Vying for Attention
Children are pulled in many directions today; at least, their attention is. They are occupied by MP3 players, gaming systems, computers, cell phones, handheld electronic games and other digital technologies. And yes, children still play old-fashioned board games. They also attend school, compete in team sports, and participate in community and extracurricular activities. With all of these outlets occupying children’s time, how are books faring?
With an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 new children’s titles released each year, children’s book publishers are concerned with how their books can compete for young readers’ attention with the thousands of titles already in the market, according to Ron Berry, CEO, Smart Kids Publishing Inc.
These publishers are also being challenged by a trying economy, the closing of bookstores and the increased demand for digital technology. Creativity and innovation seem to be publishers’ saving grace to keep up with these challenges and, more importantly, use them to their advantage.
Facing the Retail Giant
As consumers turn to large retail chains to purchase books, more and more independent bookstores are closing, resulting in a decline in shelf space, according to Michael Norris, senior analyst for Simba Information. “[There is] a growing number of titles being sold in non-bookstore locations such as Target and Wal-Mart, which is creating a volatile situation: Those retailers are quite available (there are more Wal-Marts in the United States than there are Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million stores combined) and they can price books lower than anyone,” he explains.
And, according to Berry, more than 70 percent of children’s book purchases are made at these chains. The problem for publishers is that these retail giants only carry 80 to 100 titles on their bookshelves at a given time, making it difficult for publishers to get their titles into the stores, he explains. In addition, “they take [more than] 60 percent of the pie—and to make matters worse, if the book doesn’t sell, they ship the inventory back to you, at your expense,” says Berry. “As a result, publishers are using [the] Internet, direct mail and direct sales to reach consumers. The Internet is the fastest-growing marketing channel in America today—this is where hope lies for the small publisher.”
Chris Boral, marketing director of Chronicle Books, believes that children’s book publishers face a time of selective growth, but believes there are opportunities in retail even amid bookstore closings and shelf reductions. “There have been too many books out in the market for too long,” he states. “Bringing the right books out with a specific customer in mind and with reasonable expectations will continue to be a good plan.”
Jeanne Emanuel, vice president of sales, United States and Canada, for Candlewick Press, also sees opportunity through the retail giants, even despite today’s weak economy. “This holiday season, consumers might be more likely to reach for books as gifts rather than higher-priced alternatives,” she says. “But nevertheless, the economy is most certainly keeping us on our toes.”
Keeping Pace With Technology
“Of course, the elephant in the room for everyone in the trade-book value chain is the decline in the number of young readers, who have more entertainment and leisure options than you can imagine,” says Norris. “The publishers are just stuck doing this dance with the dreaded ‘other media.’ They compete with it, but they also want to exploit it to help sell books. And figuring how to convince people that books are where the content-filtering process ends in a world full of free content is the ‘Holy Grail’ for this industry.”
Publishers are finding that it is not enough to release the ordinary, run-of-the-mill book to this generation of children that is growing up with technology all around them. In the children’s book publishing industry, innovation is key, says Berry. “A cute children’s storybook with a moral message will probably never see the light of day—it’s not innovative or new,” he explains. “The only way to get your books noticed is if you have a unique presentation integrated into the book.”
Smart Kids creates books with the “four-second rule” in mind. “When a mom is pushing her shopping cart down the aisle in the children’s book section, you have four seconds to attract her attention. If you have a button to push on your book that results in lights or sound, the more likely she will be to stop and pick it up off the shelf,” says Berry, who confirms that Smart Kids’ best-selling books are the ones that integrate lights and sound chips.
Publishers also are taking advantage of multiplatform or multidimensional publishing. Scholastic has launched interactive Web sites to extend the reading experience to a digital platform that interests its young readers. Earlier this year, the publisher launched the “Goosebumps HorrorLand” series by R.L. Stine, with a complementary Web site that features “HorrorLand”-related content and games. It also recently launched “The 39 Clues,” a 10-book, multiplatform program to be published over the next two years. Along with the first book, “The Maze of Bones,” written by Rick Riordan, the program includes hundreds of collectible cards and an online game (www.The39Clues.com), where kids can race to gather clues alongside the book’s characters.
HarperCollins Children’s Books also incorporates the Web into its offerings for children. “The impact of digital technology is changing absolutely everything we do, from how we create our content, which is now all digital, to how we reach our customers, which includes electronic newsletters, podcasts, blogs, Web-based contests, electronic fan-lit writing, digital audio and radio, e-books, electronic picture books—the list goes on and on,” explains Susan Katz, president and publisher. “We are now planning titles for the teen and tween audience ([for example,] “Mackenzie Blue” and “The Amanda Project”) where there is both a print [book] and a Web site with material that introduces, supports and enhances the world that is created in the book.”
