When I was a child my mother subscribed me to a book-of-the-month club. Even though we had lots of books at home and I could go to the library whenever I wanted, there was a certain magic about getting a brand new book in the mail. Always the selection was something that I wouldn’t have chosen, but it was also always somehow perfect.
When I heard about Marmalade Books, I was delighted with the thought that a whole new generation of readers could experience the joyful anticipation of getting surprise books in the mail. At Christmas I sent a friend’s daughter the Chapter Book Box and sent two young brothers the Pirate Box. In both cases, the kids were over the moon with not just the books, but the package itself, and the whole idea of getting a mystery box of books!
Pat Oldroyd, the woman behind Marmalade Books, agreed to answer my questions about her wonderful service.
What did you do before Marmalade Books?
Before having children, I worked as a Secretary in Victoria, B.C. I stayed home for a few years when my kids were little but found myself involved in the Parent Advisory Council at their school. Having a sister who was a children’s book editor (Ann Featherstone, Pajama Press) helped to develop our family’s interest in great books. I was discouraged that the school library was low on good Canadian literature and didn’t take advantage of author visits. So I got involved and created “The Bookworm Club” where I planned monthly author visits, sold the authors’ books and used the profit to buy books for the library. I loved watching the kids interact with a real live author! The club’s success was probably instrumental in me being nominated as PAC President. I joined the Victoria Literature Roundtable. Soon after that I received a call from Denise Cammiade, the children’s book buyer at Munro’s Books. She was a friend of Ann’s and Ann had also worked at Munro’s before becoming an editor. Denise was looking for someone who loved children’s books to work with her in the kids’ department. Of course I said yes. I learned so much from Denise. It wasn’t unusual to hear us reading the new books to each other using silly voices. Sadly Denise passed away a couple of years later and Jim Munro asked if I would take over the department. I had such large shoes to fill but I really loved it. After ten years I was asked to help develop and run the book department in a children’s educational store and decided to make the move. I learned an enormous amount about the educational side of books. But I was yearning to do something on my own.
Can you tell me about Marmalade Books?
My husband Jamie and I started the business at the end of September 2016. We are a monthly children’s books box subscription service. We cover three different age groups; The Baby Box has 2-3 board books for ages 0-3. The Picture Book Box is for ages 4-7 and the Middle Grade Novel Box is for ages 8-12 – both of these boxes include one hardcover and one paperback. The books I choose are newly published, sometimes within a couple of weeks of the customers receiving their box, which helps as the boxes are a surprise and the recipient isn’t likely to own it already . The boxes are mailed directly to the child and we will include a special note from the giver to the child if requested. We are thrilled to include the best in Canadian publishing but also include beautiful books from the UK and the US. Our website Shop has one-time purchase, specially themed boxes (like Pirates, Modern Classics, Chapter Books) and our Past Boxes (if still available) from previous months. Our website is pretty easy to use and our boxes make the perfect gift for kids, teachers, schools and baby showers.
How did you come up with the idea?
As a bookseller, I spent many years helping parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles pick books for the children in their lives. When they came into the kids department they were often quite lost as to where to start. I would talk to them about the child, asking their age, likes, dislikes, reading level (if they knew it) and from there made recommendations. Often the books would be mailed away to the child for a birthday or Christmas gift and I was so pleased when the books had gone over well and the customer was back for another suggestion. It was several years ago when the concept for a book subscription service started churning around in my brain. We began to get more serious about it after Jamie retired. When Jamie got a Sock-of-the-Month subscription for Christmas we thought, Why couldn’t we do this with books? People have less and less time to shop or often don’t have a good bookstore in their town. A trusted bookseller sending the best new books directly to the children in their life seemed like a win-win. And it meant that we could stay at home and spend more time with our two-year-old grandson.
What is your role at Marmalade Books?
I generally look after the front end while Jamie looks after the back end. I still visit with the publishers’ reps a couple of times a year to see forthcoming titles, just as I have done for many years. I select and order the books and other items for the boxes. I look after the social media and advertising. Jamie and I both put the boxes together and then he handles the shipping, accounting and photography.
What should authors and illustrators know about your service?
