A love letter to teachers, librarians and independent stores.

A J HartleyA J Hartley
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Most of my posts this year have been either craft oriented or driven by larger ideas about why we write, so I thought I’d say something about the business end of writing today. As some of you may know, last week my fantasy adventure Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact was named both one of the nine finalists for the North Carolina Young Adult book of the year for 2012 in the middle grades category, and one of the four finalists for the young adult book of the year by SIBA. The winners will be announced in the next few months. (It should be said that one of the other 3 nominees for the SIBA award is our very own Carrie Ryan, so MW has snagged HALF the YA nominations for the year!). I have no idea who will win, but this really is one of those “it’s an honor just be nominated” deals because of who the awards are organized by.

SIBA is the association of southern independent booksellers—i.e. all the non chain stores throughout the southern states. The NCYA book award is organized by the state’s school library media association. The two organizations are connected, because many school events, including book fairs and author visits, are orchestrated by local independent stores who supply the actual books. Some book fairs are run through chains like B&N, and others are run by publishers like Scholastic (who only carry their own titles), but most go through independent stores and the kind of old school booksellers who actually read and can make informed recommendations to their customers (including schools). It’s a happy marriage that can get a lot of attention for books which might otherwise get missed by the chains whose focus is drawn to the title with the biggest publicity budget. I’m delighted that DARWEN is in the running for these awards because they come from actual readers.

Before I started publishing YA/MG, I had rather given up on the kind of marketing I could do myself. I still do store book signings and presentations at cons because they can be fun, but in real terms they generally don’t generate enough actual book sales to be worth the time. A store signing will take me a couple of hours minimum, during which, on average I might sell 10-15 books, sometimes more, often less. Con numbers, in my experience at least, are comparable, and I’ve long since abandoned the idea that attending cons makes good business sense in terms simply of sales. Yes, I might raise my profile by speaking on panels and such, but for the most part the value of a con is in the hanging out with like-minded people, not selling dozens of books. All told, my experience as a writer of adult fiction suggested that despite all the pressure on authors to do as much as possible to market their work, the return was minimal compared to what a committed publisher could do if they decided to put actual money behind your book.

That, as I say, was before DARWEN, before I realized the power of the school visit. As I suggested above, author appearances at schools are generally driven by a local independent store or book fair company who orchestrate the visit and supply the books. All I have to do is show up, talk to the kids, read a little, answer questions, and sign. On average, one two hour visit (comparable to a store signing) will net an average of about 35 sales (and these are hard covers, mind you), sometimes as much as double that. Apart from the joy of meeting kids who are genuinely enthusiastic about books (and thus treat you as a celebrity), you can field their amazingly frank questions (“How much money do you make?” “Are you a Christian?” etc.) and get to imagine that maybe—just maybe—you just contributed to a formative moment in their lives. How such things translate into your own success is too hard to track, but there is no question that in my case being up for these awards (and the significant jolt in my book’s visibility as a result) is connected to the fact that since October, when the book came out, I have hand sold close to 2,000 copies in local schools. Nothing I have ever done before in terms of my own marketing and publicity has come close to such a number.

Perhaps in the future I’ll post about just how those school visits work and what factors make them especially productive, but for now I simply wanted to raise the (admittedly fairly obvious) point that for middle grade readers (who tend to do less buying of their own books and have a minimal online presence) the all important Word Of Mouth that can really launch a book tends to happen at the school level. The support of teachers and school librarians in this cannot be overemphasized, nor can the continued interest of the local independent stores who sell to their students.

My sales numbers for DARWEN on Amazon are pretty slack, and though the book did well at B&N initially it will be pretty hard to find there till it goes paperback or the appearance of the second book in the series sparks interest again in November. Right now the book is selling at those places where people have actually read it and where they talk about it. For me that means independent booksellers, libraries, and schools, and I am deeply grateful to them.

So what about you? Any formative moments in your past when teachers or librarians introduced you to a neat book, or brought an author to speak to your class? Praise of independent book stores also welcome!

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19 comments to A love letter to teachers, librarians and independent stores.

  • ajp88

    I was 13. Some new wacky movie had its first set of trailers release over the summer. Something called Fellowship; I thought it looked a little interesting. On the first day of the new school year, I saw my math teacher get out of his red Bronco and walk into the building. His license plate read, “STRIDER.”

