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Posted by Kate, May 16, 2010

Independent publishers and independent booksellers get together

So today Kate went off to the Hotel Russell (why not the Russell Hotel, we ask ourselves?) for the Independent Bookseller’s Forum and Independent Publisher’s Guild mini-conference sponsored by Bertrams and chaired by Jo Howard.

It was great to see old friends like Sonia and Barry Benster from The Children’s Bookshop, Huddersfield, and to meet other booksellers for the first time, including Andrew Cant from Best Independent Bookseller award-winning Simply Books, Bramhall, who spoke about the really great display-based promotion they’d done with Barefoot Books. Based on the book Starlight Sailor, they’d run school assemblies and activity sessions based on which children made paper boats into which they wrote wishes… 600 of them. They sold 150 copies of the book, and tens of copies of other books by the same illustrator, and their sales for that Christmas were up 17%.

Jo Henry did a good session covering some of the core Books and the Consumer data that Kate’s already covered in her post of 16 March, but with additional information that showed, for example, that independent booksellers and publishers were outperforming the market on sales of adult non-fiction titles, but underperforming against the market in sales of children’s books: there has been value and (to a lesser extent) volume growth in total children’s books sales over past years that hadn’t been matched by sales increases of children’s books from independent publishers or by independent booksellers. Independent bookshops were disproportionately good at attracting spending by older men, but disproportionately bad at attracting spending by younger women.

When the time came to split up into groups, Kate selected herself (!) to lead a group discussion on improving children’s sales in independents. The group of 10 (9 women) consisted of more booksellers than publishers. The publishers were all children’s/education specialists, but only one bookseller was a children’s specialist.

These were the thoughts (Kate hesitates to say conclusions… the conversation was a bit more organic than that) of the group:

Know what you can do, and do it well. Know your customers: what proportion of your sales come from schools, from children spending on their own, from parents, from grandparents? Recognise, for example, that if you are a children’s specialist, you will probably struggle with YA more than if you are a generalist store.

Keep in touch with what’s happening in education, and build relationships with local schools. There was real dismay at current curriculum uncertainty, and also concern about the implications of the likelihood of schools having less to spend on books in the coming years. School spend was seen as a less likely sorce of income in the future, and the view was that this would impact particularly hard on non-fiction. However, there was also discussion about the possibility that parents would be forced to buy more books if schools had fewer.

Hold events. Make sure they’re impeccably organised (even more important for events involving children than events involving adults). Make them interactive wherever possible – if children can make something or do something it’s likely to be more successful than if you’re just expecting them to listen to someone. Perhaps go beyond books and reading: the Hayling Island Bookshop ran a CSI Portsmouth event, combining sessions with crime-writers with sessions with local fire and police forensic teams, attracting a wider audience than the audience they would have attracted with author only events. How can this be translated into a children’s event?

There was a discussion about age-ranging (because, if children’s books are being discussed, when is there not a discussion about age-ranging?) and there were some inventive approaches to tackling shelving by age. The Hayling Island Bookshop has a “top shelf” approach, putting all its YA titles on top shelves, so that younger (shorter) children don’t get hold of them. There was a resistance to age-ranging on books, but a sense that it would be helpful if publishers were more rigorous about including accurate age-ranging information as part of bibliographic data feeds.

While the booksellers acknowledged that they couldn’t read every book that they stocked, there was still a real pride in the fact that independent bookshops really were able to recommend individual books to/for individual readers, and that it was this level of service that really set the independent sector apart from its chain/supermarket/internet competition.

Other groups discussed subjects from using the internet and social networking to boost sales and create communities (conclusion: just get on with it) to how to deal with self-published local authors (conclusions: make sure they really are local, rather than itinerant self-published authors; offer them a max 100-person launch party at 6.30pm, supplying booze if they supply guests and books at a decent discount; have your own stationery for handling orders that clearly states your rules of engagement with self-published authors, including e.g. that you can get rid of unsold books after 3 months; and stock all self-published local authors in a “local authors” section.)

Kate tweeted the whole shebang (@nosycrow.com), the first half without a hashtag and then, once the hashtag was made public, with the hashtag #bic10.

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