One of my recent projects has been to conduct a sales analysis of award-winning titles for the Coretta Scott King awards and the Pura Belpre awards across the three Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprints: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, and Clarion.
Having some experience with sales figures from my previous career as the children’s book buyer for the Odyssey Bookshop, it was useful to bring my own knowledge of the bookselling world to the sales information gathered from the publishing world. Book awards like the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Coretta Scott King, and the Pura Belpre are awarded by the American Library Association through the Association for Library Service to Children. When looking at sales figures, in order to understand them, one must have some understanding of the influence and intersection of three separate communities: the library market, the publishing market, and the bookselling market.
Publishers publish a book, doing all the first-tier work: editing, creating an attractive package, sales and marketing promotion and events, etc. Booksellers do the second tier work: showcasing the books available for purchase in-store, on websites, hosting author events, writing reviews, furthering the sales and promotion begun by the publishers, and also often working with schools to partner on making the book available for educational purposes. Libraries are the third tier: making the book available to a non-book-buying audience, also holding author and book events, also furthering the publisher promotion, but then increasing the school/education element, as well as often discussing the book in a more academic context. All three tiers have their own wide reaching, and often overlapping, spheres of influence, and all three tiers will often evaluate the book within the children’s literature canon as a whole.
How is this reflected in sales? Well, remember Venn diagrams? Same concept: the book wants to have as much of the publishing, library, and bookselling market overlap as possible. But, because these are three separate entities, there’s no guarantee they’re all going to agree. Obviously the publisher is going to be gung-ho about their books, but each book receives a different amount of promotion. Then, the ALA might love a book and honor it with an award, but it turns out to be a book more suited for the library (read: book-borrowing) market, rather than flying off the book store shelves. Conversely, booksellers may love a book and elevate it to a higher sales status than one afforded by publishing promotion, but that still doesn’t guarantee it a spot on the ALA best list – or it could, as with the case of recent Newbery winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
Now, the neatest part about this project was that there were several books on my list that had been published prior to 1990 (as you might imagine). Specifically two titles – one published in 1970, another in 1976 – did not have sales information available through any HMH computer database. This is because these titles are currently out-of-print, meaning though they won awards, they fell into that category of library appreciation, not bookselling appreciation, and so have fallen out of popularity. The tricky part is that they went out-of-print before the time when records began being recorded in a computer database. This means I got the help of a very nice gentleman in the sales department who kindly looked up and photocopied for me the original recipe card sales records of these books, hand entered, from about 1970-1981 (for the two books combined).
How cool is that?
I got to sit here, holding these photocopies of ancient (okay, I know the 1970s was not an ancient time) records, adding up the numbers by hand (okay, on the calculator on my computer), because they were not in a computer database. Before all of you who remember the ’70s start lambasting me for making fun of something 40 years old, the point is I LOVE moments like this, when I feel so connected to a history and a time before the current digital age. (I wish I could scan the photocopy of the card to show, but that would involve revealing sales figures and I don’t want to risk that.) So, despite my slight exaggeration in tone, I’m actually very appreciative and excited that I had this experience today.