    Rather than talk basic algebra, we talked Lord of the Rings, Strider, and that new trailer. At this point I had read The Hobbit when I bought it for a dollar at a neighbor’s yard sale. I was 8 or 9 and it flew right over my head but I did read it. My teacher promised me the whole series was a brilliant read and would make for a great live-action movie. He was right.

  • Ironically, my elementary school experience with teachers recommending books has left me with a life long instinct to run whenever a book is recommended and to read whatever I’m told to avoid.

    However, there was the magical day when I swallowed my shyness and told the children’s librarian that I had run out of books to read. The Nashua Public Library (long may it endure) had a wonderful children’s room, but I had systematically worked my way through the shelves and read or at least picked up nearly every piece of fiction and most of the non-fiction. The wonderful lady behind the desk clearly recognized me – I haunted the place every chance I got. She also knew I had checked out DragonSong five times. (Weirdly, it was the only Anne McCaffrey book shelved in Children’s.) She gave me a look I now recognize as meaning “how much trouble will I get into if I go through with this?” asked me how old I was and said, “Come with me.” She led me out of the children’s room, past the Circulation Desk, and through the historical romance section to the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Alcove. It was an actual alcove built into the wall and someone had painted it with aliens and unicorns and planets. “You might try these to start,” she said and left me alone with my new treasures. I owe her much more than I can tell.

  • ajp,
    leaving alone the fact that you were 13 when the first LOTR movie came out, since that makes me feel older than Treebeard, your comment reminds me how large individual teachers/librarians can loom in our development. Which leads to…

    Sarah,
    I guess you had a mixed bag, but the good outweighed the bad in the long run, I hope :)

  • I learned to love books and love fantasy in particular all on my own.

    Writing, on the other hand, was a combination of teachers. The first teacher who gave me some indication that I had talent was my 4th Grade teacher, Mr. Pearson. He was really big on reading and assigned a lot of different reading projects to the class. Not only did he read to us for at least 30 minutes each day, we also had our own “buddy books” that we read in pairs and discussed with each other. I read “Wind in the Willows” that way, as well as a book called “Pinballs”.

    He also had us write short stories. I remember him handing them back out so we could continue working on them, and he crouched down next to my desk and said: “Lauren, this was a really great story. Have you ever thought about being a writer?”

    I’d never put it into words before. I’d written stories when I was younger than that (the first when I was about 3, dictating to my babysitter, who wrote it down) but that was the first time I realized that a writer was something I could BE. Books didn’t come out of nowhere…

    The second teacher who encouraged me was my 7th grade math teacher, Mr. Pinkney. School was rough for me through elementary and middle school, as I’m sure it is for most people. Despite the fact that I didn’t like math, Mr. Pinkney saw me working on a story before class (I had a whole three-ring binder full of originals and fanfiction) and asked to read it.

    Two days later, he and the English teacher were fighting over who got to tell me about a story contest. I’ll never forget how excited they were to tell me about it, and how they were actually annoyed with each other–the English teacher because it was her domain, Mr. Pinkney because he’d identified my love of writing. The fact that Mr. Pinkney was actually interested in ME and in my stories, even when he was a math teacher (and therefore, in my head, obviously not interested in fiction?) meant a lot to me.

    High school teachers all knew I wanted to be a writer. My nickname became “Scribe” in 9th grade, and stuck until I graduated college. During high school, I had teachers ask me to submit to contests, get irritated when I wrote a better story right after the contest deadline, give me grades of 110 because I wrote 30-page stories as projects, share my writing with their kids, and, finally, at the very end of my senior year, my favorite teacher of all time thanked me for my final essay, because I’d put so much effort into it, and he hadn’t expected anyone to really try, since it was the last essay and our college acceptances were already in.

    CURRENTLY, I have a pet librarian. She’s okay, I guess. ;)

  • Gypsyharper

    I have fond memories of my Elementary School librarian, though the only time I actually remember asking her where I could find a book, I asked for a book about “origami” and she led me to a book about “Oregon” – which I checked out anyway, because I was too shy to tell her she’d misheard me. But she was always cheerful and happy to see us come into the library and happy to check the stacks of books I found on my own out to me.

    My high school librarian I remember as a taciturn woman who never came out of her office. There were always aides who did the actual checking out of books. But I hung out in the library a lot anyway, because that was where the books were.

