While children's publishers and booksellers both have the same goal in mind—getting the right book into the right child's hands—their thoughts and ideas about how this works may differ greatly. And while staffers at publishing houses may have a good deal of knowledge in their area of expertise, a broader view of book publishing can only be beneficial. With this aim, several publishers have developed programs to help educate their employees about the book market.
This past February, Penguin Putnam sent a group of its children's executives on a "Road Show" coast-to-coast tour, where they met with key independent accounts in seven cities across the U.S. A combination of 21 members of the sales and marketing staff, as well as Penguin Young Readers Group president Doug Whiteman, set out to discuss editorial concerns, trends and marketing campaigns as well as giving booksellers a preview of Penguin's fall titles.
Emily Romero, director of retail and online marketing at Penguin Young Readers Group, who was on the trip, explained that a list of questions were sent ahead to each of the booksellers so they would have time to think over the issues they wanted to discuss. "We had a very lively discussion," Romero said. "There were lots of opinions. Very give-and-take." One of the suggestions Romero took back with her was about bookstores expanding their reading groups, which they use to bring more customers into the store. "The booksellers told us of their needs to make them bigger, to reach more readers. Some of the bookstores are creating groups for mothers and daughters and teens. Others order in books for outside reading groups. The bookstores are looking for reading lists and discussion questions for these groups. They also told us they want more posters and bookmarks from us."
For Nancy Paulsen, president and publisher of Putnam Children's Books, the tour was a good learning experience. "The booksellers came with their questions thought out and were eager to share with us," she said. One discussion that had a big impact on Paulsen concerned booksellers who asked if books aimed at older teens could contain some type of mature content indicator. "We were coming up with ideas on what we could do with our paperbacks," said Paulsen. "Currently, we break the ages apart at either 8—12 or 12—up, but then we thought of maybe adding 14—up on the older ones to give booksellers a heads-up on the content." Since returning from the tour, Paulsen said this idea has already been implemented.
In other discussions, booksellers offered their thoughts on books they would like to see more of. "Areas they told us were underpublished are boys' books — there are just not enough of them," said Paulsen. "They also want to see teen books where the main characters have a positive view of themselves, even if they have a dysfunctional family. For picture books, they want biracial stories and African-American families having fun, not just stories about their history."
Jackie Engel, director of field sales at Penguin Young Readers Group and coordinator of the tour, said the goal of the trip was to "go out and meet with a variety of booksellers, and not just key accounts." Making the tour happen was a huge undertaking, according to Engel—"it took so much planning to coordinate everyone's schedules." But all the trouble of putting it together was worth it, she said. "At the end of the day, we got a sense of how we as a publisher can be involved with our independents. We've already implemented so many things we took back from the meetings, such as no more belly bands because they just rip. We've made a lot of changes in how we do things based on the feedback we got."
Scholastic has implemented a similar program to keep in touch with booksellers; it sent some key executives to Chicago last November and then to Los Angeles in June. Michael Jacobs, senior v-p of trade, was on the tour and said, "There is no substitute for being on their turf." Scholastic instigated the tour, according to Jacobs, out of "a desire on our part to have ongoing, better communication with booksellers. We want to be more accessible."
Scholastic is also reaching out to booksellers by encouraging its employees to spend a day working at a bookstore in order to see firsthand the challenges booksellers face and the customers they serve. Liz Szabla, editorial director of Scholastic Press, recently spent time in two bookstores: Books Inc. in San Francisco and Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J. While at Books Inc., Szabla took part in many duties, from gift-wrapping to restocking shelves to handselling, alongside bookseller Joanne Roberge. At Watchung Booksellers, she helped out with a big return that came in from a book fair.
Szabla, who began her career as a bookseller 20 years ago, said she found being back in a bookstore "fascinating and completely energizing." Discussions with the booksellers and managers gave her a lot of material to use in her job. "I invited them to be frank about what was working," she said. "They made really good use of the opportunity to talk to someone in editorial. It wasn't a gripe session—it was a great exchange. I looked at how they organized things, and a lot of details I noticed, like trim size and spine design, have helped me tremendously in my job."
