BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Trickle Creek Books Flow to Readers (Through Schools and Other Channels)
by Linda Carlson
“An unrelenting optimist” is the way Toni Albert of Pennsylvania’s Trickle Creek Books describes herself—and that optimism, combined with lots of energy, must be why this publisher of children’s environmental science books has been successful for 15 years.
Like most publishers, Trickle Creek has had its share of glitches.
“Almost every printing job that we’ve done locally has involved reprinting or rebinding to correct major problems,” Albert says, adding, “Other disasters have been self-made. In a fit of enthusiasm, I once responded to a telephone solicitation from a Canadian teachers’ magazine by buying a $500 ad that would include our 800 number—a number that didn’t work in that part of Canada. Another time I built an entire rainforest in a tent for an Earth Day event, only to find that my space was in a lonely place at the top of a steep and windy hill.”
But, she goes on, “I view experiences as opportunities to practice problem-solving, fine-tuning, patience, and persistence. I barely register disappointment, because I’ve always found that one thing leads to another.”
This has been true even at book signings where only a couple of people showed up (as happens so often to so many of us) because, Albert explains, “One of them would book me for a school visit!”
Visits as Revenue Drivers
Albert once feared that school visits would mean spending too much of her time away from the office, but they provide an example of how she turned a possible problem into a success story.
“Just a few months after I published my first book, I was invited to speak at a school. I thoroughly enjoyed being with the children—and it finally dawned on me that this could be part of my business. I could ‘teach kids to care for the earth’ in person and also make money.” Currently, she reports, a day at a school brings in $1,000–“enough to support a person’s publishing habit.” Occasionally, a school hires her for a week or buys books for all the students.
As Albert points out, author visits to schools require extensive preparation and detailed plans, “but at the end of the day, I come home with cash in hand—more cash than I could generate any other way in a single day.”
That cash flow sounds appealing, doesn’t it? But remember, Albert’s been developing a reputation, a following, and her presentation skills for 15 years. Prospecting for and arranging school visits now involves several steps.
She inserts a Trickle Creek brochure—with sections on “About the Author,” “About the Books,” and “About the Presentations”—in every order the company fulfills. She also takes these brochures wherever she goes: to events at libraries, bookstores, schools, and elsewhere.
“Most important, I take them to the teacher conferences where I present,” Albert says. “I make sure teachers have them in their handouts, and I slip references to my school visits into my presentation.”
Talks at these conferences usually attract about 50 teachers, some of whom immediately contact Trickle Creek regarding a presentation. “This is my most successful way of booking school visits,” Albert reports. “Word of mouth probably accounts for most of the rest.” She adds that recommendations must, of course, be earned. They stem, she believes, from “trying to give the best possible presentation to students and being patient, flexible, and generous during the weeks of planning.”
Prepping for a Perfect Day (and Pitfalls)
Preparation includes discussing dates, fees, book sales, and presentation topics (Albert offers nine) with a teacher, a principal, or a PTA. It also includes sending a letter of confirmation with logistical details, plus a copy of each Trickle Creek book for the school library.
“This allows teachers or the librarian to introduce children and parents to the books before my visit,” Albert notes. “A month before the visit, we send book-order flyers for all students. I receive the orders and autograph the books in advance, and bring extra books for late orders.”
Talking to hundreds of children at a time takes some special skills, Albert reminds us, and she developed some of those skills as a preschool teacher. “For example, I make every presentation interactive, but I never ask a direct question. I preface a question this way: ‘Raise your hand if you can tell me . . . ’ and then I don’t respond to any child who speaks without raising a hand first. This simple rule enables me to maintain order.”
Never done a school visit? Albert recommends you look at Daniel Pinkwater’s children’s book, Author’s Day. School Library Journal’s review of it says, “Schools where author visits are common will find it a useful preamble to the inevitable pitfalls of a perfectly planned day.”
Pitfalls for Albert have included an auditorium with a wild bird circling the ceiling trying to get out. Once she “dropped a live salamander, and it took a circle of quick kids to catch it.” And another time she “had 200 children whistling like spring peepers, and couldn’t think how to stop them.” Finally, she remembers, “I said that peepers become quiet when someone approaches their pond. I walked out of the room and then reentered, declaring, ‘I’m approaching your pond.’ Instant silence!”
