The middle grade years are often called the golden age of reading, a time when kids connect fiercely with characters and stories. Some of the all-time bestsellers in children’s literature (think Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid) are middle grade books. But while there have been a number of surprising breakout YA hits in the past several quarters, overall, the middle grade category has fallen behind. According to Circana BookScan, 2022 ended with year-over-year middle grade sales down 16% overall and 19% in hardcover. This year has seen overall middle grade sales down 8% year over year, while hardcover sales in the category are down 7% for a total $18.8 million decline.
Frontlist has been of particular concern to publishers, editors, and agents, accounting for more than half of the decrease in sales. In the 12 months ending March 2023, 33% of the top 200 middle grade titles were frontlist, while 67% were backlist. The frontlist is dominated by familiar names such as Max Brallier, Jeff Kinney, Dav Pilkey, J.K. Rowling, and Raina Telgemeier, and those names hold sway over much of the backlist, too. We surveyed industry professionals to get their thoughts on the factors affecting middle grade success and what they see ahead.
Last summer, there was an outcry from the middle grade author community on social media over speculation that Barnes & Noble had implemented a new policy that would specifically reduce the number of middle grade hardcovers it purchased. Shannon DeVito, Barnes& Noble’s senior director of book strategy, says no such policy exists and the retailer has been exercising a book-by-book evaluation across all categories since 2019, with local stores deciding what to buy for their communities. “A few authors were aggrieved that their books were not stocked, mostly by deliberate choice, and characterized this to be due to a policy against hardcovers in general,” she notes. “In fact, we now simply try to buy hardcovers in the quantity we judge likely to be bought by our customers.”
Still rumors persist. Marilyn Robbins, children’s book buyer and program manager at The Bookies in Denver, says she knows of a publicist who bought every copy of her client’s hardcover book in her hometown Barnes & Noble locations, believing that if a single copy was purchased, the retailer would buy three more of the title. That’s not the case, DeVito says. “The replenishment is dependent on the individual bookseller who oversees inventory for their home stores.” Concentrating purchasing decisions in the local stores across the board for all categories has increased sales and decreased returns from more than 70% of frontlist hardcovers to “somewhere around 10%,” she adds.
It’s a question of matching format to audience, B&N CEO James Daunt told PW in a recent interview. “At the lower price point, and in a format friendlier to children themselves, some titles that will struggle to sell in more than very small quantities in hardcover will be better served if published in paperback,” he said. “It is not all one thing or all the other, but a commonsense judgment to be made by the publisher.”
At Children’s Institute in Milwaukee earlier this month, however, Circana’s manager of industry insights Brenna Connor said that middle grade paperbacks were responsible for more than half of the category’s annual decline, so the current slump “might not be a pricing issue.” Instead, it appears that a mix of factors are at play.
“While I would love for each and every author to get to walk into a Barnes & Noble and see their book on the shelf, I also recognize that a single copy of a book sitting spine-out is rarely going to do anything besides sit there,” says David Levithan, editorial director at Scholastic. “I think the yardstick by which we measure B&N’s decision isn’t the number of titles they carry but how they showcase what’s there. In that regard, I think they’ve done an excellent job in building showcases for books, whether it’s as a monthly pick or in the more thematic promotions.”
There’s no question, says Bunnie Hilliard, owner of independent bookstore Brave + Kind in Decatur, Ga., that Barnes & Noble has an outsize impact on sales for many authors. “B&N may be the only bookstore that some cities and neighborhoods have.” For that reason, she adds, “the visibility and buying power of B&N can’t be matched.” Indie bookstore shoppers are typically deliberate in their choice to shop at independents and support local businesses, but they still face the same cost constraints as chain bookstore shoppers. “If people are given the option to buy hardcover or paperback in my store, they will choose paperback in middle grade because the cost is lower, and parents are buying the books,” she explains. Middle grade books aren’t like “picture books and board books that are read with caregivers multiple times before moving on. And we are battling for the attention and interest of another big competitor: screen time.”
Indies like hers, Hilliard says, “have the ability to dedicate our shelves to certain titles.” Specializing has helped her to build a loyal customer base. “I prioritize titles that have representation and champion inclusivity, and I stock a much smaller curated space. Our customers are spending their dollars with us because it means something to them to support a small business, to shop local. They believe in our mission as it speaks to their values.”
That level of community and connection with book buyers positions indies as a trusted source of book recommendations. “Independent bookstores continue to champion the middle grade category and remain vibrant places of discovery for young readers and their parents through handselling recommendations,” says Rich Thomas, v-p and director of publishing at HarperCollins Children’s Books. “The ABA’s Indies Introduce program and monthly Indie Next Picks help amplify that discovery of new voices and great reads in the middle grade space. We’ve seen sales grow especially in the graphic novel space, with many indies expanding the amount of dedicated space for the category in stores, supporting preorder campaigns, hosting events, and starting festivals. We’ve also been hearing from indie booksellers that with budget cuts to librarian and media specialists’ services, they are being called on more frequently to provide recommendations and curated collections for schools and teachers.”
