Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Fairs, Promotion, and Other Midlister Industry Musings

So a few weeks ago, I used my shiny new substitute teacher credential to work at a middle school, helping run the book fair with the librarian, who in full disclosure is also one of my critique partners and thus can offer me a sub job that requires no actual teaching but 8 hours a day of recommending books to 6th graders and maneuvering the fairly limited mysteries of the Scholastic Book Fair cash register. Plus snacks. And French toast and fruit for breakfast on Valentine's Day because, it turns out, life at this middle school is a lot cushier than the 'every woman for herself; hey there's a stale kolache from yesterday's PTA meeting in the teacher's lounge' life I used to live when I taught high school English. But I digress.

The Scholastic Book Fair is a crazy efficient machine at selling books. We talk a lot about what sells books, my writer friends and I. About author platforms (which I'll be doing a workshop about at Houston Writer's Guild in April), and internet presence and word of mouth. Word of mouth does indeed sell books, and probably it's the best --and most elusive--method of all.

But let's be clear: The Scholastic people know how to sell books. If you are lucky enough to get one of your titles picked up by Scholastic and made into one of their book club books, it will probably sell a bunch of copies. It will have huge market exposure to the middle schools in particular (or elementary if you write for younger people). It will get to kids who might not ever see the inside of a book store or whose school libraries don't have the money to buy a lot of titles. Did I mention? It will sell. And if you are lucky enough to be on the featured list on the book order forms that go home, and on the promo videos about those featured titles that they send for everyone to view in advance, you will most likely sell more copies.

I had never been in the position to watch this up close and personal for an entire week before. It was, honestly, fascinating. Prisoner B-3087, by Alan Gratz, a true story of Yanek (Jack) Gruener, who suffered and survived 10 concentration camps during WWII, was the most popular book at the fair I worked. Now, this is an amazing book. And it was written in conjunction with Gruener himself, and his wife, so it is wrenchingly accurate, albeit a children's version. But would these 5th and 6th graders have gravitated to it on their own just from looking at the cover, as they might if they had wandered into say, Barnes and Noble and there was one copy spine out? I don't know for sure. But I'm thinking, probably not. But there was a video and interview with the author and Gruener and his wife. It was featured on the handout. And yeah, it's the kind of book that teachers, whether they are readers or not, would encourage their students to read. We sold out of that book more than once that week and Scholastic had to keep sending more. Boxes more.

(Let me interject here that I also got to observe that while I am immersed in the YA industry and YA titles, most of the middle school teachers I met are not. So titles like Cinder or even Newbery titles like My Name is Ivan, are not necessarily something they know. It was fun to be able to book talk these to both adults and kids)

I did see that there are no guarantees. Not every featured book seemed to sell as well as Prisoner did. Was it the cover? A lesser known setting? The way the promo film was set up? I don't have every answer. Sometimes there needed to be a context for sales, a "well, if you like books about x but want one that's funnier" look at this. Often, after that, word of mouth took over.

A few things came clear to me:
1. I am very, very grateful to every bookseller, particularly but not limited to the indies, who hand-sell my books, especially The Sweet Dead Life and the forthcoming A-Word, which are quirkier books from a small but mighty and nimble publisher and deal with the huge questions of the universe but also first dates and high school football and breakfast tacos. They are not as easy to sum up as the Dreaming Anastasia series, which is about the Romanovs and a very cool Russian fairy tale witch and has epic romance and thus keeps selling all on its own even when I'm looking the other way.

2. I am very grateful for the word of mouth I get--and for those who listen to the words I humbly generate on my own. Because it helps people know that those two spine out copies are sitting on the shelf in BN waiting for someone to say hey, "That gorgeous new pb with its red boots and story of a Texas girl whose brother becomes the most imperfect but also perfect guardian angel ever is coming home with me!" Even if they don't see huge stacks of books, they still pick it up.

3. If the people at Scholastic Book Fair want your book, it is a good thing. For everyone.

4. 10 year old boys love Minecraft and zombies and Guinness Book of World Records in any form. I texted my editor that one of us should create the Zombie Book of Worlds Records. He texted back that I had just figure out how to pay for his son's college tuition. Also, although it is highly sexist sounding, 10 year old girls love posters with puppies. And One Direction. So on a similar note, if you make a poster of the One Direction guys holding cute puppies, you will probably be able to send your son to college.

5. Anecdotally, I do think that a huge stack of books is more enticing that one lone copy. UNLESS the librarian announces a shortage. Then everyone wants to place special orders.

Most of all, in between selling books and figuring out the Scholastic Book Fair computerized cash register and eating the chocolate and kolaches that kept appearing because middle school teachers seem fond of snacks and lunches from places like Cane's which sells ONLY chicken finger baskets, I discovered one other most wonderful thing:

Scholastic Book Fair had bought POISON by the late Bridget Zinn, who died of cancer before her lovely debut novel came out last year from Hyperion. It is a beautiful YA fantasy with a brave and brilliant potion-master girl and a funny amazing story and NOW a zillion middle schoolers will get to read it!

I spent a lot of time putting POISON in kids' hands. I told them Bridget's story.

That was the best of all.

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