Sunday, 30 June 2013

What Is it With Schools and Bookselling?

It’s Independent Bookseller Week and, as little makes me happier than browsing bookshelves filled with interesting titles, I want to shout hooray for such shops and celebrate their diversity and unique appeal. 

I also want to admire their toughness in the face of What Happens with Books and Schools because recently the complexity of school bookselling was really brought home to me. 

I'm also sorry as this is a slightly vexed post!

You see, a while back, a literacy co-ordinator at a primary school booked me for a future date as a visiting storyteller and author for the Nursery, Reception & Key Stage One classes. 

Now, although I am expected to talk about my books, many primary schools do not expect to arrange author book-sales these days. Many schools opt for the “big discount” Book Fairs instead, wheeling out the metal juggernauts as their visiting author departs. That’s the bookselling opportunity that parents  get the letters about. No point in fretting over it.

I am not keen on the hard sell style of visit but I do usually carry a few copies of my books with me just in case anyone asks. 

At the end of the day, I often donate a copy or so to the school so that the children do get a chance to read my books - and maybe they'll ask at the library or their parents afterwards.

Well, I cannot tell you how totally surprised and delighted I was back when I heard that this primary school DID want plenty my books! 

There had to be enough copies, so the message said, for every child to be bought a book and have it signed by the author. The quantity was enough for a bookshop to be involved. It felt like a dream!

It was just like a dream, because then came the twist. The independent bookshop that was supplying the books was told – presumably by some distant distributor or hub - that none of my books were in print, bar one new and therefore expensive hardback. (If, dear newly published author, you think publishers will tell you about such situations in person, you may be disappointed.)

Aaagh! Being bookless is like being silenced or becoming invisible. It’s why authors re-issue their best back-list titles themselves. I felt as if I’d been punched. But I’m stubborn so I rang my publisher’s distribution contact number. The pleasant woman checked her computer and told me that, yes,  copies of several of my books were actually still available. Big smiley face!

So I contacted the teacher at the school. I contacted the bookshop too.  

(The bookshop though lovely, was none of those illustrated. Their pictures are here to remind me to be cheerful - and how hard the people inside work to make their shops special.!)  

Next I heard that the publisher’s rep was calling at the bookshop the next morning. All would be fine, all round.

In any case, there was still plenty of time to go. When the future Visit Day arrived, my books would be available. Problem solved. Ta da!

However, it wasn’t. It isn't. At all. Even knowing the books would be available, the Head-teacher suddenly decided to cancel the visit

Why? It’s impossible to find out for sure, and not wise to try. Had the head realised that the books - being from an independent bookshop - might not offer the same wild discount as those big shiny trolleys full of “special deal” books?

Or were parents not as keen to buy as was expected? So the school might not make the profit that was expected? So were we – the author, the books and the bookshop – cancelled because we were not “discounted” enough?

Just now, this all feels rather sad. In my opinion, the children will lose out and the school and staff will lose out. The travelling rep and the publisher certainly lost out. 

And as for the stoical independent bookseller? 

Either the news of the cancellation reached them in time, or else they were very polite about dealing with a large number of specially delivered, unwanted books. 

They lost out in the time spent and in book sales, too. Sad. 

Yet my sorry little anecdote is only ONE small incident in the life of such a bookseller. I can’t help feeling how incredibly brave these small bookshops are to deal with this sort of thing day in and day out. Somehow, somewhere the publishing business just does not seem to be organised in a way that fully supports such valuable bookshops.

However, despite all the annoyances, the eager indie booksellers keep smiling and trying to promote books to their customers. So, for this week and more, hooray for the bold optimism of independent booksellers!

As for me? Come that visit day, I’ll be enjoying some satisfying writing time at home.

Are there any authors out there? If so, how do you manage your book sales in the era of austerity? How do you pursuade teachers to let children buy your books? And do you know of any incredible indie book shops that are great at school visits?

Penny Dolan

The bookshops shown are the Childrens Book shop at Lindley, nr Huddersfield; Storytellers Inc. at Lytham St Anne's;  The Bookseller at Lowdham; Victoria Park Books in London and the Norfolk Childrens Book Centre.


Sue Bursztynski said...

What a shame! Well, I live Down Under and actually work in the school system, so I'm there on the ground. We only had one book fair, when the school was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. I didn't arrange it, but the teacher who did told me it wasn't worth the bother. You get a very small payment from the bookseller and you ave to do all the selling!

As a writer who can't do school visits due to working in a school, I have done other events, such as the YABBA Awards(Young Australian Best Book Awards) and reading conferences, and found that the booksellers were very unreliable and rarely, if ever, brought my books for sale. More experienced writer friends have advised me always to bring some copies myself, as they do. You can buy them at author price and keep them for school visits, then sell them for a bit more and effectively get your royalties while giving the school the discount it wants. That's what most of my friends do.

Not much help to the lovely small bookshops, but the kids get their books and you get your visit, and you need only keep them as a just-in-case. I never try selling my own books when the bookseller brings them.

Sue Purkiss said...

