By July, most independent booksellers are usually quite far along with publisher sales rep meetings, placing fall orders, and contemplating the ramp-up for the holiday season. But for many, Covid-19 has changed that process. Nearly all independent bookstores shuttered to in-store customers in March, and few have returned to anything that would approximate business as usual. Despite a retail landscape where the only constant is unpredictability, booksellers are thinking ahead.
PW caught up with reps from five children’s bookstores, who shared how they are keeping an eye on books due out this fall. The only way to understand how they are approaching the next season of releases is by seeing how the pandemic has already shaped their businesses for much of 2020.
Stick to the mission
From six feet away, the staff at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston shows off books to customers through the window. Those customers can come in by appointment, in limited numbers, and place books they’ve touched on a separate rack for cleaning. Deliveries and curbside pickup orders go out daily. Houston is currently a Covid-19 epicenter, but as best they can, the booksellers are sticking to their mission.
“This has certainly caused us to do things differently,” says Blue Willow children’s and YA specialist Cathy Berner, who also manages the store’s events. “You have to find good ways to handsell a book.” Her approach has been to return to the store’s goal of being a community institution, and then forge ahead. For instance, with the store’s 350 annual events on hold, including 150 school visits, she is running a summer training for 100 local librarians, showing them how to do events on Zoom.
Blue Willow’s digital marketing team and co-owner Valerie Koehler have put together email blasts with recommended reading lists and have kept customers informed about the store’s slow road to a full reopening. That proactive approach was particularly helpful when demand for anti-racist books surged in June. The store’s last in-person event had been with Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You coauthor Jason Reynolds, and as it would normally, Blue Willow still had copies on hand, signed by the author. Almost as soon as protests began in June, Berner says, readers bought them.
Berner has been just as rigorous when it comes to fall ordering. When BookExpo was canceled, she approached Koehler and said, “We’re not in New York, but I think we should still talk to publishers.” With Koehler’s go-ahead, Berner sent an email to her publisher reps, in which she wrote, “I’m not seeing you on the floor of the Javits [Center], but I’d love to speak with you.”
As of mid-July, Berner and Koehler have held numerous fall catalogue discussions over the phone and via Zoom. “They’re our partners in this,” Berner says of the publishers. “We don’t have any choice but to be in the situation we’re in.”
As much as possible, Blue Willow is ordering books in the same fashion as before the coronavirus outbreak, with a belief that customers will find them, whether they are by a first-time author or a celebrity. “We’re going with our normal philosophy,” she says. “We buy what we know our customer base knows; we also buy what our customer base will want if we show them. We love being agents of discovery.”
The only catch is Berner cannot share the fall titles she is most excited about, because she is serving as a judge for this year’s Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, which is given out by We Need Diverse Books. However, she did offer one comment on the fall lists as a whole. “The work We Need Diverse Books started when it was founded has been so important,” she says. “There’s still a long way to go to see equity in publishing, but there are so many books for the fall that I cannot wait to sell.”
Steadying the course
When compared to more populated areas in Maine, Waterville has emerged from the first months of the pandemic relatively unscathed, with Kennebec County, where it is located, reporting 147 cases and 10 deaths. As a result, Ellen Richmond, owner of Waterville’s Children’s Book Cellar, decided to reopen to customers as soon as she was allowed to, in May. “I just said, I’m going to open, I’m going to limit it, I’m going to make people wear a mask, and I’m going to take info in case I have to do any contact tracing,” she says.
Two months later, Richmond is being just as careful. The store has remained relatively quiet, which hurts financially, she says, but is not catastrophic. As the store’s only employee, she has been able to get by with low overhead, a boost from some shop local initiatives, and some unexpectedly helpful publicity.
In June, Down East magazine featured Richmond’s top five children’s books with a Maine connection. Among her recommendations were Cynthia Lord’s A Handful of Stars, Chris Van Dusen’s The Circus Ship, and Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. Orders came in from across the United States, providing a small offset to the absence of summer traffic.
But overall, dampened sales has Richmond preparing for a conservative approach to the fall. “I will go through the [publisher rep] markups and do orders,” she says. “But I will be cautious, and it’s going to be stuff I’m certain I can sell even if people aren’t coming [in large numbers].”
