We are in the middle of a humongous sea change,” says Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, referring not just to the economic downturn roiling the children's book business but also to the increasing digitization of content and its impact on children's books. To emphasize her point about an industry in transition, she notes that for the first time in its 23-year history, ABC, which was founded to give children's-only bookstores a boost, is now dominated by general book retailers.
A former children's bookseller, sales rep, marketer and puppeteer, McLean is not afraid of change. At ABC, that has translated into a push for the organization to go paperless (“to be viable, we don't have time to communicate the old way”) and to help stores sell a product in flux (“the book is not a fixed technology”). Although she looks forward to returning to publishing someday—McLean, 40, was a marketing manager at Kingfisher before joining ABC—she acknowledges that her ideal job may not have been created yet, given how much the book and the way it is manufactured continue to change.
“I think we're in a dynamic time,” says McLean. “There's always uncertainty around change. But I don't think reading or publishing are going away. There will always be readers.” In the 1990s, when children's booksellers felt the competitive heat from chain retailers, she notes, the initial reaction was to become more like them. She calls on today's booksellers to come up with a new business pattern to satisfy consumers, who can get what they want 24/7, in a dozen different ways, including the Kindle.
“I personally believe that the stores that distinguish themselves will do outreach to the community,” says McLean, “slowly building one-to-one relationships. In the past, we thought outreach was a programming thing. It needs to be a marketing strategy. Moving forward, it's going to become extremely critical. It isn't about the store anymore; it's about the shopping experience.”
One of the bright spots she sees in today's marketplace is that many communities have begun to embrace the concept of supporting local economies. She encourages booksellers to take advantage of this shift and be more nimble about giving customers what they want. “Here's my caveat,” she adds. “What a bookstore does, what a bookstore looks like is changing. A curatorial eye is very important.”
McLean has tried to fashion her own career into a creative arc. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, she went to Wisconsin, where she worked with Cat's Paw Theatre, a puppet company, and did residencies in schools throughout the state. A few years later, she moved closer to home—she grew up in the Berkshires—and took a job with the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline, Mass., where she worked her way up to executive director.
At the same time McLean continued to pursue her interest in design and took graduate classes in industrial design at the Massachusetts College of Art. But a chance decision after feeling burned out with the arts led her to take what she thought would be a short-term job and temporary respite at Henry Bear's Park, a local toy store with a strong selection of children's books. Instead, she stayed for nearly six years before repping for the sales and marketing organization Krikorian Miller. From there she went to Houghton Mifflin, which then owned Kingfisher—and on to ABC.
As for what's next for her and for children's books, says McLean, “I feel really hopeful and curious about the future. That's why I'm still here at ABC.”
Name: Kristen McLean
Company: Association of Booksellers for Children
Hometown: Hartford, Conn.; raised in the Berkshires
Education: B.A. from Sarah Lawrence
How long in current job: Three years
Previous job: Marketing manager, Kingfisher at Houghton Mifflin
Dream job: Travel writing
Passionate about: “Great books for kids, free speech and having a creative life”