The third annual Global Kids Connect conference, which took place December 4 in New York City, kicked off with a data-rich presentation by Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Book. McLean shared sales figures, consumer trends, and market insights for children’s publishers, in a talk titled, “Where Are We and Where Are We Going?: 2017 Trends in Children’s Books.”

According to data from BookScan, which reports on approximately 85% of the trade physical book market in the U.S., the children’s industry is thriving, with 233 million units sold in 2017 compared to 181 million in 2012. Within the past five years, McLean said, “Children’s has gone from the interesting sibling to a centerpiece for many publishers.” In the U.S., the kids’ book market has grown faster than the overall print books market. As the years winds down, 2017 is expected to show a 4% increase in sales over 2016.

For children’s books, print outstrips e-books, which account for just 9% of all fiction and 1% of all nonfiction sales in the category. McLean noted that children continue to prefer reading physical books, saying that “digital fatigue has hit a lot of people.” The tactile experience of picture and board books, in particular, takes precedence over the convenience of e-readers. This preference for print applies to older readers, as well; children’s hardcover books have outperformed e-books for the first time in six years.

BookScan also tracks the popularity of various channels for discovering and buying books. This year has seen steady gains for mass market retailers such as Target, Costco, and Walmart. One drawback is less available shelf-space for books in these outlets. But McLean, who is a former indie bookseller, reassured publishers that “the independents are doing awesome right now.”

What’s Hot (and Not)

McLean moved on to a discussion of trends within the children’s sector, beginning with genres and content showing substantial growth. Nonfiction for young readers is going strong, particularly what McLean refers to as “active nonfiction”: gaming and STEM-focused activity books such as Minecraft tie-ins. Board book sales had a 7% increase in 2016, an indicator, she said, that “we’re seeing a lot of investment in childhood from parents.” In juvenile fiction, sci-fi and fantasy are “roaring back,” due in part to the continued expansion of the Harry Potter franchise.

McLean also cited the “sustained upward trajectory” of graphic novels for young readers, in every year since 2011. According to the data, 57% of comic books are purchased by 13- to 29-year-olds. In the manga market, 76% of buyers are under the age of 29. “A whole new generation of highly visual learners is getting excited about comics,” she said. Series such as Dog Man and Dork Diaries, as well as titles by Raina Telgemeier, are current favorites for this demographic.

Customers are also going back to backlist titles, and retailers are devoting more and more shelf-space to perennial bestsellers such as Goodnight Moon and books by Eric Carle. McLean believes this phenomenon speaks to “people’s need for warm and fuzzy, positive, comforting books” in challenging times.

Looking Ahead

McLean wrapped up her presentation with a look at larger market forces and takeaways. She described the public’s anxiety about a “retail apocalypse,” in which the market is oversaturated and more and more stores are forced to close. Barnes & Noble’s disappointing quarterly results have shaken confidence in the market. McLean took a more positive view of the industry, saying that store closures could leave an “opening for new expansion for indies.” She added that, during times of economic recession, “parents will continue to buy stuff for kids, even when they stop buying for themselves.”

Ending on a high note, McLean highlighted several avenues for growth, as a new generation of digital natives comes of age. While 37% of kids ages two and under are using smartphones, parents’ concern for children’s safety on the web may support the kids’ book subscription market and other kid-friendly online platforms, as well as cross-platform products. McLean stated that content creators and providers have an exciting opportunity to find new ways of capturing kids’ attention in a world of rapidly expanding digital entertainment. The bottom line: “Reading is going to continue to be strong.”

For more on this year's GKC conference, see Global Kids Connect 2017 Brings Data, Diversity to the Stage and Publishing Professionals Talk International Growth.