Thursday, 30 November 2017

Bookpeople Watching - A ReadItTorial

We had such a fantastic time playing "Booksellers" for the day a couple of saturdays ago at the annual Baptist Church Christmas Fayre. Most of the people who turned up to pick up a pre-christmas book bargain were buying for children or grandchildren, but for both of us it was really interesting to see which books people immediately homed in on - so we thought it'd be fun to offer up some observations from a day of bookpeople watching...

First up - the most common requests for books from kids were: 

1) Space books (yep, space is still THE WIN as far as kids are concerned)

2) Non-Fiction books about transport (particularly car books - We had a single one on our stall and sure, we don't see every non-fiction book published but both girls and boys asked for more books about transportation methods

3) STEM and science subjects. Kids really love books that show them how to do some cool science experiments at home but many made the observation that "A lot of science books have all the same stuff in"

4) Decent middle grade animal books - particularly horses. I think I lost count of the amount of kids (girls in particular) who expressed an interest in horse-based stories but did not want the classics (like Black Beauty) or anything to do with Equestria Girls / My Little Pony. 

What kids DIDN'T want: 

1) Pirate books. As we suspected, they've outstayed their welcome, or so it seems.

2) FICTION books about Knights / dragons / damsels in distress (though the single non-fiction title we had about Knights / Medieval times was snapped up very quickly). 

3) Gross-out books. We had a huge selection of these on the stall, and couldn't even give the durned things away by the end (particularly a really dreadful upcoming Christmas book about farts that we'll be reviewing as part of our upcoming Booky Advent Calendar). 

Some more observations from our fun day of selling books: 
  • Cover power is EVERYTHING, it truly is - and if there's one thing all artists and authors should definitely tip a hat to it's how fantastic design folk can really take a piece of work and make it leap out at people. With non-fiction titles in particular, it was always cover power and the book title that drew people towards those books (though we found it really weird that despite our ridiculous bargain prices, in general most of the non-fiction titles didn't sell as well as expected, yet picture books and middle grade chapter books sold like hot cakes). 
  • Grandparents still do the 'Is this suitable for a boy / girl / particular age group' thing. Despite all the amazing progress that has been made in putting an end to people's preconceptions about gender divisions in books, it's still difficult to get past this concept for a lot of folk. I think it comes from the era that people grew up in - and in particular grandparents who will undoubtedly still remember when books really were strongly divided up between "The Book of the Home for Girls" and "The Adventure Book for Boys" (in fact we spotted a couple of these on the secondhand book stall running at the same venue). We did our best to fend off questions that pushed towards a preference for girl / boy books but there are generations who (sadly) will never adapt or change their views on all that stuff. 
  • Boys STILL turn their noses up at books that have a female main character. Despite my strong recommendations to a lady who wanted an exciting story for her 8 year old grandson who loves chapter books, I could not get her to buy Tom Fletcher's excellent "The Creakers" purely because the story had a female main protagonist. I think what made it worse was when I described Lucy as "Strong, gutsy, determined" - I could see the shutters coming down even harder with every effort I made to put across how great this book would be for her grandson. I also had similar experiences with a lot of the picture books, even colours of covers affecting someone's perception of whether their kids or grandkids would open those books on christmas day and immediately cast them aside. Sad that. 
  • Book 'gimmicks' still dazzle and delight kids, even in an app-fed generation. Now THAT warmed the cockles of my heart. We had a lot of excellent books that 'did things' such as the awesome Pyjamarama titles with their dazzling visual trickery and 'moving' pages, and of course the wonderful paper engineering in pop-up books. We were also pleased to see that one of our theories was borne out, when two non-fiction titles for older kids that had lift-the-flap or expanding page elements sold almost immediately. It does prove that those book mechanisms and mechanics are not just for tinies. Older kids love them just as much too. 
  • Teachers really know their stuff when it comes to books. We met quite a few teachers or TAs who'd come in to pick up books for school (and were duly given ridiculous discounts and even a few free titles thrown in as well). We had some great conversations with teaching folk and they really do know their onions, they know which authors are 'hot' with their classes, they know which publishers go the extra mile and they also have fantastic insights into the 'shelf life' of particular books - ie whether a book that's going to work well with their current Year 1 and 2 kids will still work on next year's intake as well. That was quite fascinating to talk about. 
  • The classics still sell amazingly well. We had some really beautiful versions of classic children's stories on sale, and again these really sold amazingly. Nostalgia definitely works, and quite often we'd sell books to parents who were buying a book they'd loved as a child or something by an author or illustrator they'd always loved to pass on to their own children. Stories like "The Secret Garden" and even more 'grown up' classics like "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" and the timeless "Wind in the Willows" were snapped up double-quick. We've always secretly wondered whether people still bought the real old classics for their kids, looks like the answer is a firm "Yes!"
  • (Sadly?) 'celebrity books' still grabbed a lot of attention. We were quite amazed by how many kids instantly knew the author of a celebrity book (even ones we never really recognised when we reviewed the titles) - even if the definition of 'celebrity' was stretched to fit folk who fall into a real niche market. I surreptitiously did a lot of "If you like their books, you're REALLY going to love this person's books" so doing a bit of trumpeting and championing for authors and illustrators who might have been shoved to one side a bit in recent marketing and PR. For everyone who came to the table looking for a new David Walliams story we could easily swap in and find ten other authors whose stuff was just as clever, funny and brilliant - and definitely worth reading as well as David's work. 
  • Last but by no means least, you just cannot categorise book folk nor second-guess what their tastes are. It's getting tougher every year, particular when you're trying to predict what will be a hit for kids - and what their parents / grandparents etc might *THINK* is a suitable book for their children. Age in particular is a toughie as we sold a lot of chapter books to kids who were obviously younger than C but still as wildly enthusiastic about middle grade stuff as she is. Similarly, we sold a lot of picture books to older kids who still love illustration-heavy stuff. It just goes to show just how hard it is to pull any metrics out of children's books or try to predict trends and patterns (for example, we had books about fidget spinners which were completely and totally ignored - so that trend definitely seems 'over' but we had a lot of kids who were really interested in 'traditional' subjects such as Knights and Dragons, or non-fic books about transport (and here's a huge klaxon for anyone out there planning a non fiction book, there are NOT NEARLY ENOUGH INTERESTING BOOKS ABOUT METHODS OF TRANSPORTATION! Just a subtle hint there).