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The Challenge of Selling Children's/Teen Fiction
In my years in the book industry, I've for better or for worse built my name and my reputation on being the fiction guru wherever I'm working. People refer to me as "the one who reads all the books" which is a point of pride (though not 100% accurate- there are many books I just never manage to get to), and a large part of my selling style. I read a book, get excited about it, and naturally want to share it with as many people as I possibly can.
Back in May, I was hired on at a new company (also specializing in school and library sales) that has built their reputation on selling non-fiction, and is looking for growth opportunities in fiction. This is where I come in.
Easy right? Select a bunch of titles that will presumably be popular, stick them on the shelf, and away we go. Well as my new employers are learning, selling fiction is a whole different animal than selling non-fiction.
Non-fiction sales to schools, as I'm learning, are pretty straightforward. Identify the curriculum/subject area, pull out the best/most current resources available on the subject. Author names, series names, and even publishers are less important than whether or not it fits the Grade 4 Social Studies Strand on Canadian Provinces for example. Since many children's non-fiction books contain the subject matter in the title, it's generally pretty easy to identify these types of books.
Fiction, on the other hand, as all book lovers can attest to, is a more emotional choice, a more strategic choice, and driven by all of the things that are largely unimportant in non-fiction.
First of all, when it comes to fiction, author name name is supremely important! You need only witness the frenzy of excitement that surrounds an announcement of a new book from a favourite author to know that the author's name alone will sell books. Over time, there can be some name recognition for a non-fiction title, but much less than fiction.
Equally important is the series name. Names such as Hunger Games, Divergent, Percy Jackson, or Wimpy Kid are enough to warrant multi-million copy first printings. I need only tell a customer that I have the latest book in the series and it's an instant sale.
Now comes the tricky part. When you don't have a series or author name behind you, how do you sell that lesser known novel to a super-picky customer base? Genre. If you can label it as something that you know is popular- such as Paranormal, Dystopian, Fantasy, etc..., liken it to another book you already know is popular (ie- I often sell Dork Diaries as the female Wimpy Kid), or figure out what specialized niche the title fills (such as high interest/low vocabulary) it goes a long way to selling it. (As long as the quality is there) In the absence of any of those things, I sell purely by the passion I have for the book. If I can convey to my customer how enthusiasm I have for a title and what kind of an emotional response it evoked, they are more willing to give it a chance.
Finally, and if you ever work in any kind of sales, the old adage KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) is absolutely true. Believe it or not, no matter how complex the plot is of a book, the customer neither cares, nor will they remember your detailed summary. When I'm selling at a busy trade show where I can't spend hours with each customer, I target the particular books I plan to hand sell, and come up with my two sentence pitch. I sold hundreds of copies of a middle-grade series simply by telling customers that it was a middle-grade send-up of The Godfather.
So those are my tips for selling fiction. If you are a book seller, what tips work for you, and if not, what is most important to you when you're deciding what fiction to buy?