The Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age: Takeaways From the ABC/Bowker Pubtrack Survey

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By Kristen McLean, former ABC executive director, now a consultant to ABA


In June 2009, Bowker Pubtrack approached the Association of Booksellers for Children about helping to coordinate the first deep-dive direct-to-consumer study of the children’s book market.

Earlier that year, they had launched the new PubTrack consumer data project and were already looking broadly at some of the key data on the general book-buying public. It was clear to them that the children’s market was behaving differently than the rest of the larger market, and when measured against sales data, generally performing more strongly overall.

Bowker wanted to dig a little deeper to understand what they were seeing. They also wanted a knowledgeable partner on the children’s side of the market to help put together a broad coalition of publishers to underwrite the study and to help craft a knowledgeable survey that reflected an understanding of the children’s book retail environment. On ABC’s side, it seemed like an important conversation in which the bookstore perspective should be represented both in the building of questions and in the interpretation of the end data.

Fast forward to summer 2010, when staff from Random House, Macmillan Children’s Group, Penguin Children’s Group, Scholastic, and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, along with Bowker and ABC staff came together to build The Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age. The survey asked more than 75 questions of 1,500 respondents, broken into three groups: Adults who had recently bought a book for children ages 0 - 6, Adults that had recently bought a book for ages 7 - 12, and 500 teens living in a household where a YA book was recently bought.

The survey focused on questions relating to choice, selection, and attitudes toward children’s books. The group really wanted to understand what was driving the children’s book market in this age of shifting technological and consumer behavior, and to see if there were any lessons to help us understand the future of consumer behavior around books. Not just the future of children’s books, but the future of all books.

It is starting to look like what we are seeing right now is not just the addition of new technologies to old patterns of working – it is a fundamentally new way of organizing productivity. Questions about print versus e-books, reading versus gaming, and online versus bricks-and-mortar all hang in the balance. What better way to gaze ahead than by looking at the future adults whose ideas about books and reading are being developed right now?

We’re happy to report that the news is surprisingly good.


1) Books and reading are still very important in the lives of children and families.

When asked about the relative value of books against other kinds of media, respondents reported that books ranked highest for young readers – above screen media, video games, and the Internet. Even in the Teen section of the survey, where time spent with online media took precedence over books, 57 percent of respondents said that books had an “equal” or “more important” role than other media in their lives.

Indicators throughout the study show that – contrary to popular report – books will continue to flourish in the Digital Age, and children’s books will continue to retain their cultural value. The format may be changeable, but the importance of books will remain true.

How important are the following media in your child’s life?



This survey clearly found that consumers are valuing children’s books and the reading experience very highly. You can use this in your stores. Consider displays and messaging that drive home the value, quality, and imagination of children’s books. Make sure you are making a compelling, heart-warming case that resonates with families. Consider using the IndieBound Toolbox to amp up your message.

2) The inner circle rules – local influencers are much more effective than outside influencers.

There is a clear bulls-eye pattern of influence operating in the children’s market. At the center are those closest to the reader – parents and caregivers. Then are strong local influencers – family, friends, teachers, peers, the characters and authors the reader already knows, and trusted sources of local information like bookstores and libraries. On the outer layer, and the least trusted, are outside influencers like websites, advertising, and other traditional forms of marketing.

This has several implications:

First, it underlines the fact that in a noisy, chaotic information environment, consumers default to trustworthy local sources. In some ways, we are almost in a pre-industrial, word-of-mouth economy once again. This is extremely challenging from a general marketing point of view, but great news for local independent retailers who are closer to the center.

Second, it implies that everyone may want to revisit marketing strategy with a more socially based approach. Strategies that target peer-to-peer networks and local groups are more effective.


The best idea we heard at the Winter Institute came from Cynthia Compton of 4 Kids Books in Zionsville, Indiana. She has converted her entire advertising budget to $5 gift cards. She gives them away liberally. She feels that it is perceived more authentically, and it drives new people into her store. She is hard pressed to figure out another way to gain happy new customers so effectively.

3) Bookstores and libraries still play a VERY important role in the children’s book market.

As suggested above, local bookstores and libraries are still very important drivers for choice in the children’s book market. This is a significant finding at a time when bricks-and-mortar bookstores and funding for libraries across the country are under severe pressure.

For children ages 0 - 6, “Browsing the Bookstore” is the number one place consumers find out about books. Public libraries are number three, behind “The child tells me.”

For children ages 7 - 12, bookstores rank second as a source for book information immediately after “The child tells me.”

For teens, “I’ve enjoyed the author’s previous books,” “Browsing in bookstores,” and “Browsing in libraries” were the top three influencers.

It is important to note that there is a behavior gap between where people are getting their information and where they are buying. When we examine the channel distribution based on units sales in independent, non-traditional, and large chain bookstores, “children’s books-only” account for a combined 31 percent of the total market.

What can we infer from this? First, consumers need trusted sources of information and filtering to help them make choices in this part of the market. This is partly because most purchasers are not the end-users; they may need the expert guidance of bookstores and libraries. At the moment, online offerings do not seem to be providing this kind of trusted insight.

Second, these findings imply that consumers may be using bookstores and libraries as an important source of information even as they shift their purchasing to other channels.

This obviously has long-term implications for bookstores. Are there ways we can improve our conversion rate? We think so, especially in light of the next finding, but first….


This is more “take credit where credit is due.” Make sure you and your staff are proud of what you do with children’s books, and make sure you visibly compile any positive feedback you get from happy readers who love your store. This is an important part of building your customers’ understanding about the value that you provide. If you pair this with a “Thanks for Shopping, Here’s What You Just Did” message, that’s very effective for keeping sales in the store.

4) The majority of children’s book purchases are still impulse driven; therefore, presentation and exposure are very important.

