When I first realized I’d written a middle grade book, I kind of panicked. How do you reach your reader when your reader is behind a barrier called ‘parents’? Adult readers I can reach through blogs or other social media channels. I can get in the magazines they read or the book reviews they scan. If they like something, they often reach out directly and we have a dialog. I get it. It makes sense. You can easily identify places where you might want to concentrate your marketing energies.
But now my reader is ten or eleven years old. She doesn’t have a credit card. She doesn’t buy her own books. And she might not spend a lot of time thinking about what to read either. Someone hands her a book with a cool cover (yes, the cover matters) and she reads it. If it’s good she might ask for the next book in the series or something like it. If she doesn’t like it, she tosses it aside and waits for the next book to magically appear in her hands.
So my question is: how do the books appear in the hands of middle grade readers?
Well, to answer that, I needed to ask the parents of these kids. So I did an informal survey of about forty of them.
I asked did they:
- Rely on the school librarian to recommend book titles?
- Go to the public library and browse the shelves? Or ask the children’s librarian there for suggestions?
- Get recommendations from friends?
- Use GoodReads or Amazon or other reviews?
- Read book blogs or subscribe to book newsletters?
- Visit the local bookstore and get recommendations from the staff?
Can you guess what the most popular method these parents used to identify books for their kids? Of course you can! Amazon reviews and recommendations and GoodReads reviews. Not surprising. I do this myself. Most people end up buying the books right there on Amazon as well.
Also popular were curated lists on a theme – for example, empowering books for girls (Mighty Girl pops into my head) or books around environmental issues or books with talking cats. You get the idea.
An extension of this are lists of award winning books – for example, the Newberry Award winners and nominees. And of course the New York Times reviews and bestseller lists are popular across the board. (and if I knew a magic formula for getting on that list I’d surely have shared it here already!)
Takeaway: Amazon/GoodReads reviews remain important regardless of what age group you’re writing for. If you can increase your number of reviews, it seems well worth the effort. Also, if your book falls into a theme, see who’s curating those lists and maybe make friends with them.
Next up in terms of popularity was browsing the local bookstore. Kids like going in and cruising the shelves and seeing what jumps out at them. Covers count. So does placement on the shelves. So does a shout out from the bookseller although not everyone asks for advice. In fact, some people prefer to be left alone in the bookstore. Who knew?
Takeaway: this one is a little harder because it’s impossible to visit every bookstore in the nation (even though that would be super fun, right??). But you can go regional. Get to know the bookstores in your area. Visit them. Make friends with the booksellers. Make sure they get your ARC. Give them bookmarks to display. If they have preferential placement, ask how you get in on it. Schedule an event at a store and pack it with your friends.
Speaking of friends, almost everyone mentioned getting recommendations from friends. This means adult friends sharing what their kids are reading and kids sharing with each other what they like.
Takeaway: kids talk. If you’re brave, do some school visits. Dazzle them and generate some buzz that they will share with friends far and wide. Also, consider reaching the parents directly – I’m thinking guest blogs on parenting sites or magazine articles.
Very few of my survey respondents said they relied on the school librarian or the public library. When I clarified, most said that the school librarian/student is a closed loop and not one where they are involved. In other works, the librarian hands the child a book and this child may never bring that book home or mention it to his parents. He may read it in class during free reading time and return it for another when he’s done. The ones who did use the school library all said they liked the librarian so personal relationships matter.
Takeaway: the school librarian is an important part of this equation, acting almost in parallel with parents. These are also the folks with the most wide ranging and deep knowledge of what’s happening in the world of kid’s books. There are lots of reasons to make friends with them if you have a chance. Maybe offer to come in and do a book talk or a creative writing session.
A few other points of interest: several people mentioned Common Sense Media. I’ve used this and think it’s a great resource for not only for identifying age appropriate books but also movies and video games/apps.
Scholastic Book Fairs came up a few times as well as a place to browse books that might not get on the radar otherwise.
Finally, one parent mentioned checking in with the school reading specialist. Her child wasn’t struggling with reading, he just wasn’t finding anything he liked and the specialist offered some great ideas.
One last bit of food for thought. I asked the parents who was generally responsible for getting books into the hands of the kids. Mom? Dad? Grandpa? Other? With the exception of maybe two respondents, it was all about Mom.