Discoverability remains an issue
One of the biggest challenges for publishers and authors appears to be what Circana BookSpan industry analysts call a “break in the chain of peer-to-peer discovery because of the pandemic.” For some, that happened at a particularly crucial time in their development as readers.
“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how disruptive the pandemic was on middle grade readers,” says Kristen McLean, Circana’s executive director and primary industry analyst. “They lost most of their main sources of discovery, including bookstores, teachers, librarians, and seeing what their friends were reading, and at the same time they spent lots of time on screens of all sizes.”
Simultaneously, the pandemic affected publishers’ ability to get attention for their new titles. “We have always relied on PW, Kirkus, the New York Times, Booklist, Horn Book, Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books, and VOYA, among other outlets, to give wide coverage to hardcover middle grade fiction,” Levithan says. “But the collective coverage has shrunk since the pandemic, for whatever reason, so now most books are lucky to get one or two reviews, when in the past they would have gotten five or six. So many novels are getting two starred reviews—but those are the only two reviews they get. When it takes four or five starred reviews to really move the needle, that is infinitely frustrating.”
The decrease in reviews has had a number of downstream effects, particularly in the school and library market, which has a “huge” impact on middle grade sales, says Chelsea Eberly, director of Greenhouse Literary Agency. “Gatekeeper accolades such as starred reviews, selection for state lists, the Indie Next List, ALA awards, and so forth move the needle,” Eberly says. “But that all tends to happen after the on-sale date, so the awareness of a title doesn’t resonate in time to create big first-week sales and launch a debut onto bestseller lists.”
That proved true for author Linda Williams Jackson, whose third middle grade novel, The Lucky Ones, was released in April 2022. “Everything was quiet” after the release, she says. “I really thought no one was reading the book.” But her publisher, Candlewick, had submitted the book widely to awards and ran ads for teachers and librarians. In late 2022, she saw movement. The book was added to four state reading lists and a number of best books lists. Attention from teachers and librarians, she says, gives a book staying power.
“The best way to reach middle grade readers is through the folks who buy books for them—that is, teachers, librarians, and parents or guardians,” Jackson explains. “So with middle grade, this is the first audience that has to be influenced.” That, in turn, helps create word of mouth. A reader attending one of Kate DiCamillo’s book signings handed the author a copy of The Lucky Ones, and she later included it in her Read Brave challenge, a list of books the author has curated featuring different kinds of courage.
While publishers rely heavily on communicating directly with YA readers through social media marketing, that’s generally not an option for middle graders. “It’s often parents interacting with us on social media and sharing our content with their children,” Thomas says. Targeting a mix of parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers through fun and educational content on HarperCollins’s Shelf Stuff blog and on social media has proven successful for the publisher. “Working with influencers who are parents has especially helped us position recommended middle grade titles well on social media.”
Another go-to for reaching children directly—in-person school visits—was put on pause during the pandemic, while virtual visits expanded. In-person visits are back, and, for well-established authors, the demand is high. Thomas says that with the release of Soman Chainani’s new book, Fall of the School for Good and Evil, the bestselling author reached 5,000 students through school events. And Katharine Applegate, with her new book The One and Only Ruby, presented for more than 7,500 students in May with a mix of in-person and virtual school visits.
For debut and midlist authors, though, it’s often a slow build. “School visits are one of the best ways to reach your audience in the middle grade space,” Eberly says. “Some authors who are just starting out will waive or lower their honorarium in the place of a minimum book order to get more reads and word-of-mouth buzz.”
But again, good reviews and accolades remain important. After getting starred reviews for her first book, Drew Leclair Crushes the Case, Eberly’s client Katryn Bury was able “to get her foot in the door with gatekeepers”—that is, the teachers and librarians. That led to a school visit tour for the second book of her series. “When schools were closed, middle grade authors didn’t have a direct-to-audience speaking opportunity during this time, and their sales figures are reflecting that, particularly for debuts,” Eberly adds. “We need to acknowledge that those pandemic middle grade sales figures must be viewed through the lens of how extraordinarily difficult discoverability was when schools weren’t bringing in authors for events.”
While both in-person and virtual visits are standard now, there appears to be an unsurprising across-the-board truism: “An in-person visit certainly sells more books, including the author’s backlist titles,” Robbins says. “Kids won’t commit to buying the book until they meet the author and see what the book is all about. Only then will they pull their money out of their pocket or convince Mom and Dad to buy it for them.”
How is discoverability for middle grade books playing out in bookstores? It depends. B&N’s DeVito says that “the middle grade reader has returned to our stores, postpandemic, in greater numbers than before.”
Indie bookstores appear to be a bright spot for middle grade sales, too. “Our middle grade books are selling more than our YA,” Robbins says. “Part of the equation is that booksellers do need to handsell for young readers. These children are just beginning to fall in love with reading and don’t know exactly what they like, yet. They are still exploring genres and authors. Indie booksellers get to help develop and sell not only the bestsellers, but the best of the best from new debut books to little-known gems. We do a great teacher business because educators want our expertise on what’s new and exciting.”
