"Children's books are not going anywhere. They're going to be a very secure category in the marketplace," said former Association of Booksellers for Children executive director Kristen McLean during a presentation at the ABA's Winter Institute with Kelly Gallagher, v-p of publishers services at Bowker/PubTrack. That, coupled with the fact that bookstores continue to play a key role as a driver of sales, were among the highlights of a joint consumer study with Bowker and ABC (now a part of the ABA), which was also presented at Digital Book World last week.

Sponsored by Random House, Macmillan, Penguin, Scholastic, and Little, Brown, the survey, which is available from Bowker, examines consumer attitudes toward purchasing children's books in three categories: adults buying for children ages 0–6, adults buying for children ages 7–12, and teen consumers ages 13–17.

While some of the news came as no surprise—women buy nearly 70% of kids' books and most purchasers fit solidly in the middle class both in terms of income and education—other findings were more startling. For example, books ranked number one over all other media for the youngest ages. (See chart #1.) Even for teens, books outweigh other media by 57% when it comes to having fun.

Parents and those close to children are more influential than ever, McLean noted. The study found a bull's-eye pattern of influence, with Web site advertising and mass media occupying the outermost ring. For children under seven, friends and family are most likely to determine what they read, followed by browsing in bookstores, teachers, online research, and book fairs. Moms, teachers, and dads, in that order, affect book selection for 7–12-year-olds. Teens overwhelmingly turned to parents, teachers, and close friends for book suggestions. Librarians affected 24% of YA reading decisions, bookstores not so much.

Still, bookstores and libraries continue to play a significant role in helping younger children discover books, with 75% of children's books being purchased in a physical store. Bookstores are the primary place that parents of children 0–6 turn to in order to find out about particular titles, followed by "the child tells me" and public libraries. School fairs were further down the list, at 24%, followed by Amazon at 19%. Bookstores also play a key role for children ages 7–12, although they are second to a child's interest in the book. Teachers, school fairs, and public libraries are also important, and Amazon's share drops to 17%.

However, when it comes to buying books to read for fun, bookstores tumbled to the bottom of the chart, with independents slightly edging out Target/Costco. (See chart #2.) School libraries and public libraries topped the list, with Barnes & Noble being the favorite bookstore, followed by Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Borders, which are separated by only a few percentage points. In the survey, independents captured a smaller share of the market, 6%, than they do for bookselling overall. The skewed results may reflect the fact that respondents made multiple selections.

In her presentation, McLean encouraged independent booksellers to take heart. "It's not as bad as you think," she said. "Seeing a book matters. They don't come in to buy a book. They're buying a book they see." Added Gallagher: "A lot of purchasing habits are common across the board." Close to 80% of book purchases are not planned, and of those, 40% are pure impulse—double that for adult titles. (See chart #3.)

Children also have a different set of criteria for choosing what to read next. While price is a factor for children ages 7–12, the primary one is a familiar character or series, followed by "child asked for it in store" and front cover image. That the book was written by an author whom the parent knows or trusts, or that it was recommended by a friend, also counts a lot when it comes to making a purchase.

For teen readers, celebrity endorsements, cover and flap blurbs, and awards have little influence on picking a book. (See chart #4.) Sequels are the most popular factor, followed by familiarity with author, and back and flap copy. The whole package counts, with the title and cover each affecting nearly one third of selections.

The old paradigm of screen versus book no longer applies, said McLean, who called kids "omnivorous consumers of media." Over half of children ages 0–6 went online 57% of the time, just one percentage point less than they read a book for school or for fun. Only 9% read an e-book. In the next category, one third of children 7–12 go online a moderate amount, 43% at least a little bit, and 12% are frequent Internet users.

Teens, too, are heavy online users. But while favorite activities center around screens—text-ing and visiting Facebook—39% read books for fun. That's print books, not electronic ones. As tech-savvy as this segment of the population is, over 80% of teens don't read e-books, with only 5% saying that they do so frequently.

For McLean, the fact that teens are early adopters of social technology means that they don’t see e-books as social. In regards to children’s online book search habits, the study found that 42% of all children don’t go to Web sites to find out about other books in a series; 40% haven’t visited a fan site; and 41% haven’t visited the book’s or author’s site.

As McLean emphasized, there is much good news for bookstores embedded in the study. It points toward the importance of display for attracting the attention of impulse shoppers. But it also highlights a significant gap between where consumers find books and where they buy. "The real challenge," said Gallagher, "is how to make that conversion."

And the study could be the best indicator available of future consumer behavior across the board. "What we are seeing right now is not just the addition of new technologies to old patterns of working," said McLean. "It is a fundamentally new way of organizing ourselves in the world. What better way to gaze ahead than by looking at future adults whose ideas about books and reading are being developed right now?"

Charts reproduced with permission of Bowker.