Kate from Kiwi Kids’ bookshop. Image design: Tina Tiller.
Kate from Kiwi Kids’ bookshop. Image design: Tina Tiller.

BooksJune 13, 2024

Why I started an online bookshop – and what I’ve learnt so far

Kate from Kiwi Kids’ bookshop. Image design: Tina Tiller.
Kate from Kiwi Kids’ bookshop. Image design: Tina Tiller.

Kate from the Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore shares the story of her first four years as an indie bookseller.

Do you think there’s room for a slow book movement, along the lines of the slow food and real food movements? 

The idea that new readers discover old books all the time isn’t revolutionary, but sometimes I wonder if, in our relentless quest for the “new”, we miss the opportunity to savour and appreciate books that were created in the last couple of years or even longer ago than that.

When I started the Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore towards the end of 2020, I was feeling much the same as many of us at that time: unsure what the post-lockdown future would bring. With the loss of paying contracts due to event cancellations, I needed greater control of my own destiny.

The year prior I’d published my first junior fiction fantasy, Lily and the Unicorn King, and, despite modest success via Amazon, was feeling overwhelmed by the idea of putting my book in front of booksellers who have the whole world of books to choose from. If only there was a bookstore that specialised in children’s books by New Zealand authors.

That personal lament grew into a great big idea that kept me awake at night as I pondered the technicalities of creating an online store. Would other authors think this virtual bookstore was a good idea? How would I fund it? How would book buyers discover it? And, what did I know about the book business anyway? 

After much thought, I decided it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t know about the traditional book business. I adored reading children’s fiction, and I was working hard to learn more about writing children’s fiction and indie publishing. I had 30-odd years’ experience in marketing and communications and had just finished helping create an online store for my husband’s business. I backed myself, got stuck in and, thanks to a fellow author being my sounding board, the online store went live with books created by just eight authors in November 2020.

Fast forward nearly four years, I’ve nearly 600 titles in stock and I’ve lost count of how many New Zealand authors are involved. Parents and grandparents, teachers and school librarians all over the country return to order more great Kiwi kids’ books year after year. Sales are currently 200 per cent up on this time last year, which is enormously encouraging at a time when funds are tight for so many.

Kate from the Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore (Photo: Supplied)

Along the way, I’ve made many exciting, challenging and personally intriguing discoveries. Not least among these is that I really like learning new things and I need to tackle behind-the-scenes admin more effectively.

I’ve worked out that, despite the global book sector’s emphasis on the next new, exciting book release, there’s definitely room for a bookstore offering backlist titles so when a young reader enjoys one book by an author, the wonderful book buyer in their life can find more titles by that author or a similar author published in the last 10 years or so. Backlist titles by junior fiction authors such as Des Hunt, Susan Brocker, Tessa Duder, Jon Tucker and James Russell continue to sell month after month.

The focus on building a backlist catalogue came about via one of my “figure it out as I go along” discoveries. I simply couldn’t afford to stock every new release because there are a LOT of new books released by dozens of local publishers and indie authors each year. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s exciting to have a vibrant, very active local children’s book sector. I love it! But it can be overwhelming for a solo bookseller. I honestly don’t know how other booksellers who stock books from all over the world decide which books to buy.

I’ve learnt that people like my focus on books by New Zealand authors and illustrators. In fact, that’s the most common positive feedback I receive about the Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that other New Zealand bookstores aren’t doing a great job supporting New Zealand authors – they absolutely are, but maybe it’s not as easy or obvious to the book buyer which are the NZ titles in these stores.) 

The other positive comment I love to hear is that it’s nice to see books by indie authors as well as a range of publishers, big and small, because those indie books aren’t always easy to find. That feedback is validation of my original idea to support other NZ indie authors like myself with an easily accessible, customer-focussed online bookstore.

I’ve figured out all kinds of things about the wider book business which has been enormously helpful to me as an author who published the first book in a new junior fiction mystery series this year (Maddison McQueen and the Cupcake Mystery). I went back to the classic adage of writing about what you know and love. I adore mysteries, my fluffy red-and-white Border Collie and my hometown of Wānaka. And thus: the Red Collie Mysteries came about. Reviewers have been kind enough to say that, as a bookselling author, they can see that I pitched the book perfectly for its intended audience of readers aged seven to 10, and that I’ve gently added depth not always seen in younger junior fiction with an uncle and his same sex marriage, references to mental health issues in the family, and the small town setting. To be honest, I’m not sure any of this was consciously intentional, but I’m constantly in awe of what our subconscious collects, catalogues and provides to our conscious mind to make use of. 

Over these four years as an independent bookseller, I’ve met some amazing people in the books sector, sometimes in person but more often virtually. Many have been generous with information, time and advice, allowing me to develop new skills and broaden my bookish skills into book publicity and newsletter communications. Other aspects, like figuring out who distributes which titles, have taken me a while to nut out. 

At times, it seems that some folk still dismiss those of us who choose the indie route. I think there’s room for everyone who is doing their very best to create fiction or non-fiction that engages, entertains or educates our children. The key words here are “very best” – books need to be completed to a professional standard. While there will always be some personal interpretation of what that means, generally this is not a time for a complete DIY job. There are plenty of people who can help edit, proofread, design, layout and illustrate. I’m not just talking about indie authors here – I’ve seen a few locally-published titles that I think fall short on one or more of these aspects.

One author called me a disruptor. Maybe I am. Or maybe I simply didn’t know or care how things have been done in the past, so I took my own path. All that really matters to me is helping parents and grandparents, teachers and librarians find a great selection of books for children and teens created by New Zealand authors. If only I could sell more YA books! But that’s a discussion for another day.

Keep going!