Barefoot Books: Itís Not the Size That
Counts, But How You Sell
By Paul A. Paterson
Tessa Strickland and Nancy Traversy, with their
Begun a decade ago, Barefoot Books stands as a testament
to the theory that you don't have to be big to be successful. The Massachusetts-based
publisher quickly established a reputation as a home for illustrated stories
rich in cultural detail and flavor.
"We felt it was really important to expose children to other cultures
but not through fiction," said Nancy Traversy, company
president and one of Barefootís founders. "There are many different
versions of Cinderella all over the world, but kids [in America] grow
up only knowing the Disney version."
Critical to the philosophy of Barefoot Books is a commitment to beautiful
artwork accompanying the prose.
With children's books, the act of sharing
a book with a child before bed is so important. That will never be
replaced with a computer.
"Through story, you enter the art," Traversy explained. "So
many kids get cartoons and rubishy art at an early age."
Barefoot has faced an uphill battle, though, since small publishers generally
find establishing distribution channels the toughest part of the business,
especially when unsold books are routinely returned to the publisher.
"The problem is, as a small publisher, we can't rely on selling
to Barnes and Noble," explained Traversy. "You have to pay for
the space, and you have to guarantee that they will sell, or they come
To combat that problem, Barefoot launched its website in 2001, then opened
its own bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The site now attracts more
than 10,000 hits each month, and e-commerce accounts for five percent
of the company's total sales.
"We know our market is out there," said Traversy. "People
like what we are doing. We know they're out there, but how do we reach
"We designed [our website] to create a culture online," she
continued. "It's kind of a community. For us, we've been able to
create a community, which we've been able to replicate in bricks and mortar
in our store. The store is an interpretation of the website. We deliberately
did not want to set up an Amazon.com."
Barefoot Book Store
Both the website and the store feature a "Family Hearth" and
an " Artist's Cafe" where stories, artwork and community come
together. It's a message Traversy believes has a particular resonance
in a post-9/11 society, something she thinks is good news for independent
publishing houses like hers.
"I think history repeats itself. I think the independents are going
to see a resurgence," said Travesy. "The mood has changed in
the years since September 11. There has been a real backlash against big
corporations with all the scandals that have taken place, and they are
looking for the independents. I think people are fed up with these huge
companies just out to make money and missing the point."
While large publishers do have advantages when it comes to marketing
and distribution, Traversy firmly believes smaller publishers can survive
and thrive by sticking to their guiding principles, focusing on producing
good books and not trying to reinvent past success.
"I think people who follow suit are being a bit short-sighted,"
she observed. "Every industry has waves. Everyone is looking for
the next Where The Wild Things Are. The problem is you're
never going to re-create it."
Looking ahead, Traversy is optimistic about the future of books—in
spite of the expansion of electronic entertainment—and credits the
popularity of the Harry Potter series for rekindling
interest in children's literature.
"I wouldn't question that for a second. I would certainly credit
J.K. Rowling for bringing books to a wider audience," she said. "I
would also credit the Harry Potter phenomenon for saving an industry.
Without it, I'm sure many small outlets would have gone under."
"I absolutely don't think books will disappear," Traversy continued.
"With children's books, the act of sharing a book with a child before
bed is so important. That will never be replaced with a computer."