Children’s book industry professionals gathered on December 12 at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium in Manhattan, for the inaugural Nielsen Children’s Book Summit, a full day of presentations revealing the findings of the 2014 Nielsen Children’s Book Industry Report. The studies, conducted over a four-year period, sought to collect data that would provide insights into the ways in which children and teens consume media, specifically books, in an era of rapid technological advancements.

Among the key take-away points from the day were: children’s book sales have risen steadily across all categories, though performing strongest is middle-grade and YA fiction; children and teens have an overwhelming preference for print over digital books; tablet use has risen exponentially, even among young children; and, as raised by a panel of teen readers and other presenters, the categorization of books as YA can be problematic for book industry professionals who find the classification inadequate and for teens who are resistant to labeling.

Conference co-chairs Kristen McLean, founder and CEO of Bookigee, and Jonathan Stolper, SVP, Nielsen Book, provided opening remarks about the impetus for the Nielsen studies that would be explored in-depth throughout the day. The goal behind the project, which launched in 2010, was to develop a clearer “understanding of the shifting marketplace” by “following the consumer,” said Stolper, and to determine “who is buying and why.” With shifting technologies and changes within the bookselling industry (including the closing of Borders), the ways that readers consume books has clearly evolved as well, and so the need to acquire “actionable data” with which to help reshape bookselling business models, was fundamental said Stolper. The data presented during the summit was gathered through multiple sources: Nielsen BookScan, Nielsen Books & Consumers U.S. survey, and Nielsen’s Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age survey.

The Kids Are Alright

Keynote speaker Rey Junco, a psychologist and social media researcher, delivered an uplifting presentation called The Myth and the Reality: Kids’ Lives In a Connected World, emphasizing that the results of the Nielsen studies point to significant growth in the children’s book industry, across multiple channels. He discussed the dizzying evolution of digital devices, noting that “technological progress does not necessarily mean social progress,” and that anytime new technology is seen to be replacing older forms, there is inevitably tension, which is not a new phenomenon. The introduction of the telephone raised concerns that face-to-face conversations would become a thing of the past, while, as televisions became common place in American households, many feared that it would “destroy the very social fabric” of our world. Suggesting that “we tell ourselves a lot of stories as a society about how technology has changed us,” Junco pointed to many of the current misconceptions about the way kids interact with technology and social media. Contrary to what many adults believe, studies have shown that young people’s use of Facebook actually “strengthens bonds,” and their online interactions lead to increased engagement within their social networks offline. In fact, Junco said, “No study has shown that online interaction detracts from social contact.”

He went on to debunk another myth: that “social media is detrimental to academic performance.” In fact, a study of Twitter users showed “improved engagement, persistence, and better grades.” Speaking to an issue of great relevance to the book industry professionals in the audience, Junko lastly debunked the myth that kids don’t read and only read digitally. According to Nielsen, “67% of kids read for fun fairly often,” and that there is a significant preference for print over digital books, with 71% of kids purchasing in print. These misconceptions about the way youth consume media, Junco said, come about through the lack of “good information,” and what he called the “adult normative perspective.” He believes that views of technology tend to often align with “panic narratives,” or the belief that new forms of technology will morally corrupt and “progress narratives,” which suggest that “technology will save us from everything.” Neither is an accurate view. One thing is for sure, he said in conclusion: “Our kids are not only okay, but they are thriving.”

A Global Context for Children’s Publishing

The next presentation, Global Trends in the Children’s Book Market, was led by Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Book, which provided a global context for those in the U.S. market. According to Nowell, the worldwide book industry is strong. Books are the media sector with the largest content creation, with $151 billion a year in sales, ahead of movies at $135 billion Global consumer confidence is strongest in India and weakest in Italy; this also carries over into book sales. Looking at these worldwide trends, Nowell sees potential for growth. He noted that sales are growing in China, the nation that has claimed the spot for the second biggest book market in the world (the U.S. is first). Additionally, countries like Brazil are showing rapid growth in their book markets. To Nowell, this means big opportunities aboard for American publishers to expand their properties around the world. “In China they’re hungry for titles from the U.S. and U.K.”

In non-English markets, particularly China and Brazil, the numbers show huge growth, and to Nowell, opportunities for publishers to expand their properties worldwide. “In China they’re hungry for titles from the U.S. and U.K.”Sales are up in Brazil and Australia as well. However, markets are down slightly in the U.K., Italy, France, and South Africa, and up in Brazil, U.S., China, and Australia. Children’s books, especially in print, is the largest growing sector in publishing globally. Steadily increasing sales in children’s books are expected to carry into the holiday season, led by Wimpy Kid in the U.S. and Zoella (blogger Zoe Sugg) in the U.K.

