In a recent presentation on the latest consumer buying trends in the book industry, Kristen McLean, NPD Books’ executive director for business development, maintained that children’s book sales remain stable in a generally flat market. Though book sales are down 3% overall, NPD Group’s market research indicated, sales for the top 100 bestselling titles are up 23%, thus revealing that while the market is flat, it is also compressed at the top.

"Early childhood reading is doing well," McLean noted, although she called board book sales, which have been a growing sector in the last few years, “pretty flat.” More than 50% of parents surveyed regularly read aloud to their children between the ages of 0–5, though the percentages begin dropping as children enter school and then begin reading by themselves. Only 7% of parents read aloud to their teenaged children, ages 12–14.

But independent reading is down, McLean added, speculating that the prevalence of cell phones and other distractions "is biting into children’s independent reading" time.

While the slight decline in middle grade reading and flat percentages in YA reading remain a concern, millennials are readers, McLean says: 53% of millennials report having visited a library in the past 12 months, compared to 43% of baby boomers and 45% of Gen Xers.

But readers of all ages do not seem to be reading books primarily as a means of escape, NPD’s findings indicate, in comparing 2018 percentages with 2017: rather, people are reading more in order to better understand and navigate the real world. Fiction was slightly down in 2018 compared to 2017, while nonfiction was slightly up in the children’s book market: juvenile fiction was down 3% and juvenile nonfiction was up 1%; as for YA fiction, it was down 2%, but YA nonfiction went up 2%.

Books about social situations, holidays/religion, games and activities, and educational titles are driving the growth in children’s nonfiction with sales in these specific categories up between 5–10%. Popular topics in contemporary children’s literature include books about girl power, diversity, STEAM, wellness and social issues, classics and nostalgia, and humor.

Paradoxically, while general fiction and science fiction numbers are both down, print sales of graphic novels are way up: overall, the category is up 12%, but graphic novels for juvenile readers is up 33%; 40% of trade sales in the U.S. in 2018 of graphic novels were juvenile fiction titles, followed by manga (26%) and superheroes (12%).

McLean noted that it’s not just children's frontlist that is doing well: classic backlist titles like Dr. Seuss books also drove sales in 2018 more than in previous years. While, overall, backlist accounted for almost 62% of book sales in 2018, up 4% since 2015, in the children’s sector, backlist accounted in 2018 for 73% of sales, up 6% from 2015’s 67%. Frontlist children’s sales accounts for just over 26% of sales in 2018.

Books that have been adapted for the big (and little) screen are doing well in the marketplace. According to McLean, of the top 10 YA authors in 2018, “the breakout stars”—Angie Thomas, Jenny Han, and Becky Albertalli—were all three authors of books tied to 2018 screen adaptations. Several of the other top 10 YA authors have had their books previously adapted for the screen, including John Green, Cassandra Clare, S.E. Hinton, Lois Lowry, and Markus Zusak.

In terms of format trends in the overall market, there is slight growth in both trade paperback and hardcover sales, as well as a continuing decline in e-book sales, down 10% since 2013 and 4% in the past year. But, McLean says, the “digital audiobook market has just been exploding.” Revenues from sales of digital audiobooks are up 37% from 2017 to 2018. McLean attributed this to the "audio revolution," with cars containing better built-in speakers, and audiobooks being more compatible with smartphones

But indie bookstores are thriving, McLean added, disclosing that of the American Booksellers Association’s 2,524 member stores, 149 are new store locations, and that ABA stores’ revenue in 2018 was up 5%. ABA stores are "beating the market," McLean said, although Amazon continues to dominate, followed by Walmart and Target.

McLean attributed the resurgence in ABA market share to those indies that are successfully changing with the times, becoming "hybrid online and bricks-and-mortar" retailers. She pointed out that consumers want the convenience that comes with online shopping, but they also appreciate "localized, community-based experiential retail."

Looking ahead, McLean said, booksellers should expect further compression of the market as bestsellers continue to dominate, though this trend seems to affect the adult category more than children’s books, given the continuing upward rise of backlist in children’s book sales figures. Sales of midlist titles in all categories will suffer, due to printing shortages and shrinking shelf space. But, she predicted that the e-book market will stabilize as audiobook sales continue to rise, due to better digital audio content and distribution.

"Generally, I am optimistic; the children’s market is really resilient," she told PW in a phone interview. "There’s strong evidence here that people still value children’s books, and this market will continue to thrive, especially in early childhood. The soft middle grade [independent reading level] is a matter of concern. We really need to advocate for daily middle grade reading. After all, middle grade reading levels are an important indicator for the future of the book market."