Friday, October 8, 2010

NY Times missing the point and why indies do rock picture book selling

Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children

That was the headline in the New York Times yesterday, and it's causing a hubbub on Twitter amongst the bookish folks (booksellers, authors, and bloggers mostly).  There is much I agree and disagree with in this article... but mostly I thought about how indies really do do it better!

The article promotes the argument that parents are pushing their kids into chapter books and picture book sales are decreasing as a result.  I disagree.  We have a separate room for picture books at Aaron's and that room sees the most action, by kids of all ages.  We purposely designed the book FOR the kids... the used books are in bins sorted by subject. We didn't have a corporate structure that chose our shelving and told us how to put out the books. The younger kids hit the door running to the playroom and  just like being surrounded by all the books, the older ones like pulling out a book on their own and reading it in our rocking chair (sometimes aloud to a sibling or friend).  Kids will read whatever we give them. Aaron still checks out picture books at his school library (as do many of his 2nd grade classmates).   When we get new picture books at the store, it is Aaron who reads them first and gives us the thumbs up.  At the same time he is deep into reading Harry Potter and The Hobbit

The point I can agree with in the article, but is given just a glossing over, is that new picture books coming out in hardcover are too expensive.  The classics and the tried and true author and illustrators can justify an $18 price tag (some do still sit on he shelves unlooked at), but an author with only a few mid-list books behind them is going to get overlooked not only by the customers but also the book buyers at that price.  Personally, I think pricing for lots of children's books is out of hand.  Aaron just read the arc for a book coming out in March...he started at 7:45 last night, and finished before getting on the bus this morning.  The book is being released  as a $15 hardcover - a book that took a 2nd grader less than a day to read.  Compare that with the Katie Kazoos and A to Z mysteries that 2nd graders are also reading, which come out at $4 paperbacks.  Which is a parent more likely to buy in this economy? Yep, the paperback.  The same can be said for the picture books, even though those books will be read numerous times unlike many once and done chapter books.  

When we meet with our sales reps we repeat over and over and over "too expensive in hardcover, we'll buy when it's in paperback" (same for adult books). In a world where we're constantly told that we need to spend less to have a good life (thanks to evil Mal-Wart), are we starting to de-value books?  There are clamours everywhere about how e-books should be cheaper. Is this because a certain online e-tailer (Evil River Empire) has told the world that books should be cheap in any form?  Yet a family has no problem spending $50 for movie tickets and popcorn for 2 hours of "entertainment".  But this is a tangent for another day...

Picture book sales ARE NOT lagging.  Sales of new overpriced hardcover picture books are.  The publishers and many of the retailers live in a land of big cities and higher incomes that don't meet the realities here in small town main street.  Yes we sell picture books, ones that we hand-select based on the interests of our youngest customers and their parents (and it's not always the ones on the best seller lists  *cough*MoWillems*cough*) The chains look at sales reports from stores across the county, and not people or where the books ARE being sold when making stocking decisions. (Um, putting a $16 picture book on the same shelf as a $25 plush toy to help sell the book??? Adding Build-A-Bear into a store???  These are not decisions based on what kids are reading or even that fact that we need to teach kids to value books... oops another tangent.)

Used picture books have always been a bestselling section in our store, and I don't see new or used picture book sales (overall) lagging, even in the recession.... if nothing else books for kids are selling better.(maybe not the $18 hardcover from a new author, but the $13 one from Dr. Seuss is!). Our new picture book sales has tripled over the past year, due to our independent decision to focus on that section. If the chain stores are seeing less sales in that section, perhaps it is because the higher ups sitting in an office have decided to add more toys and take away shelf space dedicated to books.  Funny that supposed bookstores are taking shelf space away from kids books while more and more places that are not booksellers are adding picture books (our local grocer and pharmacy are now carrying Golden Books).  Perhaps if the NY Times wanted to cover what is really happening in children's books sales, they should talk to more indies outside of urban areas.  We (the indies) are the ones that care about books and cater our shelf space and what is on that shelf based not on some distant sales figure, but on what the five year old standing in front of us is buying, talking about, and pointing out to mom.

So no, picture books are NOT "no longer a staple for children" and sales are not dropping significantly; at least as far as we can tell, not at indies that are taking the time to see what the customers want and catering to it.

Put a good picture book into the hands of a child of any age and you'll see a big smile. 

Happy (picture book) Reading!


  1. Great response to the article. I'm self-publishing a picture book next month, and I'm agonizing over the pricing. I want a low enough price that families can easily afford it. But without a big print run and books in a warehouse somewhere, the wholesale price per book is high, so in order for me to make any money, the book price would be higher than I want. I'm seriously considering lowering what I want to make on each book so I can keep the retail price low. It will take me longer to recoup my investment, but my original goal when I started this was to get the book into the hands of kids and parents. I'm going to work hard to make that happen. Thanks for the perspective of a store owner and book lover!

  2. As long as children look at books as something to possess, to touch and hold and manipulate, something they and not their parents can control, to read forward or backward or to simply turn to a favorite page, the print picture book will not die. Worn and weary, whether paperback or hardback, they are treasured friends and not just pictures and words on a page.

  3. While price keeps me from buying picturebooks frequently, I agree with a picturebook author who said price distilled down to cost-per-read makes a beloved picturebook a bargain.
    More than any other genre, picturebooks are read repeatedly -- how many times have you finished reading one to a child, to have him/her say, "Read it again!"