That means first-time authors are out for Richmond, while sure-fire titles like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are in. Other books that are making her order list are local classics she recommended to Down East, and those that align with the summer and fall reading in the schools, including Shannon and Dean Hale’s Princess in Black series and Aaron Blabey’s Bad Guys series.“If the New York Times reviewed it, if it’s been on NPR, if somebody has reviewed it in our local paper, those are the kinds of things people have been calling and asking for,” she says.
The only forthcoming book Richmond is sure she will be stacking at the front of the store is We Will Rock Our Classmates (Disney-Hyperion), a late July release by Ryan T. Higgins. With the author’s Maine connection—Higgins lives in Kittery—Richmond is sure she will have readers eager to nab his new book, a sequel to the bestselling We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. “Most things, though, I’m probably going to be doing two, maybe three copies if I’m really excited,” she says.
From there, Richmond says, she’ll take a wait-and-see approach as fall arrives. “For me I have a house that’s paid for. It’s me and a cat. I don’t need a whole heck of a lot. And that’s good.”
A marathon and a sprint
From the moment Bel & Bunna’s Books closed to in-person shopping in March, the Lafayette, Calif., children’s bookstore has been going full tilt with events and other programming, with owner Bel McNeill at the helm. From the outset, she knew that being a consistent and available resource for her community would help her navigate the pandemic, and she credits her approach with staving off enormous losses. The store is down only 11% compared to last year.
“We’re engaging the community,” McNeill says. “It’s not about sitting there and saying, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ It’s making the community on equal footing with my family, and saying, ‘What’s needed to get done?’ ”
Immediately after the lockdown was announced in California, McNeill contacted a town councilor and requested status as an essential business. By the next morning she was approved, because the bookstore enables parents to work from home. Within three days, she was back in the store—which was closed to browsing—doing curbside pickup, delivery, and Instagram story times, a minimum of six days a week. On Fridays and Saturdays, she hosts a separate story time for adults, who can dress up as characters from their favorite children’s books.
All of the digital exposure has led to ongoing sales, even though McNeill is the first to admit that her website is not set up for e-commerce, nor does she care to change that. “We’re like, just call us,” McNeill says. “When people call or text or e-mail we take pictures of book covers. There’s nothing wrong with opening a picture book and sending them a video showing them. Instead of buying one book, they end up buying four.”
One such success has been Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk, a favorite of McNeill’s that has never been a big seller in the store. “I couldn’t sell that for love nor money,” she says. She has sold 30 copies since the pandemic hit, since readers are primed to go with recommendations more readily.
If anything, the pandemic has strengthened McNeill’s resolve to wait and see which books customers will ask for. As the fall season unfolds, she believes they will trust her recommendations. As much energy as she has put into deepening those relationships, she says she is aware of what will happen if she does not. “It’s all about taking that extra one minute with a customer,” she says. “I think that’s what we have discovered, because if we don’t take that extra minute, we will go under.”
While running a pay-what-you-can virtual summer reading program for youth in her community, McNeill is beginning to look through fall orders, which is in keeping with her usual, somewhat belated, ordering timeline. She plans to order the biggest frontlist titles, including Dav Pilkey’s Grime and Punishment (Dog Man #9) (Graphix, Sept.); Three Keys, a sequel to Kelly Yang’s bestselling Front Desk (Scholastic Press, Sept.); and Sabaa Tahir’s A Sky Beyond the Storm (Razorbill, Dec.), the finale to her Ember in the Ashes series. She is also ordering a display quantity of local author Michael Slack’s picture book Kitties on Dinosaurs (Dial, Sept.), which the author has shared in draft form during visits to the store.
McNeill is also hoping for continued interest in works by Black writers, including books about anti-racism, which only began selling in large quantities following the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May.
With a deeper connection to her customers than ever before, McNeill says she is content to know as much as she can about most fall releases but then to wait to place orders based on demand in the moment. Simply put, she says, “It’s not like it was before.”
