The growing complexity of the children’s digital market was parsed by industry experts at the Publishers Launch Children's Publishing Goes Digital Conference in New York on January 15, as panelists and speakers agreed that the transition from print to digital will not be a clean, easy movement and that things are still very much in the experimentation stage. The day-long conference kicked off with the presentation of the findings from a recent study by Bowker that found that among children, there has been a marked decline in bookstore and library influence as a source of recommendation and acquisition, and that many purchases are instead migrating online to vendors like Amazon. The study is part of Bowker’s Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age.

Friends and family overtook bookstore browsing and libraries as the top influencers, painting the picture of the children’s book market as a highly local word-of-mouth economy. The erosion of libraries and bookstores may be misleading, though, as Gretchen Caserotti of the Darien Public Library used a case study involving Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, which Caserotti said the library system recommended to the local school systems, and that based on the library’s recommendation (and a local award for the book), the school system widely assigned the book in classrooms. When asked how they heard about Grimm, students would most often respond that they heard of it through friends, even though the book was largely implemented because of the push of the library.

The Bowker study had some surprises, most notably: 84% of YA books were purchased by consumers 18 or older – and a full 35% of YA books were bought by consumers aged 18-29, by far the largest demographic. The second-largest demographic was age 30-44; within that segment, dispelling the notion that the YA books are gifts or purchases for teens, fully 80% of respondents reported “they bought the book for themselves.”

In all areas of media use with the exception of video games, girls outpaced boys, both in terms of behavior and in their willingness to engage in discussion.

On the topic of digital, a surprising shift back to print was seen since spring 2012, and for the year e-book adoption growth was flat among teens, with some evidence that teens liked print more in the fall than they did in the spring. One possible reason for this, according to Bookigee CEO Kristen McLean, could be the “shininess” wearing off new devices and, as people become accustomed to what digital can offer, they are making more nuanced decisions regarding reading habits.

Supporting the Bowker finding about teen attitudes toward digital, members of Nook’s digital team shared the fact from a 2012 Figment survey that said 35% of teens are reluctant to embrace digital reading. Kashif Zafar of Nook also revealed that the majority of Nook e-books are purchased on a device and that that number is growing. Further, he said, customers are very aware of price point and level of interactivity, with a gravitation toward full read-and-play titles (the highest level of interactivity).

Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic of the day was that the unit share for online sellers is 41%, but the discovery share for online sellers is 5%. The figure was presented by Peter Hildick-Smith of Codex Group, who stated that the disparity indicates that e-tailers need new strategies when it comes to discovery. A study done by Codex Group in December 2012 found that schools are still the greatest discovery source for books for children, with the category “schools, professionals (teachers, librarians, etc.), and groups” at 28% being the most common answer by parents asked where they found out about the last book they purchased for their child. Within that category, book fairs were the biggest contributor. After that category, 23% of respondents said they found out about the book from their child, 20% said a physical bookseller, and 12% said through digital. And to further show digital’s lagging influence in the children’s sphere, 81% said the recommendation for the book came “in person,” and only 5% said it came through social media.

One area where digital children’s books is beginning to make headway is in the school systems. Todd Brekhus of myON, a digital reading platform that doubled its revenue and number of titles in the last year, estimated that the education technology is a $7.76 billion market, and that it’s a great opportunity for publishers to match the right titles with the right readers. Terri Lynn Soutor of Brain Hive, another growing digital reading platform for schools, stated that there’s been an 83% increase in the number of e-books on a per school average nationwide, and that $42 million was spent on e-books in the U.S. last year. Soutor echoed Brekhus’s point regarding the opportunity that the still largely untapped education technology market holds for publishers, stressing that it’s a low risk proposition and there’s no product development investment.