Booksellers have many frustrations to contend with, from supply chain concerns to resurgences of Covid-19. But Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at the NPD Group, brought a significant piece of good news to her session on children’s book sales at the ninth annual American Booksellers Association Children’s Institute. Consumer sales of children’s books this year are up 9% year-to-date over 2020, and McLean told booksellers that 2021 is shaping up to be “one of the best years since 2014.”
The session on the state of consumer book sales—which excludes library and school accounts as well as distributor accounts—is always highly anticipated by booksellers. “This is my favorite presentations every CI,” wrote Nicole Brinkley, floor manager at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., during the session chat.
Tracking approximately 85% of consumer sales, the NPD data offered booksellers a detailed look at which categories are performing best during the lead-in to the crucial fourth quarter. Among the strongest-selling categories, fiction sales are up 15%, while manga and comic sales are up 17%. After a stagnant year in 2020, board book sales are growing at twice the rate of all other children’s book categories. Even the small decline (-6%) in nonfiction sales was negligible, McLean said, because of astronomical growth in the category in 2020, when parents had children home from school due to the pandemic.
Backlist sales continued a trend of outperforming frontlist, but indies outperformed digital and chain competitors on frontlist, with 6% higher sales. “Without indies, and without bricks-and-mortar bookstores, generally, the market would continue to really be difficult for new books to find their audience,” McLean said.
Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: Mothering Heights led the way among children’s books in the first seven months of 2021. According to NPD, more than 1,000,000 copies of the book,10th in Pilkey’s hugely popular graphic novel series, have sold since its publication in March. Taking into account all of his books, Pilkey’s work accounts for 30% of the graphic and comics sales this year and 50% of the growth, as well as 56% of middle grade sales.
Pilkey’s success was just one sign of his publisher Scholastic’s dominance across multiple categories of children’s and young adult books, driven by explosive growth in comics and manga, where the publisher has a well-developed list.
Affirming what many booksellers have noted over the last year, McLean pointed to the rise of BookTok—literary posts on TikTok—as a significant platform for discoverability. “BookTok is having a huge impact,” she said. “We’ve been tracking it closely since the end of 2020. It’s very unusual. I can’t think of another situation in the last decade where organically deep backlist bestsellers are being pushed back onto the list. Netflix is definitely pushing this as well. There’s a lot of interesting talking and recommending going on, on BookTok.”
Tracking sales of diverse books became the source of some concern for booksellers. McLean noted that existing BISAC categories—which distinguish subsections in the book industry, and allow for tracking and categorization—lack easily distinguishable sectioning for diversity in children’s and young adult titles.
NPD attempted to aggregate and track BISAC categories that might give a representation of consumer sales of diverse books, but booksellers took issue with some of the list’s construction, noting that mental health was not included, despite its existence as a BISAC category.
McLean acknowledged the shortcomings of the approach, which resulted in a top 10 list that included Bernard Waber’s Lyle, Lyle Crocodile; a book that appeared out of place on a diversity list.
More pointedly, booksellers also noted the lack of diversity on the NPD bestseller lists presented earlier in McLean’s talk. “I’m really disturbed by the absence of authors of color in the YA and middle grade bestsellers despite the proliferation of excellent work on the market. I thought it would be different,” wrote Linda Sherman-Nurick, owner of Cellar Door Books in Los Angeles, in the chat.
Kathy Burnette, owner of Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Ind., agreed, replying that the lists were a reflection of intentional choices made by buyers.
The continued dominance of author brands like Dr. Seuss has restricted the space available for new works to emerge in the licensing market, McLean said, but she added that there is still an important pipeline of titles moving from page to streaming services like Netflix.
But perhaps because of the lack of multiple blockbuster releases this year, she said booksellers should be all the more encouraged by the signs of strength in the growth of children’s book sales thus far in 2021. Volatility will persist, she cautioned, but she added that she expects the months ahead to be good for children’s booksellers. “I do think that the overall outlook for kids’ books is going to remain strong.” she said, “With a lot of the cultural challenges that we have going on, people want to give kids the tools they need to weather that successfully, to be entertained, and to be happy. That’s all a really great sign for children’s books.”