Direct Hit

Selling Books Here, There, and Everywhere

DKFL distributor Susana Alverdi selling her wares at a Book Look
DKFL distributor Susana Alverdi selling her wares at a Book Look (Photo By John Anderson)

Recently, when I called bookseller Kelly Crane, her answering machine stated that she couldn't wait to tell me and her other callers "all the new and exciting things that are happening with our company," which was welcome news since the very reason I had called was to hear about all the new and exciting things that are happening with her company. Crane is Texas' highest-grossing distributor of Dorling Kindersley Family Learning (DKFL) books, the direct sales division of parent company Dorling Kindersley (DK). Crane and the other 23,000 people in America who sell DKFL books, the great majority of them women and mothers, are called "distributors," a somewhat stiff term for these typically extroverted and unanimously enterprising salespeople. At events called Book Looks, Tupperware-style parties where the 2,400 DK products are sold, and at book fairs, trade shows, craft shows, PTA meetings, and teacher conferences, consumers can buy books more cheaply than they can at bookstores (not to mention that there are 300 exclusive DKFL titles that bookstores are not allowed to sell). That's why DKFL and its parent company, Dorling Kindersley (DK), as well as several other publishers who have instituted direct sales to consumers, are putting traditional booksellers on the defensive. Publishers who stock their titles in bookstores and sell the same titles through home parties have ended up antagonizing booksellers, though the publishers insist direct sales are only complementary to traditional bookselling. DKFL's oft-repeated mission is to create "a learning center in every home and a love of learning in every heart." It's an idea that has fallen on receptive ears in Austin. "It's a very academic attitude, people are very willing to spend their last dime on their children's education," Crane, who lives in Marble Falls, says about the success of DKFL sales in Austin (there are currently 83 distributors in Austin; two months ago there were 40).

"One of the reasons our division of the publisher was created," Crane says, "was because the company did a market study and found that only 30% of people in the United States go to bookstores." The low turnout may be due to geographical circumstances -- not everyone lives near a bookstore -- but more importantly, she says, the low percentage is the result of "lifestyle" decisions. Everyone is busy, she points out, and bookstores aren't always receptive to mothers toting toddlers throughout the store. To publishers eager to establish sales strongholds in an increasingly competitive marketplace, infrequent bookstore traffic is reason enough to begin selling books directly to consumers.

Direct Hit
Photo By John Anderson

But there are other, more complex reasons DK chose to develop a direct sales division. DK chairman and CEO Peter Kindersley, who lives in London, DK headquarters, is the satisfied product of home schooling, an experience it seems he has catapulted into company lore. Dan Muttart, the vice-president of marketing at DKFL, says that behind Kindersley's educational background is "a movement to say if we can give parents an opportunity to have a source of income for their household, maybe a secondary source of income that allows one of the parents to be at home with a child and to aid in their learning experiences, it's also going to help us create that love of learning in every heart because the parent will have time to spend with the child." Secondly, Kindersley touts the idea that customers simply need to see the inside of his books to be convinced of their vibrant, disturbingly irresistible allure. DK products have a white background, which makes the images and text stand out in a more vibrant fashion; most two-page spreads in DK books feature one central icon that grabs the reader's attention; 80% of DK images are shot by the company's own photographers and satisfy inquisitive viewers' desire to see things as they really are; and the text in DK books is extremely concise, so that readers can grasp ideas quickly and move in any order around the page and always find clearly presented information. Thus, an interactive reading process, one that Kindersley realized was not being marketed well in bookstores where only the spine of a book is immediately visible to customers. Just open a DK book, the thinking goes, and you'll be hooked. Muttart says that the graphic style of his company's books is "very unique," and that it "really creates interest for children and adults and enhances the readability of our books and you can't talk about that on a book flap very well, but you can talk about it in a home setting."

But high quality and unique graphic style are for naught, booksellers say, if a publisher pits booksellers against their own vendors. Barbara Thomas, owner of Toad Hall Children's Bookstore, explains that "when bookstores order a whole line from a publisher, we have it on display and people come in and look at it." Then the same customers attend a Book Look and put in their order more cheaply since DKFL distributors have lower overhead costs than bookstores. "It really cuts into sales," Thomas says, "so [bookstores] didn't feel like they wanted to be the art gallery for the books, you know, without getting some of the sales from them." When DK first began home sales in the United States in 1993, booksellers voiced dissatisfaction, though few of them stopped carrying DK titles. "In our case," Thomas says, "our sales rep said, 'You know, this is a different department in the publishing company that decided to do this and they think it will increase sales.' And the sales rep said, 'You know, I think it's going to hurt our department. They don't realize that yet, so I'm sorry this is happening, but you need to be abreast of what's going on and then you have to decide.'" In short, the popularity of DK titles forbids booksellers from refusing to carry them.

Given the inherent unease between booksellers and direct sales distributors, it's an eerie sensation listening to Crane enumerate the advantages of buying a DK book from a distributor as opposed to buying it a bookstore. She stresses the element of customized service in home sales, whereas customized service has always been the ace in the hole for independent booksellers, the most accomplished of whom pride themselves on being able to read a customer's needs. "Well, you get to sit down there and look at it," Crane says, "and it's not so much just that book, say you're a parent and you go to a Book Look and you get to talking to the distributor and you say, "My son is really having trouble with math right now,' and the distributor will say, 'How old? What grade?' and then cue in on some things and we can suggest a variety of products, CD-ROMS, or several different books that might be helpful. ... It's that personalized service that goes a long way." Add direct sales to the list of interests competing against children's bookselling: Internet sites, price clubs, book fair companies, the superstores.

"I don't want to put bookstores down," Crane says, "because I could live at bookstores. But we become distributors because we're in love with the books, and then we discover we're making money -- that's real typical -- and because of that, when I get a new product (and it's the same for all of us) we just get so excited." end story

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Dk, Dkfl, Direct Sales, ChildrenÕs Books, Dorling Kindersley, Peter Kindersley

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