In 2020, demand for workbooks helped drive unit sales of juvenile nonfiction up 23% over 2019, according to the NPD Group. In fact, six of the top eight kids’ nonfiction series last year, as measured by year-on-year unit growth, were workbooks, fueled by parents’ search for resources to help their children learn at home in the past 18 months. The series included, in order, Workman’s Brain Quest, School Zone’s Big Workbook, Carson Dellosa’s Spectrum, Rockridge’s My Workbooks and Awesome Steam Activities, and Scholastic Early Learners.
While some smaller workbook purveyors struggled during the pandemic, most of the major workbook publishers say they saw strong sales across all brands, key distribution channels, core educational formats, and age levels. “Sales went off like a rocket,” says Mary-Alice Moore, executive v-p, business strategy and product development at Highlights for Children, which entered the workbook category with its Highlights Learning brand in 2017. “The Covid burst was unbelievable and, for all of us, it was just buckle up and stay in print.”
“We did a lot of reprints, that’s for sure,” says Laura Demoreuille, editorial director of Scholastic Early Learners. “A lot of customers gravitated to the supplemental learning channel.” All told, more than 19 million Scholastic Early Learners books have been sold globally across approximately 125 titles.
At Workman, Page Edmunds, executive associate publisher, says, “We had ordered a lot of books to arrive in late 2019, because we were expecting a tariff, so we were in an unexpected position to fill that demand. Some schools placed orders to send to their students. Families who had never used workbooks before were exposed to them. I think we’ll see ongoing steady sales because they’ve had good experiences.”
Bendon Publishing saw record sales in 2020 for its workbooks and other core educational formats, such as flash cards, according to CEO Ben Ferguson. Bendon offers licensed workbooks in the value and mass channels, including with the Teacher Created Materials, PBS Kids, ABC Mouse, Disney Learning, and Highlights brands, as well as some Nickelodeon-licensed titles and its own non-licensed books.
“Clearly there was a massive interest in homeschooling and figuring out how to handle at-home learning in 2020, so we saw a huge uptick in online workbook sales, especially when many of our stores were closed,” says Stephanie Pinheiro, category manager, children’s books, at Barnes & Noble. “When stores reopened, we decided to refocus our workbook assortment and had each store execute a full relay within the department. Now, customers can shop by key brands instead of just by age. We believe merchandising the section by brand creates a more cohesive and aesthetically pleasing shopping experience, and we have gotten some great feedback on the change.”
Workbooks have always been a core part of the chain’s children’s business, especially during the summer months, and are typically merchandised just outside of the children’s section, enhanced by tables in high-traffic areas during key selling periods. Some of the series B&N carries include Sterling’s Flash Kids, Brain Quest, Spectrum, and Kumon, as well as summer-specific series like Summer Brain Quest and Carson Dellosa’s Summer Bridge.
Most publishers who spoke with PW reported that sales are down somewhat this year compared to last but remain higher than 2019. NPD’s numbers bear this out. Unit sales have fallen significantly year-to-date in the segments of children’s nonfiction where most workbook series reside—down 32.1% in study aids and 46.1% in school and education—but they remain elevated over pre-pandemic levels, according to Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Books. “My read here is that these highly educational categories are bound to be down year-to-date because of how high they went in 2020,” she says.
One notable change in the market during Covid-19 has been the timing of sales throughout the year. Summer is typically a peak sales window, along with back-to-school and the fourth-quarter holidays, as parents look to help their students minimize learning loss during the break. In 2020, consumers started picking up summer-bridge workbooks early as they looked for additional help during the school year, leveling out the summer bump. In 2021, some publishers and retailers report similar trends.
“Workbooks are somewhat seasonal, with a big selling point in summer,” says Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles. “But not as much will be purchased this summer as before the pandemic, because so many workbooks have been purchased and used throughout the year.”
Children’s Book World carries a wide assortment of workbooks for students through the middle grades, focusing on well-reviewed titles from the likes of Kumon and Scholastic. “You have to filter through a lot of self-published workbooks that are out there,” Lopez says.
In addition to working furiously to meet demand once the pandemic hit, publishers also launched marketing campaigns to let parents know they were there to help. “We did a lot of aggressive marketing with our retailers and direct-to-consumer channels to let people know we were out there,” Edmunds says. Similarly, Highlights increased its Amazon marketing, sent emails to its extensive direct-to-consumer list, used social media to get the word out, and posted free educational resources for parents.
One of the key lessons learned from the pandemic was that parents need guidance as they support family learning. “Parents were looking for ways to add educational structure to their days,” Edmunds says.
Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group’s OddDot imprint publishes the TinkerActive workbook series, focused on hands-on learning through projects and activities. “We did some format innovation to make the package as complete as possible, so it was a one-stop shop for parents,” says Nathalie Le Du, publisher of OddDot. For example, the imprint, like others in the space, has added write-and-wipe pages that could be used for multiple activities, games, and projects; more stickers to use for motivation; and a trifold poster to chart the student’s progress. “We wanted to make sure they had all that value in one place,” Le Du says.
In addition, OddDot interspersed “Hey, grown-up” notes throughout the books to help caregivers distill the learning and add daily activities to reinforce that learning. “We leaned heavily into messaging to parents that ‘we’ve got your back,’ ” Le Du explains. “If we learned one thing from the pandemic, it’s that we need to support the parents and caregivers as much as the learners.” Other publishers offer similar parental call-outs in their books.
Not surprisingly, online sales spiked during the early part of the pandemic. “We had more dot-com business than brick-and-mortar, even though we had our same accounts that were open,” says Barb Peacock, managing director of School Zone Publishing. “That was a huge change.” This year online sales have leveled off and bricks-and-mortar has ticked up again, she says.
Lopez notes that early in the spring of 2020, when most bookstores were closed, there were lots of customers looking for workbooks online. “We’re on IndieCommerce, but it’s hard to search for workbooks on a website,” he says. “Once we opened back up, customers came in and we could help them choose.”
Workbooks are sold across all channels, but mass retailers and wholesale clubs are especially important. “The Costcos, Walmarts, and Targets are the main driver,” Le Du says. “We need to support parents and caregivers, and we know they’re time-crunched and often burnt out. We need to get books into places they already frequent.”
Peacock says, “Wholesale clubs have always been a great channel. But it’s a tricky business sometimes.” She cites returns, the short duration of retail programs, and a relative lack of choice for consumers as among the challenges.
Bendon, which has been producing licensed workbooks and flash cards since 2002, says demand in its mass and value channels ebbs and flows, with a bump in summer and at back-to-school each year. It is only in the past year or two that the company has gone after licenses that are specifically educational.
“We manage so much planogram space in 85,000 retail stores, we’re always looking for strong content to balance out that space,” Ferguson says. “We saw a real opportunity in our racks to increase the value with educational product.”
Bendon evaluates the licenses it acquires for its coloring and activity business primarily on their current popularity, but took a different approach for the educational licenses. Heather Robinson, the company’s v-p of editorial and creative, took the lead, assessing the brands based on their content rather than their sales potential.
“Last year content was king,” Ferguson says. “Parents were more focused on content and subject matter than on the brands.” Bendon’s workbooks feature exercises to support learning but are not aligned to school curriculum, as most of the trade and educational publishers’ books are.
Highlights licensed Bendon to bring its brand into the value channel, where Highlights Learning does not have a presence. “We are mission-driven and want to reach as many kids as possible,” Moore says. “Not everyone shops at mass, and the value channel is exploding. Bendon has figured out the complexities of that very different marketplace. And they’ve really taken time to understand our content and philosophy.”
Though some planned workbook programs were canceled due to the pandemic, a number of new and existing players are launching series. In most cases, development began well before the pandemic, but the increased demand due to at-home schooling sometimes accelerated the introduction dates.
Several publishers are expanding beyond the sweet spot for workbooks in terms of age; that is, pre-kindergarten through the middle grades. In spring 2021, Scholastic Early Learners launched a full line of workbooks for ages seven and up, driven by older learners’ needs during virtual schooling. Products include a series called Quick Smarts that overlays reading and language arts, science, and math onto topics that interest kids, starting with sharks and dinosaurs. The Scholastic Early Learners line now stretches from birth to grade three, Demoreuille says.
OddDot had been planning to take TinkerActive down to age three and moved the launch up by six months due to the pandemic. The new Early Skills expansion is adapted for younger learners, a segment that responds well to TinkerActive’s hands-on learning approach, according to Le Du. Launching in January 2022, the expansion includes books on math, science, reading and language arts, and motor control. OddDot had expanded TinkerActive to the pre-K level just prior to the pandemic.
Workman is taking Brain Quest younger than pre-K as well, with plans to debut a line of board books in spring 2022. It has also been expanding its Big Fat Notebook line, a supplemental series to help prepare middle and high schoolers for college. Introduced in 2016, the series debuted its first high school books last year and continues to add new subjects for middle graders.
