As a new school year kicks off, Follett Corp. is rolling out Follett Book eFairs, an online expansion of the company’s successful Follett Book Fairs business, which debuted in fall 2017 and has grown enough to support the opening of five new fulfillment centers nationwide earlier this month.

Britten Follett, senior v-p of marketing strategy and classroom solutions at Follett School Solutions, notes a few reasons for taking this new tack. “One is that eFairs are essentially a year-round fund-raising opportunity for teachers,” she says. “Secondly, we know that the offerings from Scholastic Book Clubs that are available today are not necessarily meeting the need. I speak to more and more teachers who say, ‘I’m not using Scholastic anymore because the books fall apart,’ or, ‘I’m not using them anymore because it’s not really about literacy; the kids buy all the books with the tchotchkes on them.’ So we felt like this was an opportunity to extend the Follett Book Fairs brand and reform the book-ordering process for teachers because they’re fatigued with the current option.”

For Follett Book eFairs, the company has built a new online framework where “we give teachers the portal experience that would match the grade level they provide to us,” Follett says. Once teachers are in the portal, they can customize the experience (or not) in a number of ways. “A teacher can take our curation right out of the box,” she notes, and with minimal effort can offer Follett-selected eFair titles that are available within any given month. Or, teachers who “want to go the extra step can customize their eFair book selections with books that might be of interest to readers in their class.”

Teachers can further customize selections by including Lexile framework or any other reading level program that students and parents are familiar with, which Follett hopes will be a help to book buyers. “Parents don’t necessarily know what types of books to buy their student, especially if they’re a reluctant reader,” she says. “The portal provides a safe, curated selection to shop from, rather than just going to Amazon and wondering, ‘Where do I start?’ If you’re lucky enough to have a student who already loves a series or is already hooked on books, then it’s much easier for a parent to select content. But our hope is that Follett’s recommendations, combined with the teacher’s recommendations, are going to give the parents a better idea of what types of books their student should be reading.”

Surprisingly, eFairs do not mean the end of traditional, printed book-fair flyers. “When we did the pilot of 30 or so eFairs in the spring, the initial feedback from the teachers was, ‘Oh, I don’t want to send the piece of paper home with students,’ ” Follett says. “But we found that the flyer is extremely important. Even in this day and age, parents and kids still love pieces of paper—and the pilot showed that teachers who sent a piece of paper home with students that highlighted the books sold more books than the teachers who didn’t.”

Given that data, Follett says that the company will provide paper flyers with an eFair unless a teacher decides to opt out. “If you don’t have it, it’s up to the teacher to figure out how they’re going to promote this, and not every teacher has a marketing degree,” she adds. “You have to be sending out regular emails and getting in front of parents—and parents are busy. We know that teachers don’t necessarily want to send the flyers home, but based on our research it’s what’s best for the success of their fund-raiser.”

Once a student comes home with the eFair flyer, the shopping process will be familiar to many families. The parent will log on to the portal, select the books the student wants, and pay with a credit card. Follett will then ship the books to the teacher, and there will be an eFair delivery day, when the teacher will distribute the books in class to every student who ordered them. If a family does not have access to a computer at home, they can still participate. They have the option to order from a phone with 3G or a Wi-Fi connection, partner with their teacher to place the order using a school computer, or go to the public library and use a computer there.

The fund-raising aspect of the eFair comes in the form of rewards earned for purchases. Fifty percent of each purchase goes back to the teacher in rewards, which teachers can then spend on resources for their classroom. “It’s an extremely simple reward offering, which is different than our competitor’s,” Follett says. “We’re offering materials from a broader range of publishers, and we’re ensuring that the content in our rewards store isn’t what I call leftovers but high quality items that we know teachers want.”

Plans are already underway to partner with classroom supply companies to offer additional items in the rewards store that teachers can use to decorate their classrooms—such as bulletin boards, beanbag chairs, and stickers. “These are things we know teachers want and are buying with their own money,” Follett says.

According to Follett’s focus group and testing research, teachers typically like to run eFairs every other month or every few months, to keep kids interested in reading and keep parents interested in building the home library. “That’s the true mission here,” Follett says.

Follett Book eFairs is in the “early insiders” phase as of the beginning of August, she says. “Teachers who want to get an early inside look at an eFair can sign up today and we’ll let them in the portal as soon as we are ready for them. We’re probably going to start slow and allow only so many folks in, just to make sure that everything is running as it should.” There are some incentives for early birds, too. Teachers who join now can earn $25 in rewards if they host an eFair between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019. And teachers who refer a pre-K–6 teacher will receive $5 in rewards. A full launch of Follett Book eFairs is planned for mid-September.

In addition, Follett will launch a schoolwide eFairs program in October as a solution for schools that may be outside of Follett Book Fairs’ geographical range, or for smaller schools that can’t support a big physical fair, Follett says. Schools in Alaska, as she points out, “really want to run book fairs, but it’s too expensive for us to ship cases of books to Alaska and offer the same level of rewards that we would to the school here in McHenry [Ill.].” As another example, she notes that some schools don’t have a loading dock or other setup that enables them to get the physical book fair carts into their school. The eFair option enables these schools “to have all the great content of a physical fair but allow for parents to order it online.”

Going forward, Follett sees plenty of upside to this latest venture. “There are lots of opportunities for the use of an eFair,” she says. “It’s a quick, easy thing you can set up in minutes. We’re all more digital than we were five years ago, and if you can order something online, it’s more convenient for parents.”

Patterson, Follett Team Up for Children’s Literacy

Bestselling author James Patterson has joined Follett’s All Books for All Kids literacy initiative, which was designed to ensure that young readers, no matter their circumstances, have access to a wide range of books from a broad spectrum of voices. As part of the new arrangement, authors from Patterson’s Jimmy imprint at Little, Brown will appear at Follett Book Fairs throughout the year.

Patterson is well known for his work as a literacy advocate, and to date he has given more than $40 million to fund a number of literacy efforts, including the James Patterson Literacy Challenge in his home state of Florida, aimed at changing the literacy culture in the state’s schools and doubling the number of students who are proficient in reading. He has additionally endowed more than 5,000 college scholarships for teachers.

“I’m honored to be partnering with Follett and its literacy initiative—the work it is doing in giving kids access to books is vital and something that I likewise care deeply about,” Patterson said in a statement announcing the plan. “I truly believe that books change lives, and that better readers make better people and ultimately, better citizens. Getting—and keeping—our children reading is up to all of us. And I’m happy to do whatever I can to further that cause.”

All Books for All Kids kicked off with a splash last October during an event at which Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander was announced as the initiative’s inaugural partner. Over the past year in that role, Alexander curated a collection of books that was featured on an endcap at Follett Book Fairs and in Titlewave, the company’s book ordering tool; appeared at some book fairs; and also served as a judge for the 2019 Follett Challenge. The challenge rewards K–12 schools and districts that implement innovative education programs to help their students learn essential 21st-century skills. Regina Catholic Schools in Regina, Saskatchewan, earned the top honor for 2019, the first time a Canadian school or district has done so. As the grand prize winner, Regina Catholic Schools won $60,000 in Follett products and services and a visit from Alexander.

See more of our Fall 2019 School & Library Spotlight here.