Strong juvenile book sales and a commitment to education led the American Booksellers Association to launch a separate conference for children’s booksellers nearly five years ago, following its merger with the Association of Booksellers for Children. This year’s Children’s Institute (CI 3), held April 18–21 at the Pasadena Hilton in Pasadena, Calif., was the third installment of the event, and the second in a row to sell out.
At a featured talk, Kristen McLean, founder and CEO of Bookigee and co-chair of Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit, parsed the data in the children’s book market—and by extension the book market overall. “If you want to understand where the book market is going, look at children’s, the bump in the snake,” she said. “When you compare children’s to the adult market, it’s driving growth, and it has been since 2007. It’s not just YA; there’s no category in decline.”
In 2014, physical kids’ books had their best year ever, with 226 million units sold—compared to 139 million a decade ago, according to McLean. That gain is good news for indies since they were just two percentage points behind Barnes & Noble when it came to sales of physical children’s books in 2014, accounting for 12% of unit sales compared to B&N’s 14%. By contrast, Books-A-Million represented only 2% of unit sales of children’s books, while Amazon was the single biggest retailer, with a 19% share. Children’s book buyers do more than half of their book buying in person, with 56% of purchases taking place in stores in last year’s fourth quarter. Online purchases accounted for 27% of unit purchases in the same period.
When it comes to e-books, it’s all about the tablets, according to McLean. “They’re being used universally, right down to children under the age of three,” she said. But purchases of children’s e-books continue to lag behind those of adult titles; they accounted for 10% of purchases of children’s books last year, compared to 19% for all books. And McLean predicted that e-book sales of kids’ books will never get as much market share as the format does in adult books.
Based on the statistics and her personal observations, kids tend to be omnivorous in their reading, McLean said. In terms of format, last fall 28% of teens had no preference for e-books or print, and 30% who preferred print said that they were open to e-books. Still, the number of teens who strongly prefer print continues to rise, from 17% in fall 2013 to 24% in fall 2014.
The We Need Diverse Books campaign was interwoven into the program from the opening night reception, which was cosponsored by PW. It included a signing by WNDB cofounders I.W. Gregorio (None of the Above), Ellen Oh (King: A Prophecy Novel), and Aisha Saeed (Written in the Stars), as well as Lisa Yee (The Kidney Hypothetical) and Nicola Yoon (Everything, Everything).
Conference speakers included Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, who spoke about his soon-to-open bookstore in Plainville, Mass.; prankster authors Jory John and Mac Barnett, who talked about the ways they connect kids with literacy at 826 Valencia; and author/editor pair Marla Frazee and Allyn Johnston, who spoke about their creative process. But a high point was the closing keynote, by writer Jewell Parker Rhodes (Bayou Magic). Her topic, diversity as one of the last civil rights frontiers, struck a chord with booksellers such as Annie Farrell, coursebook and ordering manager for Labyrinth Books, in Princeton, N.J. “Her impassioned call for continuing the work of putting books that reflect the diversity of children’s experience into the hands of all children moved me to tears,” Farrell said.
“I do believe by not seeing myself in books, I nearly missed my calling,” Rhodes said. “What gets published is dominated by an ‘excluding narrative,’ as Toni Morrison calls it.” Rhodes called on booksellers to triple their efforts to promote diverse books: “America cannot afford to have any child’s heart or mind wasted. Without the mirror of me in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, I might not have come into being. I might not have found my voice.”
For first-time attendee Earl Dizon, of Green Bean Books in Portland, Ore., McLean’s was one of the standout sessions. “The rousing featured talk on the U.S. children’s book market reminded us—or reassured—that what we’re doing is not a dying profession, that children’s bookselling is very much alive, and thriving,” he said.
“I’m excited about how far this conference has come,” said Cindy Loh, U.S. publisher of Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Bloomsbury Spark. “The buzz during the author signing session was especially energizing. It was inspiring to see so many bookseller-author connections being made in one place, as well as to meet the many new indie store owners who are bursting onto the scene. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting great books into the hands of kids. Having a forum that provides a direct dialogue between those who make that happen is invaluable.”
According to ABA CEO Oren Teicher, the association remains committed to creating a stand-alone educational opportunity for children’s booksellers. With BookExpo America scheduled to take place earlier than usual in 2016 (May 12–14, in Chicago), ABA is still deciding on when and where it will be best to hold next year’s conference.