E.M. Forster’s much quoted phrase from Howard’s End, “Only connect,” could serve as a tagline for Barefoot Books, a children’s publishing company with offices in Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford, England, which is about to celebrate its 20th year. Cofounder and CEO Nancy Traversy’s goal has long been connecting with families and bringing stories to life. But the way those connections are made is coming full circle from the early days, when she and cofounder and editor-in-chief Tessa Strickland worked out of their U.K. homes and sold books via direct mail to everyone in their Filofaxes. Although Barefoot Books are available to the trade, the press relies heavily on its two flagship bookstores, or “studios,” one on either side of the Atlantic, as well as a three-year-old boutique in FAO Schwarz in New York City, to generate excitement about the brand and attract “Ambassadors,” who sell from their home. The studios are also meant to bring the publishing process, which takes place on the other side of a glass wall in Oxford, closer to readers. The U.S. studio is in Concord, Mass., near Traversy’s home, so she can drop in often.
Traversy and Strickland’s decision to recommit to the company’s roots came in the face of declining revenue in the U.K. over the past few years. Today the U.K. accounts for 30% of Barefoot’s sales, according to Traversy, and that number continues to drop. In addition, the press was having trouble attracting talent to work in its U.K. offices in Bath, while the U.S. branch, which Traversy opened a decade ago, has been doing significantly better. Traversy says that she didn’t want Barefoot to become just an American company, so when the Twinings Building in Oxford became available this past summer, she and Strickland rented it. In October they moved Barefoot’s U.K. publishing operations there and launched the first U.K. retail outlet, which includes a cafe.
“For me [Concord] and Oxford are really hubs where we can bring the brand to life. We share manuscripts and art with our customers. I love the idea of watching a kid and getting feedback,” Traversy says. Her concept for the studios is “a creative cauldron [where] you can step inside a story.” The studios are painted with the same bright colors found inside Barefoot’s books, and sponsor activities reflecting themes from the books, including pottery painting based on characters from the stories in the U.S. and cooking and nutrition classes in the U.K.
At the same time, Traversy and Strickland have been shoring up Barefoot’s home-selling program, which began in 2007. After a drop off in sales toward the end of 2008, they began by changing the name from Stallholders to Ambassadors, to more accurately reflect home-sellers’ role as ambassadors for Barefoot. More recently the pair have rejuvenated the concept by turning it into what Traversy terms “a community-based grassroots selling model.” Since Barefoot has no sales reps in the U.K., Ambassadors sell its books to gift shops and museum stores as well as to friends and schools. Many Ambassadors are stay-at-home moms, much like Traversy and Strickland were when they started the press in 1992; others own retail stores.
The Ambassadors share Traversy and Strickland’s enthusiasm about Barefoot. “I received How Big Is a Pig? by Clare Beaton as a shower gift when pregnant with my first child,” says Laurie Mattaliano, an Ambassador in Massachusetts. “I was enamored by the illustrations and well-crafted rhyme of this sweet and simple story. What was more, it was literally the only book for which our very active infant would engage. I went online to find the source of more books that would possess the same magic. That is how I discovered and swiftly became the biggest fan of Barefoot Books. The products and company are something I am so proud to represent.”
Barefoot, which publishes 20 distinctively colorful picture books, board books, and illustrated stories for middle-grade readers a year, has long directed its marketing efforts to customers. Its catalogues are filled with quotes from parents and grandparents; books are divided by categories, not pub date. And it stopped selling to chain stores years ago to cut back on returns. It was one of the few publishing houses on which the closing of Borders had no impact.
Traversy would like to increase Barefoot sales using a four-pronged approach that harnesses consumer enthusiasm. The first, Ambassadors, and second, the Living Barefoot Club, which is scheduled to launch early this year, are designed to attract parents and grandparents. A third involves direct sales in bulk to schools and organizations. The fourth, and smallest prong—retail—will get a new Web site in 2012.
Traversy and Strickland’s push to turn Barefoot, which has published more than 500 books, into a lifetime connection has affected both its bottom line and what it publishes. “More and more we have kids stay with us and grow up with us,” says Traversy, who noticed a gap in books for slightly older children when she was working at the Concord Studio. Last September Barefoot introduced its Independent Reading series for children between the ages of six and 12. It is also readying its first book app in conjunction with the World Atlas by Nick Crane, illustrated by David Dean.
For Traversy, the only way an independent children’s book publisher can survive is by finding ways around the traditional book distribution model. “In a publishing world that is changing faster than we can digest the latest technological innovation, we have really had to think out-of-the-box commercially to thrive,” she says. Whether direct selling and a passionate sales force of consumers is the answer remains to be seen. But if Traversy and Strickland’s own passion counts, Barefoot could celebrate many anniversaries beyond its two-decade marker.