In this go-get-'em, frontlist-dominated world, Hicklebee's, a children's bookstore in San Jose, Calif., has started a program to highlight a backlist title every week.
A Hicklebee's part-timer, Carol Doup Muller, former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News, got to thinking about gems on publishers' backlists she'd like to promote, and how before electricity people judged a book by whether it was worth the candle to read it at night. She came up with the idea of posting a weekly pick of books that are “worth the candle” in the store's e-mail newsletter and on its Web site, describing what attracted her to the book as a reader, mother and/or bookseller. The program is called Worth the Candle, and it's been running since January.
So, which books are worth the candle?
Week one featured A Hole Is to Dig by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, published in 1952. Last week's book was I, Houdini by Lynne Reid Banks, from 1988. Many other old favorites have been featured, including Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney, Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Amos & Boris by William Steig and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald.
Hicklebee's co-owner Valerie Lewis saw online hits jump as soon as the program started. Since the store promotes all of the WTC titles in a display at the front counter, the books keep selling long after their featured week.
Next year the Association of Booksellers for Children plans to roll out the WTC program on a national basis—with the blessing of Hicklebee's. “While the details are still being worked out, the idea that a single wonderful backlist title could be featured in independent children's stores across the country is really powerful,” said Kristen McLean, ABC executive director.
Annette Hughes, director of children's backlist at HarperCollins, became an immediate fan of WTC. She said the program and the way it is laid out on the store's Web site are clearly thought out and engaging. “I want to read every one of these books,” said Hughes. She especially likes the personal tone Doup Muller uses in describing the books.
Lewis said her staff finds the Worth the Candle program energizing. “It's like giving ourselves a handsell every week,” she said. She reports that the store sold a total of 15 copies of The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant and Stephen Gammell (which pubbed in 1986) last year; during the week it was featured this year, it sold 37. Last year the store sold no copies of Eulalie and the Hopping Head by David Small (1982), and moved nine copies the week it was a WTC pick. Nine copies may not be a lot, but if the program goes national, nine copies at many ABC stores could be meaningful in terms of sales, and could encourage a publisher to keep a book in print.
Lewis said it just made sense to her to share the idea with other booksellers. “What happens with frontlist is hype—the displays, the dumps, the sparkles.” she says. “There are all kinds of reasons that a book catches your attention. With an older title, the only reason it comes to your attention is because it's worth the candle.”