From July 29–August 2, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators hosted The Big Five-Oh Conference as its 2021 summer gathering, a virtual celebration of the organization’s 50th anniversary featuring intensives and events with agents, editors, and book creators.
One particularly salient panel, “How to Sell Children’s Books in the Post-Pandemic World: A Market Report,” took place on Sunday over Zoom, featuring editorial consultant Deborah Halverson (aided by ASL interpreter Jennye Kamin) who provided industry context centering the dramatic marketplace shift that has developed over the past 16 months.
Halverson began by sharing some intriguing data, including the fact that reading increased among people 15 years and older by 21% last year. “But beyond numbers,” she continued, “there have been some notable market shifts that can be summed up as: the backlist has risen, and it’s an e-commerce world.... Consumer behavior has changed through this pandemic big-time. Industry watchers believe most of these changes are long-term.”
Independent Bookstores Adapt
According to Halverson’s research, 2020 e-commerce increased astronomically, and those growth numbers are even higher in early 2021: a “hybrid of digital and physical book buying and selling” is emerging throughout the industry, and will only continue going forward.
Over the course of the pandemic, independent bookstores have adjusted their websites to take online orders, or have affiliated their businesses with Bookshop.org, which allows consumers to purchase books from one centralized digital location while supporting local independent bookstores.
Whether they’re transforming their virtual event spaces themselves or outsourcing, these bookstores are also reaching out to their customers and keeping up with them on the internet.
Looking ahead, Halverson believes that a hybrid practice will prevail, with in-store events equipped with virtual streaming options. Currently, she explained, online-only events are not as effective in terms of actually selling books; the hybrid method is ideal to allow bookstores to bring in far-away book creators and fans while also increasing in-store sales.
Another change is that booksellers are placing smaller orders with publishers compared to the previous practice of purchasing by season, allowing for monthly focused promotions and greater flexibility in meeting customer requests, which ties back to the aforementioned “rise and demand in backlist.”
Publishers Respond; Backlist Reigns Supreme
Publishers are now purposely seeking out and engaging BookTok—the mostly Gen Z book community on TikTok—and social media influencers, who are driving “a strong amount of YA book discovery,” credited with boosting such novels as We Were Liars and They Both Die at the End long after their release.
Online bookselling rose 43% in 2020, Halverson cited; this shift has imbued metadata and algorithms with a significant boost in power in book discovery. Publishers are now adjusting title metadata in real time.
At the same time, reader discovery has narrowed, as consumers’ predominant method of discovery is now via e-retail websites, Google, or subscription apps, which only exposes consumers to a fraction of the books they might serendipitously encounter in physical bookstores. Still, Halverson emphasized, “this change favors the backlist.”
Publishers are now paying greater attention to in-store and virtual promotional materials. But while top frontlist titles are still seeing attention in big-box stores like Costco, Target, and Walmart, sales approaches have changed. Already in the process of beefing up their in-store options—particularly children’s titles—pre-pandemic, these stores have seen a boost in sales during the pandemic, as people attempt to limit their outings. Stores such as Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, failed to improve their focus on digital sales, and their often mall-based locations meant that they did not see the same revitalization.
Sales Continue to Rise
Halverson then directed attention to sales numbers. Hardcover YA, paperbacks, e-books and audio, board books, and children’s graphic novels all continued to grow in 2020 and 2021; the only category that took a dip in sales during this period was juvenile nonfiction, but Halverson predicts those titles will rise again as the school year begins, with another boost in sales likely as parents worry that their children have fallen behind academically during the pandemic.
Perhaps most notable was a 123% rise since 2020 in YA graphic novel sales, which built upon pre-pandemic graphic novel ascendancy due to the notable popularity of middle grade graphic novels, such as Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Friends series. During the pandemic, a mainstream boom in manga interest among both children and adults created renewed audiences eager for graphic novel content, and the success of titles such as Ben Clanton’s Narwhal and Jelly series have caused a boom in graphic novels for the 4–8 range as well.
In conclusion, Halverson mentioned the burnout that many agents and editors are experiencing due to the pandemic, especially amid increased submissions. However, Halverson revealed that SCBWI has many resources to assist publishing hopefuls, and a downloadable SCBWI Market Report with even more data compiled by Halverson was included with registration.