Somewhere between childhood and adolescence there lies a middle stage of kids' development. Marketers and demographers are fond of calling young people who fall into this area—roughly demarcated as ages 8—14—tweens, a shorthand term that indicates this group's "in-between" status.
In recent years, it has become apparent that tweens, who by various estimates account for about 8% of the country's total population, are a consumer force to be reckoned with. A 2001 Roper Youth Report Survey estimates the tween population (defined as ages 8—12) at 30 million kids, who make direct purchases of $10 billion annually. (The same survey indicates that tweens influence an additional $74 billion in family purchases). The market research firm Packaged Facts estimates that 24.8 million tweens (ages 8—14) will spend $35 billion on direct purchases by the end of 2002.
As calculated by any formula, this is a group of young people wielding enormous buying power and, thus, influence on the marketplace. Numerous industries, from fashion to media to personal hygiene, now cater to tweens with various products and tween-friendly shopping outlets. But where do children's books fall in all this tween hoopla?
It turns out they've always been right in the thick of things, and still are. PW recently spoke to several children's book publishers to take the pulse of this segment of the industry.
When publishers speak about tweens, the first thing they unanimously point out is that they don't like the term tween. "We don't go around using that word in the hallway, but if pressed, we would define it as 8-12," said Lisa Holton, senior v-p and publisher, global children's books at Disney Publishing Worldwide.
Similarly, Suzanne Murphy, v-p of marketing for S&S Children's Publishing (where tweens are considered in the 10—14 range), said, "We don't ever call them tweens, but we think we know who they are." And Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of the Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group, echoed many of her colleagues when she said, "We prefer the term middle-grade reader when we talk about the 8—12 category."
At Pleasant Company, marketing terms are also eschewed. "From the letters we receive and the time we spend with girls, it's our view that girls aren't ever 'between' girlhood and adolescence," said editorial director Jodi Evert. "They're in one or the other, depending on the day (or the hour!). For us, it makes more sense to discuss readers in terms of 'mindset.' A younger girl wants more fantasy; an older girl wants to find out who she is. It's not about the 'tween market' for us, it's about serving the needs of individual girls. 'Older girl' is probably the closest we come to what is generally called 'tween.' "
No matter what the target audience is called, the segment of publishing that provides materials for eight-to-14-year-olds is doing well. "I'd say it's exploding," said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books, the house that has seen outstanding sales of the A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket and various series starring mini media moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. (In fact, HarperEntertainment ships approximately 1.5 million Mary-Kate and Ashley books per quarter, and the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand is estimated to fetch in excess of $1 billion in sales of various other tween-targeted consumer products in 2002.) Katz estimates that "sales [of books in the tween category] have increased approximately 15% per year for the past four years."
Kristina Peterson, president of the S&S children's division, noted, "Sales have absolutely gone up [over the past couple of years]. We are in an enviable position because we have a remarkable backlist for this age group," including books by E.L. Konigsburg and the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
The picture looks equally bright at Disney. "Sales of books for ages 10—12 are incredibly strong, across both boys and girls," said Holton, pointing to the success of such titles as The Doll House, Artemis Fowl and the Lizzie McGuire series (a tie-in to the Disney Channel hit show).
And at Scholastic, home of Harry Potter (and the pre-Harry benchmark Goosebumps and Baby-sitters Club series), Craig Walker, v-p and editorial director for media and trade paperbacks, commented, "The tween market is really our bread and butter."
The reasons behind publishing success in the tween arena are many—and often a matter of sheer demographics. Kids in the eight-to-14 bracket have become independent readers, and are at varying levels of mastering and refining their skills (and their attitudes about reading). Simultaneously, this group is undertaking more intensive school studies and more assigned reading. In addition, they are discovering their tastes as consumers and, for the first time, spending their own money at their discretion (an average of $9 per week, according to the Roper survey).
All of these factors mean that the range of titles published for middle-grade or tween readers has become—and, most publishers will attest, has long been—extremely diverse.
In Horowitz's view, "You have a wider range of things out there because adults [teachers, parents] are saying 'you have to do this school assignment,' which makes kids look for books [mystery, historical fiction, biography] they might not otherwise look for. If you help them see the variety, that's what is important when they begin to make their own choices."
