plus tiny individual pictures) continued to sell very well. Word of mouth is still very effective, particularly in the children’s book world and small scale events can have a substantial ‘ripple’ effect.
So the factors mentioned in my first paragraph still pertain. We live in economically precarious times, yet have a wealth of wonderful books to resource. All that is needed for the children’s book world to be buoyant is for everyone to co-operate, authors, publishers, booksellers to find the most effective routes to market and to reaching our end destination – the child reader.
Do be sure to visit The Children’s Bookshop at:
The Children’s BookShop
37-39 Lidget Street