Tuesday 7 August 2018

The Buyer Behind the Book

Author/editor Dianne (Di) Bates interviews children’s book buyer, Terri Cornish

Can you give a brief description of your career in children's books?

After graduating with a Bachelor of Education (Honours) Degree in 1993 & finding casual teaching too difficult, I started my career in children’s books as the Secretary/Office Manager at the CBC NSW Branch. This was a part-time position, so at the same time I worked at Shearers Children’s Bookshop in Gordon. In 1995 I moved to the Australian Publishers Association (APA) as Personal Assistant to the Executive Director. Since my son born in 1996, I have worked for Dymocks Bookshop (Wollongong), as the National Sales Manager for library supplier, Holding Educational Aids, and as Bookshop Manager for Prodigy Bookshop & Brays Kids Shop in Balmain. I choose the stock for Prodigy and assisted with the layout of its store.   Currently I am the Educational Consultant for the Australian Council for Educational Research.

How did you decide which books to stock when you set up Prodigy children's bookstore?
I researched other prominent children’s bookshops and their stock, studied publishers’ catalogues and read children’s literature magazines and journals to obtain the best mix possible. After studying children’s literature for five years, I also had my own knowledge from which to draw. I knew which classics would be essential and I was passionate about having as much Australian content as possible. 

How influential do you think reviews are when it comes to a customer deciding to buy a book?
I don’t think your average customer has a lot of exposure to reviews; they rely on what their children have read before, what books they get from the school library and what their peers may be reading at the time. Teachers and librarians rely more on reviews, plus titles that have won awards are always popular and in demand. Books that were short-listed by the Children’s Book Council used to be automatically purchased, but this isn’t the case anymore.

How many books would you think are sold based on paid publicity as compared to word-of-mouth recommendation?
It depends on the book and the publicity department behind them. With series like Deltora that have both paid publicity and word of mouth, the books simply walk out the door. However, in specialised bookshops I found that I didn’t sell a lot of mainstream titles like “Mary Kate & Ashley” even though their mass marketing approach was quite overwhelming.

In your opinion, how important are book launches?
They are important for those who attend them, but in terms of authors’ appearance I think writing festivals and book events are probably more influential.

Who mostly buys books for young people?
Generally young people themselves and their mothers. Teenage girls are far more likely to visit a children’s bookshop than their male counterparts. Grandparents are good customers as they are willing to listen to advice from bookshop staff. To be honest I didn’t see a lot of men except for our regular customers, fathers who came in with their children.

Can you describe your work as manager for a library supplier?
I was National Sales Manager for Holding Educational Aids in the Library supply division. I chose books every month from most of the mainstream publishers as well as from educational publishers, like Heinemann Library and Era Publications. I had 22 library agents across Australia who sold the books to school libraries, both primary and high schools, and to public libraries. I produced marketing notes and a monthly newsletter to keep the agents informed and motivated. I attended conferences and travelled across Australia training agents and visiting schools.

What influenced your choice of book purchases as a distributor?
It varied a lot; however, because of the library grant most schools would only buy titles that were Australian. Librarians also wanted fiction & non-fiction titles that could be slotted into their teachers’ units of work, such as themes in HSIE, SOSE or in Science. Novels and readers were less of a priority and weren’t in demand as much as non-fiction Australian titles. Educational publishers do publish with these units in mind, so it was quite easy to find material.

Do self-published authors approach and sell to educational distributors?
No. I was sent manuscripts and the occasional book, but we never took them on. I was purchasing quantities of 150+ books and therefore needed a guarantee that titles would arrive, be packaged well and that supply would flow smoothly. I couldn’t risk that or take a chance on a self-published book, even if I wanted to.

Is there any advice you'd offer to authors wishing to promote their titles to booksellers and/or library suppliers?
Booksellers are usually busy and don’t always have the time to see reps as well as individual authors. If you can get an appointment with a buyer don’t be too aggressive in your self-promotion. In the experiences I’ve had, it doesn’t go down too well. In terms of library suppliers, if you have teacher’s notes or classroom activities this may be influential if the book is relevant to schools’ needs.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Just to give you an idea of what sells really well, I’ll break it down into age groups.
0-5 years
Picture books with Australian animals, such as Possum MagicOne Woolly Wombat & Wombat Stew were our most popular titles.
5-8 years
Readers obviously Aussie Nibbles, and Bites were very popular, but for some children the text was too difficult. What are needed are beginner readers (Reading Recovery level 1-10) that aren’t condescending. I had to recommend Ladybird a lot for this reading ability and would have preferred an alternative. Tashi by Anna Fienberg is another popular series that crosses over to the next age group.
8-12 years
Deltora Quest is a phenomenon and most readers of this age are starting to have an interest in fantasy. Joke book and crass titles are always popular too. Girls tend towards books on horses, fairies and very girly themes at this stage. Boys are still influenced by superheroes and books that have come from toys or movies.
13-16 years
A very tricky area that has been influenced a lot by fantasy and interest in Harry Potter. Cornelia Funke and Philip Pullman are very popular authors for both girls & boys. Girls tend towards realistic titles from authors like Melina Marchetta, Alyssa Brugman and Deborah Ellis.

Interviewer Dianne Bates offers a twice monthly online magazine for those in the Australian children’s industry. Go to www.buzzwordsmagazine.com to receive a free copy. If you decide to subscribe ($48 for 24 issues pa), Di will send you a copy of her article, 'How to Get Both Feet Past Publishers' Locked Doors.'

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