Nielsen Children’s Book Summit Highlights Strong and Growing Industry

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The second annual Nielsen Children’s Book Summit, held on Wednesday, September 16, in lower Manhattan, highlighted positive news about the children’s book industry, which had another banner year in 2014.

“The children’s market, for many years, has been the poor stepsister of trade. What has happened in the last eight years is trade has discovered that children’s is a growth area,” said Kristen McLean, director of new business development for Nielsen Book. “It really has turned out to be a high-performance area for the industry.”

Unit sales of children’s books reached an all-time high of 225.5 million in 2014, an increase of 12.8 percent over 2013. Overall book sales in the U.S. were up by 3 percent in 2014, according to Nielsen. “When we look at 2015, the [overall] market is up 2 percent, with no slowdown in sight just yet, which is great news,” said Jonathan Stolper, senior vice president and managing director of Nielsen Book.

About 60 percent of children’s book sales are taking place in bricks-and-mortar stores, and the independent bookstore market in particular has remained stable, said McLean. “It’s a great place of discovery. We can’t underestimate the importance of these independent booksellers to small and mid-size publishers.”

Board books are experiencing huge and notable growth, and classics, including The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle, Philomel) and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Bill Martin and Eric Carle, Henry Holt) are quickly outpacing their sales from last year. “We see that parents are encouraging their kids to read the classics — the books they grew up with and want to pass on,” said McLean.

Courtney Jones, vice president of multicultural growth and strategy at Nielsen, focused on the role multicultural consumers play in the book-buying landscape.

Between 2000 and 2014, 92 percent of the total growth in population in the U.S. was multicultural, she said. And while 44 percent of the millennial cohort is multicultural consumers, the generation just behind them is a critical one: More than 50 percent of children under the age of nine are multicultural.

“All of these consumers are really a sizeable, primary growth target,” said Jones. Noting the Doc McStuffins franchise, interest for which crosses ethnic and gender lines, she continued, “Multicultural content does not just resonate with one segment; it resonates across the whole marketplace.”

In the young adult market, about 80 percent of readers are adults, according to Nielsen’s data. Stephanie Retblatt of Smarty Pants Research presented a panel of eight adult buyers and readers of young adult books from a cross-section of ages and ethnicities.

The “young adult” label is not a perfect description for such books, most of the consumer panelists agreed. “I think it’s helpful for kids, but as an adult, sometimes I want to steer away,” said one panelist, adding that she often thinks a book might not be for her because of its label. “That’s not the case a lot of the time.”

Young adult books keep adult readers coming back for a variety of reasons. “I think the biggest growth happens in childhood and the teenage years, so I’m able to get into a character’s head and able to grow along with them,” said another panelist. “YA is easily accessible.”

“I enjoy watching how generations differ; I like knowing what kids are reading and watching,” explained a third panelist. “I can understand what they’re talking about because I read what they’re reading and I’m watching what they’re watching.”

The avenue of discovery for the panelists took several forms, with some finding out about books through word-of-mouth and young readers in their lives, and others through social media and other online resources, such as movie websites, which offer clues to the next big book based on movies in development, and Amazon.

In bookstores, panelists said, face-out titles with good covers caught their attention. Favorite books mentioned by the panelists included Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin) and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Penguin Young Readers), and series such as The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (Speak) and Divergent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books).

Following the panel, Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas, commented on the readers’ book choices. “Of all their favorite books, there was not a 2015 title in the mix — not even a 2014,” which, she said, serves as a reminder “to all the avid readers out there that we as indie booksellers tend to be on the forefront.”

Bookseller panelists Valerie Koehler, Drew Sieplinga, Tegan Tigani, and Sara Hines

Koehler joined Sara Hines of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts; Drew Sieplinga of Wild Rumpus Books for Young Readers in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington, on the panel “What Booksellers Can Teach Us About Path to Purchase.”

“Physical retail and hands-on bookselling is still critical to the children’s book market,” said McLean, who moderated the panel. “Nobody advocates for our books better than the indie bricks-and-mortar booksellers.”

Publishers can help indie bookstores’ success, the booksellers noted. Tigani praised advance reader copies with great editorial letters offering a hook that booksellers can use and accurate comparable titles and series — not The Hunger Games.

Hines stressed the importance of publishers and reps getting to know indie bookstores. “It’s personal,” she said. “Take the time to find out who we are and what we’re doing.” Going to conferences, meeting with publishing staff, and meeting with authors really make a difference in the attention a book gets in the bookstore, said Hines.

“The Winter Institute and Children’s Institute are very important to our livelihood, and we appreciate all of you who have supported those,” said Koehler. “Each one is about learning new books and learning new business practices, and we’re highly grateful for your support of both of those institutes.”

Of the changes the booksellers have seen over the years, aside from what some of them referred to as the digital “blip” when e-reading first launched, Koehler said the biggest has been the rise in women giving baby gifts to first-time grandmothers, which she said goes along with the increased sales of board books in her store.

“These are youngish grandmothers with discretionary incomes and they’re giving their friends baby gifts,” said Koehler, which often consist of an assortment of unique toys and books that stay at grandma’s house — not just another copy of Goodnight Moon, but rather three or four board books, stacked and wrapped.

Other popular books in stores right now are coloring books, non-mainstream history titles, science and robotics, and outdoor and hands-on activities, as well as non-book items featuring licensed characters that go with children’s books.

“You’ve got 1,800 stores that are ready to sell that book for you. If it’s a good book, we’re going to get behind it,” Koehler told publishers.

Eight teenage readers offered their thoughts on screen time and the “young adult” label during the final panel of the afternoon, moderated by Stephanie Retblatt of Smarty Pants Research.

Teens do unplug, the panelists insisted, and some of their favorite hobbies beyond the screen include ballet, drawing, biking, and socializing with friends. When they do read, teens learn about books through word-of-mouth recommendations, on the Internet, from librarians, and based on movies with media tie-ins.

Many of the girls on the panel said they were e-book readers, while one male panelist said, “I like print books better because it’s more like I’m reading a book. When I’m reading an e-book it’s like I’m on my phone.”

The young adult label puzzled the teens, who had varying thoughts on what books in that category should contain and at what ages they should be aimed. Many agreed that “young adult” gives no indication of what they’re about to read, whether it be a mystery, romance, or adventure title.

Later this year, the Book Industry Study Group will be introducing young adult subject codes for the first time in its history. More than 400 new codes will be available by the end of the year, including dystopian, romance, paranormal, dating and sex, and more.