Because Trickle Creek is located in Mechanicsburg, a couple of hours northwest of Philadelphia, many schools are within an hour’s drive, which is Albert’s outside preference for a day trip. When schools are farther away, she prefers to travel the night before (at the school’s expense) so that she’s ready early for her full day of presentations.
She describes her school market as one with great potential: she estimates she’s spoken to at least 80,000 children in the past dozen years, and that’s just at roughly 200 elementary schools. Pennsylvania alone has more than 1,700.
A Varied Collection of Customers
The school visits that she does at least once a week from March to May now account for about one third of Trickle Creek’s income. The company does not depend on—in fact, it does not even solicit—orders from bricks-and-mortar bookstores for its eight titles, which means it doesn’t get the big orders that many publishers regularly receive from wholesalers. On the other hand, it also means that Trickle Creek has close to zero returns.
“We are Trickle Creek, not White Water Rapids,” Albert wrote me when I asked about any big breaks. “For the most part, our orders trickle in. Once a week, we get a nice order from Amazon.com. We ship books to nature catalogs, zoos and aquariums, and state parks on a regular basis. Orders flow in from our Web site and trickle in from Baker & Taylor. We sell directly to schools and students.”
The company’s best sources of sales are catalogs and organizations that cater to teachers, home schoolers, and nature lovers. Its most successful Web site promotion is the Half-Price Warehouse, for books with slightly damaged covers. Trickle Creek also works with the Edmonton, Alberta–based Lone Pine Publishing, which has repped its books in the western United States for six years.
The Path That Led to Publishing
Like many people in publishing, Albert followed a circuitous career path. She started as a teacher and then spent three years as an editor at publishing houses. Along the way, she did some freelance writing.
“Without the slightest plan of attack, I wrote about whatever interested me and then consulted Writer’s Market for an idea of who might publish a piece,” she recalls. “After traveling to Japan, I wrote an essay on peace that was published in The Christian Science Monitor. Then, when my husband bought a tractor, I wrote ‘When the Other Woman Is a Tractor’ for Farm Home Journal.”
Other pieces followed, in such publications as Ranger Rick, Instructor; rwt: the magazine for reading, writing, thinking; and Living with Preschoolers.
In 1990, weary of a long commute to an editing job, Albert quit, planning to freelance as an editor. Not one of the 100-plus educational publishers who received her clips ever hired her to edit a manuscript, but she immediately received assignments to write resource guides for teachers and children. “My combination of work experiences apparently rang bells and pushed buzzers in the minds of certain publishers,” she says.
Over four years, she created 30 books for Steck-Vaughn, Carson-Dellosa, Frank Schaffer Publications, Hayes School Publishing, and Learning Links. She wrote guides about literature classics, multiculturalism, weather, machines, and rocks and minerals, at first by assignment, with a publisher outlining topic, grade level, page count, and format.
“My job,” Albert explains, “was to research the subject, organize the material for teaching, come up with interesting and practical classroom activities, write the art specs for each page, and produce a finished book.”
Eventually she began to submit proposals for books based on her own interests: rainforests, coral reefs, endangered animals, and recycling. Every topic she writes about is meticulously researched, Albert notes, smiling. “As the most conscientious of writers, I felt compelled to hike in the rainforests of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, Peru, Grenada, and Mexico. To do the underwater research for The Incredible Coral Reef, we had to go to Grand Cayman. (It’s tough being a writer.)”
Less playfully, Albert says: “First-hand experience gives me confidence to write and speak to children with authority. It adds interest and credibility to the books. And, remember, a trip for research is deductible on taxes after the book is published.”
“Sometimes I marvel that everything I’ve ever done has prepared me for what I’m doing now,” she declares. “As a teacher, I discovered how to engage children in learning. As an editor, I learned to manage the steps in making a book. As a writer who practiced writing day after day, I began to write fluently and easily. Each experience was good preparation for becoming an independent publisher.” Then she adds, with a chuckle, “All that was missing was business acumen and marketing know-how.”
The Trickle Creek founder may have lacked marketing savvy in 1994, but she certainly knows a lot about cost-effective promotion now. Today, after watching what produces sales, Albert relies on reviews, exhibits, teacher conferences, the Trickle Creek Web site, a monthly newsletter, and word of mouth. She does bookstore signings only when Trickle Creek is launching a new book and in October during Teacher Week. And she has eliminated advertising, mailings, and trade shows and bypassed any formal arrangements with a distributor.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle.