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Capturing the Lucrative Library and School Markets (Selling to Libraries & Schools: Part 1 of 3)

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by Robin Bartlett, SpringerNature Publishers & Sharon Castlen, Integrated Book Marketing

Sharon Castlen

Robin Bartlett

In the first part of a three-part series, the authors offer 10 tips for selling to libraries and schools.

(Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3)

Libraries and schools represent a tremendous opportunity for expanding the sales, credibility, and visibility of your book. Many hold on to the myth that it is too much work when libraries only purchase a single copy. Wrong! A walk through the market size and the strategic process to capture sales provides a very different picture and opportunity for expanding the sales and notoriety of your book. Here are some basis statistics:

Picture selling to 5-10 percent of these. What would that do to your bottom line? Furthermore, sales to libraries and schools are permanent—they remain sold—unlike trade stores that return your book for credit after six months (or less) if a customer does not purchase it. It is rare to get a return from a library or school.

Yes, selling to libraries and schools does require additional investment of time and resources, but it also lays the groundwork for both the sales of your first book and creates a direct path for future sales. There are lasting financial benefits to going after these markets, especially if you are developing a product line to repeatedly sell through this channel.

This article will help you evaluate some of the things you need to consider and do to get started. Assuming you have, or will have, more than one book to sell, the effort you put forth to develop your strategy and activate a marketing and promotion campaign will pay dividends every time you are ready to run another title through the gauntlet. As your company and list grows, it becomes easier to promote your books, be recognized, and derive the many intrinsic benefits that will be returned from these lucrative markets.

This article provides a number of tips to start your thinking and research, but it is not meant to be a complete guide. Above all, keep in mind that the genre, reading level, and content of your book(s) will greatly influence ultimate success in selling to libraries and schools. The tips provided here represent the best advice that two experienced book marketers who have worked in these fields for their entire careers can provide.

10 Tips for Selling to Libraries and Schools

1. Establish a publisher advisory group.

These are friends and colleagues from your family and community who are willing to advise and help you market your book(s). These are people you know or can develop a relationship with who have business and creative expertise, and can provide you with solid advice and alternative thinking. If you’re going to market to the library and school markets, it would be ideal to have a librarian and a teacher on your team who can offer opinions about your strategy and plans you are developing as well as thoughts about content. Depending on the number of books you publish and the current size of your company, you may want to have your advisory team grow by adding expertise in other areas where your book may find a home. For example, how about your tax advisor or local bank representative? Someone with bookstore experience would be a real plus, wouldn’t it? IBPA has a mentor program with experienced members ready to assist. These are not people you pay, but you do have to meet with them individually or in a group on a regular basis. If you choose the right people, they will enjoy being your advisor. Think about it, and start making a list of who should be on your advisory team. The ability to reach out to these advisors for free and get a second opinion will be of tremendous long-term benefit to your company’s future success.

2. Be strategic.

Focus your efforts on opportunities that have the greatest chance for immediate payback. Test your promotions on your advisory group and smaller audiences first, and work out the bugs before you do a larger promotion. Then, gradually build upon your promotion campaign. You will learn a great deal by experimenting and making mistakes on a small scale before you roll out. And don’t be afraid to test two or three different concepts to see what one gets the best reaction.

3. Know your market.

Do you truly know to whom you are selling? Have you taken the time to get to get to know your local public or school librarian and the teachers to whom you want to sell? There is an age-old adage in our business: Librarians and teachers care about what’s between the covers. They care about quality. They have a special responsibility to the patrons and students to ensure that the books they buy fit the audience and are appropriate in content, language, tone, message, and quality. Librarians and teachers will actually read your book (or scan it) before they buy it, so focus your marketing to allow that to happen. Offer samples on your website. Promote the “Search Inside” feature on Amazon, and use NetGalley to get the word out. What are the buzz words, hot concepts, and key issues these people are using and facing? Weaving this language into your promotion plan shows that you know who they are and that you’re on their side. See how your advisory team can be very helpful in helping you to accomplish this objective?

4. Librarians and teachers require quality.

They will carefully review your books before buying and will reject books that have errors and return them to wholesalers. There can be no mistakes—no misspelled words, and no inappropriate content. They will expect that all of the required data be in place: ISBN, barcodes, pages, price, photos, illustrations, index, subject classification, CIP Data Block, and copyright information. Do your homework, and make sure all these elements are perfect.

