Children's Booksellers on Which Pandemic-Era Changes Are Here to Stay
By Alex Green | Jul 16, 2021
From a virtual middle grade fantasy panel on May 8 (clockwise from top l.): Books of Wonder bookseller Zoe Detlaf, Bassem Youssef (The Magical Reality of Nadia), Prince Joel Makonnen (Last Gate of the Emperor), Kwame Mbalia (Last Gate of the Emperor), and Sayantani DasGupta (Force of Fire).
Even as parts of the United States emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the retail outlook for children’s booksellers remains unclear. Store browsing protocols are complicated by the fact that children under 12 are unvaccinated. Varied and inconsistent school reopening plans make fall planning a challenge. Author tours will likely remain digital through Christmas. But children’s booksellers know that something extraordinary has happened, too.
Despite predictions of a pandemic-induced retail apocalypse, booksellers swiftly incorporated new tools, learned novel skills, deepened their engagement with readers, and survived, and in some cases thrived. Having adapted their businesses to the most extreme retail challenges in generations, many are now taking stock of which pandemic-era changes are here to stay.
PW caught up with four children’s booksellers to see what postpandemic bookselling looks like to them. Some see their businesses being transformed by a few major shifts in how they work. Others see changes that affect every aspect of their businesses, from the back office to the front door. But all are certain that the ways they buy and sell children’s books are not what they were a year and a half ago, and never will be again.
Shifting patterns, new insights
Children participate in the summer reading program at 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind.
When in-store events came to a halt at 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., owner Cynthia Compton filled the event space with books for teen readers—a decision that reflects the strong sales to individual readers that made up for lost event sales. She says that the effective decisions she has made since the pandemic began come down to one major shift, brought on by the store’s success with e-commerce.
“Data is king,” Compton says. “We’re in communication with our customers way more. We know much more about their buying habits. We’re crunching the numbers on who our top 200 customers are, what they buy, and what the categories are that turn. We’re just much more aware of what our sales look like and how to buy for it and how to sell to it.”
The data led to major changes in the way Compton runs her store, which then led to new data that has helped her deepen her understanding of customer buying habits even more. Among the biggest changes she has made is the way she orders books from publishers. Prior to the pandemic, she placed orders seasonally, as almost all other booksellers do. But the uncertainty of the pandemic meant that seasonal ordering was risky.
“We needed to dial back and be more immediate about things, and be able to respond to openings and closings,” Compton recalls. “We weren’t sure if we were going to stay open or stay closed, or if it was going to go back and forth. So we felt strongly that we needed to get away from the large seasonal order.”
Compton began placing monthly orders instead. As the store’s social media sales channels developed to market new releases that customers once learned about in-store, she found that thinking in terms of months created opportunities to develop marketing that was more responsive to readers’ preferences in a given moment than seasonal orders would allow.
In the process of shifting orders and marketing, Compton saw two changes in customer buying habits. Preorders dropped off, which she believes is a reflection of competing digitally with other e-tailers. At the same time, midlist sales grew substantially.
Looking back, Compton says the midlist boost that came from shifting her ordering is entirely understandable. “When you cut down your ordering to a monthly basis and you’re really only looking at the frontlist that’s coming out in the next six weeks, you’re paying attention to a much smaller number of books, and you’re marketing differently. Rather than pitching a book ahead to your customers that’s coming out three months from now, you have the opportunity to talk about each and every title, which likely is going to be midlist. If it’s not on one of the eight big days of the year, when everybody has to publish their books all at the same time, you have a chance to really focus on all of those different titles.”
Increased midlist sales reflect a growing readership, especially among middle graders. “The pandemic was like fertilizer for middle grade sales,” Compton says. For her summer reading program alone—a program with a substantial middle grade readership—she saw a 30% rise in participation in 2020 compared with the previous year. This year, 1,800 readers are participating, which is a rise of another 18%.
The slow return to something that resembles pre-pandemic business does not mean that Compton is prepared to drop the methods that have given her so much new insight into her customers’ reading interests. For the foreseeable future, she is planning a hybrid approach of the new and the old. She will continue to buy on a monthly basis, except for the holiday season, when advance ordering is crucial for having stock on hand. Her only exceptions will be for major releases and books from smaller publishers, to ensure they know she is committed to them in the long-term, since she knows that the advance notice is helpful for their sales projections. “I am writing to them for the full season just to say, you’re important, we’re going to keep buying from you, and you can know to have this many copies in your pending list,” she says.
