Marketing to Schools

It's very different from Amazon marketing!

Do you want to market your books to schools? It’s a very different market from and educator’s needs are specific.

Reviews - A Deliberate Choice

First, the school and library market still cares about reviews from the major journals. For kids books, those six respected journals would be the School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Horn Book, The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews. Unfortunately, it’s spotty to get reviews on indie books from these journals. When I first started in 2008, I could get some reviews now and then. But the review journals went through a time when they cut back on reviews in general, partly because the market was glutted, but also because of diminishing revenue and funds. They simply couldn’t afford to review every book published. I had friends with new books from major publishers that received zero reviews, thereby killing the title. In that shakeout, indie books became largely ignored. Today, I can still get reviews occasionally, but I can’t ever rely on it.

Now, the only way reliable way to get reviews is to pay for them. If you were publishing an adult thriller in ebook only, the review process makes no sense. No way should you invest in paying for a review.

But children’s books are different and a Kirkus review—paid or not—is still respectable and will potentially increase attention and sales for a title. Two of my books have received starred Kirkus reviews: A Little Bit of Dinosaur (February 2021) and POLLEN: Darwin’s 100-Year Prediction (May 2019). Both titles have done well and I attribute that partly to these starred reviews. If you decide to invest in a Kirkus review, you should upload your pdf to them about three months before publication. Some people say they don’t want to wait that extra time, but I build in 3-4 months in which to send books for reviews or to distribution partners.

Awards - Teacher Based

Another important aspect of marketing to the school market is to pay attention to the awards from teacher organizations. The National Science Teaching Association, the National Council for Social Studies, the National Council of Teaching English and other education organizations regularly recognize best books in a subject area. When I write for the education market, I always make sure that I’m targeting a certain curriculum for an age group. For example, the NextGen Science Standards say that fourth grade students should study erosion:

4-ESS2-1.Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.

That means every fourth grade teacher in the U.S. needs information about erosion to use as they teach. I sell better to school markets when there’s a curriculum-driven need for a book about a given topic. Look for curriculum standards for your subject area books.

This book, EROSION: How Hugh Bennett Saved America’s Soil and Ended the Dust Bowl also included information on how Hugh Bennett encouraged Congress to pass a law creating the first Soil Conservation Service, the first time any country on Earth passed a law to protect the soil. Because it’s discussing a law—a social studies topic, it was named to the 2021 NCSS Notable Children’s Book in Social Studies list. That recognition will help sell books.

These education awards are often administered by the Children’s Book Council, so my publishing company is a member of the CBC. If you’re not a member, you can still submit to the awards, but the submission fees are higher.

For fiction, it’s harder because there are few curriculum awards. In that case, I rely heavily on the reviews and contacts with reading specialists and English teachers.

There are many other awards, including state awards, awards from state reading councils, organizational awards, and so on. Look for any appropriate awards for your book. What I avoid are those that cater solely to self-published authors because the education community will not respect such awards. Look for legitimate awards!

Reading Level

Teachers often need to know the reading level of a certain book to judge its usefulness for a certain class or student. While we may argue that a good story shouldn’t need to be measured for reading level, the reality is that teachers want or need this information.

The Common Core education standards preferences the Lexile levels, which are administered by Metametrics, Inc. It’s a simple process to ask your books to be evaluated and only costs about $27/book. Don’t be tempted to use a free service and then advertise that your book has a Lexile level. Metametrics is aggressive in defending its trademark. You should only mention a Lexile level is you have had it officially evaluated.

Other reading levels are also popular including the Accelerated Reader (AR) program from Renaissance Learning. This program creates quizzes for a book which are purchased by schools. You can submit your book for consideration for a quiz to Nancy Skorczewski, Title Selection Coordinator, Renaissance Learning, Inc, 2911 Peach Street, Wisconsin Rapids, WI 54494. It’s unlikely they will choose your book unless it receives starred reviews or an award mentioned above. The only other way to influence selection is for enough teachers to request a test on your book.

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After the Basics

If you’ve created a book that fills a need in a subject-matter curriculum, received a positive review from a respected journal, received an official Lexile level and been chosen for an Accelerated Reader quiz, you’ve done the basics for talking to the education market. Can you market to the education market without any of these? Of course! But these help your book stand out “in today’s crowded market.” They increase your chances of success.

After the basics, it’s a matter of contacting educators. First, where do you want to make contact? If you start with your local school district, the teachers at a school are a matter of public record. Or you can contact the school district and ask for contact information. Often you’ll know some teachers in your community.

Sometimes, indie publishers focus on doing school visits or virtual school visits. They ask for a speaking fee, which can vary from $50-$1000 depending on the reputation of their work. In addition, book sales are often allowed. Some authors focus on this type venue and do quite well. But it’s hard to scale up because it requires the author to present for each visit and there’s only so many days a year you can do that!

To scale up, you’ll need to talk with district, state or national leaders. When a book is adopted by a district or state, then you’re likely to get bulk sales. To me, this is thinking like a publisher, instead of thinking like an author. I’d much rather sell 1000 books to a district than do ten school visits.

To meet education leaders, consider joining organizations such as your state library association or reading council. Ask/volunteer to speak at their conferences (some pay a speakers fee, but some can’t afford it), and consider a display booth (when the pandemic slows down!). If you speak at a state meeting, it’s more likely that you’ll be asked later to speak at a national conference. I’ve spoken at the American Library Association, National Council of Teachers of English, National Science Teaching Association and the national Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators national conferences. The contacts from such conferences help fuel sales.

Marketing to the education market, like any marketing, is a matter of meeting people and figuring out how your books can meet their needs. For fiction, focus on reading teachers and English teachers. For nonfiction, focus on subject-level teachers and state or national leaders.

One thing to remember when marketing to educators is that the time line can often be slow. If they are spending institutional money, they may need approval from a committee or other officials. It’s not unusual for an initial contact to produce sales a year or more later. This isn’t Amazon marketing where you can advertise today and reap benefits tomorrow. It’s a long game. But a profitable one.

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