Updated: Oct 2, 2019
Market remains healthy as families still want educators’ guidance on what their children read
Students still love holding books in their hands and collecting titles to fill their home libraries. Schools across the country are therefore recommitting to the good old school book fair in elementary and middle schools as providers also test out approaches to holding the events in high schools.
West Aurora School District 129 in Illinois embarked on a Balanced Literacy initiative two years ago to improve reading, comprehension, and grammar and phonics skills among elementary school students.
That meant not only embracing digital materials, but also supporting print by investing in school and classroom libraries, says Sarah Waddell, the director of elementary teaching and learning.
District leaders found that book fairs helped administrators and teachers meet the needs of their diverse student population in a variety of ways—and without replacing one reading platform with another.
As school budgets continue to shrink, book fair proceeds also help schools build, replenish and update their libraries with the latest, most popular titles.
“One of the things we find so positive about book fairs is that children see how to access books in different ways—through the school library, classroom libraries and other avenues—but they also allow educators to help students know what to buy as readers,” Waddell says.
West Aurora’s 10 elementary schools have each hosted one Scholastic book fair a year. Recently, administrators added a book fair targeting Title I students to support a district wide literacy push.
“Some people really love going to public libraries or listening to books on audio or buying books to take home,” Waddell says. “We want to make sure the materials that kids want to read are accessible.”
What about digital books?
The fascination with digital books appears to have leveled off, so schools across the country are focusing on physical books, particularly for younger kids. Plus, an increasing number of parents want to build a home library to give children easier access to books, says Britten Follett, senior vice president of marketing for Follett School Solutions.
“As more mega-bookstores close, parents are forced to go to Amazon or online to purchase books,” she says. “But unlike book fairs or a book order format, those sites don’t offer a well-curated selection of books that are age-appropriate for students.”
Follett School Solutions recently announced its burgeoning book fair business would expand to preschools and middle schools.
Fairs also help parents and educators identify titles that students will “fall in love with, and provide an opportunity for them to develop a love for a particular series or author and look for those books in the future,” Follett says.
In theory, reading an e-book develops students’ literacy and comprehension skills as effectively as print materials do. But kids can benefit from picking up a book, flipping through the pages, showing friends and even smelling it, says Alan Boyko, president of Scholastic Book Fairs.
“When families, students and educators gather at our book fairs to celebrate books and reading, kids witness and interact with adults who are excited about books, which helps encourage the reading habit,” he says.
Scholastic has long dominated the elementary and middle school book fair market. Other vendors, such as Penguin Random House and Usborne Books & More, also produce these events. In addition to national vendors, local companies affiliated with independent bookstores host fairs at schools in smaller communities.
With complex logistics, the high-touch business requires a lot of capital to ship books and bookcases, Britten Follett says. But it pays off. Follett School Solutions recently announced its burgeoning book fair business would expand to preschools and middle schools.
“The dust has settled a bit in the digital space, and everyone agrees that there is a market for both print and digital,” she says. “But we’re going to double down on the opportunity to put print books in front of kids because having a physical home library is critical.”
Scholastic has also seen increased book fair sales.
“We’ve experimented from time to time with e-books at fairs,” Boyko says. “The takeaway we learned is that kids prefer paperback books, as do a great many adults.”
Scholastic’s “Kids and Family Reading Report” found that 69% of kids still prefer physical books, says Boyko.
Who picks the books?
Scholastic generally sells its own books targeting grades K-8, and licenses titles from other publishers, which it prints in less-expensive paperback format. Follett stocks books from any publisher.
Vendors can provide diverse titles to reflect school demographics and to offer children exposure to an array of topics that educators request.
“When we hear ‘diversity,’ we immediately jump to race or gender. But we believe all books are for all kids,” Britten Follett says. “Our customers want the books available at book fairs to give students a fresh perspective, a deeper understanding of the world, and exposure to other ways of life.”
Schools have various options for how they want to share book fair revenue with providers.
The setup of book fairs has always been an issue for understaffed schools, but Follett seeks to make it easier for schools and their volunteers.
The company provides displays that already hold merchandise and simple point-of-sale technology, Follett says.
Setting up a book fair takes about 30 minutes. Schools run the fair, and when it’s over, staffers pack up everything and ship it back to Follett. Scholastic delivers most of the books in mobile cases or tabletop, pop-up displays, Boyko says.
At Scholastic, books are all hand-selected by the company’s team of former educators, booksellers and book fair veterans. Twice a year, Scholastic’s book experts meet with publishers to review their newest offerings.
Book fair providers permit school staffers to select which products to stock, and allow them to customize book fairs to their unique needs and demographics. For instance, if the student base is largely Hispanic, school staffers can request popular and best-sellers translated in Spanish.
What about a virtual book fair?
Schools can run a virtual book fair with support from distributors anytime during the school year. This approach gives teachers a chance to host a classroom-specific fair.
Scholastic offers virtual fairs as a supplement to in-school events and as an alternative for those who can’t attend book fairs.
Online, Scholastic offers additional titles that aren’t available at in-school book fairs, such as early series installments (e.g., every book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series), Boyko says.
Schools also benefit financially from book fairs; traditionally, they have shared revenue with the provider. With Scholastic, schools receive either 25% of the revenue or Scholastic “dollars” that can be used to purchase educational materials.
For Follett book fairs, overall revenue can range from a few thousand dollars to $30,000. A school will receive 20% if administrators want cash back on the total revenue of their fair; 30% if they want to use Titlewave, Follett’s e-commerce tool; or 50% if they want to purchase books from the book fair before shipping items back to Follett.