For fifteen years as a middle school librarian, I have hosted two book fairs per year. Throughout this time, I’ve seen my gross sales decline each year since my first fair in 2004 when I grossed over $7,000. This fall’s Scare Fair (Halloween-themed book fair) didn’t even hit the $2,500 mark that allows me to take a cash profit. This new sales target went into effect in 2016. This year I essentially disrupted my library program for a week in order to sell books and “junk” to my students for no cash profit. I could pull books from the fair, true, but they were mainly either books I already had or didn’t want. I can even use special “dollars” or credits to buy catalog items, but I prefer a cash profit that enables me to buy from any vendor.
Free Retail Space + Free Labor
When school librarians host book fairs, they are giving a corporation free retail space and free labor in order to sell its books, and let’s face it, a good amount of over-priced junk. One year I chose not to put out the “junk,” but then I started selling it again, “justifying” that the money raised selling junk could be spent on buying more books for my library program. Now I can’t even say that.
The book business, for one thing. The days of parents coming in and buying a big stack of books for their middle school readers is over, at least at my school. If anything, even my most enthusiastic readers will buy maybe one or two books. With the advent of ebooks and audiobooks, many shoppers feel the books are either too expensive or not compelling. Avid reader and 8th grader Billy Heron said it best: “The books I can buy I don’t want, and the books I do want are too expensive.” My students in central Austin are savvy readers who read up in terms of maturity level. Even my sixth graders read Young Adult books. In trying too hard to avoid criticism of titles with more mature themes, the selection for middle school students is skewed in favor of middle grade titles. In short, lots of Dog Man, Dork Diaries, and Wimpy Kids. The book fair offerings do not reflect my students’ reading interests or abilities. And then there are all the remaindered items. Where are the exciting new titles with all the buzz? Where is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas? Dear Martin by Nic Stone? Books by Nicola Yoon, Matt De La Pena, Jenny Han, Sabaa Tahir? We need diverse books, and I’m not seeing them in the current middle school selection.
The Middle School Challenge
Maybe it’s my fault? Christy Cochran, our district’s former Librarian of the Year, grosses $10,000 at each book fair. Although her school is larger, we share similar demographics. Christy is proactive for change, completing her third year on a book fair vendor’s customer advisory board. One innovation that met great success was asking the book fair vendor to let her personally select the titles for her unique school’s librarian’s cart. That one cart accounted for a quarter of her sales at her last book fair. I talked with a book fair vendor representative, and we agreed that middle school book fairs are tricky. For one thing, one parent complaining about an “inappropriate” book brought home from a book fair can cause unwanted negative publicity for the company. This fear prevents book publishers from offering edgier titles. Still, as librarians, we live with the risk of a book challenge every day, but we take that risk to offer our students access to books they want to read. One solution: we librarians can work with book fair vendors to improve the middle school book fair experience. We need books in the hands of these kids. We can’t lose them as readers, and more books in the home leads to more reading.
Librarian vs. Book Seller
What’s puzzling is that my circulation rates have never been higher. My students are checking out books like crazy. For a school of 864 students, student circulation rates for the first six weeks of this school year: 2,838 checkouts. I love being a librarian because I believe in shared resources. As wonderful as it is to own your own books, it’s better to have a well-funded library that serves everyone. I can’t count how many times, during book fairs, a student has asked me if I have a library copy of a book that’s for sale. Of course! I’m actually proud of my students for checking out library books instead of spending money on them. While emerging readers tend to read the same book over and over again, I find at the middle school level, except for rereading Harry Potter, my students want the newest and the latest, often asking me to pre-order books months before they’re published. In the past I felt that book fairs were a win/win for school libraries. They allowed us to get more books into the hands of students, “forever” books, while giving us the opportunity to augment our shrinking book-buying budgets. However, in the future, I will look for other ways to raise money for my library program, ways that give me a cash profit and allow me the freedom to choose my own titles.
Author: Sara Stevenson
I’m a reader, writer, swimmer, and a public middle school librarian. I love all things Italian. I was honored to be Austin ISD’s first librarian of the year in 2013.