At our Nielsen Children’s Summit in New York in December, we talked about how children’s print book sales around the world in the last couple of years have been nothing short of fantastic. Total print sales in the US rose 2%, but children’s was the key driver, with 13% growth. In the U.K. total print sales fell by 2% – children’s grew by 8%. In China (where children’s sales are a smaller proportion of the total than in the West) total unit sales were up 3%, but children’s units grew by 10%. With the exception of India, this same pattern of children’s print sales growth outstripping total market performance was apparent in the seven other international markets we monitor through Nielsen BookScan. In the last six months of 2014 in Brazil, children’s books were 28% ahead of the second half of 2013!

Why should this be? Well there are many reasons. Some are local; for instance, the relaxation of family size legislation in China might have something to do with their growth in sales of children’s books, and government investment in children’s literacy will have had some impact in Brazil. But what of the U.S. and U.K.? The reasons are not so obvious....

The growth percentages above do not include ebooks, although the increased use of family tablets has brought down the age when children start reading ebooks. The mean age when an American child starts reading ebooks has dropped from seven years old to five-years old in just two years. The ebook share of all children’s books purchased in the U.S. is now 21% – still lagging behind adult books and particularly adult fiction in the U.S., but up from 7% in 2011.

In spite of this growth in ebooks, print remains the touchstone for children and families. Our research tells us that parental attitudes towards print have strengthened at the same time as they have increased their own ebook purchases. All physical formats of children’s books in the U.S. have grown, but board books have seen 22% compound growth over the last three years. Increasingly we see parents in mature economies invested in younger children’s literacy. The growth we are witnessing is across all children’s categories including the nonfiction categories – we have Star Wars branded Lego books and Disney Princesses as celebrity chefs!

There is of course another key trend in the children’s market in the U.S. and U.K.: adults are buying a lot of children’s books – for themselves. Our research for the Children’s Summit uncovered that, in the U.S., approximately 27% of juvenile nonfiction books are bought by adults with no children – and not as gifts.

Then, of course, there is the young adult category. In 2011, five of the U.S. top 20 bestselling children’s books fell into the YA category. In 2014, 11 of the top 20 were YA, including three John Green titles and four Veronica Roth titles. YA titles have started to dominate the children’s books charts and the reason is that in the U.S., 73% of YA books are bought by U.S. adults for themselves.

In the U.K., children’s books have grown from 24% share of our print sales in 2004 to 35% in 2014. British children’s reading remains the number one pastime for the 0-10 age group, although for the 11-13 age group reading drops to sixth place – overtaken by television, gaming, social networking, and texting friends. And for the 14-17 age group, reading falls way down the pastime list. I don’t think this particular challenge has changed much in the last few years; the difference today, of course, is that many of the preferred activities for teens are available to them through the same device that they are increasingly using to read.

At the Children’s Summit we ran some teenage focus groups for the 14-17 age range. The overriding impression I came away with was that these teens preferred reading print for pleasure and reading digital for schoolwork (many did their homework on their smart phones on the bus to school!). But more importantly, they wanted others to know what they were reading for pleasure because their printed book said something about them that the generic digital device did not.

If we are to maintain this fantastic growth in children’s book sales we must better understand the teen buttons we need to push. My guess is that these buttons are no different to those of the “20-somethings” that they aspire to be. But we need to get it right. It is time the industry invested seriously in teen research; these are the heavy book buyers
of the future – or they are not book buyers at all.

Sources: Nielsen BookScan; Nielsen Books & Consumers U.S. survey; Nielsen Books Understanding the Children’s UK Book Consumer 2014

Jonathan Nowell is President of Nielsen Book; this article originally ran in the April 14 issue of the PW London Show Daily.