By Mitch Lipka
October 23 (Reuters) - Fall is book fair season at schools across the United States, and despite changes in children's reading habits, the fundraising needs of parent organizations and the business of publishing, little has changed over the years.
Books get laid out on cafeteria tables or some other open space, kids browse and then parents cough up cash.
But there are little harbingers of change, as parent groups try to find ways to raise more money and keep it flowing in. A market that has been dominated for years by Scholastic Corp has a growing field of challengers, each of which offers varying incentives.
The national bookstore chain Barnes & Noble Inc has its own version of book fairs, which are held at its stores, not in schools. Parent groups organize readings and coordinate displays with the store, receiving a cut of anything purchased at the event or online with a special discount code.
Barnes & Noble held nearly 20,000 book fairs last year. Groups receive a percentage of the sales, starting at 10 percent in cash. Depending on how much is sold, a group can receive as much as 25 percent of the sales in store gift cards.
Independent publishers and booksellers, such as children's publisher Usborneare also in the game.
Fundraising companies are also vying for a piece of the pie. For example, Blue Ribbon Book Fairs gives school groups a cash payout ranging from 20 percent to 30 percent of sales - depending on volume - or 35 percent to 45 percent in trade for books. They'll also staff the event for a 10 percent deduction from the cash take or 15 percent of the group's book credit.
There are also regional book fair companies, such as Massachusetts-based Best Book Fairs, which will deliver rolling racks filled with books and typically shares 10 percent to 25 percent of the proceeds in cash or 20 percent to 50 percent in credit for books.
Independent book stores, such as Towne Book Center in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, are also in the game. Towne offers 20 percent cash back if you host the sale in their store (30 percent toward books) or 10 percent to 25 percent in cash if the event is at school (with up to 35 percent back in books if sales exceed $4,000).
Scholastic is still undeniably the 800-pound gorilla of the market, hosting about 125,000 book fairs a year and offering an all-inclusive set-up kit that includes everything from large displays to promotional materials.
These fairs are part of a category that accounts for one-sixth of the company's book-selling revenue, according to a company spokeswoman. Scholastic's way of trying to keep up with the times is its just-released Book Fair App, which allows parents to scan a bar code or book cover at a fair to find out whether the book is appropriate for their child.
Scholastic typically gives 25 percent of the receipts to the host school. It doubles that percentage if the school takes its cut as a shopping credit - called Scholastic Dollars - to order books and teaching supplies from its catalogs, keeping all the profits in-house.
Part of Scholastic's allure for schools is its availability and simplicity. "We'll bring a book fair to any place in America," says Anne Lee, Scholastic's vice president of program development for book fairs.
It can be a tempting choice for school groups that might set their goals on getting such items as electronic white boards or stocking their library. Straying from the industry giant can mean more work for parent groups, though it also might offer the chance to get more of a cut of the sales.
That's what Alex Grabcheski found when he organized an alternative book fair for his children's school in Brooklyn, P.S. 29, four years ago.
Grabcheski is the owner of a local antique, consignment and gift shop, Fork & Pencil, and can order books with a retailer's discount. He figured he could share that savings with the school and put together an eclectic list of titles - from classics to currently popular books priced from about $3.99 and up.
The take for the Parent-Teacher Association: 35 percent of the proceeds. What's left covers costs, leaving Grabcheski's business just breaking even.
Fork & Pencil book fairs are hosted by about 17 schools and groups and Grabcheski expects they will continue to grow.
"It's not just us writing checks to the schools. It us helping them to raise money," says Grabcheski.
While P.S. 29's PTA did not say how much cash it actually takes in, sales have been 25 percent higher than those done with Scholastic in past years, and the percentage take has been higher. Grabcheski says book fairs he's run at some large schools have generated as much as $80,000 in sales, which could yield close to $30,000 for a school.
Robin Muskin, co-chair of P.S. 29's book fair and co-vice president of its PTA, encourages other schools to do what Grabcheski is doing, both for the cut of the profits and for the ability to customize the selection of book. "We went for it and it has been great," she said.
Despite the shifts, alternative book fairs are not a big worry at Scholastic, according to Lee. She says the company is up against greater challenges: "Our competitors are video games and television. It's sort of our rallying cry."