Panelists prepare to give Thought Leadership tips.

While the concept of being a “thought leader,” someone who is recognized for innovative ideas, has been around for the past 25 years (Joel Kurtzman at Strategy & Business coined the term in 1984), molding the concept to children’s retailing is still relatively new.

“Thought leadership emphasizes reaching out and sharing your expertise,” explained ABC executive director Kristen McLean, who introduced and moderated a panel on using thought leadership, called Give It Away to Get It Back. “You can’t approach it as a sales opportunity. You’re an ambassador for books.” Rather than chase more immediate, traditional, sales, a bookseller participates in book talks and other activities that may bring in few initial sales. But further down the road the payoff can be quite large.

For Shelly Plumb, co-owner of three-year-old Harleysville Books, a 2,000 sq. ft. general bookstore in suburban Philadelphia, applying thought leadership has meant creating teacher certification classes in her store. With an assist from a retired teacher, who helped her fill out the paperwork for accreditation for hands-on programming like a recent poetry writing workshop, Harleysville was able to get recognized by the state for Act 48 programming. More than 250 mostly parochial and private-school educators have attended the classes at her store. Harleysville’s book fair program also got a boost from the store’s teacher connections, said Plumb, who works with schools on summer reading as well.

“The thing that needs to be stressed is how we all need to get into schools,” added panelist Diane Capriola, co-owner of the four-year-old children’s specialty store Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. Her store is often in schools via its book fairs. “They are really labor-intensive, and they don’t generate a lot of revenue,” she admitted. “But they create good will, and you have an opportunity to position yourself as an expert.”

As a result of the book fairs, this spring Capriola branched out and started doing a teacher newsletter to remind teachers that Little Shop is there for them. The first newsletter focused on how to use graphic novels in the classroom. Her booksellers also go to area schools as mystery readers in the classroom. “Any event that is remotely kid or family friendly,” she said, “we’re on it. It’s all about creating good will.” In fact, Capriola even sends out email blasts for other stores’ events if they fit the profile.

Large general booksellers also find book fairs an asset. “Book fairs are a huge part of our business,” said Shannon Mathis, children’s book buyer at the 10-store Books Inc. headquartered in San Francisco. Three years ago the stores began doing out-of-store fairs and now have to turn some away. That’s on top of in-store book fairs and traditional Teachers Nights Out with wine and cheese.

All three stores use thought leadership in other ways, whether it’s a cross-promotion with a nearby art store like Harleysville, or Books Inc.’s holiday shopping event in a local retirement home. McLean encouraged booksellers to brainstorm with staff on creative ways to work with their communities and get teachers into their stores. She described how a store in the Pacific Northwest was able to take a table at its area’s annual New Hire teacher fairs. The store effectively made the argument that the information that they were handing out about books was just as important as information from insurance companies and other community service-oriented businesses. Through the fairs, the store was able to build a mailing list of 600 to 700 teachers, another important piece of thought leadership. At the same time booksellers are giving of themselves and their staff, they’re also gathering information on their customers.

Among McLean’s other suggestions for thought leadership: creating an education center in the store with literacy stories clipped from local newspapers and magazines and information on child development. To make preparing for book talks less time-consuming, she recommended creating a Power Point presentation and putting together a box with galleys and other materials so that everything is all set.