Community was the buzzword for a diverse group of children’s book professionals who gathered at the Scholastic auditorium this past Tuesday for the first in a three-part series sponsored by the Children’s Book Council. In a panel entitled “The Buyers’ Perspective,” book buyers, retailers, and distributors reflected on the 2011 holiday season and anticipated what’s to come for 2012.

The panelists were Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Bookstore in Naperville, Ill., and the current president of the American Booksellers Association; Chandler Arnold, executive v-p of First Book; Kris Church, category manager at Levy Home Entertainment for Target; Kevin O’Connor, Nook Kids director of business development and content acquisition; and Christine Onorati, owner of WORD bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y. The event was moderated by Jennifer Brown, children’s editor at Shelf Awareness.

Brown initiated a lively overview of the book market by asking panelists what strategies and approaches worked for them over the holiday season. Church noted that holiday books with lowered price points, like Mary Engelbreit’s The Night Before Christmas, were big sellers, and targeted promotional hooks like gift cards played a role in creating awareness for particular books. O’Connor found that books featuring licensed characters, those with audio components, and books drawn from family movies were popular for Nook Kids.

Representing indie bookstores, Anderson and Onorati underscored the impact of the personal connections that they formed with customers. Anderson said that the experience of helping “put the right book in the right hands” had been particularly rewarding this past holiday season. Onorati noticed that visitors to the store were especially “hungry for staff picks.” One of WORD’s staff picks was Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, which has been a bestseller for the store. Onorati found that Small Business Saturday, which was held on November 26, was very successful, adding to positive morale over the holidays. She also mentioned that WORD’s promotional events, such as school book fairs and a two-day holiday open house that invited authors to work in the store for an afternoon, attracted many customers.

While also reporting a “great” Small Business Saturday at her store, Anderson said that Amazon’s new price check app led her to be “more aggressive” in promoting the importance of supporting local bookstores. The app enables bookstore patrons to scan book barcodes with their smartphones to determine whether they will pay less if they purchase the same book through Amazon. Recognizing that a patron’s potential purchase often comes down to price point, she said that “we must educate [consumers] about why brick and mortar matters.” She also discussed the value of bookstores forming alliances with other indie businesses: “You have to support each other first.”

The panelists also spoke about selling patterns they noticed emerging over the season. Church at Levy was surprised to see classic books selling strong; Nook Kids’ O’Connor noticed robust sales for more “gendered” titles for boys, including Chris Barton’s Shark vs. Train and I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track by Joshua Prince, as well as books with a multimedia platform already in place—Elf on the Shelf, for example. He also noted that the format of digital books can sometimes entice reluctant boy readers. At First Book, Arnold found that books with themes of diversity, global cultures, STEM resources (science, technology, engineering, and math), and bilingual books were in surprising demand.

A Big Giving Season

Charitable events also connected book-loving communities over the holidays. Onorati described WORD’s online Read This venture, which collects information from schools in need of books and compiles a wish list that store visitors can help fulfill. Additionally, proceeds from gift-wrapping at WORD’s open house went to the Greenpoint Food Pantry. Anderson’s Bookstore ran its annual Book Angels program which enables store shoppers to pick out a book for a child in need, while Arnold said that First Book has used “local stores as a megaphone for charity projects.”

The panelists briefly touched on the topic of social media for marketing promotions and outreach. “Social media is huge for us,” said Onorati. Calling its impact “immeasurable,” she emphasized how an online forum like Facebook or Twitter “creates community” and “connects people who love books,” who then come to the store. For Anderson, social media is also an integral part of drawing attention to her indie bookstore. “People become your evangelists,” she explained. Describing social media as the place “where teen readers live,” Church emphasized that it makes sense to reach out to them there.

Living in the social media world can affect teenage reading habits—but not in the way one might think. Moderator Brown described the message from the recent Digital Book World that YA readers are not “gravitating as quickly” to e-readers as industry leaders may have anticipated.

Anderson agreed with that assessment, suggesting that teens “spend so much time on devices already,” they crave the more intimate experience of a physical book. Onorati also shared that many of her customers are resistant to e-readers.

O’Connor at Nook Kids, however, sees big buying trends when it comes to e-readers, mentioning significant Percy Jackson sales and noting that readers may be drawn to bookstores to purchase the devices. He added that hesitant e-reader buyers should keep in mind that buying an e-book “doesn’t mean you’ll never read a physical book again.”

Assessing the Past and Future

Finally, the speakers were invited to reflect on the past year before addressing their wishes and goals for 2012.

Church said that her biggest surprise for the year was the lack of “drop-off because of e-readers.” For 2012, she hopes to see more “accessible” products that offer “value and innovation,” and to refine the organization of selections in stores as a way to optimize sales.

O’Connor noted his surprise that Nook market share grew, particularly in the kids’ area, and has the goal of “further positioning Nook as a family device,” reaching a larger middle-grade and teen audience, as well as mothers. He is also seeking titles for Nook that can provide young readers with a more self-guided interactive experience.

Arnold commented upon the valuable “advice from the customer segment,” which led to a change made to a Wimpy Kid package price point and a bilingual Very Hungry Caterpillar board book made available for readers who couldn’t afford both editions.

Anderson expressed some frustration over the difficulty of translating “mind share into market share,” referencing a study conducted by the Independent Booksellers Consortium, which tracked online sales for three midlist books after independent bookstores put aggressive promotional strategies in place for the books. The books’ rankings on Amazon “went sky high,” said Anderson. After “putting eyeballs” on so many books, she wishes that indie bookstores would reap a greater reward. She also reported wanting to see more humorous books and “forever books” in the store, rather than those that fall in line with a particular trend.

Onorati commented that she was most surprised by the number of physical books that WORD sold in 2011. Her goals include working more with schools and running more book fairs, and enhancing WORD’s Web site to “be more reflective of our actual store.” She would also particularly like to see more “non-series, non-generic board books.”

And at First Book, Arnold seeks to form stronger long-term relationships with publishers “to get more books into kids’ hands.”

Part two of the CBC series, “Decoding Today’s Kids” will take place on Thursday, May 10, and the third event, “The Road Ahead: Expanding Horizons” on Tuesday, October 9, with locations to be announced.