5. Librarians and school teachers are influential.

Do not underestimate the power of referral. Librarians and teachers are great networkers. Librarians have budgets to buy books and will recommend books they like to others. They will also speak with teachers and encourage them to place your books in their classroom reading areas. Librarians and teachers want to encourage reading and scholarship in students. When they find a book that helps them to do this, they will take the steps necessary to see that others within their community become aware of the book as well. So while a small library may only buy one copy of a book, it is not unusual for large libraries to buy multiple copies for branches or school reading rooms.

6. Don’t try to do everything yourself.

One of the hardest and most important lessons every new and not-so-new publisher must learn regardless of the markets they are selling to is: Do what you are good at and hire what you’re not. This does not mean that you have to hire expensive talent for every element. Look to your advisory team—who do they know that you can hire for the parts that are not in your skill set? Or call upon IBPA for referrals. Becoming an independent publisher does mean that you need to learn and master many aspects of the business, but often it is learning what needs to be done as it fits into your overall strategy and determining if someone else can be hired to do it.

7. Have a list—not a book.

One of the things that distinguishes independent publishers is that they think in terms of the list of books their company is developing. If you think of yourself in terms of marketing/promoting a book you have written or want to publish, then you are a self-published author. Both types of people experience similar marketing challenges in trying to accomplish their goals, but librarians and teachers will quickly distinguish between a self-published author and a publishing company that plans to market a series of books directed at them. So, if you want to be an independent publisher and only have one book, sit down and develop a list of books you intend to publish at some point in the future. The work you do to set up your first book lays the groundwork for subsequent titles. This simple exercise will help to define your vision and your company.

8. Become the first, loudest, and never-ending cheerleader for your company.

Every successful independent publisher we have ever met has told us how challenging the first few years of their business were and how they faced and overcame so many unexpected challenges. Some were amazingly lucky and just happened to publish the right book at the right time or to make an “evergreen sale” that allowed them a cushion of profit to continue to grow their company. And some ate beans and franks for a couple of years and kept on keeping on. But there was one factor that was common to them all: If you asked them to tell you about their books, they became unabashed cheerleaders for their company. So when you talk to librarians and teachers, don’t forget to talk about your brand, vision, company’s identity, goals, and objectives in marketing to this audience. Your passion, your vision, your enthusiasm, and your commitment is contagious and will help you to sell and sell again.

9. You have to love it and have some fun.

If you’re not comfortable reaching out to librarians and teachers, then, by all means, find another market for your books or publish something else. You have to love what you are doing or this business will eat you up and spit you out. We have indie publishing friends who love to take photographs of baby animals and created a business out of publishing books for children. Another friend loves to do crafts and publishes books on how to create them. She does workshops and sells thousands of books at the back of the room. There are more of these stories than we can begin to relate, but the one thing they all have in common is they have found their niche, they have learned everything about it, and they love making books to sell to it.

10. Learn everything you can about doing inexpensive e-mail and snail mail marketing.

Unless you have a large list of books, direct mail marketing (snail mail) is probably not going to be within your budget. So you need to learn about e-mail marketing, social media, building a dynamic website, developing special sales opportunities, and other forms of inexpensive promotional activity. The only person who will be impressed with an ad for your book is you! And remember that librarians and schools are all so bombarded with e-mail communications each day that you must take steps to stand out from the crowd. Research and learn as much as you can about where to get good e-mail lists of librarians and teachers. If you are going to consistently do e-blasts, you will want to learn how to develop a house file so you don’t have to rent lists.

Robin Bartlett has spent his entire career in publishing with more than 20 years of sales, editorial, and marketing responsibilities for both nonprofit and for-profit publishers. He currently works as a senior licensing manager for SpringerNature Publishers. He can be reached at rbbartlett01@gmail.com.

Sharon Castlen, founder of Integrated Book Marketing, works with small presses and independent publishers across the country in three areas: pre-press coaching; distribution; full marketing strategy and implementation. She is a member of IBPA, PNBA, and on the board of directors of APSS.

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