Summer reading lists have become de rigueur around the country. "Schools are encouraging more summer reading," said Peterson. "We had phenomenal summer-reading sales for tween books this year," And it doesn't hurt that the prestigious Newbery Medal, which many teachers and parents recognize as the distinction of a "classic" book, is awarded annually to books published in the tween age range. Books bearing the Newbery seal almost always go on to be backlist powerhouses for many years.
But tweens still have time, outside of homework and other activities, to flex their leisure reading muscles—something this age group seems to be doing in solid numbers. "Even though they have other things—e-mail, video games, activities—vying for their attention, these kids are still healthy readers," said Katz.
The Harry Potter Factor
Publishers gladly give much credit for a reading resurgence among tweens in recent years to J.K. Rowling's books about boy-wizard Harry Potter. "Harry Potter started a fabulous trend for many of us," Katz said. "Kids who read those books started a behavior that has developed even further."
Murphy at S&S noted that kids who fall under Harry's spell have translated into "a lot of readers who are eager to try new hardcovers. We can give them something different." Walker at Scholastic believes that Rowling helped break open some genres that may have been a bit sleepy. "Kids are reading so much fantasy and gothic stuff now," he said. "It's unusual."
And Debra Dorfman, president and publisher of Grosset & Dunlap, said, "I think it's harder and harder to really make something work to a Goosebumps extreme. But Harry Potter brought that back; kids are ready for that again. A good series always has kids anticipating the next book."
Rowling's books have also helped spur a flurry of crossover reading. "There have always been crossovers, like the Chronicles of Narnia," said Katz. "But now we see more parents taking notice of their kids' enthusiasm and wanting to share the experience." She cited the recent spate of adult authors penning children's books (among them Carl Hiaasen, Clive Barker, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Isabel Allende, Joyce Carol Oates; see Children's Books, Sept. 3) as another boost to the crossover phenomenon. "Fans of the author's adult writing will buy a children's book by that author," she explained. "It makes the market very robust. There are lots of reasons you'd want to go into a bookstore with the whole family."
Horowitz points out that Harry has proved a better reading catalyst than other high-profile successes in the book world. "Nine hundred thousand people would buy the latest Oprah selection, but not buy another book," she said. "There are a lot of great [children's] books that have been around for a long time; kids are still discovering those because they are always looking for good stories."
Knowing that many tweens are on the lookout for books, publishers want to do whatever they can to attract these readers to both new and classic works. And winning a tween readership means discovering what will grab tweens' attention. "Kids are very sophisticated about knowing when they are being marketed to," Murphy said. "Keeping 'with it' is the most important thing."
At many publishing houses, staffers stay 'with it' by observing what their own kids are into. "Movies, TV, rock stars all play an important role in this market," Katz said. "Most people in our division have children. They are all over what their kids are into. We have weekly meetings where we discuss trends like that, and a lot of things pan out."
Chronicle Books in San Francisco has recently implemented an editorial team effort as well. "We have always had editors in our different divisions [gift, adult, children's] who are in tune with what tweens are interested in," said children's book publisher Victoria Rock. "But just recently we decided to make the way we focus on tweens a little more 'official' in-house." Chronicle has accomplished this by encouraging one editor from each division to join forces with their colleagues and keep an eye out for good tween projects.
"It's still very new," said Rock, noting that it simply made sense to fine-tune the editorial efforts this way. Though Chronicle has not published many tween titles to date, the house has seen success with Lights Out: A Nighttime Diary (a gift book packaged with a flashlight pen) and a series of Crafty Girl craft books.
Evert at Pleasant Company noted, "One place we get ideas is the thousands of letters that pour in each year from readers of American Girl magazine, which appeals to our older girls. We know what they love and care deeply about, and what fiction in the magazine they like best."
Editors routinely try to stay in step with what tweens wear, watch on TV, buy at the mall, surf on the Internet, read in magazines and flock to see at the multiplex. "We keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on in tweens' lives," said Dorfman. "They are a market that has a lot of spending money and we would rather have them buying books than something else."
Horowitz pointed to another characteristic of the tween segment. "What's different about the 8—12 category is that you can capture both boy and girl readers, sometimes with the same book or series," she said. "That gives you the potential for some really great numbers."
Publishers who are part of a larger media conglomerate often have the advantage of corporate synergy, allowing them to tie in book projects with feature films and television programming under the same umbrella. Disney (the Disney Channel, ABC), HarperCollins (Fox TV, Twentieth Century Fox) and S&S (Nickelodeon, Paramount) are but a few examples.
