Founded in England in 1992 by two women who were determined to publish the kinds of colorful, diverse books that they wanted their own young children to read, Barefoot Books remains committed to its mission three decades later. Now the press is rethinking how to get its books into the hands of children and their caregivers by placing a new emphasis on traditional markets: independent bookstores, schools, and libraries. It comes at a time when Barefoot, which has prioritized a variety of channels over the past 30 years, has seen sales rise 16% from 2019 to 2021, earning it a spot on PW’s most recent list of “Fast Growing Independent Presses.”
“In terms of re-embracing the traditional [over selling direct to consumers], I think that we feel like it’s our time,” said CEO and cofounder Nancy Traversy earlier this month at the press’s 4,500 sq. ft. global offices in Concord, Mass., where it moved last year. “Maybe we had to wait 30 years. But we couldn’t just survive with that because the types of books we were doing were just too ‘fringy’ early on. I feel like now, they’re certainly not.”
Traversy said that she noticed a shift in Barefoot’s sales in 2016. “Suddenly everybody wanted the kinds of books that we were publishing on global awareness, social-emotional learning, diversity and inclusion, representation, STEM, and sustainability. We were able to just lean into that. And I think before we were always having to do a little bit of a dance,” she said.
She regards “a generally more uncertain and unstable world” as the reason Barefoot has come into its own and cites events ranging from Donald Trump’s election to the killing of George Floyd, Brexit, increased immigration, Covid, and the war in Ukraine. By 2017, the growing importance of Barefoot in the publishing ecosystem had become so noticeable that the press was named to Forbes’s annual list of “Small Giants,” 25 small companies that “do things any business can learn from.”
Over the past few years, Barefoot has continued to rethink its sales strategy. It has moved away from its long-time focus on selling direct to readers, which dates back to 2003 when it signed a cadre of Stallholders, since renamed Community Booksellers, to sell books to friends and family, as well as schools. Until 2015, Barefoot also had its own stores, or “studios,” one in Concord and one in Oxford, England, as well as a short-lived store inside FAO Schwarz in New York City. Now the Concord offices serve as an events space for kids’ activities and community events. The staff is trained on using Square so that they can sell books at events and to occasional customers who stop by. Currently direct sales to schools and consumers, as well as through Community Booksellers, account for roughly 6% of sales.
Barefoot has also begun to actively woo independent bookstores after terminating its relationship with rep groups that sold its books to indies in 2013, the same year it stopped selling direct to Amazon. In June, Barefoot hired Jonathan Ackerman, previously with Highlights, as trade sales director. And earlier this month it added two rep groups, Fujii Associates and Imprint Group West. With Barefoot’s books already in rep bags for Chesapeake & Hudson and Southern Territory Associates, as of September 1, the press now has representation throughout the U.S. and in the U.K. and western Europe with Compass Distribution.
Continuing to Pursue Multi-Channels
Barefoot has no intention of giving up other sales opportunities. In 2018, Barefoot began partnering with Little Passports and Kiwi, making it the first children’s book publisher to participate in subscription boxes, according to Traversy. As a result, subscription box sales for the press grew 350% from 2018–2019, before dropping back to 33% growth in 2020. Though parents have begun looking for “real experiences” in their community, Traversy said that subscription boxes remain “very important.”
In addition, Barefoot was the first children’s book publisher on Faire, the B2B online marketplace that launched in 2017. Since then the press has added similar platforms that introduce buyers to sellers, mostly for the gift market. These marketplaces, which aggregate items from various sellers for buyers, also take away the sellers’ credit risk for small businesses. As a result of Barefoot’s success on one B2B platform, which Traversy declined to name, Barefoot is now in discussions with Staples about rolling out its books in their stores.
In terms of the strongest channel, Traversy said that it’s “education, education, education.” Together with literacy, education accounts for 47% of Barefoot’s sales. Part of what makes Barefoot’s books attractive to educators is its focus on authentic stories. “We’re publishing the books we’ve always published,” Traversy said, “but we’re celebrating them.” She points to diverse books on family and community like To Carnival by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jana Glatt, and Family Reunion by Chad and Dad Richardson, illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin. To reach teachers, Barefoot has a blog and offers webinars on themes like diversity in picture books and social-emotional learning. It also works with curriculum providers like Great Minds and education distributors.
Barefoot also nurtures literacy partnerships. “We put a lot of focus on getting books into the hands of children who need them most,” Traversy said. This year Barefoot will ship one million books in 20 languages through Books4Schools. Following a 2019 partnership with Books for Africa, in which it shipped 300,000 books to HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers in Mozambique, Barefoot will send 100,000 books to Madagascar in its national language, Malagasy.
Over the past three decades, Barefoot has published close to 1,000 titles and shipped more than 30 million copies. Traversy anticipates more than doubling last year’s sales growth. “We think we’ll be up 35% this year over last year, if we get a few deals in the door,” she said. One thing that will help those numbers is lowered shipping costs. Last year the press paid five times what it had in previous years, due to increased shipping costs. One container of books and decks from Hong Kong to the U.S. cost $50,000.
This fall Barefoot is launching Our World, a 28-book series for babies and toddlers about day-to-day life in different countries. Created by authors and artists from around the world, the first three titles are: Egypt by Aya Khalil, illustrated by Magda Azab; Japan by Emily Satoko Seo, illustrated by Aunyarat Watanabe; and France by Evelyne Holingue, illustrated by Margaux Carentier. The press plans to publish 12 titles in the series by the end of next year.
Barefoot is also expanding its list overall and will publish more than 30 books in 2023, up from 20 in 2021. In part that’s because, “what we’re realizing,” Traversy said, “is that different channels want different books.” Plans call for 10 or 11 books to be published in the spring and another 19 or 20 books next fall.
But one thing won’t change. “What we’ve consistently done,” Traversy said, “is produce very high quality, beautiful books for children.”