Learning from Booksellers
Having left my career in bookselling to become a librarian at about the same time the bookstore model began showing up in libraries, I’ve never been tempted to give up my membership in the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. Today kicks off NCIBA’s annual trade show, where not only do I get the opportunity to talk to publisher reps on the bookstore side of the business (who are often excited about different books or different trends than their library-side counterparts), but I also have the opportunity to attend “education programs,” like this morning’s Building a Great Graphic Novel Section for Kids and Teens program. Led by Kristen McLean from the Association of Booksellers for Children, this was a sort of Graphic Novels 101 for booksellers wondering how to best merchandise books they’ve either never had or don’t know what to do with in their stores.
Books that are great for libraries are not necessarily great for bookstores. In libraries we have the luxury of buying great books we know will be shelf-sitters. We have the time, and even the duty (if not always the space), to bring in those special books we know won’t fly off the shelf, but we also know are perfect for that special reader. In bookstores, however, shelf space equals dollars, and they can’t afford to bring in too many books that don’t turn over regularly. Booksellers can see the amount of money publishers are spending on graphic novels and know it’s a growing market, but don’t often have the expertise to know how to choose the books that will sell.
According to McLean, one thing booksellers are doing to educate themselves is turning to their local librarians for advice. Librarians have been championing this format and can help booksellers spot trends in local reading habits, discover hot new titles, and become familiar with backlist titles that may have been published before the store began carrying graphic novels. But what booksellers need to know most is which books are going to allow for growth and which are going to have crossover potential. To this end, some bookstores are doing what many libraries have been doing for a long time: forming teen advisory councils that help shape the direction of the children’s and teen sections of the bookstore.
The best advice McLean gave, though, was a good reminder for me, and that is to be specific about which age groups you are buying for when looking at books. For booksellers, this means talking with publisher reps about graphic novels for younger readers rather than about graphic novels in general. For libraries it means not trying to shoehorn a title into a collection in which it doesn’t belong. I need to remember that just because I love a title and can think of an eighth-grader it would be perfect for doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect for all eighth-graders, and the book should really be shelved as part of the teen collection. As McLean said, when I put books on the library’s shelves I’m essentially saying to parents that these are books I’m confident belong on our shelves. If I haven’t educated myself about the books, the market, and the customers, then I’m not doing very good business.
Even though I’m no longer a bookseller, and certainly not a novice when it comes to graphic novels, I appreciate being able to attend programs like this one. Taking a look at collecting graphic novels from another perspective helps me reevaluate where I’m going with my own library’s collection and gives me ideas for new ways to market the books to kids and to their parents. It also helps me understand how non-comics readers look at the expanding market, their concerns and misperceptions, and gives me an opportunity to build arguments for why graphic novel collections are important in libraries.
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About Eva Volin
Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.
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