Children’s books proved to be one of the most recession-resistant segments of the book business this holiday season, with the Twilight series and the latest from J.K. Rowling leading the pack. Stephenie Meyer’s vampire books had the added distinction of being the hardest to keep in stock. At BookPeople in Austin, Tex., where getting enough copies of New Moon caused the biggest headache, “Meyer sales alone were actually 5% of our kids’ sales, which is staggering,” noted children’s book buyer Meghan Dietsche Goel in a posting on the ABC listserv. Other movie tie-ins sold briskly, especially Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and the children’s edition of John Grogan’s bestseller, Marley and Me.
At $12.99, Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard was one of the season’s least expensive hardcover stocking stuffers. Its popularity, which was above what many booksellers and distributors anticipated, speaks to just how sensitive many shoppers were to price. “Beedle the Bard sold slightly better than I had originally expected, mainly due to the poor economy,” said Bookazine children’s buyer Heather Doss. “It made a great gift book and was less of a sticker shock than the collector’s edition from Amazon for $100. The average price of a book on my top 100 was under $10 this year, meaning customers were looking for more paperbacks and less hardcovers.”
Which is not to say that higher-priced hardcovers didn’t sell. At Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita, Kans., children’s books sold well across the board, according to co-owner Sarah Bagby. Overall her holiday sales rose nearly 5%, thanks in part to children’s hardcovers like Greg Kincaid’s Midwest Connections selection, A Dog Named Christmas; the gift edition of The Tale of Despereaux; The Bill Martin Jr.Big Book of Poetry; and a new edition of Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington.
Jilleen Moore, buyer at Square Books Jr. in Oxford, Miss., was one of the few booksellers to have a “great” Christmas, but then her town was one of the few places to host a presidential debate. “People came here to shop who might not otherwise. I also know that my customers were doubly loyal to us over the holidays, despite our shortcomings and inability to get things as fast to them sometimes as the online stores,” said Moore. Square Books Jr. sold a lot of copies of Kate DiCamillo’s picture book Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken, illustrated by Harry Bliss,and Berkeley Breathed’s Pete & Pickles. In YA, said Moore, her top handsells were Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. But the book-and-CD package Moore dubbed her “favorite find of the year” was a reissue from the 1950s of Jim Copp, Will You Tell Me a Story? by Jim Copp, illustrated by Lindsay duPont.
At the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., sales were up in December, but not enough to make up for what owner Terri Schmitz described as “the worst November in 22 years.” Her sales were off by 3% for the year. “People weren’t buying things they perceived wouldn’t be of value like impulse items and plush,” she said. “We were way down on Christmas, Chanukah and pop-up books.” Other stores fared better with holiday titles, particularly those with a local twist. Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Me., reported that his bestselling title was a reprint of Maine illustrator Dahlov Ipcar’s My Wonderful Christmas Tree (Islandport Press). He also used his store’s display space to focus on series his customers might not have read yet, like Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven and Hilari Bell’s The Shield, Sword, and Crown.
Series helped boost children’s sales at 25-year-old Katy Budget Books in Houston, Tex., which had a flat Christmas overall, according to children’s book buyer Alicia Dupree. “Kids were a big percentage of our sales, especially because of the series that people were buying up in whole sets,” she said. In addition to Twilight, the store did well with Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice and Erin Hunter’s Warriors. Other strong sellers involved motion—Elle J. McGuiness’s Bee and Me, illustrated by Heather Brown, and Rufus Seder Brown’s Swing!— as well as Ellen Hopkins’s verse books: Identical, Impulse and Glass.
“I was concerned about sales going into the holidays,” Brechner said. “The ABA was running Webinars on surviving. But lots of customers were talking about shopping local and wanting to support us. It made a difference.” Shopping local was also cited by Colette Morgan, owner of the Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, for contributing to “fantastic” holiday sales, up close to 10% from last year. For her, “the interesting thing was that people brought up [the subject of shopping local] in conversation.” Among the books that sold best at Morgan’s store were Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Berkeley Breathed’s Pete & Pickles, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid titles.
“Our community really supported us more than every before, and we’re deeply grateful for that,” said Ann Seaton, general manager of Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif. “We had customers thanking us for being here.” Fortunately for Seaton, they weren’t paying only lip service; sales were up between 8 and 10% over December last year. Known for its staff picks, the store sold over 200 copies of its Pick of the Year, the picture book One by local author Kathryn Otoshi. Strong-selling novels included Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Hunger Games, Impossible by Nancy Werlin and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
While Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis managed to draw customers despite bitter cold days in the week before Christmas, other stores didn’t fare as well. “We got hit harder by the weather than the economy,” said Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., who had to cope with four snowstorms in the two weeks leading up to Christmas. Late-season snows also interfered with sales at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island, Wash., which were down overall. “We had more snow than we’ve had since 1960,” commented buyer Jan Healy. Even so, children’s did better than general books. “People will always find the money to buy gifts for kids,” said Healy. This year those gifts included The Hunger Games, John Green’s PaperTowns, Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, and Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Science Fair.
Similarly, at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., where buyer Marie DuVaure anticipates that sales will be down when final accounting is completed, children’s books were a bright spot. Swing! was a store bestseller, as were Marion Bataille’s ABC3D and the 39 Clues series. “When it comes to kids, people don’t cut back on gift-buying,” DuVaure said. Nor on sidelines, as the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., discovered this season. While children’s books were even with last year, sidelines did very well, according to co-owner Joan Grenier, who noted that the children’s department and the store as a whole were up for the year.
The two strongest sidelines, said children’s department manager Rebecca Fabian were educational toys from Melissa & Doug and magnetic figures from Galison/Mudpuppy. She attributed much of the success to store renovations in fall 2007, which gave the children’s department room for an activities corner. “I see the children’s department more browsed,” said Fabian, who did well with a mix of books including Chris Riddell’s Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, Lesley M.M. Blume’s Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggie title Are You Ready to Play Outside?, and “anything” by Laurie Halse Anderson.
Despite the surprising strength of this year’s holiday season, many booksellers expressed concern about the year ahead. “I just hope all our customers come back in January,” said Seaton at Hicklebee’s. A more optimistic Brechner at DD&G Booksellers predicted, “Things will be difficult, but they will be fine in the end. The difficulties will make people pull together and reflect on the importance of community, on supporting the institutions, and businesses who really care about books and the unique role of literature in the community at large.”