The loveliest children's bookshop I've come across is the one in Half Moon Lane, in Herne Hill. (Not remotely local to me, unfortunately.) Jam-packed full of lovely books, welcoming, with helpful and knowledgeable staff. I gather they do lots of events too. There isn't an indie bookshop near me, but the small Waterstones in Wells has always been great, and helpful in supplying books for school visits. But your experience sounds really odd, Penny. For a start, how could the head have ever imagined that every child would remember to bring in the money to buy a book, or that their parents would necessarily be keen?

But also, what was going on with the publishers? How could they not have known whether they did or didn't have books? Perplexing for booksellers and authors alike.

Joan Lennon said...

So much stupidity in the world - it didn't bode well as a good day, and now you can write your tiny socks off! Here's to that!

Penny Dolan said...

Sue B, I do keep a few copies handy, but it can be very soul-destroying to be stuck in an out of the way corner while the big crates are the focus of attention!

My mutter today wasn't so much for myself as the frustration that somewhere within the bookselling system there are links that aren't linked up and that it is the small bookshop that suffers. I think bookshops rely on its distributor/s, and if they are told from there that X is available - well, it jolly well isn't.

Sue Purkiss, I'd collected an image of your "Tales on Half Moon Lane" bookshop (as it is very lovely) for this post, but my computer was being very, very disagreeable last night and the Half Moon's image got lost in the process. Did not dare to dive back into the system to retrieve it for fear the whole post would disappear too. "Perplexing" is a very good word for how I feel about the whole school/book situation.

Joan, I have large socks so will have to write even more to get that result! :-)

Damian Harvey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damian Harvey said...

That's awful Penny... There are so many things that get in the way of children and books - it's a great pity to think that any school would cancel a visit and all that goes with it in favour of heavily discounted books that many of the children probably aren't interested...

I tend to buy books in advance of school visits and in my letters to schools I do say that I will have books with me on the day - priced at around £5 for children or teachers wishing to purchase any to have signed as a memento of the day... I stress that this isn't a big money making thing for me as authors get very little from the sale of individual books... they are always amazed to hear just how little we get from the sale of a book.

I like to have a small selection that children, parents and teachers can choose from though it's not always easy to provide as much variety as people might like as it's so expensive buying books in advance - especially when you have no idea how many you will sell.

I do tend to buy the books in myself - but if a local bookshop wants to get involved then I am more than happy for them to do so... in which case I will suggest two or three titles that they might like to get in stock (rather than letting them order large quantities of titles that, from experience, may not sell)

I have had a few frustrating visits where I've been told that, yes! we would like you to a book sale and signing - and then on the day have found that the school haven't actually promoted this idea to parents or teachers... thus leaving me with a large bill for books and very little to cover it. Always a little worrying to say the least.

Myself, I feel that I need to provide more for the schools prior to the events... I need to make it easier for them to promote the author visit and the fact that a book sale/signing will be taking place after school etc. For this I have revised my school visit confirmation letter and email, and I also provide a letter/email that can be sent to parents about the book sale/author visit. This is all to make it easier for the school to make the most of the visit as I know that time is always tight and even when they plan to do these things they aren't always able too. If I can help in some way then it can be mutually beneficial...

I've done one too many visits where school shave told me that they decided not to mention that I was bringing books in as they had "Such and Such's" book fair in school the following week and they get commission from that !!!

C.J.Busby said...

It's a vexing issue, selling books at schools. I have tried the same as Damian, buying them in myself in advance, but it's just too uncertain and expensive. I have also tried getting local bookshops involved, but they generally won't do it - they say they don't sell enough to make it worthwhile (which I find odd, as the last school I visited I signed at least 50 books, which must be enough profit to pay for a trip out - as well as promoting your shop to kids and parents!) But I've recently discovered my publisher will send books to the school on sale or return, which gives the school a chance to make a profit as well, and I think that's the way to go in future for me. But it is an interesting issue, Penny - thanks for the post!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Odd that you should write this post today Penny as tomorrow I'm writing about a totally different experience, where for once it wasn't me lugging around a suitcase full of books... and going home with the same heavy suitcase because no one thought to remind the children that an author was coming to visit. I think these testing times are just to make the good times seem even better!

Penny Dolan said...

Looking forward to tomorrow's post then, Di!

And thanks to everyone for all their comments, woes and re-assurances.

Lari Don said...

Your title, What is it with Schools and Bookselling, was almost enough for me to sigh, put my head on the desk, and give up for the night. If only we could, as a community of kids' authors, work out how to solve the riddle of getting signed books into the hands of kids who want them, with the school a willing partner rather than a usually well-meaning but nevertheless significant obstacle. I'm sighing again, and that desk looks good. The not wanting to tell parents about a real author signing real books because next week there is a book fair is one problem. Forgetting to let kids, parents, even teachers, know about an author visit and a book signing opportunity is another, very common, one. My favourite example of that was the time a headteacher just thought the parents would mention the author vist to each other in passing, so there was no need to send out the letter we had agreed he would send out. And Penny, it's lovely of you to be most concerned about the bookshop, but it's soul destroying for authors too, when this sort of thing happens. I'm sure it is a scientifically proven fact that a box of unsold books is heavier on the way home. I hope that your next school visit happens, and results in lots and lots of sales to lots of happy readers!