An Uphill Economic Battle
The current economy has not been kind to anyone. And, publishers are definitely feeling the impact, especially as costs increase across the board. “Right now printing costs and distribution costs are the immediate concern. Where are they headed and what will the impact be for all of us—retailers and wholesalers included—if costs continue to rise?” asks Mary Ann Sabia, vice president and associate publisher of Watertown, Mass.-based Charlesbridge. “Increased transportation costs, in particular, make the existing practice of returning books seem more and more anachronistic.”
On top of the tight margins that publishers already face, fuel and paper prices are higher, but discretionary income is lower, says Norris. “Publishers need to walk a fine line to price their products in such a way [that] they still make money and still attract buyers,” he advises. “The economy is going to slap the trade book industry around in 2008; there’s no question about it. How quickly publishers and retailers get back on their feet and how much stronger they’re going to be when the economy comes back is up to them.”
Despite these challenges, some publishers are optimistic about the children’s book market. Several agree that even when financial times are tough, children’s books will continue to thrive. “The economy is, of course, of great concern,” says Katz. “Having said that, children’s books still sell in tough economic times because adults are willing to give up certain expenses before they cut back on books for children and teens.”
Amid Challenges, Publishers See Growth
Even in the face of today’s challenges, everyone that spoke with Book Business reported that his or her company’s sales are either holding steady or on the rise.
“In this [challenging publishing] environment, Charlesbridge sees opportunities for continuing growth through a sustained focus on quality and a gradual expansion of our list,” says Sabia. Charlesbridge is building on its picture-book success by expanding its reach to include early readers through a more diverse offering of titles, including chapter books, middle-grade novels and nonfiction. It has enjoyed much success this year with “Global Babies Hello,” “Bumblebee Bat” and “Lola at the Library.”
Chronicle Books has seen a steady increase in sales the last several years, according to Boral. “Our children’s business is up year-over-year, and we just had our biggest August in the last seven years, which was no small feat,” he says. “Titles that are doing exceptionally well and surpassing expectations include ‘Wave’ by Suzy Lee and ‘Little Hoot’ by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. These are both examples of distinctive publishing being embraced by retailers and consumers alike.”
According to Norris, publishers releasing book series are taking advantage of a great opportunity. “Series books are just getting bigger and bigger, and authors who have built up their brand names over time are almost always sure hits,” he says.
Candlewick Press reports that its series are, in fact, doing quite well for the company, including its “Judy Moody” series, its “Encyclopedia Mythologica: Fairies” pop-up series, and its “Ology” series, which includes the new “Monsterology” and “Spyology,” which will be published in November. In addition, Candlewick published “Where’s Waldo: The Ultimate Travel Collection” this spring in paperback with gatefolds and a page-saving band. “It feels very fresh, and the new format aged up Waldo a bit for his nostalgic fan base,” says Emanuel. “Our aim is to take all this excitement and make something of it—it’s a fun way to find growth and increase our market share.”
HarperCollins is finding that its most successful series are those focusing on specific main characters. “The major trends are focused on specific characters, like our ‘Fancy Nancy’ series at the picture-book level, which is aimed at 3- to 8-year-olds, and at the tween reader (ages 8 to 12) with series like ‘Warriors,’ and for the teen reader, … series like ‘Pretty Little Liars,’” says Katz.
Of course, Scholastic has learned that a series can turn into a craze among children as well as adults. “Last year, we published the seventh and final book in the ‘Harry Potter’ series, which was a record-setting success,” says Ellie Berger, president, Scholastic Trade. “‘Harry Potter’ is now a classic for us with new young readers ready to start their Hogwarts journey every year.”
In addition to the “Harry Potter” series, several Scholastic books that have experienced strong sales include: “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, “Henry’s Freedom Box,” illustrated by Kadir Nelson, “Elijah of Buxton” by Christopher Paul Curtis and “Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls,” the first middle-grade series by Meg Cabot. Another picture book that is doing well for Scholastic is “Zen Ties” by Jon J. Muth, which has been on The New York Times Best Sellers list since its publication in February.
Though publishers are reporting a lot of positive growth, Norris paints a different picture. “I can tell you right now that since 2008 is not a ‘Harry Potter’ year and 2007 was, [sales are] going to be down [for the children’s books category],” he says. “Even if you take ‘Potter’ out of the equation—like Barnes & Noble did when they reported their earnings—it’s not a pretty picture, and at best it’s a misleading picture. The blockbuster books bring in traffic to a bookstore, and plenty of consumers pick up another book at the same time.”
Even still, with the obstacles that publishers face to reach this generation of young consumers, some agree that books have staying power, regardless of closing bookstores, ever-evolving technology and difficult financial times. “In spite of a challenging economy, parents still seem interested in providing their children with good books,” says Berger. “As a children’s-only publisher, we will continue to publish good, quality, engaging books that kids want to read.”
Missy Smith is an associate editor at North American Publishing Co. in Philadelphia. She also freelances for Montgomery Newspapers and is the editorial coordinator for Little Blue World, a nonprofit Tori Amos fanzine.