It was chatting to Karim and the team from Tiny Owl at the CLiPPA awards which gave me the inspiration for this blog post. There they were, a small award-winning independent publisher with a fantastic and diverse catalogue of titles, yet they still found it very difficult to get their books into the larger retailers. Why was this? Would winning a national poetry award for their title ‘Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me,’ by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi change things? They weren’t so sure.
I was interested to know what barriers there were to the smaller publishers and what we (the book-buying public) and them (as the publishers) could do to try and change this. The response was very interesting….
Let’s start with the perspective of Karim himself from Tiny Owl:
There’s a real desire amongst reader for high quality diverse and inclusive children’s books, but if you go into a big high street retailer, they’re very difficult to find. Larger bookshops often have an unconscious bias against diverse books. They see them as financially risky, so don’t put them in a prominent place where customers can find them easily, if they stock them at all. Tiny Owl started our campaign ‘Diversity Now!’ to address this issue. If you want to see diverse books represented in shops, the best way to help is to go in and request them. When retailers recognise the demand, they’ll start to give these books the attention they deserve. You can also shout out on social media about diverse books you love to help spread the word!
And here’s Charlotte Hacking from CLPE who was one of the organisers of the CLiPPA Awards:
I’d agree with Karim though that it’s all about demand and sales, so I see our role at CLPE as making sure we highlight books across our work that reflect a range of realities as we see them and make sure teachers, librarians and university providers know about these books. Our Reflecting Realties research has the specific aim of identifying and highlighting representation within picture books, fiction and non-fiction for ages 3 – 11.
In that way, these get passed on to children to enjoy and in turn to parents and these two key demographics are the ones who need to ask for the books as they are the key sales market. It’s not that teachers and parents won’t buy these books, it’s that they can’t if they aren’t widely available and don’t know about them to ask for them if they can’t see them in stores.
A prominent display, in store or online, as Karim also says is helpful. Many independent booksellers, such as Moon Lane Ink, Round Table Books and Letterbox Library, are doing this so much better than larger chains. Waterstones in Bromley, where I live, did this recently with a great selection of YA books, but it needs to filter across MG, Early Readers and Picturebooks too. This also needs to be across branches, not just in selected stores. In other more commercial outlets, a far greater range of publishers, authors and illustrators need to be represented, rather than just the same big names. The market just won’t change if the public don’t get a clear picture of exactly what is on offer for them.
Now let’s hear from Sonya McGilchrist at Dino Books :
At Hashtag press we have a dedicated sales team and great distribution with all the major distributors. Our sales team pitch out our titles at least 6 months before publication date to the big stores like Waterstones/ Foyles and to the indies. In house, we pitch directly to independent bookstores as well. For the public to know more about our titles, it would be good if the indie bookshops supported the smaller publishing houses more by taking a chance on their titles. Totally understand that you need the bestsellers to make money but if Waterstones are selling the same books and have a 241 offer, would you not just go to them or Amazon?
If the public can see different titles, they’ll support the smaller pub houses more. We can’t compete against the large publishers of the world so we need all support we can get. It’s all good telling the public to shop at more indie stores but if they only have the same titles as the big chains – what’s the point?
Greet Pauwelijn from Book Island:
At Book Island I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of many small, independent bookshops. Without them we probably wouldn’t be here anymore. I don’t get much support from the biggest bookshop chains at all. That’s probably because I’m rather stubborn when it comes to the format of our books. I’m convinced that a beautiful picture book should come as a hardback and I know that many of our customers agree with me on that. The hardback editions have become part of our brand. One of the chains only orders very small quantities of our titles, simply because they’re in hardback.
Fortunately, most of the independents are more open-minded and adventurous in their taste. The bigger shops are also wary of titles with a RRP above 9.99, while those are the Book Island titles that have done much better for us than the cheaper ones. When I look at the feedback from our customers and our sales figures, I know we’re making the right choices. Another reason why some of our books can be hard to find in the big shops is that they might be dealing with topics that are conceived by some of their buyers as difficult. I’m thinking of books dealing with grief, depression or titles that don’t have a happy ending, such as Mum’s Jumper, Virginia Wolf and Fox&Goldfish. As a publisher I’m on a mission to normalise those topics and introduce picture books from around the world to English-language readers. I can tell from our daily sales reports that many of our followers respond to our social media posts by going straight into their local independent and ordering the book we’ve been talking about.
I’m a strong supporter of the brick and mortar bookshops and will do everything I can to point our followers to their local independents. Very soon we will start a campaign which will reward every customer who buys our books from a real person. I invite all our followers to check out our titles in their local independents to find out more about this special campaign. If they don’t stock our titles yet, we’d love you to introduce them to our list.Fay Erek from AlannaMax:
At AlannaMax we’ve had tremendous support from many Independent bookshops and some on-line retailers like Letterbox Library. We also sell LOADS when we organise events. We regularly hear people say “these books are amazing, but I’ve never seen them in my local bookshop)”. It’s often a big chain.
As small publishers, it is hard for us to compete with the marketing budgets and sales clout of bigger publishers. We would invite people who like our books to bring them to the attention of buyers by ordering them in specially. If our books are in high demand they will have no choice but to supply. One other effective way of supporting us is to use the power of social media. If they mention their local large chain or independent bookshop when they post on social media, it will bring our books to their attention.
Bella Pearson from Guppy Books:
As a fledgling independent publisher of children’s books, I have so far received only enthusiasm and encouragement from both independent bookshops and also many of the larger independents and chains; having been in the business for many years has no doubt helped, but I think that publishing an unusual and contemporary novel as Guppy’s launch title has also been a huge advantage (GLOVES OFF is a powerful YA novel in verse about body-image, bullying and boxing). There is a sense that new is bold and exciting; independent publishers are an innovative and more open-minded prospect at a time when the bigger publishers are getting larger and larger and the smaller more bespoke/unusual projects are not given the space they need. Books and authors of high quality can get caught in the gaps and disappear without trace in those giant behemoths that dominate the market. So that’s where the nimble and more open indie publishers can step in, in both the adult and children’s book world. And readers can help them by buying their books and supporting small publishers on social media – and looking out for their books in the future! And purchasing as much as possible from shops on the high street too.
A thought-provoking set of responses with some common themes and struggles coming through. But why do we need greater representation for these publishers?
Well, books are the windows into worlds other than your own. A diverse and varied reading diet can open children’s eyes to experiences and cultures outside of their own. They can help start conversations and develop empathy. They can allow readers and their families to see themselves and those of others represented in a book. Surely all these things are invaluable in a society which seems to be closing doors and narrowing spheres of representation on a daily basis?
Should children only be able to access the more mainstream and commercialised titles, or would they also benefit from something a little different? This is where the independents can come into their own – offering titles from other cultures in translation and championing less well-known authors and illustrators.
If you’d like to see greater representation of small independent and BAME publishers in your local bookshops, here’s what you could do to help:
I’d like to finish by saying a huge thank you to all the wonderful people above for taking the time to compose their piece for this blog post – you have given us all a lot of very valuable insights.
It’s also important at this point to urge anybody reading to click on the website links above, look at some gorgeous and diverse titles, buy some and tell all your friends. Loudly!