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Getting the Word Out:
Marketing Children's Books
By Barbara Cohen
Author of Forever Friends (smallfellow press, 2002), and a contributing writer at OnceWritten.com, a website for new and emerging authors
It is always a good idea for authors to get the word out about their books, even if their publishers are big and rich and have committed to the book's being a best seller. It's good for sales, and it's a lot of fun.
I am a children's book author one book published and hoping and here's what I've done.
Surprisingly, bookstores are not good places to sell books. However, it is a good idea to visit all the bookstores in your area, book(s) in hand, and ask if they have children's story hours. If they do, offer to read and sign your book.
Bookstores that have these hours usually welcome authors who volunteer to appear, though the welcome is considerably less enthusiastic in big city bookstores that attract famous authors. (Sadly, there were noticeably fewer stores with children's hours in 2004, when my book came out in softcover, than in 2002.) If there is no children's hour, then introduce your book and let the store know who distributes it.
Occasionally, a bookstore will offer a table and chair at which you can sit for several hours with a stack of books to sell. If you make this arrangement, I advise you to bring something (else) to read, so that you don't spend the time staring longingly at customers. I advise you to practice a "Hello how are you as you pass through my life" nod that asks for nothing but does not repel.
Libraries are not good places to sell books, either. But introducing librarians to your book(s) is a good idea, as they can recommend it to their readers. In fact, it's a good idea to donate a free copy to the library to ensure they have one to recommend. And at libraries as well as bookstores, you might read your book during a reading hour or make a presentation about writing that includes reading your book.
Don't be surprised if someone approaches you as an expert and asks a question like: How did you get your book published? Should I sue the man who stole my idea for a story? Do you need an agent? And the kids ask: Are you married? Have you written any other books? Were you a lot younger when you got your picture taken for the book jacket?
Schools are wonderful places to sell books and have a good time, too. I call the school and am usually told to speak to the librarian or to a parent who arranges authors' visits. Either school representative is delighted to have an author volunteer to speak and read to the children.
Since my book is a children's picture book, I usually speak to children in kindergarten, first and second grades. However, I have spoken to teenagers at a school for the physically handicapped and high school students who are in training as aides in nursery schools.
I usually talk about the progress of the book from idea through publisher to bookstore, then read my book to the children, inviting them to talk about the meaning of the book, notice the details in the pictures and think about why they are there.
My presentation is low-tech. I present to each class separately, so that the children can sit close to me and actually point to details in the book. At one school the class made a welcoming poster and a lady from the PTA baked a cake with a picture from my book on the frosting. (Well, actually it was a cover from a book written by the other Barbara Cohen who writes children's books, and she was mortified, but that's another story The thought was lovely.)
Often the school representative offers to sell copies to interested teachers and children in advance of the author's appearance. The representative contacts the publisher who sends copies directly to the school. The author can sign the book when s/he gets to the school.
Senior Citizen Centers
You might see if your local Senior Citizen Center is interested in a presentation by an author. These people are usually grandparents, and they might be interested in giving your children's book to a grandchild. However, beware: if the group is too old, they will fall asleep. It is discouraging to make a presentation to a sleeping audience, particularly if they snore. It's hard not to take it personally.
A book fair is the perfect place to sell books, as well as meet other authors and people who are interested in authors. At the fairs I've been in, I've met teachers who have not only bought my book but also invited me to speak at their schools.
There is a fee for participation in book fairs. Ask your publisher if they will pick up the tab. They might.
Also, if you live in a state that charges sales tax, you may have to get a State Sales Tax license. This was necessary in New York, which requires tax forms to be submitted whether or not tax has been collected. This is a slight pain in the neck but worth the effort.
Caution: do not bring philodendrons to decorate your table at an outdoor book fair. The sun turns them brown in a couple of hours. I know.
Craft fairs are less obvious places in which to sell books, and in my experience, less successful. One feels a bit out of place sitting somewhere between jewelry and wooden bird cages. However, enough people show interest that one contact is bound to lead to something else, e.g., a teacher at the fair looking for necklaces asks you to her school.
There is a fee for participation here, too.
Watch the papers. My husband found an ad for a weekly reading at a large department store. I called, and they invited me to read my book. The book corner was on a floor devoted to children's clothes. We discovered three of the children had birthdays that month. Naturally we had to sing Happy Birthday at the tops of our lungs heard by everybody on that floor and probably the adjacent ones, too.
A friend told me about a local TV news station with short features about senior citizens starting new careers. I am NOT a senior citizen. NOT. However, I am close enough that a nice TV lady brought a cameraman into a classroom at which I was appearing, interviewed me, interviewed a couple of students and shot me reading to the class. The following week, when I walked into the local luncheonette, the owner said he had seen me on TV, and he wanted to write children's books, too.
Other places that might be interested include pet stores (for books about animals) and toy stores.
The fairs charge an average of $100 for booth space (in New York). None of the other venues charges.
Schools often offer honoraria to authors. I have received anywhere from nothing to several hundred dollars from schools.
It is best to make the initial contact in person, if possible, particularly in bookstores and libraries. Calling schools is OK, since they are eager to have guests appear in their classrooms. However, don't write. Letters can be ignored.
The advantage of appearances is not only what happens at the appearance, but also what each appearance can lead to. The people one meets frequently lead to other contacts and other appearances.
It is almost always a pleasure to make an appearance (except, perhaps, in a bookstore when nobody shows up), so there is nothing lost and a lot to be gained.
Copyright 2005 by Barbara Cohen. All rights reserved.
(Added by Harold Underdown) When you want to go beyond Barbara Cohen's very useful list of the basics, here are a few resources I personally recommend:
- Do Traditional Publishers Market Their Books? -- A short guide to what you can expect from a publisher.
- Toni Buzzeo's and Jane Kurtz's excellent guide to school and library visits, Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers: Real Space and Virtual Links.
- Susan Raab's column on marketing children's books in the SCBW-I Bulletin, which you will find archived at the website of her children's book marketing company, Raab Associates.
I would be happy to hear your suggestions for other resources, and your comments and suggestions on this article. Please contact me via the contact page.
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