The pandemic also reinforced the need for social-emotional learning content, something that teachers and parents had already been demanding before the crisis. Scholastic is launching its first two SEL-themed wipe-clean workbooks this fall, including My First Growth Mindset Workbook for ages six and up and My First Mindfulness Workbook for ages four and up. In September, Highlights is publishing Learning Kindness, a hybrid workbook format under the Highlights Press imprint that combines academic early-learner content with puzzles and activities focused on kindness and empathy.
Publishers have been adding more aids for hands-on learning to their products—including manipulatives such as scissors, rulers, and timers—to mirror what students are doing in class. “The biggest trend is a push toward engagement, especially in math and science,” Le Du says. “It’s play-based learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking that crosses subject areas.”
Spectrum launched its Hands on Math in 2019, which includes manipulatives and workbooks packaged in a pouch. During the pandemic, Highlights debuted its 15 Minutes a Day to School Success program, available as a subscription box as well as in a retail configuration. The assortment includes workbooks, parental guides, activities, and other content.
School Zone released a yearlong learning program in a box, which retails for $49.99, at the beginning of 2021. The curriculum-aligned program—for pre-K and kindergarten so far, with first grade in development—includes fiction and nonfiction beginning readers; games; scissors, pencils, and other tools; workbooks; and a write-and-wipe sleeve that allows all the pages to be reused. A cloth-bagged version is available for club stores.
Even in standard workbook formats, engagement is key. “We’ve all seen the drill-and-kill workbooks,” says Workman executive editor Karen Edwards. “They are pedagogically sound, but they’re not fun or visually appealing.”
Hilary Fine, DK’s education development director, says, “The traditional formats continue to be popular, but we’re always exploring new approaches that are engaging and tie in to what students are doing in schools.” That was the reason the publisher acquired the rights to Mrs. Wordsmith earlier this year, adding the series of K–5 English-language arts workbooks to the company’s existing DK-branded and Eyewitness workbook programs. “It’s a unique approach that is far more engaging and exciting in its visual appeal than many traditional workbooks.”
Brands and licenses from outside the world of education come and go cyclically in the workbook segment and are currently on the upswing. Penguin Young Readers entered the category with its first Mad Libs workbook in April 2020. “We’ve seen some interesting things in the workbook space, and we saw the opportunity to bring some of our well-known brands into it,” says Daniel Moreton, v-p and associate publisher of Penguin Workshop. “With the growth of the category for the past few years, we felt now was the time.”
PYR currently offers Mad Libs Reading Workbooks for grades one through four, Who Was? language and reading and science and social studies titles for grades two and four, and a preschool workbook for the World of Eric Carle. Moreton says other brands are under consideration for their future workbook potential, including Llama Llama and The Little Engine That Could.
Meanwhile, Random House Children’s Books is bringing Dr. Seuss into the space for the first time. “We’re Seussifying the workbook format,” says Tom Russell, v-p and publisher of reference and workbooks at RHCB. “A lot of parents remember learning to read with Dr. Seuss and want to share that with their own kids.” The first two books are for preschool and kindergarten; both contain content about reading, math, science, and social-emotional learning. different characters represent each subject, including the Cat in the Hat (reading), Thing 1 and Thing 2 (math), the Lorax (science), and Horton (SEL).
Random House is also the publisher for Sylvan Learning workbooks and has a Step Ahead series under the Little Golden Book brand. It recently introduced three workbooks under its new learn-to-read brand, the Reading House.
Carson Dellosa acquired the Disney Learning license for workbooks and other educational products featuring Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars characters, and debuted the first items in March 2020. “We know it’s a delicate negotiation to get kids to pick up a workbook,” says Kelly Geer, senior v-p of brand and product development at Carson Dellosa Education. “Consumer research told us parents want workbooks to be educational, but they also need to have a fun factor. And we knew the power of Disney across all categories.”
However, licensing and branding in this category come with both the advantage of engaging kids and the challenge of being perceived as frivolous. “It’s a very powerful draw for kids,” Le Du says. “But will they deliver on the educational content? In some cases they don’t have the pedagogical underpinnings.”
Lopez agrees. “Brand names are not always the best when you look to education,” he says. “We talk to our local teachers to find out what they need, so we’re ready when their students come in.”
Publishers are bullish about the workbook category for the foreseeable future. Parents are worried that their kids will be behind when they return to the classroom, and some families will continue to homeschool even after full-time classroom education resumes. They are also reenergized when it comes to supporting their kids’ education, whether remotely or in class.
“Parents got unprecedented insight into what their children are learning, and they are keen to help them stay where they should be and catch up if needed,” Fine says. “We also hear from parents that it’s nice when their kids are not on the screen. Workbooks have always had a place, but education has changed and they now have a new place as a nice, analog complement to digital learning.”