November 2003 | Vol. II - No. 11
"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.
"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 back."
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 them?
"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."
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."
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