But regardless of corporate affiliations, many companies compete to buy or license just the right media projects. As a case in point, Grosset & Dunlap recently obtained licenses for a line of Jackie Chan books as well as choose-your-own-path books inspired by the Rollercoaster Tycoon computer game. And Katz noted, "We try to find manuscripts that are getting optioned for film before they're published. Movies can really do a lot for the books. Book sales skyrocketed with the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie."
However, timing is crucial when it comes to spotting and capitalizing on what's hot. "Kids go through trends so quickly, it's hard to always publish on the money and forecast what will appeal to them," said Walker. But according to Horowitz, it's worth it for publishers to try and keep up. "There is an awareness level among kids about what is trendy. Kids do wander in and out of bookstores to see what is happening, to see what people are talking about. And sometimes that curiosity turns into an actual sale."
Getting kids curious about venturing into the bookstore is part of publishers' marketing and publicity efforts. As tweens have become more techno-savvy, the Internet has become a venue where publishers can often get their attention. "Tweens want to talk to each other—they are very affected by their peers," said Murphy at S&S. To that end, a site dedicated to the Alice books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (the company's top tween series, according to Murphy), is a place where she said "kids can see their messages posted" (see Children's Books, Sept. 30). Most major companies have done similar things, providing kids with message boards, chats, online author biographies, games, contests and other extras.
Christian publishers have also made the most of this technology. For example, Tyndale Kids recently created www.cool2read.com, a site where tweens can share messages, find out how to be active in their community, read from a daily devotional and link to sites for Tyndale book series such as Left Behind: The Kids and the Mars Diaries.
"We do a lot of Web-site marketing," said Tara Lewis, global marketing manager for Disney, mentioning e-cards and contests as big hits. A recent Lizzie McGuire contest, which sends the winner to the set of the TV series, generated 55,000 mail-in entries, "a tremendous number," she noted.
The Internet is but one component of Scholastic's overall marketing picture. "We believe more in grassroots marketing than traditional advertising," said Walker. "We don't think advertising is as effective as getting books into kids' hands." When it comes to tweens, Scholastic is one of several publishing houses that have taken some marketing cues from the fashion and music industries. "For the last couple of summers, we have been targeting tweens with new product at mall shows and other events," he said. "It's something that other manufacturers are doing. And we think it's one of the best ways to reach middle-grade kids."
Pleasant Company, which also sells apparel, toys and other products via mail order and its retail store, is one firm that definitely has a leg up when it comes to cross merchandising in-house. "We reach older girls with online interactive content, in-store promotions that benefit them directly... and point-of-purchase marketing materials," said Bill Ziche, director of marketing. "We also have the unique opportunity to reach millions of girls through our targeted consumer catalogues." Traditional advertising and publicity still play a role in efforts to reach tweens, however. "In American culture," Holton said, "advertisers are now making direct overtures to kids as young as eight or nine," something that was rarely done 10 years ago. "This certainly has its effects in the book industry," she added. Publishers have adapted, making an effort to help retail accounts attract kids (as well as their parents).
To try and secure maximum print coverage, S&S has created a special tween/ teen catalogue for magazine editors and reviewers, focusing on this particular group of titles and hoping to get attention for them. One ongoing project involves a series of ads in Girls' Life for the new book Mates, Dates and Inflatable Bras (due out in January, along with its companion Mates, Dates and Cosmic Kisses) that feature a write-in offer for a free lip gloss shaped like a cell phone. The two books will also get a lift from a kicky bra-shaped shelf-talker.
Diane Cain, director of trade marketing for Random House Children's Books, said she also likes to do magazine advertising, but lately is lamenting the dearth of "strong middle-grade ad venues," noting that Girls' Life recently started "skewing older" and is no longer "clearly and solidly for tweens."
Beyond magazines, a number of sources continue to help get the word out about new books: free postcards (like those from Go Cards and Max Racks), Web site campaigns, advance readers' copies and sample chapters (often obtained via Web sites), teaser mailings to booksellers and other print advertising.
Hitting the Target
Once kids hear about books and are drawn into the bookstore, publishers, of course, want to close the deal. They have put much effort into generating actual sales via promotional and marketing items. But most important are the books themselves. "Tweens are spending their own money," said Lewis. "We want to give them value and create a compelling package."
