A long time ago in a blogosphere far away, I promised I’d talk about what sells middle grade books.
Then promptly got swept up in writing and revising my YA trilogy. Oh the irony! But today I am finally pulling this topic out of my hat. Since so many of the components of MG sales are teachers, librarians, and school visits, it seems an especially appropriate time to discuss this, now that school is back in session and fall is in the air.
One of the kind of funny things about MG is that when you talk to publishing houses and editors, they all bemoan the lack of MG and talk about how they are on the hunt for great MG books.
It is YA that gets all the sparkly attention—higher advances, bigger publicity push, and often higher sales numbers. In fact, it is rare for a publisher to put a big publicity push behind an MG title unless it is part of a series and already a proven big seller. With YA there is a better chance of hitting the publicity lottery because there are simply more opportunities. If you look at PW’s list of Bestsellers for 2010 which lists 546 titles, only 108 of those were middle grade books. 2009 was had similar numbers, with only 96 middle grade bestsellers out of a list of 500 titles.
Part of that is because YA has a huge crossover potential to adult readers. There are huge numbers of adults who very happily read YA, but not MG. Also, marketing to YA readers is more of a cause and an effect. It’s easier to reach them because they’re older, online, and the role of the gatekeeper is not as much of a driving force in getting the word out about the book.
Also, in general, there are generally lower sales expectations for MG titles and (slightly) more willingness to wait for the slow build that happens as MG filters through the system. Many of the things listed below don’t even happen until a year or so after a book has been out. That means having enough publisher support to keep it in print long enough to find its audience, as well as accruing small sales milestones and accomplishments along the way. It means keeping the book out there long enough for the right people to stumble upon it and begin taking notice. It often means smaller advances, so the publisher has less capital invested upfront and can allow for that slower build.
Tools In The Middle Grade Sales Arsenal:
Write an amazing book. No, seriously. This cannot be said enough. Write a book impossible to ignore, or one that people cannot wait to press into eager readers’ hands.
Good Industry Reviews. Once upon a time, they only had to be good reviews, but a star or two never hurts. Especially with more and more library budgets being cut, they must radically prioritize their purchases and often will rely on starred reviews to do that. (However, do not panic if your book does not garner a star—many don’t and as long as the reviews are good, some sales will follow.) And how does one get starred reviews, boys and girls? That’s right—by writing an amazing book.
Attention from Book Bloggers. More and more, these book loving bloggers are having an impact on spreading the word about great books. There are fewer opportunities for MG out there than there are for YA, but there ARE opportunities.
Gatekeepers. Adults falling in love with your book and hand selling it to young readers. These gatekeepers can be indie booksellers, teachers, librarians, or parents. Even that Aunt who always gives books for birthday presents. I would also include the Junior Library Guild under this category, because they are in essence a gatekeeper for librarians and if they select your book, that recognition is an honor.
Foreign and Subsidiary Rights sales. (audio, movie, foreign rights) Nothing builds demand like perceived success (hence the huge smoke and mirror component to marketing.)
Bookclubs and book fairs. Again, this is a bit like hitting the lottery since there is only one game in town as far as these are concerned, but if your book is picked, it can really go. The downside is, especially with book fairs, it can also sit in relative obscurity as kids flock to the movie and media tie-ins and chotske toys and merchandise bookfairs also offer.
School visits, school visits, school visits. This is key and probably one of the biggest things a middle grade author can do to move books. However, these have to be set up properly. The author can’t just appear at the school, do their gig, and expect books to move. The book sales need to be an integral part of the visit. Usually the easiest way to do this is through presales arranged by the librarian, either through a local indie or a distributor or the publisher itself. I know a number of authors who have kept their MG books in print simply through their school visit sales.
Skype visits: These are happening more and more and possibly taking the place of school visits in some cases. They have a disadvantage in that you can’t (usually) set up presales of books. They can be especially effective for making sure readers know about subsequent books, however. (If any of you out there doing Skype visits do have a way you bring book sales into the picture, please let us know in the comments!)
Mass Market Bingo. No doubt about it, having your book selected to be featured at Target or Costco or any of the big wholesale outlets can have a huge jump in your sales.
State library and school readings lists. This is partly tied to the gatekeepers, but still deserves an entry of its own because it usually comes later in a books’ life, and it can be huge. A state list generates word of mouth in a way that few single librarians or teachers can. The other thing about state lists is that they are compiled by librarians and often have more breadth than starred reviews or literary favorites. Many are chosen for kid appeal or to reach certain reluctant reader niches. These aren't really something you can personally control, but they make a big difference in your sales numbers.
Social Media. Social media doesn’t have the same direct sales impact on MG that it does on YA. HOWEVER, it is still an important tool. Many of the above elements are initiated by one person loving your book; whether it is a librarian, the bookfair selection committee, the book buyer at Target, or a book blogger with a wide reach. And THAT is why it’s important to have some sort of social media/web presence—because it gives you a larger opportunity to connect with those people. In one of my favorite books, DRUID, by Morgan Llewellyn, the main character talks about needing to put yourself in the path of the gods in order for things to happen to you, and that’s how I view social media for MG books—you are putting yourself in the paths of the gods, widening your circle of acquaintances, being a part of the conversation.