Sales aren’t the entire picture when looking at the success of children’s books. The difference across markets shows that in some countries, smaller publishers can take big chunks of the market share in sales. In the U.K., Nowell said that smaller, independent houses like Walker Books and Nosy Crow are holding their own among the larger corporate publishers. In the U.S., Nowell noted that reading rated at the top of leisure activities for kids 0-10; it drops for kids11-13 it drops, and then at 14-17 reading is completely superceded by social media and other forms of entertainment. Addressing this drop, and finding ways to engage readers of these ages, is a key challenge for publishers to address.

U.S. Children’s Books in the Digital World

McLean and Stolper then backed up Junco’s earlier statements with some figures. Nielsen Bookscan has reported that 2014 was “the best year ever for juvenile books in every category,” McLean said, calling it “the perfect storm of growth in 2014.” The top-selling titles are familiar ones, with Harry Potter and Twilight reigning in 2008, joined by Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Hunger Games by 2010. Following the success of Wimpy Kid came more middle-grade books sharing its highly visual, journal-novel hybrid format, such as Dork Diaries and Big Nate: “books with similar subjects and themes or the same authors are benefiting from each other’s successes,” she said. The last two years show John Green and Veronica Roth among the highest-selling authors; juvenile fiction is performing so robustly that in 2014, 17 of the country’s 20 overall bestsellers were books for children.

Brick-and-mortar independent bookstores are going strong, following the 2009 Borders closure that resulted in a dip in chain store sales. However, online sales are also rising, as “people have become more comfortable buying online,” said McLean. One of the most significant changes in new media has come in the form of a versatile hand-held device: “We cannot overstate the impact of the tablet,” said McLean. For children, tablets are providing “an immersive experience of content.”

The power of the juvenile market, releasing “wave upon wave of strong series books with YA [is] having an unbelievable impact,” she said. And when it comes to the digital vs. print question, teen’s preference for print is loud and clear: “they have really made a decision about print,” citing 54% of teens who strongly or generally prefer print, with 28% who have no preference, and 18% who strongly or generally prefer e-books.

And where are books being purchased? Sixty-two percent of children’s book purchases are taking place in brick-and-mortar stores. Nielsen’s findings show that “juvenile represents 35% of the total physical market over the last 12 months,” with juvenile fiction largely driving the sales from 2011 to 2014, resulting in “a great variety of publishers seeing positive growth.” Games and activity books as well as crossover products, representing “blockbuster brands bleeding over to nonfiction,” such as Minecraft and Lego, are also raising “very interesting implications.” MacLean suggested that this trend “leads to the rise of lifestyle books in juvenile nonfiction, and popularity of shows like MasterChef Junior.” One surprising find from a study about demographic buying habits showed that 42% of people who purchase children’s nonfiction titles actually have no children: 15% of these buyers purchased the books as gifts, and 27% of them reported buying the books for themselves.

Sales for movie tie-in titles have also grown significantly, largely due to titles attached to Disney’s Frozen. But while shiny new tie-in titles are big sellers, the classics remain popular among consumers. Sales for Charlotte’s Web are the highest in six years; books like that one and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are representative of “the books we grow up with and want to pass on to the younger generation,” Stolper said. Smaller publishers are also seeing growth, with Silver Dolphin, Baker Publishing Group, and Tiger Tales making the list of top-selling smaller houses for the last three years.

Children today are also driving much of a household’s purchases, with 35% of book selection coming “directly from the child” as compared with suggestions coming from friends, family members, a bookstore, or other source.

Television Isn’t Going Anywhere

Kelly Abcarian, senior v-p of Watch Product Architecture, noted that kids are “more difficult to measure than they are to raise,” at the start of her joint session with Oana Dan, a research manager at Nielsen, called Screenshots: Understanding Kids’ Cross-Channel Video Habits. The panel underscored the massive portion of kids’ days that TV continues to dominate. Almost all children watch TV (97–99%) and usually for around 20 minutes a day on average. Much of the TV (and radio) that children consume is influenced by the parents in the room with them, and kids younger than 11 watch mainly in common areas on a television with family, though the prevalence of tablets among children is also growing. Particularly among kids aged 11-13, tablets are the preferred method of watching videos (comedy and user-generated content is the most popular) and gaming. They also engage the tablets to use apps, browse and participate in social networking. As kids hit adolescence, smartphones begin to dominate over tablets.

Online games and children’s-specific websites are preferred among kids up to age 13, and as they reach adolescence, teens prefer social media to more kid-focused games. For TV shows, music, sports and detective-related shows are most popular across ages. When an adult co-viewer is present, the adult generally decides the content, and the preferred genres change generally along gendered lines, for television and radio. There is less co-viewing when kids are on their tablets. Dan noted that kids’ preferences become visible around age eight and distinct at 11. Overall, Abcarian and Dan suggest that television is not going anywhere. Furthermore, tablet and smartphone devices are not replacing computers in households, but rather detract from their use slightly.

