Sunday, 27 November 2011

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS: On selling more Mary Hooper than Stephanie Meyer and more Penny Dolan than J.K. Rowling – Katie Clapham at Storytellers, Inc.

One of a series of guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors. We’re posting this one today by way of a ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Storytellers, Inc., who are just about celebrate the completion of their first incredible year, during which they have dared and done many brave things, always on a ‘handmade’ and human scale. Bookseller Katie Clapham describes some of Storytellers, Inc’s innovations, including their single copy policy, their ‘Cool Books in School’ campaign and their child-sized secret reading den.

Imagine a place where giant power authors, you know - the ones with their own signature font, are pushed aside for lesser known authors. A place where hand-written signs and friendly recommendations overshadow expensively produced online trailers and bestseller lists. It is your local independent bookshop – a magical enclosure where the bookselling playing field is somewhat smoothed (it will never be absolutely level, but that’s a good thing too).

At Storytellers, Inc. we generally stock single copies of everything. This was a decision we made during the initial stock of the shop nearly one year ago. Range was more important to me than filling shelves with multiple copies of the most popular titles - we’ve got a WHSmith in town for that. Of course this means we’re taking more responsibility for the stock but that’s a power I’m glad to wield. I delight in finding hidden gems and sharing them with customers who are excited to take the risk. Of course there is no getting away from the fact we get more requests for Julia Donaldson and Jacqueline Wilson than Kazuno Kohara and Reinhardt Jung but it’s also true that our bestsellers include Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen (we’ve got generations of recommendations and personal ties to the story’s location), the beautiful Madame Pamplemousse series which have dazzled lots of little girls, who’ve then come back to buy copies for friends, and Chris Ridell’s stunning Ottoline series, which a local school picked up as a class book.

We can’t afford to pay authors and illustrators to visit us in the shop yet so we’re gratefully accepting tour dates from publishers and booking school visits for the authors. They’ve paid off; we’ve sold more Mary Hooper than Stephanie Meyer and more Penny Dolan than J.K. Rowling. The children who heard Penny talk about her book were coming into the shop for weeks after, desperately asking for their MOUSE books with worn-out parents telling us how they’ve heard of nothing else since the talk. Having an author come to the school is a real treat and as the personal investment in the book and its author is sealed, the financial is guaranteed to follow.

As a business we’re trying to find ways of drawing this mass attention to new titles on a more regular basis. I’ve recently written a new scheme for schools that takes a brand new title and develops a term-length feature on it for local schools. The Cool Books in School campaign was launched in September with four local schools taking part. I have selected two new books (one for primary years 3 and 4 and another for years 5 and 6) to work with. The term started with a visit from me to introduce the book and read the beginning as a class storytime (repeated in as many classes as I could until my tongue dried out). Later this term I will return with a creative writing session loosely based on the text (theme or form etc.) and we will finish the term with a schools-wide writing competition. For the duration of the term the chosen books are offered at a promotional price to the schools and pupils taking part. I also wrote to the publishers of the chosen books demanding to know what they were going to do in return for my relentless promotion of their books.

I am planning to repeat this campaign three times a year, getting new releases into schools, raising awareness of current authors and sneaking some creative writing into classrooms. My personal goal is that with each term I will win another school over (some are proving very stubborn!) Author visits within the term’s campaign would increase the appeal even further and I’m really hoping this will form a part of the future model. Should my own children’s novel ever find a publisher, school visits would be top priority on my agenda. I truly believe they are the most useful and exciting way to get children to try new authors.

On the smaller scale we blog, we tweet, we facebook and do everything we can to get on first name bases with authors and publishers. Promotional material can really make a difference – a few extra Department 19 POS packs meant I could chop up some posters and make a window display around the new title; we sold more HB copies of Will Hill’s debut than any other teen novel.

Sometimes it can feel like a hard-sell. We email our regulars with newsletters and offers and I write to the head teachers and telephone their exasperated receptionists but it’s all worth while when a delighted parent comes to the shop telling us that this was the book that created an interest in reading that wasn’t there before, or a child who previously restricted their reading to one genre (or author!) decides to explore the literary landscape. We’ve made an effort to make our shop a place that encourages these discoveries, there is seating and storytimes, coffee and baby changing facility (no, you keep your own baby). We’ve got our child-sized secret reading den and creative writing workshops in the school holidays.

We can’t compete with the prices online and in chain shops so like everyone else we’re trying to stand out in all other areas. It’ll be our first birthday on the 1st of December and we’ll be celebrating the fact that there is a market for the independent bookshop, particularly for children who want to see and touch and smell and maybe chew the book before they buy it. They also want to hear how great it is and for you to look excited and congratulate them on the book they have chosen, they want to come back and tell you about it when they’ve read it. As adults we are so fond of our booky memories, it is such a charming privilege to be part of these new memories in the making.

Caption: photograph of Katie Clapham with her homemade dump bin.

Storytellers, Inc website


Joan Lennon said...

Katie, you're wonderful!

Penny Dolan said...

Such a wonderful account of all that you and Caroline do, Katie. I only had a hint of all this when I visited your beautiful shop at Lytham St Annes so really good to hear more about your practice and philosophy. If you are in the area do go and visit - and perhaps buy a book too? Happy birthday for 1st December 2011!

ps. People like these are the saints of the book world (and that's without me being swayed by a mention!)

michelle lovric said...

Thank you so much, Katie!

And yes, Penny, perhaps we should change the title of this series to 'Saintly Sundays'? They are certainly opening our eyes to wonderful world where children's books are truly valued.

adele said...

This sounds such a wonderful shop! All good luck to you, Katie. One of the best initiatives I've heard of...

Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds wonderful. I've just been into a school where they haven't had an author visit before, and they were so excited that it was really rewarding. Your initiative sounds a great idea.

mary hooper said...

Just got home to find this! How brilliant - oh, that every town could have a branch of your very special bookshop. Lots of love, Mary xxx

Katherine Langrish said...

Sounds like a wonderful shop - wish I could come and visit!

H.M. Castor said...

That's exactly how I feel - and bring my children too! A single-copy shop - with the sheer range that enables you to stock - is a wonderful, wonderful thing... and that fantastic commitment to range, as this post makes clear, is only the start of your brilliant work. This is a truly inspiring post for an author, parent and booklover to read - many thanks, and may you have many, many happy returns of your shop-birthday!

Nicola Morgan said...

Hooray! That's all. Just a big hooray!

Linda Strachan said...

Happy birthday!! and may you have many, many, many more!

Wonderful enthusiasm and energy and what great ideas.

The schools near you are so lucky!

Emma Barnes said...

Time to visit Lytham St Annes! I've nearly been there several times - it's a favourite weekend destination of various relatives - but now I'm going to make a point of it and visiting your wonderful bookshop.

The initiative with schools sounds fantastic - and as a big Penny Dolan fan I'm thrilled for her to be outselling JKR!

Liz Kessler said...

Hooray for people like you! Happy first birthday and hope you have a wonderful second year :)

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Just arrived home to read your inspiring blog. Here wishing you many many more birthdays and thank you for your inspirational work.

Anonymous said...

Well done Katie...hats off too you.
We must talk as two independants. Likewise we have a great kids section full of "one copy" titles. People are always amazed at our stock choice.

I'm hoping to be in St Anne's for the Golf in July so will definatley call by.

Elaine Penrose - Books @ Hoddesdon