While the experience was uplifting, it was also a reality check; as Szabla noted, "The booksellers didn't mince words about conveying how tough the market has been. They seemed optimistic, but what I find admirable is that they are staying focused on the customers and books, and are doing what they love."
Roberge at Books Inc. called Szabla's visit to the store "a very 'up' experience." Roberge had never had a chance to chat with an editor before and said, "She had an impressive breadth of knowledge—beyond her books at Scholastic. We bonded over our talks about quality books and making quality experiences for kids, parents and teachers. I feel like I've gained a friend."
At Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing, the marketing department goes on regular store checks, but they don't necessarily consider it a "program," but rather an extension of their job. One recent store check took place in White Plains, N.Y., where a group of marketing employees, from executives to assistants, and even an intern, visited supermarkets, discount stores, national chains, independents, a CVS, Rite Aid, K-mart and Wal-Mart. According to Suzanne Murphy, v-p of marketing for S&S Children's Books, the goal of the "store checks" is "to see what's going on at store level. We want to see how our displays traveled and where they are situated in a store. We also get to see the competition, and we buy stuff that we find interesting."
The group tries to first speak with the manager of each store they enter, so as to not raise any suspicions, and to make a contact they may use later on. They take digital photos of what the book space looks like. "It's a full day, but it's totally worth it," said Murphy. "When you see space devoted to a book, it makes you see what is or isn't working, as well as what might work in the future. We also get to hear what other shoppers are saying."
S&S also regularly sends marketing and editorial staff out with sales reps to visit accounts and meet with booksellers. "It shows the accounts that we are interested in what they are saying," Murphy said. "It also shows staff how a field rep sells in his or her territory. It's pretty basic, but important. It pays off in all sorts of ways."
Random House Children's Books also has a few learning programs in place, including one called Perspective on Publishing, in which outside as well as in-house speakers are invited to talk about their area of expertise. These seminars are given at Random House during lunchtime and any employee who wants to come is invited. The first few seminars included author Patricia Reilly Giff, agent George Nicholson and art director Isabel Warren-Lynch.
Erin Clarke, associate editor at Knopf/ Crown, says she has attended four of the seminars, which began last summer. She likes the fact that they are "conveniently scheduled and informal. They are low-key and you feel like you can ask questions."
"It's like having our own Columbia or NYU publishing program right here," said Clarke. "It was great hearing that Patricia Reilly Giff was found in the slush pile, and hearing from Isabel Warren-Lynch how picture books were designed before computers were used."
Liz Rhynerson, educational marketing manager in the school and library division, said she was thrilled when she heard about the seminars (she has attended several), and finds the informal setting helpful. "It's a feel-good environment," she said, "because you're getting to know the staff on a personal level."
Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books, instituted the program with the hope of giving employees in his division an internal education program. Gibson believes the seminars are important because "I started out as an assistant inventory clerk 22 years ago. I didn't know anything around the office. There are vast areas that you don't have a lot to do with. So once I got into a position where I could do something about it, I thought we should take training and education into our own hands and trace how a book is made."
Gibson hopes his staff finds the seminars helpful, and said the speakers have told him that they have enjoyed addressing the gatherings. "They get a real charge from it," he said. "It's a unifying experience."
Random House is also sending editorial and marketing staff out on sales calls with reps. "You can't ever be in the field too much," Gibson said of the initiative. Already this program has seen results in that in-house staffers have seen how sales reps use the fact sheets that the editorial and marketing people write up. With knowledge of exactly how they are used, staff members noaw know what specific information needs to be included.
No matter what type of program an employee is part of, knowing how the industry works and making new connections continues to be the aim of everyone involved. Learning or reconfirming ideas about different aspects of the book industry keeps employees on top of the book market and may well influence future publishing decisions. As Random House's Rhynerson said about her involvement in the seminars, "It reminds us why we love the publishing industry, and gives us a new appreciation."