Six months after a holiday season bedeviled by supply chain disruptions, children’s book buyers continue to contend with paper shortages causing printing delays, along with increased shipping costs and other delivery issues. “The inventory has never been easier to sell, but it’s never been harder to get,” says Cynthia Compton, owner of 4Kids & Toys in Zionsville, Ind. “Books are delayed and backorders are the norm, not the exception.”

Compton describes her current ordering process as “a lot more hands-on,” with more frequent orders in smaller quantities. There are few seasonal orders: her store orders frontlist monthly and backlist weekly. Orders for school visits have also changed, with earlier deadlines for in-person and Zoom author visits.

“It used to be that you’d order a handful of copies of a single title, they’d sell, and then you’d order a few more. It’s definitely changed,” says Jamie Thomas, director of operations at Women & Children First in Chicago. In contrast to 4Kids, WCF is ordering frontlist in larger quantities, to sell throughout the season.

Last fall, supply chain disruptions were particularly problematic at Children’s Book World in Los Angeles. According to general manager Brein Lopez, the situation was made worse by hot holiday titles for both children and adults being postponed to late spring or summer 2022.

“This is still occurring and is not expected to change anytime soon,” Lopez says. “We are more hesitant to place big orders in advance if the release dates continue to be pushed back.” Programming must be rescheduled and projected sales tweaked when orders are delayed, according to Lopez. “We’ve been able to accommodate the changes and understand the delays, but it still makes coordination very difficult. Our initial order sizes are more conservative now because of the possibility of cancellation or rescheduling.”

Order up

Like many buyers, Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Tex., ordered more books last fall than ever before—and the strategy paid off. “We didn’t run out of anything that we were excited about or that our customers wanted,” she says. “And we saw stronger sell-through.” She began ordering this fall’s list in mid-April and plans to order up and order earlier every season. She is mindful, she adds, of the need to balance “what we have, what we need, and what we think will actually sell.”

Another factor affecting the store’s children’s inventory is a spike in online preorders that began at the beginning of the pandemic. Preorders remain high, especially for YA books. Goel ascribes this trend to teens having become accustomed to ordering online as soon as they hear about forthcoming releases, and then expecting to receive their books on pub date. “It’s great,” she says. “It gives us a stronger sense of what our readers are looking for.”

Buying earlier is not feasible for Lauren Savage, co-owner of the Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif., who finds it can create problems for the store’s popular subscription box program, which fluctuates between 3,000 and 4,000 subscribers. “Dates on key titles continue to shift either a month or two, or into an entirely new season, and we can’t plan ahead,” she says. “Our subscription boxes are planned four or five months in advance, and we have to scramble for titles when we find out something has moved at the last minute.”

As a result, Savage now orders fewer titles in greater quantities. She has lowered her expectations of receiving orders in a timely fashion, particularly imports that either never arrive or do so long after their release date.

Hannah Amrollahi, children’s and YA department manager at the Bookworm in Omaha, tries to be sanguine about shipping delays, since she can’t place “ungodly” stock buys or find a place to store them. “The books that sell best are still the books my booksellers have read and loved that we have in stock,” she says. “My buying has become less of a just-in-time approach as I focus on consistently having a great selection—even if we can’t have whatever hot book is currently out-of-print, which this week is Heartstopper.”

Covid reading trends

Changing reading preferences have also had a significant impact upon stock these past two years. Amrollahi describes the shifts as “previous trends intensified,” noting, “We see graphic novels as strong, as is anything that trends on BookTok, and ‘10-year-after’ sequels.” Sequels such as Scott Westerfeld’s Youngbloods, as well as prequels such as Suzanne Collins’s Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and E. Lockhart’s Family of Liars, also do well.

Graphic novels across all age ranges have “exploded” at Women & Children First, Thomas says, especially in the middle grade category, which has become the store’s “biggest growth area.” Genre fiction is also doing well, so well that the store added a shelf devoted to horror releases in the children’s section.

At BookPeople, Goel reports that sales of children’s graphic novels are so strong that the store added a separate section for young readers in April. There are now three sections: young readers, middle grade, and YA graphic novels. They are in addition to the regular sections.

At the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, buyer and manager Margaret Brennan Neville says that young customers “either want super happy or the other extreme, really dark—they want to avoid the situation or drown in it.” Neville also notes an uptick in romance titles among middle grade and YA readers, who want escapist, fun stories.

During these unsettling times, middle grade reads like Clarice the Brave by Lisa McMann and New from Here by Kelly Yang, and picture books such as Anzu the Great Kaiju by Benson Shum and Bathe the Cat by Alice B. McGinty and David Roberts, sell well at Children’s Book World. Buyers are looking for books that contain “actual stories and engaging artwork that a family can enjoy in the retelling with lots of humor or maybe even some tears,” Lopez says.

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