Gaining new (e-)space
Books of Wonder buyer Elena Mesthos (l.), and assistant manager Rosalind Casey.
In 2017, Peter Glassman opened a second location of Books of Wonder, his children’s bookstore near Union Square in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side. “Having a second store gave us a little more clout with publishers, and more options for events,” Glassman says. “It gave publishers just a little more reach for events throughout the city.”
But unlike his store’s flagship location, which draws a loyal and longtime clientele, the West 84th Street store was vulnerable during the pandemic. The store shuttered from March to July 2020. When it did reopen, it was the only retail store on the block to do so. GameStop closed on the corner nearby. The AMC movie theater across the street remained closed. Then the building changed hands, and at the end of June, Glassman closed the store permanently while he sought out new locations.
Yet despite the loss of a major events venue, Glassman is sanguine about his experience—in part because the pandemic also created conditions where he could solve a preexisting problem for the store. For years, he has scrambled to find large venues for hosting author events that draw sizable crowds. In New York City, cost and space availability both posed significant challenges.
While some stores struggled to move their events online, Glassman realized that virtual events could eliminate the need for large venues while engaging the large base of customers around the world who have visited the store on trips to New York City. At the same time, authors who might visit the city infrequently but want to support the store could join from anywhere.
Over the past year, Glassman has tested the idea. The store had just completed a website overhaul prior to the pandemic, which helped optimize the sale of signed editions. While it was closed to in-person traffic, Glassman added the online events platform Crowdcast for hosting readings, and began scheduling events.
In the past year he has hosted virtual author events with audiences of more than 1,000 attendees and equally high book sales. Among them were events for Rick Riordan and Kwame Mbalia, who appeared together in conversation for the launch of Riordan’s The Trials of Apollo last October, and Tui T. Sutherland, who had the launch for her 14th Wings of Fire title, The Dangerous Gift, this March.
Along with reducing the cost of hosting events and reaching a broader audience, Glassman has also been able to feature authors who otherwise might not have made their way to New York. For the launch of The Other Side of the Sky in September 2020, coauthors Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner joined the event from Australia and Washington, D.C., respectively.
Events for fall 2021 will almost certainly continue to be virtual to some degree, and Glassman says he is excited to keep using the system he’s established, while incorporating some aspects of pre-pandemic, in-person events. Multi-author events are more successful than single-author ones, he says, and weekend events are easier for parents to watch with their kids than those on weekdays.
In September, Glassman will host a large event for the release of Brian Selznick’s Kaleidoscope (Scholastic), and he is fully prepared to host it online. But he is already looking past the pandemic and envisioning hybrid events hosted in the bookstore with a live audience, and streaming to viewers through Crowdcast. Having sold books for 45 years, he says he is always thinking about ways to reach more readers while ensuring the long-term stability of his store. “The fact of the matter is, no matter how long we do this for,” he says, “we’re never going to reach as many of the kids as we want to.” But with a new way to host events, he is able to reach more than ever before.
Burnout and breakthroughs
Barston’s Child’s Play in Washington, D.C.
With the pandemic, the protests, and a presidential election last year, the Washington, D.C., area was a study in burnout. At Barston’s Child’s Play, book buyer Molly Gilroy Olivo saw firsthand how these overwhelming events led to positive change, but also felt that a postpandemic world could not come soon enough. Much of what she encountered involved the store’s close working relationship with public schools for summer reading list orders and school book fairs.
The rise in e-commerce at the beginning of the pandemic put the store’s reliance on Shopify to the test. Uploading title information was labor intensive, and creating lists was difficult, especially for virtual book fairs. “The front-end labor was high,” Olivo says, and the payoff was questionable.
Out of five virtual book fairs, only one went well. Olivo quickly learned that the digital format fundamentally changed what the fairs were for kids and their parents. “A book fair is an exciting event,” she says. “Everyone gets to go, you get to shop around, and you get to tell your friends which books you’re reading. But when the events were solely online, they felt more like an obligatory ask for money to support the school, at a time when people were already under pressure.”
Barston’s will return to in-school book fairs when it can, but Olivo says the virtual experience was not a loss in the long run. When fairs resume, the store plans to offer a digital component even when in-school options are available, too. Barston’s ability to provide e-commerce sales and support is the result of two new hires, who are off-site digital marketing and online sales support staff. The new positions reflect the store’s streamlining of systems and operations overall.
