In recent years, a growing number of independent booksellers have begun using their curatorial expertise to differentiate not just their in-store children’s offerings, but to create book subscription clubs to get high-quality age-appropriate books into children’s hands by mail. Booksellers accustomed to face-to-face interactions with customers put the same emphasis on connecting books with children in the clubs. “It’s as if you had walked into the store and we were hand-selling to you,” says Heidi Powell, former manager of the children and teens department at Politics & Prose, in Washington, D.C.
Though book-subscription clubs with personalized recommendations are, as Powell notes, akin to hand-selling, all of the booksellers surveyed said that both online and in-store promotions are essential to inform potential members about the service. The emphasis is on social media, but stores also provide information on their websites, promote the clubs in store newsletters, and advertise them in-store with strategically placed flyers and postcards.
At nearly 16 years old, the children and teen Book-a-Month Gift Program at the D.C. bookstore is one of the oldest and largest book-subscription clubs for children. And though, like the other stores, it advertises the program both online and in-store, coordinator Marc Villa points out that, these days, most of those who purchase memberships are discovering the program through word of mouth. The club caters to approximately 300 members around the country, predominantly young readers, with a smattering of teens and adults interested in YA literature. The cost for each annual membership is the price of the books plus shipping and handling. Each package includes a hardcover or two paperbacks. Book selections are based on information provided by parents and children: all recipients’ age, gender, and interests are collected, as well as the titles of a few books they’ve recently read and enjoyed. The store also contacts each member twice a year to solicit feedback on whether the selections have been satisfactory.
“We try to mix it up,” Powell says. “And we try not to send fiction every month, unless that is specified.” Politics & Prose used to let members make requests for specific titles or authors, but no more. “They’re putting their trust in us as booksellers to be their personal shoppers. That’s what this program is all about,” she explains, noting that the booksellers even take into account multiple memberships in families to avoid duplications.
All of Politics & Prose’s children’s and YA booksellers help choose selections for members, Powell says. Maria Salvadore, a bookseller who worked as a librarian for many years, reviews each book to make sure that it is age-appropriate for its recipient. That’s to prevent problems that occurred in the past from selecting books that went to readers who were too old or young. The former librarian doesn’t simply review the selections: she also discusses their selections with her colleagues who have pulled books. “We use this as a teaching tool for new booksellers,” Powell says.
R.J. Julia in Madison, Conn., launched its Just the Right Book subscription club for children and adults, along with an affiliated website, in 2009. Subscriptions can be four, six, or 12 months in length, and members can request all hardcover, all paper, or a combination. Just the Right Book coordinator Elizabeth Katz takes the lead in pulling books from R.J. Julia’s shelves. She relies on a form filled out by the person buying the subscription (if it’s a gift), and another form filled out by the recipient, the latter of which “goes a little deeper,” into his or her interests and reading preferences.
General manager Lori Fazio notes that although Katz and R.J. Julia booksellers “use our expertise to select books we think [members] will love that are under the radar,” they also respect members’ requests for titles by specific authors. “Some people give us wish lists,” Fazio says.
“We really tailor it to what [subscribers] are looking for. It’s grown and changed over the years, but the essence remains the same: finding just the right book,” Fazio notes. About one third of the program’s members are under 18 years old, and they are evenly split between young readers and YA. The subscription cost is based on the retail price of the books plus shipping and handling.
Holly Weinkauf, who has owned the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., since 2011, says that its book-subscription club, Bookshop-in-a-Box, already was in place when she purchased the 32-year-old store from its cofounders: she has merely “tweaked it.” Books are sent out monthly, for either six months or a year, to its approximately 35 members, who skew toward babies and toddlers, and a few elementary school–age kids, she says.
Though all of the Red Balloon’s booksellers make suggestions based on each member’s age, interests, and reading preferences, one specialized part-time employee pulls the books and ships them around the country. Most gift givers purchasing the subscriptions tend to be grandparents who live in the Twin Cities. Fees vary based on whether it’s a hardcover, paperback, or board book subscription, and if it’s for early readers.
Brazos Books in Houston, Tex., calls its three-year-old book-subscription club the Acorn Reading Society, and it offers six-month and 12-month subscriptions in four different categories for readers 18 years old and younger: board books, picture books, new paperbacks, and new hardcovers. Like many other clubs, the cost is based on the retail price of the books plus shipping and handling.
“It’s been a really great program, with a lot of renewals,” gift buyer and merchandiser Ülrika Moats says, noting that most of the members live in the area, and their parents are store customers. “Some of them have been [members] from the beginning: it’s exciting to watch them move forward, from picture books to middle grade books.”
Membership numbers fluctuate but hover at about 30, according to Moats. The society’s largest demographics are toddlers and middle grade readers. She consults with Brazos’s children’s–books specialist to make sure that all selections are age-appropriate and takes primary responsibility for pulling books from the shelves. In addition to age and gender, gift givers and new members are asked four questions to aid her in selecting books: reading level, reading preferences, interests, and any topics that should be avoided. Postcards are also sent out with every package soliciting feedback.
The Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif., and Powell’s in Portland, Ore., run subscription book clubs that are more limited in scope. The Reading Bug’s year-old Reading Bug Box program targets newborns to readers age 12 and has 300 members. Reading Bug owner Lauren Savage says that 60% of the members are under age six, and only 15% of all members live in Silicon Valley. Membership fees begin at $27.99 and go up from there, with members receiving between two and four books each month. Selections are based on age, reading level, and interests. The Reading Bug also offers individual themed boxes with topics such as girl power and wiggly bugs.
Powell’s is the latest entrant to subscription services for kids’ books and launched its Boox: Books in a Box picture book club last month with Jessie Sima’s Not Quite Narwhal (Simon & Schuster). It will ship two picture books, one of which is a first edition, and “exciting goodies” every eight weeks to members at a cost of $35.95 per package (including domestic shipping). Each selection fits a common theme and comes with a blurb from an employee.
“There are lots of options out there,” marketing coordinator Kate Laubernds notes, describing Boox as an extension of its Indiespensable book-subscription club for adults. “With the Powell’s name, we thought we could bring value and quality to the market. A lot of parents don’t have time to seek out books, and this is a curated program. And it makes a great gift.”