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Selling the States Their Own Stories

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Acorn Books produces The Great Heartlanders Series, a collection of biographies for children about regional heroes who have made a significant contribution to their state and the nation, as well as posters, “Factoid” bookmarks, laminated desktop maps, Celebration Kits, and cross-curriculum activities books.

Before launching Acorn Books in 1997, I wrote for other publishers. My work included regional histories for adults and illustrated books for children. One afternoon, while gathering images for a book about the Santa Fe Trail, I chatted with an archivist at the Nebraska State Historical Society. He asked if I had ever considered writing a children’s book about Nebraska’s history. Almost every week, he received requests from elementary teachers for such a book, he said, adding that fourth graders were required to study their state’s history. Precious little state-specific material existed, however–a chapter here and there, a pamphlet from the state government, or a vertical file in the school’s library. Nothing substantial.

I knew that my own state, Missouri, also had such a mandate, as did many other states. An untapped market clearly existed for a series of children’s history books.


Spotlighting People

From the beginning, my idea was to develop a biographical series, rather than standard history titles, for each state. As one teacher said, “Kids like to read about people more than about events.” The books for each state would spotlight men and women of all races and careers; their collective stories–each told in a separate book–would span the state’s history. Each well-illustrated book would also contain maps, historic photographs, and drawings.

I pitched the idea to the companies that had already published my work; I would write the books, and they would publish them. No one was interested. Finally–after two years of fainthearted hesitation–I decided to publish the books myself. The Great Heartlanders Series was born.

Currently the series includes eight biographies. A ninth, Sad-Face Clown: Emmett Kelly, will be out this spring.


The Sales Channel Mix

We market primarily to schools and libraries, but our titles are also bought by major wholesalers. The books are carried in specialty shops and museum gift stores since each of them focuses on an issue and personality of interest to particular groups (e.g., From Slave To World-Class Horseman: Tom Bass appeals to saddle clubs; A Doctor To Her People: Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte to Native American museums; Frontier Freighter: Alexander Majors to western trails organizations, and American Illustrator: Rose O’Neill to doll collectors).

Selling to specialty markets has been both purposeful and serendipitous. While writing, I do research at museums and/or historical societies. Several have gift shops and therefore become obvious market targets. Some specialty markets, however, find us. For example, one of our ongoing customers, the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago, contacted us about selling Champion of Arbor Day: J. Sterling Morton.

We need to be more purposeful in this area. Currently, sales to specialty markets and wholesalers represent approximately 20% of our revenue. These sales are particularly important to us during summer, when school orders subside. We feel that we have barely tapped into the specialty market and have set this as one of our principal goals for 2003.


What Tie-Ins Add

The series’ biographies are the heart and soul of our business. But our customers–and our bank account–benefit greatly from tie-in products and services. From the start, we’ve offered customers the products listed in the lead paragraph of this article. In addition, we provide several services, including a 15-mil cover lamination and spine reinforcement for our paperback biographies.

Also, we offer teachers a free booklet outlining the ways that the series addresses the educational standards in their states. Since educators typically must submit written requisitions to justify purchases, especially large orders, they need–and appreciate–this information before buying.

During the last two years, we have expanded the number of titles we offer by distributing videos and books from other publishers. These materials directly relate to the issues and events highlighted in the biographies. This year, we will offer a new service. As a result of a PMA University 2002 workshop, Acorn Books will launch an Author Visits program.

Why do we offer products and services beyond our biographies? Two reasons–profits and promotion.

  • Tie-ins (bookmarks, kits, maps, posters) have relatively low production costs and high profit margins.
  • Tie-ins also serve as marketing tools. They enhance and promote name recognition. Our name, toll-free number, Web site URL, and mission statement (Making history an active part of children’s lives) appear on every product.
  • Tie-ins and added services help sales. In some marketing venues, notably when we exhibit at conferences, potential customers are often attracted to our booth by our tie-ins–e.g., the prominently displayed posters. Sales of one tie-in frequently lead to the sales of another. For example, each spiral-bound activities book includes map exercises, which generate sales of our desktop maps. And sometimes we use tie-ins as an inducement for volume sales–e.g., “Buy a classroom set of 30 biographies and receive a free activities book.”
  • The 15-mil lamination and spine reinforcement service has helped our library sales, which in turn helps our classroom sales.
  • Products from other publishers allow us to expand our title offerings with less overhead and lower inventory than we need for our own titles, and at the same time, they allow us to satisfy our customers’ need for regional history material.


Advice from Our Experience

Research and test-market.

Before launching the series, I mailed “preview” catalogs and a short questionnaire to 3,000 educators and other potential customers–Nebraska’s fourth grade teachers and elementary school librarians. My budget needed a small test market, and Nebraska is the smallest of the states I targeted at the outset. (Missouri, for example, is four times larger.) The preview catalog highlighted the books and products that Acorn Books planned to offer. A short accompanying questionnaire asked for suggestions. As an inducement to respond, the preview promised a sample activity from the “Teacher Guide” (later called Activities Book) and a list of history Internet sites. The ideas generated by the 17% who responded helped me to design the book/bundle pricing schedule, plan the contents of the activities books, and determine the likely usefulness of desktop maps rather than wall maps.

Today, Acorn Books distributes the books and videos of four other publishers. This spring, we added books from the University of Missouri Press and Open Hand Publishing, LLC (I met them at PMA-U) to the catalog list, and we are also testing the market for our new Author Visits program, beginning within a limited, 11-county area of our home base, greater Kansas City, Missouri.

Do products always work? Of course not. We have added the Author Visits, but this year we will drop the Celebration Kits. Why? Our customers just were not interested in them. Every year, we reevaluate our products and services. Every year, we learn from our peers and from our customers. And every year, we make a few adjustments and grow as a company that is a little more than a book publisher.


Jami Parkison reports that PMA University 2002 reinvigorated Acorn Books’ marketing strategies, and that the post-seminar advice about author visits generously offered by Marketing Children’s Books seminar leaders Toni Albert (Trickle Creek Books) and Laura Barnes (Barnesyard Books) was especially helpful. For more info, visit





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