A little extra room for chance
Square Books Jr. in Oxford, Miss., has the benefit of being part of the larger Square Books franchise that occupies all four sides of the tourist destination’s Court House Square. The store’s size and following are giving children’s buyer Paul Fyke a small amount of flexibility to continue looking for a few special nonblockbusters for the fall, despite the overall downturn caused by the pandemic.
In particular, a monthly subscription book recommendation program for children and teens run by Square Books Jr. allows Fyke to find offbeat books that might not otherwise come to the attention of readers. In addition to the spike in interest in anti-racist titles, he says customers have been drawn to books that take them to fanciful places, and he is looking to buy for the fall with those trends in mind.
Fyke only recently stepped into his role as buyer, after more than 10 years as a frontline bookseller and assistant manager, and acknowledges that “it’s been weird to transition straight into buying in such a lean time.” But he is looking forward to titles such as Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House Moves On (First Second, Sept.), the sequel to Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, a store bestseller. “It is so wonderful and is such a tremendous follow-up,” he says. “It’s clearly done because the author came back around to this and has something to expand on, and the illustrations are beautiful.”
Still, caution is governing Fyke’s overall approach to fall ordering, which means that books destined to get the most media attention and readership are getting the biggest buys. “I don’t want a stack of books that are sitting in the store,” he says. But he is encouraging fellow booksellers to become as familiar as possible with what they like so that the store can move quickly and creatively to expand the stock in the fall as needed.
For now, Fyke is guided by what people are currently buying. “It’s been very interesting to see what people are getting,” he says. “We’re trying to plan ahead, but in some ways you can’t.”
Few booksellers are more aware of coming fall blockbusters than the employees at An Unlikely Story, the Plainville, Mass., bookstore owned by Jeff Kinney, whose three-million-copy first printing of Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure (Amulet) was postponed in April and will be released in August. Two months later, Kinney’s 15th book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series, The Deep End (Amulet, Oct.), will hit shelves as well.
Aside from the biggest potential bestsellers, children’s and teen buyer Leo Landry says he has had to curtail orders, but he is keeping meetings with publisher reps, even if he is off to a later start than usual. He begins each conversation with an apology: “Sorry this is such a dinky order,” he says. He notes that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve not felt one bit of pressure from a rep.”
Among the books Landry plans to place a solid order for this fall is Sophie Blackall’s If You Come to Earth (Chronicle, Sept.). “Her books are like a lifetime of work and then there’s another one,” he says.
Nevertheless, Landry is hesitant to take too many risks, favoring deep awareness of titles matched with a plan for just-in-time ordering. “Handselling is obviously a different thing now because you can’t show your excitement in the same way to a customer who isn’t looking through pages,” he says. “It’s just not the same.”
Chronicle rep Emily Cervone says many booksellers are facing similar challenges. She has met with about one-third of the clients she normally would have in previous years and says interest in books that sell well at a cash-wrap are down amid bookseller concerns about the retail landscape. What has served her well in those conversations is her previous six-year position as a phone sales rep for HMH, which prepared her for teaching booksellers how to describe books when they are not side-by-side with a customer.
As much as booksellers are buying for fall, Cervone says, many are putting their stores back together after months of online retail. “I’m definitely seeing more of the midlist and backlist selling. Coming out of Covid-19, so many people canceled everything, so they’re basically rebuilding their stores. Their definite titles [for ordering] are long-standing sellers.”
Just in case, though, Landry is keeping a long list for the fall. In some instances he is buying stacks, and in others, he says, “I know I might order two or three of these, but these are the things I want to bring in, and if they’re gone in a week we’ll get more.”
Among Landy’s favorite titles for the coming season are Kevin Henkes’s Sun Flower Lion (Greenwillow, Sept.), Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe (Levine Querido, Aug.), Jerry Craft’s Class Act (Quill Tree, Oct.), Nic Stone’s Dear Justyce (Crown, Sept.), and John Rocco’s How We Got to the Moon (Crown, Oct.).
More than anything, Landry says one thing has prepared him for the work ahead after the months of lockdown: coming back to the store, which is still closed to in-person browsing but not to employees. “Getting back into the physical building of the bookstore just changed my whole outlook,” he explains. “It’s hard to have that positivity when you aren’t among the books. You know this is going to be okay in the big picture.”