Through the bookstore looking glass

Finishing off our year in style, picture book author and guest blogger George Shannon steps through the publishing looking glass to share his thoughts on bookstores, bestsellers and the importance of the backlist.

I have been a book lover virtually since birth, and a book buyer since I had any money to spend.  My professional life first took the form of children’s librarian, then author for the last thirty years.  But until a few years ago I had never worked in a bookstore.  It was time to explore.  Eagle Harbor Books, the vibrant independent bookstore here on Bainbridge Island, Washington, let me join their world for the holiday season.

I started in ‘receiving’ the day before Thanksgiving, the time of year when inventory, customers, and special orders easily quadruple. I soon realized that even jogging with bulls in Pamplona seemed easy by comparison. By the third week, industrial strength support hose were as vital to my day as a box cutter.  And the boxes!  They kept coming, like Mickey’s water buckets in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Flatten one and three more full ones appeared.

What the boxes contained was even more of a challenge.  Box after box brought books that punched me smack in my writer’s ego.  “This book got published?”  “That book is selling?”   Hot trends.  Celebrities. Branded names.  It was all there. I soon joked with friends that I just needed to write a picture book starring a wisecracking, flatulent fairy with super powers involving cats and glittering underpants. It looked like I was heading toward a grim and dreary Christmas.

Raymond Briggs' The Snowman was first published in 1978.

But as the boxes, books, and hectic workdays continued, I began to notice a slender vein of gold. Many boxes contained at least one book that was old, familiar, tried, and true: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Snowman, Grandfather Twilight. Another day brought Madeline, Mister Gumpy’s Outing, and The Carrot Seed. This golden vein of books was written before today’s trends and most likely written with little concern for the trends of their day. This golden vein was the backlist.

I still work at the bookstore from time to time. And in that time, I’ve seen various trends come and go. Many of the flashy picture books I unpacked four years ago have long been remaindered. Still, the timeless books (those written outside of trends) continue to sell. And, most important of all, they continue to be read and shared with children.

Patsy and Richard Scarry's The Bunny Book was first published in 1955.

One hectic afternoon at the store I opened a box and discovered the ‘mother lode’, one of the three picture books I loved most as a young child 55 years ago. It was The Bunny Book by Patsy and Richard Scarry, ‘A Little Golden Book’.  In the story, each of Bunny’s relatives proclaims what he’ll be when he grows up.  But Bunny knows best.  He will be a daddy rabbit and read his children stories.  But what stories?  What books?  No doubt a lot of the books he loved as a child and wants to share with the next generation. These are the books that link lives through time and space.

Many in publishing no longer view the backlist as the spine of publishing, but I believe it will forever be the heart.  And this heart deserves our attention. Whether we are writers, editors or publishers it is wise for us to spend at least as much time studying the backlist as we do current trends.  If we do, we might just create a new book that will be shared through generations.

George Shannon has been working with children and books since 1973 as librarian, storyteller, and author. His 40 books include 30 picture books, among them LIZARD’S SONG, TOMORROW’S ALPHABET, TIPPY-TOE CHICK GO, and RABBIT’S GIFT. Conferences, workshops, and author visits have taken him to schools from the Arctic Circle to Jakarta, and Kuwait to Japan. Read George’s blog about picture books.


One response to “Through the bookstore looking glass

  1. Hi George Shannon–
    Reading you in Bangkok makes me long for the pleasure to chat with you again–it’s been far too long.
    Janet Brown (once of Elliott Bay Book Company’s children’s section)

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