    My love of reading came mostly from my mother, who always read to me, and my kindergarten teacher who gave all of us a book at the end of the year. Mine was called “The Little White House” and it was a pretty standard elementary school reader. But I took it home, and with my new-found knowledge of the alphabet and phonics, taught myself to read it. I had lots of other teachers who provided silent reading time, or read books to us, but that kindergarten teacher always stands out in my mind.

    I was encouraged in my writing by most of my teachers, but my favorite was my 7th grade English teacher who would always have a prompt of some kind on the board when we came into class and would give us 10-15 minutes to free-write on the prompt in our journals. It was my favorite part of the school day.

    Fortunately, I still hang out in libraries (I work in one, actually), and have met many wonderful librarians who encourage kids to read and support authors. One of my best friends is a school librarian who does so many cool things with the students that I wish she’d been my librarian!

  • Scribe,
    yes, I should have foregrounded writing as well as reading. That’s a great example.

    And don’t forget to feed your pet librarian or they get cranky.

    Gypsy,
    more good instances, thanks! And now you can be similarly inspirational to those who come to your library :)

  • Yes, she generally needs a steady diet of Guiness and Mexican food to make it through the week.

  • Congratulations again on the nominations, A.J. Fantastic! I was fortunate to attend a high school with an unbelievable English Department. During my four years there I had four truly outstanding teachers, each one of whom contributed to my love of reading and my passion for writing.

  • AJ, This was a wonderful post. I don’t often get teary eyed over MagicalWords. :)

    CONGRATULATIONS on the awards. I’ve been crossposting them on my FB!

    I had great librarians all through school. I hated books and reading up intil 5th grade, when my English treacher told my mother to make me read aloud to her for 30 minutes every day. Which was an E-TER-NI-TY of time back then. The school librarian picked out a book because it was funny and she thought it would entertain.

    The first day I read and took off to play in the woods (tom-boy here). Day two I read and pushed the time limit of 30 minutes a bit to finish a chapter. Day three I took to the book to my room and finished it. (I had heard about speed reading and found I could do that!)

    Day four, I went to the library and asked for more books. That day, I took another book to my mom, read for an hour, went to my room, finished that book. On day five, I brought yet another book to mom, who was now totally confused and slightly worried about this strange being who had taken over the body of her child. In five days I went from hating to read, to being the total book worm.

    I read a book a day for the rest of elementary school (and 5 books a week thereafter through school). Mom had to buy a basket for my bike that summer. I rode my bike to the county library (a good 5 miles one way) twice a week, Monday and Friday, because we could only check out 5 books at a time.

    That 5th grade english teacher was a very difficult woman, one who embarrassed students in class and broke rulers over kid’s heads and hands. But she taught me to love reading and for that I’ll always appreciate her. That libraian and all the ones thereafter? Heroes. Totally my heroes.

  • Thanks, David!

    Faith, your 5th grade teacher sounds terrifying. Glad you got soemthing good from her! Thanks for the congrats.

  • Megan B.

    I wish I had fond memories of librarians from my childhood. But I was shy and didn’t go to them to ask for recommendations, so it may be my own fault. However, I do have some teachers to thank for encouraging me to read and write. Especially an English teacher I had for two years in high school, who gave us amazing assignments that really spoke to me. A lot of students didn’t like her, but whether I liked her at the time or not, I know now that she was a great teacher. And when she chose a story I wrote to read aloud to the class, it was a huge encouragement to me as a budding writer. I also want to thank my Intro to Fiction Writing prof from college, who told me privately that I was one of the best writers in the class. Whether it was true or not (maybe he said it to everyone!) it gave me another big boost.

    I am now embarking on a career as a children’s librarian. I hope to bring some joy to growing minds, and introduce children to the magic of reading.

  • I don’t remember my 4th grade teacher recommending any specific books (although she probably did), but I do remember discussing books I’d read with her. Sometimes I stayed after school to talk to her about my latest discovery. She talked to me about books as if I were an adult–at least I thought so then. She certainly fostered my love for reading.

    And to turn this around a bit– I didn’t read much science fiction or fantasy as a child. When I taught high school English, I always asked my students for book recommendations as part of their regular “outside reading” assignment, and they are the ones who got me to read Dragonsong and The Wizard of Earthsea and Fehrenheit 451 and many others that I’d never read before. Sometimes the teachers and librarians also get inspired by the students!