In a presentation titled Teens and the New Norm, Julanne Schiffer, senior v-p of insights and analytics at Nielsen Entertainment, shared additional study findings related to teenagers and their relationships with media, both digital and print. Calling teens “digital natives who have never not known this technology,” she noted that they are a “very different kind of consumers, who are interacting with content across channels.” Book-buying teenagers are more likely to own digital devices than average teens, including iPhones, Androids, iPods, and e-readers. However, 44% of teens reported “needing a break from mobile” devices. While most teens in the study are “light readers,” or those who read between 3-6 hours a week, those who read the most within the teen segment tend to be girls around 15 years old, who are “heavily engaged” in historical fiction and the classics. Among these readers 56 percent prefer print.

The morning segued into a video presentation in which 10 families representing a range of ethnicities and income levels discussed the ways in which their families consume media. Regarding tablets, several parents reported having a decidedly love/hate relationship with the devices, which offer moments of respite for overtired parents, but which don’t necessarily provide the same experience of reading from print. “We don’t snuggle up with an e-book,” one parent reported in the video.

From On Screen to On-Stage

Next up was a live focus panel of families with children up to 12 years old, with four parents and four children participating. The children and parents talked about reading, use of technology in their households, homework, and communication between family members. Echoing the Nielsen findings regarding most popular authors for this age range, the Wimpy Kid books were a favorite among the kids, as was Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, showing that even this sample size parallels with popular taste. In regards to the books that one 12-year-old Jordan is drawn toward, he said that if he is interested in the book’s blurb on the cover, he might pick it up and “will keep going even if it’s boring” if the blurbs suggest exciting content to come. He mentioned the I Survived series as being of interest. Dina's daughters both love Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters.

When the kids on the panel were asked if they went to websites listed on the back of books they read, panelist Mehr said she found her way to Pottermore by following the link in the back of one of a Harry Potter book – well, almost. “It didn’t go so well,” she explains, as she had trouble logging into the site. Ryan reported that he recently switched to the Kindle, a preference his father shares. Mehr's mother Preeti jokingly shared that “our house is quite boring. The only thing we have is books or arts and crafts” (although Mehr did recently earn herself a laptop for performing well in school).

Sahara also wanted the audience to know that, unlike what some adults might think about kids’ reading habits, she does read for fun over the summer and her tastes are broad – for example, she discovered an interest in nonfiction after reading about space in kindergarten. She described reading as “warming up your brain for something else.” Renee, mother of Sahara and Jordan said she strikes a balance between use of electronic devices and books in the home, noting that she often goes to the bookstore and recognizes the need to unplug. Mehr loves to buy books, too, but also sees the value in trading, having recently swapped Harry Potter books with a friend.

Gamers Are Readers, Too

In Game On!: Kids, Games, and Content, Nicole Pike, director of client consulting for Nielsen Games, described the relationship between reading and gaming. For kids aged 13-17, 92% said they play video games weekly. And for kids the same age, 66% responded that they also read for pleasure. Almost all readers, then, are gamers, Pike discovered. 93% of teens who read also play games, as well as 94% of kids aged 6-12. Pike found that kids game across consoles, as well. The evidence bore out that many kids play different kinds of games on different platforms, indulging longer form games on consoles like the PS4 and Xbox, while also playing smaller games, on their mobiles and tablets.

The share of kids playing games on tablets is growing, driven in large part by free and low-cost content (many games are free or as inexpensive as apps on a tablet or smartphone, but console games are regularly $40-50) on a device many households already have. Pike also noted that many gamer kids’ families are earlier adopters to technology, and often have many different kids of devices. IPads and e-readers are more common in gamer homes, and families in gamer homes are generally wealthier.

Despite the tech-savvy nature of many gamer kids’ homes, they responded in surveys that they generally preferred print books to e-books. Additionally, gamers often spend four times more leisure time gaming than they spend on reading for pleasure, Pike noted, and their preferred activity is gaming, even over television. Kids and teens who are also gamers were more likely to respond that they when they read, it was often for school rather than for pleasure.

In choosing a game to play, kids are driven by the perception that something is fun to play. Since 2006, Harry Potter games have held the most interest among kids across formats. Kids show an “above average” interest in franchised games whereas teens show just an “average” Interest. Of further interest to publishers, Pike noted, was a good deal of Internet discussion on why a Hunger Games-themed game doesn’t exist, although her research also shows that rushed-out games tend to be less successful among players. “They’re the ones they play for less time and immediately trade in.” As far as changes among gamers, Pike has noticed a recent growth in female gamers.

