Ci3: A Bright Future for Children’s Book Market

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Children’s book sales hit a record high last year, and independent booksellers continue to serve an important role in that market, said Kristen McLean, the founder and CEO of Bookigee, during the ABC Children’s Institute featured talk “The U.S. Children’s Book Market — Where We Are and Where We’re Going.”

McLean is also co-chair of Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit and the former executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children (now the ABC Children’s Group at ABA). Through May 5, her Children’s Institute slideshow presentation is available to ABA members on (a username and password are required).

With sales in 2014 reaching 226 million physical units, last year was the best year to date for children’s books, said McLean, especially in contrast to the book market as a whole, which is seeing a slight decline. “The children’s market is driving growth and it has been driving growth since 2007. There’s really no category in the children’s market that’s in decline right now,” she said, adding that today’s children’s book market sales are a good indicator for the future of the book industry in general.

“If you want to understand where the book market is going, look at the children’s market,” said McLean, as there is plenty of data that indicates that young readers will continue to buy books as adults.

Out of the top 20 adult and children’s bestsellers for 2014, 17 were children’s books, with the majority being young adult and movie tie-ins; however, McLean noted that a dip is expected in 2015 as fewer films based on novels are coming out this year.

The main avenue for discovery of children’s book is in person — through bookstores, book fairs, schools, and recommendations, McLean reported.  The bookshelf is the main mode for discovery, but promotional tables and front window displays also garner significant attention. And while the number one item bought alongside a book is yet another book, toys, games, and impulse buys at the cash register are also proving popular.

One of the biggest drivers for purchases is a child asking for a particular book. “You can’t underestimate the power of kids right now and it’s just going to get stronger,” said McLean.

The majority of children’s book buyers are in the 18-45 age range and female. Minority buyers, including African American, Hispanic, and Asian book-buyers, though a smaller segment of the market, are more likely to buy children’s books. “There’s a really good, compelling business case for carrying diverse books, especially if you are in the market where these populations are,” she said.

The children’s nonfiction category is steadily growing, with licensed characters and themes, such as Minecraft and Lego, making their way into nonfiction in unusual ways: through activity books, games, cookbooks, and craft books. “Kids are consuming media in multiple platforms if they really love it, and this is one of the places we’re seeing it come out in our industry,” McLean explained.

Middle grade readers are rapidly consuming book series, such as Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and Dork Diaries. “I think this is an example of binge reading. Think of these series as the equivalent of going on Netflix and watching a TV series end to end,” she said.

Teens are still big fans of print, said McLean, and the percentage of teens wanting print books has increased since 2013, but there’s still a lot of competition for their time.

In terms of digital content, tablets are used nearly universally, even among children as young as age three, and children’s content is being downloaded at a high rate to both tablets and smartphones. “Kids are omnivorous right now with the way they consume stuff. They consume books, they consume games, they consume TV — all at the same time,” McLean said, and the old paradigm that books are good and TV is bad is gone. “High-technology households are also really high-reading households.”

Despite the increase of children’s book sales made through online retailers, the independent bookstore market is holding steady, said McLean. “We know the indies are important for breaking new books. We know that indies are important for providing diversity and selection.”

Within the children’s book market, independent booksellers account for about 12 percent of sales, just behind Barnes & Noble at 14 percent and Amazon at 19 percent. In fact, independent booksellers are gaining traction in the market, McLean said, adding that there are 2,094 indie bookstores operating in 2014 compared to 1,651 in 2009. “You guys are really the bright, shining beacon in the book market.”

See McLean’s full slideshow presentation here.