Children's Features

Barefoot Books on the Move
Judith Rosen -- 2/26/01

After establishing an outpost on this side of the pond in New York City in 1998, British publisher Barefoot Books is on the move again. In July the children's book publisher's U.S. office will relocate to Boston and will double its staff to 16. Barefoot will also open its first retail store in late August in the same building as the Boston office. Cofounder Nancy Traversy will move from her home in England to Boston, to head the operations there. Although the Manhattan office will close, American Book Center in Brooklyn will continue to handle fulfillment, and Barefoot will continue to be represented to the trade by a commission rep force.

Barefoot also announced that it is phasing out its London office beginning next month and consolidating its U.K. operations in a new office in Bath, close to cofounder Tessa Strickland's home in the Cotswolds, sometime this summer. The company also intends to open a retail outlet
A redesigned Web site, aimed at
parents and teachers, is one of the
changes planned at Barefoot.
in Bath in the fall. These changes and a completely revamped Web site ( geared toward parents and educators are all part of a concerted effort by Strickland and Traversy to transform the eight-year-old small press into a midsize publisher.
"We knew we weren't a cottage industry anymore," said Strickland, referring to Barefoot's humble beginnings--until now the company has primarily operated out of Traversy's and Strickland's homes so that the two could spend time with their young children. "We had to think of what we want to work forward to."

To reflect their determination to grow the business, last summer Strickland and Traversy hired a brand consultant to develop a new tagline, or strapline as it is known in the U.K., that would show parents at a glance what a Barefoot book represents. They agreed on Better Books for Children. They also explored how they could broaden the list without diluting Barefoot's two biggest assets: its art and stories.

As a result, this season Barefoot will introduce a line of unabridged audiobooks on enhanced CDs that can be played on a CD player or viewed on a PC. The first releases include Maura O'Connell's Tales from Old Ireland, Tanya Robyn Batt's The Fabrics of Fairy Tale, Richard Hope's Pirate Stories and Margaret Wolfson's Princess Stories.

Barefoot will also use interior art from its most popular titles for its first foray into other sidelines. This spring it will launch Barefoot Artists' Cards, a series of blank note cards, and its Barefoot Party Collection, which includes gift wrap, party invitations and thank-you notes. Initial stationery packages will use Olwyn Whelan's illustrations from The Barefoot Book of Pirates and The Barefoot Book of Princesses. Wallpaper and other spinoffs are currently in the planning stages.

With this reorganization strategy, Traversy and Strickland hope to maintain the company's high double-digit growth. According to Traversy, "We've had 60% average growth across the whole business per year, since we've started." Beginning with sales of £120,000 its first year, Barefoot grew tenfold within the next two years to finish out 1996 with sales of £1.1 million and a staff of five. In those early years, Barefoot sold off U.S. rights to its books, which accounted for 75% of the company's income.

However, its decision in 1997 to retain U.S. rights caused a drop in income. Book sales here accounted for only $650,000 in 1998. "The last few years in the States have been challenging," Traversy acknowledged. "What you struggle with is the power of the chains and the power of the publishers. It's very difficult having a returnable industry." Even so, U.S. sales more than doubled in the past two years to $1.85 million last year. "Our trade business in the U.S. was up 103% in 2000," Traversy said. "We had a great year."

By being located in the U.S. and providing the American staff with a clearer vision of Barefoot's new directions, Traversy hopes to find creative solutions to growing the U.S. market even faster. She chose Boston over New York largely because she didn't want to raise her children--ages three, five, seven and eight--in Manhattan, and because Boston is a strong market for Barefoot.

Traversy and Strickland hope that Barefoot's revamped U.S. operations and Internet presence will increase identification of Barefoot as a brand. They began that process early on in the U.K., where they developed a mail-order program in 1997. Last summer, when they sent a questionnaire about the company to their 22,000 best mail-order customers, they had a 35% response rate, or more than 7,000 replies. "A lot of them," Traversy remarked, "said, I would love to buy your books in a bookstore, but I can't find your books. Nearly 2,000 said they would be willing to spread the word."

The new Web site, which will accommodate purchases in U.S. dollars and British pounds, is intended to help Barefoot reach potential book buyers in both countries more easily. As Traversy sees it, "This is our chance to use the Internet--not to be a dot-com or an e-business, but to capture the essence of Barefoot online." The site is divided into four main areas, each focusing on a different aspect of the list--the books themselves, arts and crafts, audio and education. Customers can buy direct or link to their favorite book or gift store.

To assure strong traffic on the site, Barefoot negotiated a strategic link with in the U.S., which will give it access to the popular education-oriented Web site's 4.5 million unique users each month. "It's a way to really create awareness online," said Traversy, who is overseeing Barefoot's Web development. Traversy is also planning a consumer advertising and editorial campaign in the U.S. that will begin once the revamped site is unveiled next month.

As far as any changes to the Barefoot list are concerned, Traversy and Strickland have no plans to increase it beyond the current 30 books a year. Instead, Traversy said, "We have all sorts of ideas about product diversification. The key is to establish the brand."