Prior to the pandemic, Olivo says each of the store’s three locations had varied approaches to the workflow issues in a given day. “In a multi-location business that operates with really strong managers, we end up in situations where we’re all kind of operating very independently most of the time,” she notes. Throughout the year, the staff steadily abandoned different approaches in favor of universal ones. Group chats are used for broad communication while shared documents guide universal processes. “It’s something we’ve gotten significantly more efficient about,” she adds.
By the end of this school year, the increased bandwidth created by the new systems and hires allowed Olivo to take a more active role in developing orders for school accounts, at a moment when teachers and librarians were running out of energy. Many schools turned to Barston’s to place orders for the end of the fiscal year, and to support summer reading. But school personnel were also less able to develop the reading lists themselves. For the first time, they asked Olivo to do much of the work, and she was able to. With one school, she developed a list of 127 children’s books that reflected the diversity of the region’s student body. Only four titles were authored by white men.
“I was really excited,” Olivo says. “From a bookseller perspective, being able to say that I’m getting to influence the amazing potential diversity that these kids are going to read all summer? That part is really great.” She is uncertain whether she’ll continue to play that role after the pandemic, but she hopes she will. “It was a Covid-19 byproduct. The school gave us a little more leeway and said, ‘We trust you.’ ”
Cementing social media
Kassie King, social media and marketing manager at the Novel Neighbor in St. Louis, recording a BookTok.
Within weeks of the emergence of Covid-19 in the U.S., the booksellers at the Novel Neighbor in St. Louis, Mo., knew they would need to improve the store’s social media if they wanted to reach readers. “We had been talking about trying to get into TikTok, but no one here knew anything about how to do it,” says children’s buyer and event coordinator Melissa Posten. Then a résumé arrived in her inbox.
At first, Posten was confused by it. Kassie King had moved home to St. Louis after working in Los Angeles and on Capitol Hill. But she did not seem to have bookselling experience. Then Posten learned that, as a kid, King had been a BookTuber. “She’s obsessed with books,” Posten says.
During her first month as social media and marketing manager at the store, King made a BookTok for a novel titled Honey Girl and it went viral, garnering half a million views; boosting the store’s followers to 20,000; and resulting in nearly 100 copies sold. That was just the beginning.
In the year since, the Novel Neighbor has come together in support of King’s social media work, learning which platforms are best for certain titles and tailoring content to each. When the bookstore staff accidentally told BookTok viewers that the trade edition jacket of Rachel Griffin’s YA novel The Nature of Witches was a special edition cover, King followed up with a video joking about their mistake. The humorous approach paid off, and the store sold 80 copies.
Posten says she and King have learned that YA sells well on TikTok, Instagram is good for parents of young children, Facebook adds on grandparents, and Twitter is the place for reaching educators. She is seeing the same trends that Compton observed at 4 Kids Books & Toys, including the rise of interest in midlist titles on social media. For the posts, she says, “We use new releases that are not the big splashy titles. Taylor Jenkins Reid does not need any more publicity. Everybody knows the new Wimpy Kid book is coming. We want to try to get people excited about other new titles, and I think at least it’s helping us sell midlist.”
In addition, Posten has seen a boost in paperback backlist sales, with readers sometimes coming into the store and buying entire series at once. “Someone will just come in and say, ‘I saw this Stuart Gibbs book on your social media. I’ll just take the whole series,’ ” she notes.
“It’s very low tech,” Posten says of social media marketing. “You don’t have to have video editing software. You don’t have to learn how to use iMovie or anything like that, as long as you can figure out how to use TikTok—and frankly, there are a billion videos out there showing you how, if you don’t have a Kassie like we do.”
Instead of the past 16 months leading to bookstore closings, stores like the Novel Neighbor have expanded their reach while improving the services they offer customers. All of it means a more stable business that can weather the uncertainty of the current stage of the pandemic and last well into the future.
“Now we’re everywhere,” Posten says. “We’re on Twitter, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Facebook. Especially during the last four to five months, when stuff was opening a little bit, and people were unsure about coming in, it was a way to keep our at-home customers engaged with the bookstore. And now that we’ve sent these orders out all across the country, we have a slightly more national audience that we’re also reaching out to.”
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A version of this article appeared in the 07/19/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The New Children’s Bookselling
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