She mentions CDs, body art, stationery and other "value-added premiums and goodies" that have helped garner attention for—and sales of—various series, including the new Naughty, Naughty Pets, which launched in September. And when it comes to tween promotions, Katz at Harper noted that "not one kind, but every kind" works well for this age group, from giveaways with a display, gift-with-purchase and purchase-with-purchase programs. "And if you're building a potentially large property, you want to do a little bit of everything," she said. The Princess Diaries books by Meg Cabot and the Lemony Snicket series are two large properties published by her division that have benefited from such targeted efforts.
Despite a good number of success stories, marketing and advertising to tweens is not necessarily a walk in the park. The tween age group is most closely associated with the societal phenomenon that marketers call KAGOY (kids are getting older younger), meaning it's often difficult to judge what will be considered age-appropriate by young readers and their parents (and teachers). There is a gap between the sophistication of the issues and images that tweens face in society and the level of maturity that tweens possess to deal with such images and issues (i.e., tweens may have the reading ability to tackle a book written for teenagers or even adults, but may not be emotionally prepared to understand the subject matter).
This is certainly not a new problem, but it has become more pronounced in recent years. As an extension of this trend, the teen or young adult category has shifted up as well, expanding to include edgier, grittier works for readers in their late teens and early 20s. The ALA's creation in 2000 of the Michael L. Printz Award to honor books for teenagers recognizes the pervasiveness of this upward momentum.
"Tweens want to be teenagers," said Peterson. "They are really on the cusp. They want to look at teenage problems, but don't want to live them yet. Books can offer a safe vantage point." Walker at Scholastic points out, "Years ago, I would have said the tween market was 10—12-year-olds. Now it has gone down to eight." As a result of this societal shift, Walker says, "The Baby-sitters Club could probably never work again. It's a much younger idea than kids are interested in today."
Dorfman of Grosset & Dunlap sees a further muddying of the tween waters. "Kids that age want to be sophisticated and treated older," she said. "But many of them want to stay kids longer. They want to be close to their parents now, especially after September 11."
Horowitz remarked that the trend of "younger kids reading up, which is good most of the time," inevitably brings up censorship issues (often from angry parents). "Some teen books are being read by kids too young to read them," she said.
Rock of Chronicle commented that a real challenge lies in figuring out "how you place good content within the context of being hip. Tweens are at a very impressionable age, and you want to make sure you are giving them the appropriate thing. We feel a responsibility to think it through as an issue."
Rock recalled that in a recent conversation with booksellers, one told her, "When you get to issues like sexuality and reproduction, for tweens it means getting your period and for teens it means contraception." Rock agrees with this general assessment, saying that Chronicle aims to make its books for tweens "sassy yet safe," and not delve into more serious teen-oriented issues.
While Horowitz noted that "there are appropriate readerships for every book," she also said that the definition of "age-appropriate" differs from child to child and parent to parent. One of the most basic ways that publishers differentiate between tween and teen books is design. "With paperbacks, it's not as big an issue," she said. "A digest size suggests a younger readership, and rack size is for teens. And for books that have the kind of depth to appeal to different ages, like Holes, we can publish in both digest and rack size. But with hardcovers it's more difficult."
At S&S, Murphy has observed that "tweens still like bright colors" when it comes to book jackets, whereas teen books "are more graphically designed; we use more photographs—they look more like adult books."
Another way that publishers distinguish between tween and teen titles is to keep sales reps (and booksellers) very well-informed about books' content. "We make sure we explain the books as clearly as we can," said Peterson. "We try to get manuscripts to our reps early on so they can be clear on what the issues may be. We don't want booksellers to be in a position where they are shelving things in the wrong place."
For now, though, it appears that for the most part, publishers, booksellers and tweens are having no trouble navigating the confusing "in-between" years together. Strong sales indicate a mutually beneficial relationship, with tweens having money to spend, and some of it obviously being spent on books. Bookshelves are rich with diversity. Tweens can easily find fantasy, adventure, humor, suspense and self-help titles, series with a spiritual or religious framework, fresh new fiction and edgy issue-driven novels. All these sit alongside classics such as Anne of Green Gables, repackaged favorites like Nancy Drew, celebrity biographies and poetry. As far as books go, it's a good time to be a kid—whatever marketers say that means.