Now more than ever, content creators are dealing with “audience fragmentation”—a newly ubiquitous term in marketing circles that describes the notion that consumers no longer have shared cultural experience, and therefore they exist in small, targeted groups—that makes reaching consumers concurrently more difficult and much, much easier. For those in the business of creating and selling books, the effort we’re forced to put into reaching consumers directly can often take away from the business of reaching tastemakers, typically librarians and booksellers, who can help us better reach the fragmented audience.
But there’s another $16 billion market market that often gets overlooked: schools. The education market, specifically the K-12 market, is a valuable and important audience that according to Keith Garton, President and Publisher of Red Chair Press is “not just textbooks.” We caught up with Keith to talk about Red Chair’s successes in the market, and tips for others who are looking to connect their books with curriculums.
Tell us a bit about Red Chair Press, your role there, and the company’s mission.
We’re a small company and we all wear multiple hats. As president and publisher, my role is both as a traditional publisher (creating and managing the list of titles and series from season to season), as well as serving as the top-line editor on all our books. Our design director, Jeff Dinardo, and I work closely to ensure a level of quality in the production that we can be proud of.
We believe it is imperative that all children can relate to characters they see in our books. So we very naturally include families and children of color in illustrations; we include people with physical challenges without making them the ‘feature’ of the story. I work with our local schools and libraries to get feedback from children as our books are being developed. This is how we decided the style by which we created our Start Smart line of books. Children gave us the idea to include silly jokes and riddles to lighten the content. The Sports sub-set of books even includes illustrations based on the ethnicity and gender mix we observed on Boston playgrounds. An 8-year-old girl as the star of her hockey team isn’t from the imagination of a socially-conscious editor, it’s reality on the ice.
Red Chair has particular success in the K-12 Education market. How did that come about?
Early in our existence we were successful being included on the lists of approved materials for character education in Kentucky and North Carolina. Today we are distributed by Lerner Publisher Services and we see our books being acquired for elementary classrooms and school libraries across the country. Several of our titles are included in collections sold by highly successful catalogers. Before a new series is added to our publishing plan, we must be able to define the learning goals and standards the series will address. Our Core Content-branded nonfiction books align to goals of grades 3 to 5 science, social studies, or language arts standards.
How do you define the education market in house at Red Chair Press?**
We look at the education market somewhat broadly. For us, it’s PreK to grade six classrooms, libraries, and home schools. Most of our books are distributed to independent bookstores as well as to school and public libraries. The classroom market is traditionally reached through face-to-face presentations. We depend on our distributor’s sales reps in reaching this huge market. Although we support their efforts by attending regional education trade shows.
What books are applicable for the market? Don’t classrooms typically only use textbooks?
Definitely not just textbooks. Well-written and accurately researched trade and library books increasingly play a role in teaching young readers core curriculum topics (like math, science and social studies, and probably even more in the humanities subjects like music and art history). In the younger grades and PreK, educators want children reading as much as possible, so appealing books from beginning readers to early chapter books play a huge role in classroom collections. There’s not much that’s more fun to watch than when children run to the book bins and begin pulling out their favorite books. And I guarantee you they’ll self-select books that are above their own ‘assigned’ reading level.
What are some of the logistics for breaking into the market? Do classrooms require specific types of binding? Are there particular distribution challenges or distributors that publishers should know about if they’re specifically trying to reach classrooms?
The education market is not rigid in terms of bindings and other specs. For lower-level books, saddle-stitching under 24-pages works just fine. Softcover books with a durable cover are most often the binding of choice. School libraries are looking for the same things the children’s buyers in public libraries acquire. Classrooms often want to purchase sets of books for the whole class or for shared reading among students, so it’s helpful to offer books in 6- or 10-pack bundles and maybe even a deeper discount for 25-book bundles. Ebooks and interactive digital options that can be projected on a whiteboard for guided reading by the teacher are often helpful to classroom sales, too.
As for distribution, it’s key to partner with a group who has feet on the ground as sales representatives are essential to reaching the school market. Direct mail and trade shows just aren’t enough. It is also important to provide free educational activities or teaching resources to support your books in the home school or classroom. We provide free downloadable pdfs on our web site and our distributor’s site.
Any other advice for publishers hoping to enter the market?
Well, first I would say you must “know what you don’t know,” and align yourself with people who can support you.
Second, if you really want to begin a publishing imprint, you must define your mission. Otherwise you can go off in too many directions with no clear identity. You, or your team, really must have some experience or background in education to be taken seriously by the market.
Third: the education market really is it’s own market. We have books that are reviewed less favorably in publications by a public library reviewer or trade buyer, while the education reviews by curriculum specialists or classroom teachers are exceptionally favorable. Make sure you’re approaching it with a strategy if you’re going to approach it at all.
Seth Dellon is the Associate Publisher of Foreword Reviews. You can meet him or hear him speak at most of the events Foreword attends, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.