Who’s reading what?
One of the challenges in the middle grade market may come down to demographics. The success of the YA category has been bolstered by adult readers, while middle grade doesn’t enjoy that same age-range creep, and statistically there are fewer children in the middle grade age category today than there were five years ago. Readers are aging out of the category and not being replaced in equal number. Plus, for tweens, there’s a tendency to reach for books with characters who are older than them.
“I’ve noticed often that young middle grade readers tend to want to ‘read up’ maturity- and content-wise, including my own kids,” Hilliard says. “They will shy away from books even though the main character may be their age, and gravitate toward more mature characters. One friend said her daughter, who loves to read, wouldn’t read one book where the main character was the same age as her because the cover was too babyish.”
“As an industry, we pigeonhole reader types into one specific subject,” DeVito says. “As more authors cross genres with their work, more readers are expanding into different sections. If we reclassified the books [such as graphic novels] middle grade kids read as middle grade, we would all be celebrating how dynamic the market has become.”
Levithan has a similar perspective. “I don’t think the landscape has shifted as much as it expanded, and there are many more engaged readers because of it,” he says. “When people worry about the middle grade audience shrinking, it’s usually because they are keeping graphic novels at arm’s length. But that’s ridiculous.” Authors such as Jeff Kinney, Dav Pilkey, and Raina Telgemeier have been great for sales and for reading. They’re also easier to sell.
Thomas agrees. “Graphic novels have an inherent promotional advantage over prose novels given the amount of art available to use in creative assets like social media graphics and book trailers,” he says. “I suspect that likely has a part to play in the continued success of graphic novels—it’s easier for readers to see at a glance why they might want to read one.”
Authors and publishers alike report the difficulty of breaking through with debut fiction or series in particular. “There are certain series and authors, of course, for which loyal readers are waiting with bated breath for the next title to be released,” Hilliard says. “But some debut authors or even sophomore authors who don’t have as large of a following yet have released both middle grade and YA and say that their YA books get more attention from their publishers than their middle grade books.”
What works in helping a book break out? In-store promotions at both indies and Barnes & Noble, Levithan says, citing the success of Claribel Ortega’s Ghost Squad and Witchlings series.
Thomas points to influencer marketing with parents, which he says can have an impressive impact. “We recently ran big influencer campaigns for Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy by Angie Thomas and Surprisingly Sarah by Terri Libenson,” he notes, “which got the books in front of the core bookstagram audience, as well as a wider audience through more parenting-focused and general lifestyle influencers.”
The future of middle grade has already started to take shape. “The story of middle grade right now is the story of graphic novels,” Levithan says. “I think their ascendancy has been far longer than a ‘moment.’ I think they’ve rewritten all the rules of what middle grade can be.” Last year, graphic novels accounted for around a quarter of all middle grade sales, according to Circana.
The category seems to have something that resonates with readers. “Middle grade readers are devouring graphic novels,” Eberly says. “The hunger is there from readers and publishers alike. I’m happy to see that parents and teachers are supporting kids’ reading graphic novels and manga more and more. The dedicated shelf space at retail has been helpful for discoverability, too.”
Series are still wildly popular, Robbins says, adding that kids “know the release date for the next book in a series and will be in the shop to pick it up. They are loyal and don’t want to wait for the paperback release.” Bookstores support this enthusiasm by opening early so that kids can take the book to school to show it off. Often, it’s the author and not necessarily a series or standalone title that they respond to, she adds, citing Alan Gratz and Stuart Gibbs as examples of auto-buy authors for middle grade readers.
Eberly has observed, however, that publishers are increasingly reluctant to make multibook deals. “I’m noticing more of a wait-and-see mentality, which can be hard for authors who have an ideal story arc that they would like to tell,” she says. “A few clients have felt uncertain how to end books in a series without a commitment for further titles lined up.”
For his part, Levithan says he’s “eagerly waiting for the resurgence of the middle grade paperback series, the next generation of bestsellers such as The Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, Bad Guys, and Wings of Fire. It’s going to happen. And I look forward to being a part of it.”
Eberly notes that fantasy remains strong in middle grade, and she’s seen an uptick in manuscripts with “touches of magic in contemporary stories that delve into the myths and folklore of BIPOC authors’ cultures.” She’s also seeing more middle grade horror submissions. “It’s been interesting to see how authors navigate writing about darker themes in a younger space.”
Books that carry emotional weight have always been an important pillar of middle grade. “Middle grade authors have the ability to approach hard and tender topics with empathy and open up dialogue and perspective,” says indie bookseller Kendra Gayle Lee of Bookish in East Atlanta. “That’s unique to that subset.”
In the end, books are for the readers, and it’s their opinions and needs that matter. “Coming off the pandemic,” McLean says, “I think it’s a legitimate question to ask what is relevant to these kids, and how we can best serve them.”
Connor believes that the demand is still there, but the industry can do more to connect with it. “There is still a hungry market out there for these books,” she says, “so look for opportunities to refresh and rediscover middle grade. Think about new voices and new stories.”