March 01, 2012
Barefoot Books: Passionate About Children’s Literature
by Lin Grensing-Pophal
Co-Founders, Nancy Traversy, CEO, and Tessa Strickland, Editor in Chief
- Founded: 1992
- Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford, England
- Co-Founders: Nancy Traversy, CEO, and Tessa Strickland, Editor in Chief
- Products: Books, CDs and puzzles
Imagine turning the children’s publishing industry on its head through a unique blend of exquisitely created content and beautifully designed products as well as a distribution model that bypasses the traditional distributor model and virtually ignores big-box retailers. Who would ever imagine that such a move would be not only profitable but also highly rewarding? Nancy Traversy would.
Traversy is owner, Co-Founder and CEO of Barefoot Books, a company she started nearly 20 years ago, along with Tessa Strickland, one of the clients at the consulting firm she ran at the time.
Both new mothers, they quickly connected and soon lamented about the dearth of good books for kids. Where were the high-quality books with beautiful art and stories? Where were books focused on themes like love of the planet and diversity? The gap they identified in the market led to a clear goal: to create children’s books that feed the imagination while instilling a respect for diversity and a love of the planet. Their backgrounds were a good backdrop to their dreams: Traversy’s experience was in business management, the visual arts and design; and Strickland’s was in editorial work and publishing.
When Strickland approached Traversy in 1992 with the idea, Traversy’s oldest daughter was 3 weeks old and Strickland had three young children of her own. They started their company in England as a home-based business. It was exciting, but the pathway to their dreams hit a few bumps along the way.
While the company enjoyed initial success in Britain and doubled, and then tripled profits over the next several years, they felt that in achieving international success they had left something behind. By selling their individual titles to major publishers they lost control of the marketing and distribution decisions.
The ability to work from home, with the right balance of career and family, was foundational to the formation of Barefoot Books. Nancy Traversy, owner, Co-Founder and CEO of Barefoot Books, calls it “living Barefoot.” It’s a philosophy that is conveyed through Barefoot Books’ core values, which include:
Building a Community
Creating Better Products
Protecting the Planet
In 2001 Traversy, her husband and now four children, moved “across the pond” to Massachusetts in the United States, bringing Barefoot Books with them. Today, Barefoot Books is a worldwide community committed to the kind of storytelling and art that encourages children to become happy, engaged members of society.
Entering the “real world of publishing,” though, resulted in some significant challenges, including overhead and staff costs, along with bookstore and chain-store competition from mass-marketed titles. Compounding these problems was the bankruptcy of Barefoot’s British distributor.
Barefoot Books is a worldwide community committed to the kind of storytelling and art that encourages children to become happy, engaged members of society.
Facing these financial challenges and disenchanted with the attention, or lack thereof, that children’s books typically received on bookstore shelves, Traversy felt there must be a better way—so she created it. Rather than rely on the stores to sell Barefoot’s uniquely designed and artfully created books, amidst a pile of mass-marketed offerings, she decided to go directly to the parents.
The focus from traditional marketing through distributors shifted to the use of the Internet and direct sales through Ambassadors, which includes teachers, parents, grandparents and librarians. This allowed Barefoot Books to reach new customers directly.
Traversy attributes the company’s success to “having a wonderful product.” Over the years, she recalls, it has sometimes been tempting to cave in to requests that would result in a more mainstream product. But she’s resisted. “I just feel like we’ve never compromised what we are doing. We have the same mission statement and the same set of values that we had when we started as a tiny little business back in 1992—create first-class content.”
The kind of quality that is embedded in Barefoot Books also can’t be easily transferred to the online world, asserts Traversy. “We believe passionately that books are going to stick around and children’s books, of course, will be the last ones standing. I don’t think you really want to have a toddler on your lap reading an iPad or a Kindle.”
And, she adds: “With everything that is happening in the world, people are really returning to simple things and wanting to connect more with their children.”
Barefoot Books are filled with vibrant, fun colors, and the expertly designed artwork engages children and adults alike. Special needs teachers are also fans, notes Leah Lesser, Group Communications Director with Barefoot Books.
“With everything that is happening in the world, people are really returning to simple things and wanting to connect more with their children.”
—Nancy Traversy, owner, Co-Founder and CEO
“We hear that a lot of our books really help nonverbal children such as those with severe autism to speak and sing and read,” she says. The minimal amount of text on each page combined with compelling illustrations serve to attract young children and offer an opportunity for adults to engage them in conversation.
The authors and illustrators that Barefoot Books works with are based around the world. Some came to Barefoot through Traversy and Strickland’s connections, and some through recommendations from other creative contributors to the books.
Lesser says, “There is a core group of authors and illustrators who we have worked with for so long, and their content is so rich and beautiful and works so well with what Barefoot Books is all about, that we continue to do more projects with them.”
Jane Yolen, a renowned children’s author, and Caldecott winner, is one of them. “We have done several books with her and her daughter,” says Lesser. Clare Beaton, a French artist specializing in fabric art, is another. “She’s brilliant for our baby and toddler line so we continue to work closely with her. Babies can’t help but want to reach out and touch them.”
“There is a core group of authors and illustrators who we have worked with for so long, and their content … works so well with what Barefoot Books is all about.”
