One of the opening events for this year's Children's Institute, being held June 5-7 in Milwaukee, was the “The State of the Children’s Book Market” presentation by data analyst Brenna Connor. Connor manages industry insights at the consumer analytics firm Circana, parent company of BookScan, where she tracks entertainment categories including books, toys, and videogames. She spoke about transformations in the children’s, middle grade, and YA sectors since 2019, and she assessed trouble spots and growth opportunities across the industry.

In terms of the entire book industry, Connor said, as many in the industry do, that while print unit sales fell 6% last year, the 780 million units sold in 2022 was well above the 697 million units sold in 2019. Looking at 2022 figures for print books, Connor found that sales of children’s fiction and nonfiction declined and “[print] YA was essentially flat,” yet audiobooks were popping. “Audio is the fastest growing format in books, gaining five points in a four-year period,” she said, and “audio is the only format gaining share across all supercategories” of print, e-book, and audiobook.

Kids’ digital audio increased 10% from 2021 to 2022, and the YA “segment just posted its highest Q1” ever in 2023. With e-books trending down, Connor predicts audiobooks soon will surpass e-books in popularity.

Connor said there is a bright spot in terms of digital text sales—Webtoon. Noting that “engagement was very high” for Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper series (with 415 million views on Webtoon), Connor said to keep an eye on Webtoon: “We think this is the most important platform to watch in terms of content today.” Although Webtoon represents 2% of the overall market share in comics, it “grew 80 times faster than the rest of the comics and graphic novel space.”

‘The Coral Reefs of the Publishing Industry’

Connor reinforced a key ABA talking point when she encouraged CI2023 attendees to keep making their information available to BookScan in all formats. “You help amplify the indie market’s voice,” she told attendees, because BookScan data shapes bestseller lists and informs market projections. Participants also get access to data tracking tools they can use for their stores.

“We like to think of indie bookstores as the coral reefs of the publishing industry,” Connor said, calling to mind a biodiverse ecosystem as well as a susceptibility to shifting tides. She said indie booksellers command “a higher frontlist share in comparison to the total market” and discover valuable information about consumer behavior both in-store and online. (Looking at the consumer market, Connor noted that in January 2019, 70% of general merchandise, including books, was sold in stores, while 30% was sold online. The in-store to online ratio stood at 50/50 as the pandemic ramped up, and although behavior has shifted “back to normal,” 54% of general merchandise is sold in-store while 46% is sold online.)

According to BookScan projections, bookstores in small to midsize U.S. markets remain likely to see strong growth as the population migrates away from expensive metropolitan centers like the Bay Area. In a time of “shrinkflation,” Connor said, people are being cautious about how they spend earnings on “discretionary retail” like print, e-books, and audiobooks.

Questions for Readers—and for Retailers

When Connor posted a slide proclaiming “#BookTok is not a fluke,” the audience laughed in agreement. She attributed 43 million unit sales in 2022 to BookTok, and said YA titles account for 28% of BookTok-driven sales.

Connor did raise questions about a concerning slump in the middle grade category; sales are down $18.8 million from last year. A quarter of middle grade titles sold are graphic narratives, boosted by Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier, and Tui Sutherland’s mega-sellers.

“Two things stood out” in the BookScan data, Connor said. First, the paperback format in middle grade is driving more than half of the year-over-year declines, which "tells us this is not necessarily a pricing issue,” while “frontlist is driving more than half the losses and declining at four times the rate of backlist paperback" for middle readers.

The mystery is whether the decline is driven by young readers, who may not have access to “peer-to-peer discovery” engines like BookTok and who may be “aging out” of the category, or by big-box retailers that carry a limited frontlist selection of known quantities, Connor suggested. “Some kids are likely ‘reading up’ into manga, webtoons, and YA,” especially since YA posted gains, she said. “There is still a hungry market out there for these books, so look for opportunities to refresh and rediscover middle grade. Think about new voices and new stories.”

Connor also observed “softer sales in the beginner reader and intermediate reader series” meant to help children gain literacy. This is “counterintuitive to what we would expect,” she said. “We know there is a beginning reading crisis in America,” so consecutive YOY declines are puzzling. She wonders whether publishers might adapt their marketing strategies to spotlight these series, or whether bookstores might display the materials in a more discoverable way.

“The middle grade market is down, but we think there is potential here,” Connor said, concluding on the topic of growth opportunities.