When It Comes to Kids’ Books, What Is Old Is New Again

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At next month’s Children’s Institute in Portland, Oregon, Allison Risbridger, the client development specialist and a lead analyst for NPD Book, will deliver the featured talk “Where Are We and Where Are We Going? Trends and Findings in Children’s Bookselling.”

The NPD Group, which recently acquired Nielsen’s U.S. market information and research services for the book industry, including BookScan, provides global information and advisory services to drive better business decisions by combining unique data assets with unmatched industry expertise. Practice areas include books, consumer electronics, entertainment, fashion, mobile, sports, technology, toys, video games, and more.

Here, Risbridger and Kristen McLean, the executive director of business development at NPD Book, share a preview of their findings.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve been seeing in the data lately?

The strength of backlist print sales, which grew faster than frontlist sales last year! A few years ago, growth in the kids’ book section was driven by lots of “new” frontlist content — exploding categories like YA and movie tie-ins, new types of nonfiction like the Minecraft books, and powerhouse series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But looking at the bestseller list for 2016, while Harry Potter sits on top and was a strong contributor to the year, 17 out of the top 20 slots are taken up by books from the backlist, and only four of those are back on the list because of some kind of movie or pop-culture event. Classics like Green Eggs and Ham, Goodnight Moon, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear are back, as well as newer classics like Wonder, which has really been embraced by the education market. It’s a totally different dynamic than what we saw as recently as two years ago.


Why do you think that’s happening?

There are a bunch of things at play here. First, this is a factor of the children’s market settling down after a few super-dynamic years — a decade ago, classics always had a strong presence on the bestseller lists. Second, this seems to track with a larger pattern we’re seeing across many parts of the children’s retail space — a return to classics and an investment in quality family time. For instance, sales of tabletop games are also seeing very strong growth. Parents, and particularly millennial parents, are investing in beloved favorites and analog experiences, and they see print books as an important element in their children’s lives. Strong growth in board books is another great indicator — they are up for the third straight year. Finally, in a noisy, crowded, and rushed content marketplace, there is a strong impulse to “go with what you know” — customers will gravitate toward books they know and love, and the big chains are reinforcing this by bringing in these books.

What advice would you give children’s booksellers when it comes to this trend?

As the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz has shown us, sometimes less is more when it comes to helping your customers make a great choice — customers will buy more when presented with fewer choices, especially when those remaining choices are very compelling and curated. Every store is different, and you know your customers best, but in general, presenting a compelling selection of titles in multiple copies per title and face out, with a nice mix of the familiar favorites and new finds together, will capitalize on this trend toward the familiar. Most customers will handle a couple dozen books at most during a shopping experience. If you could only show them that many, which ones would you pick? Sometimes placing artificial constraints on your process can yield surprising results!

What other trends have you excited?

We’re definitely excited by the growth in comics and graphic novels for kids and adults right now — it’s another area where we’ve seen the numbers go up year after year, and the trend continues to gain strength. This is a great opportunity for indie booksellers, because you can give the category more space than your mass merch competition like Target, and your curation and expertise will be appreciated by the hungry readers coming through your door.

We also continue to watch the kids’ nonfiction section very closely and think that category will continue to be strong. We’ve talked about “active nonfiction” for the last few cycles, and categories like biographies seem to really be capturing kids’ interests these days.

Finally, we think audio is something to watch, although this is a harder category for bricks-and-mortar booksellers to capitalize on. However, it’s worth paying attention to, because there are some very interesting shifts in reading and listening behavior going on with the explosion of podcasting, which is  presenting some super-interesting storytelling opportunities.

The Book Group recently moved from Nielsen to NPD. How is that going?

It’s going great! The NPD Group is a fantastic company with a strong track record of investing in both its products and its people, so we’re very excited to be there, and they are really committed to our business. They also happen to be the leader in tracking the toy industry, as well as other types of children’s and entertainment products, which will present great possibilities for what we’ll be able to show you in the future. In the meantime, we’re really looking forward to joining you in Portland!

The Children’s Institute featured talk “Where Are We and Where Are We Going? Trends and Findings in Children’s Bookselling” will take place from 10:40 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. on Thursday, April 6, in the Clackamas & Clark Room at the Red Lion Hotel on the River – Jantzen Beach in Portland, Oregon.