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Kids’ Books Sell Through School

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The lines spread through the
gym, snaking around the athletic equipment, and I wondered just how long it
would be before I could load up and make it to my afternoon booking. The
librarian and her assistants were helping kids select their books and
collecting the money as fast as they could, and when the purchasers came to my
table, I had just enough time to autograph their copies and say a few words to
each one.

 

It looked like organized chaos.
After 30 minutes, when I had signed more than 100 books, the last student stood
before me. I autographed her copy of our bestselling <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Ghost Horse

with a personalized message, and I was done. But just for the morning. This
scene would repeat itself in the afternoon, and on the next day, and the next,
and the next.

 

When my first children’s
book—Twisters,
Bronc Riders and Cherry Pie—
was published by Ozark
Publishing, Inc., in 1996, my publisher, Dave Sargent, told me how Ozark would
be promoting it. He finished his spiel with, “Of course, Herb, there’s another
way to sell books, and if you want to do it, you’ll have more fun than you’ve
ever had in your life.”

 

School Visits Spark a
Publishing Company

 

I asked him what he was talking
about, and he told me about the pleasures of elementary school
visits—selling books to students, parents, and faculty; autographing them
on the spot; and making quite a bit of money at the same time. As a longtime
storyteller, I was instantly hooked.

 

The day after my first book was
released, I did a joint signing with my illustrator, Julie Caffee, at a local
emporium in her hometown, where we took in more than $1,000 from book sales,
and a few days later, I did my first-ever school program.

 

My schedule began to fill, and by
1997, when my wife, Lynn, and I formed our own publishing company, I was going
to an average of eight schools a week, two a day, Tuesday through Friday, and
experiencing the scene that opened this article over and over.

 

The next year, we incorporated our
business and bought the rights to my first two children’s books from their
original publisher. Since that time I have worn both author and publisher hats.
We now have an active list of my 30-plus titles, three titles co-authored by
Lynn and me, and four titles by other authors. Only two of the books we’ve
published have been delisted, and we will be reprinting them with new covers in
the future.

 

School Sales Hit the
Heights

 

Over the years, we’ve learned that
nothing beats school visits for moving a lot of books at full retail price. Our
average annual take from school sales came to slightly more than $100,000 while
I was actively visiting schools (now I make just a few visits each year).

 

Selling books in the traditional
ways—via distributors, sales staff, retail outlets, etc.—involved
much expense for little gain. We did work hard on publicity before a signing,
and that certainly helped, but bookstore and public-library storytelling and
autographing events were only mildly successful. I remember sitting at bookstore
tables for hours, smiling at people who passed by until my face muscles were
sore. When a signing had been well advertised, I would sell some copies, but
never anywhere near the number I’d sell during autographing sessions at
elementary schools.

 

(By the way, junior high and high
school students are good audiences for a storyteller, but they’re not also a
good market for a publisher. Usually teenagers are more interested in each
other than in visiting authors. They do like autographs, but they want them
free on a piece of paper or in an autograph book, rather than in a book they’ve
purchased.)

 

What to Put in a School
Program

 

Small publishers rarely have
authors on the national bestseller lists, and moving the number of books
necessary to make the business successful can become a nightmare. I believe any
small publisher of children’s books could benefit from booking school visits
for their authors. The programs do not have to be elaborate, and they usually
take less than an hour. My storytelling program includes about 20 minutes of
storytelling plus a 10-minute Q&A period, and it devotes the rest of the
hour to sales and autographing.

 

Of course, storytelling is only
one type of school program that authors can present. Some authors simply read
their books to students. One author I know dresses like a clown and sings silly
songs as part of his presentation. Another dresses in period costume and spins
yarn as she “spins” a tale related to her series of books about a magic
spinning wheel.

 

Almost any interesting program is
acceptable to librarians and principals. And whatever an author offers, there
is nothing like watching the pleasure on the faces of the children as you
autograph their books. Children don’t know how to be blasé. Talking to a “real
live author” is an experience they will never forget. And having a book
autographed by that author in their presence—well, as one second-grader
said when he held his book up for everyone to see at a school signing, “Wow!
How cool is that?”

 

Herb Marlow had been a
psychotherapist, writer, and inspirational public speaker for many years before
his first book was published in 1996. Now president and CEO of Four Seasons
Books, Inc., he has written stories and articles for national periodicals and a
weekly therapy newspaper column titled “Family Scene,” as well as 30 books,
including Selling Books
on the School Circuit
. For ordering information, email
herb@fourseasonsbookstore.com, or phone 800/852-7484.

 

 

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