Pat Fowler, co-owner of Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, Vt., tours Porter Square Books.

Given the early hour at which the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council kicked off its June 10th meeting, aka Pub Crawl, it’s probably just as well that co-chairs Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, and Vicky Uminowicz of Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., weren’t thinking of that kind of pub. Most of the 25+ booksellers who attended were quite happy to have a strong shot of coffee or chai at stop one, Porter Square Books. Even those who didn’t have to get up super early to take a bus from rural Maine or hop a train the night before in New Jersey looked a bit bleary-eyed as they wandered around the North Cambridge bookstore.

The crawl—or more accurately walk and subway ride—was intended to initiate an ongoing dialogue between independent booksellers and two of the region’s largest children’s book publishers: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Candlewick Press. Carol Stoltz, co-owner and children’s book buyer at Porter Square, served as both host and timekeeper, gathering booksellers—a feat comparable to herding cats—for the day’s first publishing appointment. A veritable bookseller parade formed as the group threaded its way through Porter Square Shopping Center, down Elm Street, past Wisdom Publications, and into neighboring Davis Square, Somerville, where Candlewick is located.

Booksellers arrive at
Candlewick Press.

There director of field sales Elise Supovitz lived up to the agenda’s promise that she would demonstrate that she is “a titan among publishing industry hostesses.” She lined the bookshelves in the conference room where the group met with highlights from the press’ fall list. More than 20% of Candlewick’s list, she said, were either written or illustrated by New Englanders, like Mainer Chris Van Dusen’s The Circus Ship (Sept.) and Vermonter Elizabeth Bluemle, co-blogger on PW ShelfTalker and co-owner of Flying Pig Bookstore, How Do You Wokka-Wokka (Aug.), illus. by Randy Cecil.

“As I drove in,” said Supovitz, “I was thinking of convergence—the convergence of New England bookselling and bookmaking and New England independent children’s bookselling and independent children’s bookmaking.” That convergence was even more apparent following a brief NECBA confab on the upcoming fall trade show, when Supovitz was joined by several colleagues. They spoke on how a book, or more particularly Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant (Sept.), illus. by Yoko Tanaka, comes to be.

A limited-edition print from Kate DiCamillo's The Magician’s Elephant, part of a pre-order promotion for independent booksellers.

As everyone in the process, from editorial through marketing, explained their role, it became increasingly clear that publishers, like booksellers, spend a lot of time making sure each detail builds toward book sales. DiCamillo’s editor, Andrea Tompa, led off the discussion by noting that even though Candlewick doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, it does get books through a variety of ways, not just agents. In fact, DiCamillo’s first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, came in from a sales rep. “We don’t have a formal acquisition process,” said Tompa, who need only convince one other person to publish: editorial director Liz Bicknell or president and publisher Karen Lotz. Obviously not a problem for DiCamillo.

After the contract was negotiated and Tompa edited the book with DiCamillo, it went to copyediting. There spelling, grammar and consistency were reviewed. At the same time, creative director and associate publisher Chris Paul began planning how the physical book would look—its trim size, format, typeface and illustrations. The production department gets involved, said Kim Lanza, executive director of production and marketing, with purchasing paper and binding. To illustrate the types of decisions that arose for DiCamillo’s book, Lanza and Paul let booksellers look at some of Tanaka’s original sketches with in-house comments, as well as dummies showing how different papers would affect the bulk of the book.

No rest for weary booksellers
or book publishers. After her presentation, associate editor Andrea Tompa jumped right
back to work.

Perhaps it was only to be expected, since booksellers feel an even more immediate impact on sales from covers, author tours and promotions, that the presentation turned into a true dialogue once Jennifer Roberts, executive director of marketing, publicity and events, spoke. She discussed some of the plans surrounding the press’s first Webcast for DiCamillo in October. Although the date and time have not been set yet, Candlewick’s proposed broadcast, late in the day East Coast time on a Sunday, was not well received. Alison Morris, children’s buyer at Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass., commented that if the broadcast is available on the Web, her customers will just watch it at home. Kat Goddard, children’s buyer and assistant manager at The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass., said that signed bookplates would not be a big enough incentive to get customers to watch at her store. What brought people out for the Philip Roth Webcast, she said, were pre-signed books. [Since the meeting, Candlewick has finalized the Webcast: Sunday, Oct. 25 at 4 p.m. Eastern/1 p.m. Pacific.]

