Are Middle School Book Fairs Worth It?

Fifteen Years of Hosting Book Fairs

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.

Bloody Footprints lead to Scare Fair!

What’s Changed?

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.

Scare Fair

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.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development

4 replies

  1. Perhaps there is another company that will send the selections you want. My first year as an elementary school librarian involved a book fair reserved by the previous librarian: the “largest” book fair possible by the most popular company. Three entire cases devoted to “frou-frou,” posters, boxes of junk, toys, etc. The week before I had sat through a presentation given by a newer, local company. I called them and the owner showed up to explain what they could offer in comparison. When he saw the junk, he was speechless because he had heard about it, but never seen it. For 7 years, I used his company and made just as much money but only sold books. (Kids grumbled about not having pom-pom pencils and the like at first, but then forgot they existed.) I was able to choose what boxes they sent: more ESL, more middle grades for my higher readers, bargain books, etc. Now that I am at a high school, we don’t have book fairs. I don’t miss the hassle, but I do miss the extra finances.

  2. You took the words right out of my mouth… Napa Valley USD is experiencing the same trends. Less participation, more labor, and less enthusiasm. In addition there has been pressure to purchase warehouse remainder books rather than take the profit in money. These are often re-bound titles that are difficult to catalog … and I do not have the staff to even attempt this.
    So many of our students are using our NVUSD or public library OverDrive collections that I wonder if digital will further erode the popularity of book fairs? In an interview last year one of our middle school students said, “… you know if you don’t like a book that comes from the store, you can’t return it.. but if you don’t like an OverDrive book, you can check out a new one in a minute… this saves your parents money….”

  3. Wow, about that student’s comment. Thank you both for responding. We’re so isolated in our own schools, it’s good to talk about what we’re perceiving out there.

  4. Hi, my name is Janis Kitchin. I am a retired school librarian and remember many book fairs for our schools in Virginia Beach. It is true that not all children have access to extra money to spend at the book fair. Maybe we need to do this in a different way, allowing all children to have a few books for each one. I have great concern for the subject matter that book fairs are selling. At my grandson’s book fair I encountered many books that have questionable content. There was crime, murder, the occult, witchcraft, voodoo, suggestive toilet humor, violence, and more. I could not let my grandson go by himself with some money, because he was attracted to the more sensational themes. Also the fair had non-book toys or puzzles and games, which detract the need for reading good books. As concerned parents and teachers, we must make our voices heard. We must take the time to attend our school board meetings and let them know that the school board works for our children and parents. Also, I would like to know who or what group is responsible in The State Department of Virginia for the content in our school libraries. I have noticed that classic books are being replaced with more modern themes, that are written in slang language or toilet humor, like Captain Underpants, and comic-book styles. I think this is done to get boys in particular to “enjoy” reading. I still think that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are compelling and memorable stories for young kids.

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