When I choose books for the boxes, I often ask the author/illustrator if they would write a short letter to our readers. It’s a nice way to connect directly with the reader. For the most part I have had good responses to this request. In addition to posting about the books in our boxes, I also post about some of my old favourites or books that I want to put in the boxes but are unable to. I’m hoping that people will find our social media accounts and website as a place they can find interesting things about the children’s publishing world. I’m not blogging as much as I would like to and I’m interested in approaching authors and illustrators to be guest bloggers on our website.
Can you describe your typical day?
I can’t say that I’m terribly organized! At the moment, Jamie and I are babysitting our grandson and a bull dog named Winston four days a week. Along with Marmalade the cat (yes there really is a Marmalade) it can be a bit chaotic at our house. Normally, I try to work most mornings on creating posts and ads for social media. Sometimes I have to wait until our grandson naps in the early afternoon. Then I work on my lists of possible books, answer emails and figure out monthly orders. In the evenings I read advanced reading copies of books – if I can stay awake.
What drives you nuts?
Social media! I know that I need to post almost daily but sometimes I just haven’t got a clue what to post about. And trying to figure out all this algorithm stuff?! The price of books can frustrate me, as it does for everyone in the business. I get really depressed if I can’t pick a book because the price is just too high. One month I picked a book that was several dollars higher than it should have been. We probably didn’t make ends meet that month but I just had to use it. And as it is with so many small Canadian businesses, the postage could be the death of us. Free shipping just isn’t an option.
What are you grateful for?
The ability to continue to find beautiful books and put them into little hands. Also to be able to work from home and spend this valuable time with my grandson.
What is your selection criteria?
There are so many things to look at. First of all, since I’m only picking about 7 books a month they have to be the absolute best both in story and illustrations. I’m looking for novels with characters that I can care about, that are believable from the point of view of an 8-12 year old. I admit I get annoyed when characters have too many problems thrown at them or when situations seemed too forced. I love beautiful illustrations and have many favourites like Jackie Morris, Catherine Rayner, Jon J Muth and Wallace Edwards. In fact, Wallace Edwards created the artwork for our business. I like anything from simple artwork to much more detailed illustrations, where you can find something new every time you open the book. Humour is always a bonus. Book design is also very important to me. I love wonderful end papers. A good font with good placement that’s easy on the eyes for both learning readers, tired parents and poor-sighted grandparents like me. The price has to be right; too high and it just won’t work. Size and weight are also a factor, since the box must be shipped. I’m also trying to pick books that will appeal to boys and girls equally and I like to see lots of diversity.
What has been the response of kids? Of parents?
So far, I’ve had nothing but positive feedback. Everyone is really enjoying the boxes. We still have a long way to go in connecting with more parents and especially grandparents. But the people we have reached so far seem to really love the idea of having a great box of books, chosen by a book specialist and sent to the children in their lives every month.
What do you see as the future for the book business?
I think the future is bright. Fortunately, children’s books have survived the e-book. People still like the physical feel of a book and want to collect beautiful books. I think that parents will continue to appreciate books as a wonderful learning and entertaining tool and an opportunity for their children to have less screen time.
What advice do you have for new authors and illustrators?
Know as much about children’s books as you can. Spend time in bookstores and libraries to see how books are categorized. See what books look like for each age group and pay attention to word and page count as well as subject matter. Talk to the booksellers and librarians. Talk and read to kids of all ages. You really have to develop the ability to step into a child’s world in order to connect with them. The most successful children’s authors obviously love their chosen genre. I regularly see their reviews about kids’ books and their support for fellow authors and illustrators. They’re up on the latest publications. Also booksellers and librarians need to be your friend as they are the ones who will put your book into the right hands – and that can make a major impact on a book’s success.
What did I forget to ask you?
What is my favourite children’s book?
It would have to be When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne. I didn’t sit still much as a kid which drove my mother crazy, but my fondest memories of my mother was when she read this book to me. I’ve discovered so many books in my time as a bookseller, it’s hard to narrow down my favourites. Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes and Monkey Business by Wallace Edwards are at the top of my Picture Book list. For novels, I love Eva Ibbotson’s books, especially Journey to the River Sea.
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This interview was originally published in CANSCAIP NEWS