YA on the Big Screen

Young adult movie adaptations are still booming. Naveena Samuel, v-p of client solutions at Nielsen Content, presented the results of the Young Adult Adaptation Fanship Study, which focused on a sampling of 2000 movie-goers ages 12 to 35; respondents were 70 % women and 30% men. The study determined that viewers who see YA movies are often drawn to them for distinct reasons, notably their tendency to feature “young protagonists” and, specifically, “empowered female leads.” The study categorizes several fan subsets according to moviegoers’ level of engagement with the film adaptations, providing profiles of each fan type and avenues through which to increase their level of interest based on their unique characteristics.

Four categories of moviegoers emerged throughout the study. The first were Content Connoisseurs, making up 15% of the surveyed group. These individuals tend to be deeply engaged with the material, fervent that a film stay true to a book’s elements of “romance and humor” and are often on the frontlines of discovery, finding new material and opportunities to engage with the content. 28% of the group fell into a category labeled Trend Ambassadors, who, while not as willingly immersed in fandom, will catch onto fervor surrounding a book or film, seek it out, and “showcase their passions” to others, often spreading the word about particular YA adaptations and being “early adopters.” The next group, Sentimental Dabblers, are typically casual fans whose decisions to see a movie is “driven by intense emotion,” which is often a mainstay of YA. These fans make up 28% of the group. Finally, 29% of the group fell into the category of Adrenaline Seekers, who tend to prefer sci-fi and action films, but are less likely to be intimately engaged with content. The majority of the males in the study fell into this category.

The takeaway? Understanding and catering to these four profile groups can assist in targeted marketing of YA film adaptations. By insuring that Content Connoisseurs are “red hot,” their enthusiasm may lead Trend Ambassadors to speak into a megaphone, which in turn may draw the other groups to the theater.

Teens Have Their Say

Stephanie Retblatt of Smarty Pants served as moderator for In Their Own Words, a live teen focus panel, comprised of seven teens, all high school students around New York City, mostly attending schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx. When asked about their reading habits, all teens participating on the panel said that they read for pleasure and went to physical bookstores. However, between their long commutes and packed schedules, they read much less than they were able to in middle school, and do much of their reading on their commute, oftentimes on mobile devices, though the majority of teens (five of the seven) said they preferred print books to digital e-books. Panelist Alice said that she is out of the house from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. “A lot of the books we read are for free on the Internet,” Mahin said. “Adults think we don’t read because we are always looking at our phones – sometimes we are reading on them.” Many of the teens who read books digitally said that they were often influenced to read books that they were able to download for free, through promotions.

The teens reported discovering new books from a variety of sources. Joe relied on lists of suggested books given by a teacher. Will reported that his mother bought books for him, while Virginia said that her mother usually reads books she's chosen after her. Some teens discover books from friends, though this seemed less common than discovering titles via social media, and in particular Tumblr. David said that he gets a lot of book recommendations from scanning the bestsellers on Amazon. Many of the teens, however, said that they like the atmosphere in bookstores and do like to hang out and browse in them. Alice enjoys going to a bookstore because “you’re more able to discover more titles”; whereas it’s harder to do that on a device. The panelists are all generally motivated to pick a book up in a bookstore because of its cover, and a couple of the teens weighed in saying that they would consider reading the book if the blurb on the back was good. In general, the teens seemed to agree that they used libraries less as a source of leisure reading and more as a place to get homework done.

Many of the teens were resistant to being labeled as a reader of a certain category, particularly YA. The teens reached the consensus that the “young adult” category was aimed at 13-year-olds, and not for them. “When you’re 13, you want to be a teenager, so you read those books, and now we’re 17, we want to be adults, so you look up in age and read books for adults,” Will said. They read largely adult books, some preferred fiction but a couple teens preferred non-fiction, specifically memoir and history. Panelist Virginia said she liked reading nonfiction because “it’s nice to know a person did this extraordinary thing.” Will said he loved books like The Boys in the Boat, Unbroken, and music biographies, including Keith Richards’ and Pete Townsend’s. The teens only occasionally read YA (The Fault in Our Stars and Laurie Halse Anderson were two favorites cited), which they heard about from friends. “I wait until all the hype dies down, so other opinions don’t affect me,” Alice said. Antoine, like Virginia, often shares books with his mother. The teens across the panel seemed to agree that their relationships with their parents were good, and “more casual than their relationships were with my grandparents,” Will said. However, some teens said that a language barrier at home kept them from consuming exactly the same culture as their parents.

Plenty to Think About

Following the teens, a closing panel of publishers and presenters remained fixated on the idea of how to reach teens both squeezed for time to read for pleasure and resistant to the YA category. Panelists suggested that categories like picture books and middle grade were more forceful than YA, and what the category is called is important, but perhaps needs more thought. As the discussion wrapped up many of the day’s presenters underscored new sources for publishers to find revenue. Jonathan Nowell urged again that publishers send their foreign rights people to China’s Shanghai Book Fair, since that market is exploding, and is eager for U.S. and U.K. titles. The day left plenty for publishers to think about new ways to grow their business and reach young readers.