This study illuminates a couple of significant differences between the adult and children’s markets.

First, the collected data suggests that brand characters and series content are more important than author in the children’s market, which is a direct reversal of what we have found on the adult side. It’s not the author, but the continuity of content that hooks readers.

Secondly, this study found that the children’s market is much more impulsive than the adult market: Only 19 percent of specific book purchases were planned.

Conversely, nearly 80 percent of specific children’s books choices were made on impulse – the consumers picked books they came into contact with at the store.

Figure 1. Impulsiveness of the Children’s Book Purchase

Reinforcing this, respondents told us that cover image, jacket copy, familiar characters, multi-book series, and “the flip test” all ranked as very important drivers behind the actual choice of which book to buy.

This is an important finding because it implies that in order to see significant sales, book design, store location, and sales penetration will continue to be critical, even in an increasingly digital environment. Covers displayed in the store will attract and influence buyers even more than they do for adult books, and prominent in-store placement will result in sales. To put it plainly, if a children’s book isn’t seen, it won’t be bought.


We clearly see that series fiction sells. We also know that many times it’s not the child but an adult proxy looking for the books. Make sure you have a good way of helping your customers find series information fast. We highly recommend printing out lists of your top-ranked series fiction and putting them in a binder near your children’s section. This will help your staff and your customers. Here’s a great site from Mid-Continent Library that lists all Juvenile Series by Title or Author.

5) It is not an “either-or” between gaming/digital/online versus reading: kids are omnivorous. High reading households also have a high incidence of technology.

Since the advent of television, we have been operating under a screen-versus-book paradigm. The conventional wisdom was that time watching TV was not only time away from reading, but was actually undermining reading and was a potential threat to literacy.

This study clearly shows that today’s children’s book consumers are living in an omnivorous media environment and that reading and digital media are happily co-existing and perhaps even cross-fertilizing reader interests. In fact, a household that has recently purchased a kid’s book is actually more likely to be using many forms of digital media relative to the adult fiction market.

These consumers are:

  • 6 percent more likely to play online games
  • 7 percent more likely to work online
  • 7 percent more likely to use social networks
  • 8 percent more likely to use online blogs and boards
  • 10 percent more likely to listen to music on a digital device
  • 11 percent more likely to download a TV show to a PC

We are seeing that even the youngest children are inherently comfortable with just about any media. When asked about their children ages between 0 - 6, respondents reported that in the last week 57 percent read a book for pleasure, 58 percent read a book for school, and 56 percent went online – a remarkably even split.

A final point: the children that are reading these books are truly “digital natives” and will be especially open to the blurring of content between a book, a game, a website, a toy. We predict that traditional silos between types of content will continue to break down, and so publishers must start fundamentally thinking of themselves as trans-media content creators.


Know that your customers are actively engaged in technology as a family and that online content related to books extends the imaginative world of that book. Take what you know about how kids are interacting with media, and extend it as a service to your customers. Look at your bestselling series, and investigate what content publishers have online. If you find sites and content you like, talk to the publishers about a bookmark or display campaign to promote the book sites. This is win-win-win. You are helping your customers extend their book experience, you are helping publishers by exposing their great sites, and you can even develop an innovative coop program that helps with repeat sales and marketing dollars.

6) Contrary to conventional wisdom, teens are not universal adopters of digital technology – they pick and choose what is useful to them.

One of the most surprising findings of this study was the low instance of e-book adoption amongst teens. This is particularly important because the teen segment was conducted directly with those users instead of through an adult proxy.

Our study also found that teens weren’t really interested in things like online gossip sites, online book discussions, following authors on Twitter or Facebook, blogging, or posting online videos.

At the same time, these same respondents’ top four activities done “Often” were:

  • Sending and receiving text messages – 67 percent
  • Visiting their page on Facebook or MySpace – 58 percent
  • Reading books for fun – 39 percent
  • Viewing others’ profiles on social networking sites – 38 percent

Figure 26. Activities of young adults done “Often”.

So what’s going on here?

When you overlay these results with the data on most important influencers for teens – parents, teachers, close friends, and “people I hang out with” – a picture starts to emerge.

Developmentally, teens are very much focused on their personal identities and local social scene. They adopt tools and technologies that help facilitate these social relationships. Handheld devices, social networks, texting, online gaming – these are all great for maintaining social relationships.

Conversely, teens have shown very little interest in platforms like Twitter (a real time information network, better for news than for conversations) or e-book solutions (for which they have no real social need). Paper books on the other hand work great, and they are better for passing around. Why blog when you can connect with your friends much more easily via the immediacy of text, Skype, and Facebook?

E-books are here to stay, and we’re not saying that these readers won’t adopt them. However, e-book platforms are a productivity tool rather than a social tool. We predict that adoption of e-books and dedicated e-book readers will be more of an adult phenomenon as teens move into college and beyond and require new ways of organizing their productivity.

For now, the big takeaway for bookstores is the idea that YA readers still LOVE paper books, and are interested in passing them around and sharing them.


At this year’s Winter Institute, we heard more than one store comment that they were considering switching from a blog to a Facebook strategy for communicating with teen readers based on these survey results. The key to authentic communication with this part of your market is keeping it real. Find a staffer at the store that has an interesting voice, and then let them post USEFUL information, like thumbnail reviews, galleys up for grab, or new reviews by your teen customers. The key to successful social marketing is PROVIDING VALUE to the network, rather than getting value out of the network. The more useful you are to them, the more they will invest in the relationship.

The Winter Institute 6 slideshow presentation of “The Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age,” a joint study by Bowker Pubtrack and ABC, is available to ABA bookstore members in PDf format on Questions about the study should be addressed to Bowker’s James Howitt.