—Leah Lesser, Group Communications Director
Buyers include some quite familiar names, so enthusiastic about the books that they’ve shared their testimonials with the company:
Sir Paul McCartney, speaking about Herb the Vegetarian: “A magical read for all new thinkers, young and old; Herb’s story tells the tale of the future.”
Actress Brooke Shields: “Rowan loves being barefoot and she adores books. It was very kind of you to think of us, and we have already switched from How Big Is the Baby to How Big Is a Pig. She screams when we read it.”
Mind-body medicine expert Deepak Chopra, referring to My Daddy Is a Pretzel: “Through these fun yoga activities, children can improve flexibility, grace and agility while, at the same time, improving inner strength, confidence and self-esteem.”
Also unique to Barefoot’s approach is that while traditional publishers tend to brand their authors or characters, says Traversy, Barefoot has worked to develop a strong brand for the publisher. That has been possible, she says, because “we had such a strong ethos and sense of values that underpinned the business.”
Barefoot Books offers titles that are carefully crafted to share the love of the planet and diversity.
Ambassadors: Living the Barefoot Lifestyle
Barefoot Books is more than a company, stresses Traversy—it’s a lifestyle, based on some very specific core values that reinforce everything it does. It’s a lifestyle that thousands of distributors and buyers have found particularly compelling.
“We kind of always tried to think a little bit out of the box,” says Traversy. “We liked to just think about what was the best way to get the books we were creating into the hands of the kids.” The traditional channels, Traversy came to believe, were simply too far removed from the end users. “The large, New York publishing houses were in their ivory towers and created beautiful books, but were many steps removed from the kids, the parents, the teachers and the librarians. For nearly 20 years we were always trying to find a way of getting directly to the audience.”
They found it. Today, in addition to direct sales Ambassadors, Barefoot Books’ distribution model includes major catalogers (like Pottery Barn) and retailers (like F.A.O. Schwarz)—and gift and museum shops around the world. There is also a “Living Barefoot” club that allows people to join and buy books at a discount; many of these include schools and organizations interested in using the books for fundraising events.
Barefoot is currently rolling out a model that integrates all four of these areas, leveraging the Internet. Traversy says, “I think the nice thing about our Ambassador program or the direct selling arm of the business is that it’s just real people who help each other and it’s very rewarding.”
In some respects, Barefoot’s introduction to direct selling came through an unfortunate incident for another publisher, recalls Traversy. The company, which had launched a direct selling arm that was quite successful, fell upon hard times due to other business dealings and had to shut down. “All of these women—thousands of them—basically lost their income and future and careers overnight.” Many of them approached Barefoot.
At the time, says Traversy, Barefoot was doing a lot of direct marketing and really had no experience or knowledge of the direct selling industry. But, she says: “When they approached me I kind of liked the idea. We were two mums with seven kids between us, and we had enjoyed the flexibility of not having to go into the office every day.”
That handful of people who approached them led to the launch of the Starholders program back in 2000. The program has evolved over the years, says Traversy. “We liked the idea of being able to empower other women to do the same thing we had done and to really have passionate advocates, who loved our books, out there in their communities selling Barefoot Books.”
Now called Ambassadors, this global network numbers more than 5,000 and is growing exponentially. “Right now it’s a critically important part of our business model,” says Traversy. “It’s so wonderful now, with technology, to be able to have this passionate group of advocates who have this ability to reach so many more people than we ever could by trying to sell through the chains.”
Lesser adds, “Our Ambassadors really represent a wide array of folks who have young children in their lives and just love great literature and want to share it with those who are near and dear to them.”
Laurie Mattaliano is one of them. She’s been an Ambassador since 2005, prompted by the receipt of a Barefoot Book—How Big Is a Pig—as a shower gift when she was pregnant with her first child. “I was enamored by the illustrations and well-crafted rhyme of this sweet and simple story,” she says. More important, she says: “It was literally the only book which our very active infant would engage with. I went online to find the source of more books that would possess the same magic. That is how I discovered and quickly became the biggest fan of Barefoot Books.”
Mattaliano loves “living Barefoot.” “Loving the products is part of it; what the products stand for is what sets it apart,” she says. Mattaliano says that she tried other opportunities that would allow her to stay home while raising her children, but in the end came back to the Barefoot Books Ambassador program. “The products and company are something I am so proud to represent,” she says. And over the years, her business has evolved alongside her children. “As they have grown, my business has been able to follow them,” she says. “I have hosted fundraisers at their various schools; in-home events for friends, neighbors and mothers’ groups and read stories in their classes and at large-scale consumer and education events.”
One of Barefoot’s most recent endeavors was the introduction of its first nonfiction title, the Barefoot Books World Atlas. “One of the neat things about the atlas is that it really plays into what Barefoot Books is all about in terms of helping families raise happy health kids with an appreciation and respect for different cultures and the environment,” notes Lesser.
“Our business is really about storytelling. That’s what the home-based business model is really all about—individuals who are out there telling their stories.”
And soon, Barefoot will release its first children’s app, for iPad, which will be based on the World Atlas. “We have some ideas brewing for other apps, but we’re going to see what happens once we launch the World Atlas and go from there,” Lesser says.
“We’ve always just tried to be pioneers in a pretty traditional industry,” says Traversy. “Our business is really about storytelling. That’s what the home-based business model is really all about—individuals who are out there telling their stories.”
And, in the process of telling their stories, they’re spreading the word about Barefoot Books and “living Barefoot”—a concept that will likely resonate with generations to come.