  • Megan,
    best of luck as a children’s librarian! I hope you inspire lots of young readers. I’ll refrain from asking you to push the work of all at MW :)

    Sisi,
    that’s a great counter point! Always good to remember that we learn from our students.

  • Razziecat

    Most of elementary school was awful, but the visit to the school library was heaven. When I learned there was a branch of the city library within walking distance of home, it was like finding a lost treasure. I can still remember how that building smelled…stone and brick and old paper. And what is it about fifth grade teachers? I had a very peculiar one, too! We had to write a short story, and I handed mine in late (the very idea terrified me). I received two grades on it: An A+ for the quality of the story itself, and a C (I think) because it was late. I still haunt the library, and writing still (sometimes) terrifies me. And I won’t give either one up.

  • The library was my second home as a kid. (Yep, socially awkward and never quite fit in.) Sure, my dad took me there occasionally to get “real” books after he caught me reading too much of The Babysitters Club, and his own passion for science fiction and fantasy got me reading the genres at or above my age group, but I read a *lot*, and my favorite librarian was Alison. She’s retired now, but she was always cool and quirky and, when I told her I wanted to be a writer, so very encouraging. She’d come to visit our school at least once a year. To me, she was a rock star.

  • Fireheart1974

    My introduction was so formative that I use it as the intro to my bio. We had to read the Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe in Fourth Grade. I was in a “transition” school at the time while our house was being built so I knew no one…But after I read the first book, I remember walking into the School Library which for some reason I remember as being huge and asking the Librarian if there were any more? She handed me the rest of the Narnia books and I devoured them. From there, I had Mr. Nesbit in 5th Grade. This is a man who leapt onto his desk with a pointer to recite The Jabberwocky. I still remember parts of that poem because of him. He had a corner of the room filled with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and Hardy Boys. I read all of them. That same year, my mom brought home from a trip the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy. And it was all over, I was hooked on Fantasy from then on…

  • Razzie,
    me too. Libraries were a haven for me in school. Much of the rest was pretty miserable.

    Laura,
    I hope she knows how much she meant to you!

    Fireheart,
    LWW kickstarted my own interest in fantasy and in reading generally. The central idea on DARWEN (going through the mirror) is supposed to be a kind of homage to Lewis’ wardrobe as a result.

  • Mikaela

    Like so many others, I was a voracious reader. I read fantasy, horse books, Nancy Drew books, fairy tales. I am very grateful for the fact that we had a library within walking distance.
    But, yes, I had some awesome Elementary school teachers that in their different ways encouraged not only reading but also storytelling.
    ( I wrote my first short stories as school assignments when I was 13-15. :D) That said, the one thing that I still remember was a comment from my English teacher in high school : That she had gotten so scarred on reading Strindberg ( I think) when *she* was in High School that she couldn’t read him until she was in her thirties. The sad part is that I think it still is valid. Personally, I have just begun to warily approach the classics.

  • Yvette

    I am soooo late to this little soiree but I couldn’t pass it up. I have had a passion for books since I was old enough to move past the level 4 Dick & Jane series. My first grade teacher presented me with my first chapter book when I was in the second grade (we’d remained close friends through our shared love of reading). “The Ghost of Windy Hill”…I think I still have that book somewhere. I always looked forward to the days my classes would visit the library at school. As I got into middle school, I became a library assistant – I loved working in there, not only during the school year (for a grade) but I’d go in during the summer to inventory, rearrange, and label and shelve the new additions. I would read just about anything – from classics to Nancy Drew; from Judy Blume to Terry Brooks.

    There is one story that has haunted me and I can’t recall the name. The story centers around three siblings who find a dollhouse in the attic but it isn’t an ordinary dollhouse. The children notice that the figures tend to be in different locations with each visit to the attic. When they place them back in their original spots, the children suddenly find themselves in the time period and actual castle this miniature was built in exact replica to. There is a mystery at the heart of it all and the outcome is a little sad. It also introduced me to a wonderful little sweet called marzipan! If anyone perhaps knows the book I speak of, PLEASE (begging on knees) tell me the title and author. I would love to find it and add it to my collection. :D