After a break for lunch, it was back down Dover Street to the Davis Square T Station to take the subway across the river to Boston’s Back Bay, where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has its offices on Berkeley Street. If Candlewick’s year-old building with industrial touches and a bright red wall in the entry way spoke of being hip and modern, HMH’s headquarters exuded the feel of a long-established house, which traces its roots back 177 years. En route to the fifth-floor conference room, booksellers paused at paintings by N.C. Wyeth, somber portraits of heads of house past and a writing desk from the 19th century.

Elise Supovitz (center front) joins
NECBA booksellers to say goodbye.

Betsy Groban, president of the children’s group, greeted booksellers, along with that other publishing hostess/titan, publicity director Karen Walsh. Houghton’s newly minted director of field sales, Beth Ineson, was present as was senior editor Kate O’Sullivan, who showed booksellers watercolors for Allen Say’s next unnamed project. He prefers to do the art first, she explained, before writing the book.

“With the down economy we’re all taking fewer books,” said Groban. She noted that even when it was reported last fall that the adult side of HMH wasn’t acquiring books, children’s never stopped. “Paring down and focusing is what’s going on. During the go-go years, people over-published.”

The Pub Crawl reaches HMH’s Berkeley Street building.

Groban expressed enthusiasm about HMH’s recently launched spring ’10 list, which includes a collaboration between Lois Lowry and artist Jules Feiffer, The Birthday Ball and a new Jeanne Birdsall. Quoting the sales reps, Linda Magram, v-p, director of marketing, added, “Our spring list feels like a fall list.”

When Magram asked booksellers what’s doing well?, the meeting turned into a focus group, much like it had at Candlewick. “Paperbacks” was the near universal response. “Even The Graveyard Book,” said Karlene Rearick, owner of the Alphabet Garden in Cheshire, Ct. “People say, ‘It’s not in paperback yet?’ ” Among the exceptions were stores like Bunch of Grapes on Martha’s Vineyard, which does a strong gift business in children’s hardcovers. Morris at Wellesley Booksmith also pointed out how hard it is to make money on paperback events.

Linda Magram (center) greets booksellers as they arrive
at the board room.

But the topic that interested booksellers most was how book covers are designed and how they could get input early on. One suggested that HMH ask booksellers in four regions of the country to comment on jackets. Once the art is set, some booksellers advocated printing the design on the ARC to give them time to become familiar with the way a book looks before finished copies reach the store. Uminowicz asked about tweaking ARCs in an entirely different way, by including a disc of the audio for the initial chapters.

While no resolution came for how to pick a cover or even why some books make publishers’ lists, a bookseller concern at both houses, NECBA members commented afterwards that the day was definitely a success. “The opportunity to view all the amazing art at both houses was well worth the trip,” said Goddard. “The Bookloft has just finished a Web site overhaul, so I was interested to hear that both marketing departments have content we can incorporate.”

Vicky Uminowicz of Titcomb’s Bookshop wins HMH’s bookseller raffle.

For Brechner, “the focus group angle was very welcome. Many of us feel strongly that various books we’d like to promote are hamstrung by design issues, and that resources are being squandered on books that have no chance of success. The idea of a dialogue, of publishers taking an interest in our feedback in a meaningful, timely way, feels constructive.” And for Uminowicz, for whom publishers are often only a voice on the phone, “The day was really powerful. It was wonderful to see our shared sense of mission and passion about the book and desire to succeed.”

Publishers were no less upbeat. “We hope that the meeting added to our ongoing dialogue with the booksellers right here in our backyard, and we look forward to stronger partnerships with NECBA members,” said Candlewick’s Supovitz.

“I think we all enjoyed the chance to have candid conversations about the state of the business, what we all can do better, and how we can work best together to promote and sell more children's books,” added HMH’s Magram. “We hope to continue this conversation with our New England bookselling colleagues, and to expand the discussion to booksellers across the country.”