We polled independent booksellers around the country about holiday business, and to see which titles sold best. Borders did not have its final numbers by press time, and Barnes & Noble declined to participate, stating that it does not break out sales by category.
Ahealthy dose of holiday cheer arrived right on time for booksellers, with sales of children's books strong across the country. For Jill Bailey, children's book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, "Business was down 10% overall storewide [including adult titles]... but the children's sections were up 10%—20% over last year. Chapter books were up about 40%." Retha Davis, owner of Kids' Center in Tucson, Ariz., pronounced holiday sales "excellent." Beth Puffer, manager of Bank Street Bookstore in New York City, said business was "very good, up from last year—one of the larger increases we've seen in recent years." At a few stores we contacted, however, sales were flat. Sara Chaganti, children's book buyer at the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass., reported, "Kids' books were about the same as last year. Adult sales were down a bit, but kids' were about the same." Sue Zlotnick, co-owner of Yellow Brick Road Children's Books in La Mesa, Calif., called sales just "okay," adding, "It was not our best year, but the last couple of weeks before Christmas were big."
The hottest titles of the season were movie-based: Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events (HarperCollins), especially the first volume and the new boxed set, and The Polar Express (Houghton Mifflin). JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, said that because of the movie, "We sold many more copies of The Polar Express than we normally do at Christmas, and we usually sell that title very well." For Bailey at BookPeople, "The picture book sold well, but we sold only tiny amounts of the movie tie-ins." For all of The Polar Express's success, there were widespread restocking issues, discussed in detail in Bookselling's "When Millions Aren't Enough".
Egyptology, sequel to Candlewick's mega-selling Dragonology, was another hot holiday title, though booksellers reported that Dragonology was continuing to sell strongly, and was even topping its companion volume in some stores. "Egyptology did well and Dragonology still did well," said Sharon Ristau, children's buyer at UConn Co-op, Storrs, Conn. "I thought Egyptology would sell better [than it did], but it still sold well. It just didn't blow out like Dragonology did."
Other picture book hits of the season mentioned by our booksellers included Alice the Fairy by David Shannon (Scholastic/Blue Sky) and Guji Guji by Chih-Yuan Chen (Kane/Miller); Daniel Pinkwater's mention of Guji Guji on NPR in October sent demand soaring, though stock problems were immediate. For Davis at Kids' Center, "Stranger in the Woods [Carl R. Sams] has always been a strong title and still was this Christmas season."
These titles and others marked a welcomed resurgence of picture books as a category during the holidays. "This year it was pretty close," said Debra Evans at Sam Weller Books, Salt Lake City. "Fiction went out really hard, but so did picture books." Bank Street's Puffer pointed out, "I think it's easier for someone to buy a picture book as a gift for a child than a novel." But for several stores, including the Bookloft and Bear Pond Books, fiction proved a stronger category than picture books.
With the huge popularity of fantasy, it's no surprise that the majority of strong-selling novels this Christmas season came from that genre. The novel most often mentioned by booksellers as their biggest seller was Cornelia Funke's Dragon Rider (Scholastic/Chicken House). It was a hit for Ristau at UConn Co-op, who said she was selling "more fantasy than anything," including Eragon by Christopher Paolini (Knopf), Funke's The Thief Lord (Scholastic/Chicken House) and the Pendragon series by D.J. MacHale (S&S/Aladdin). "I thought this was a good season for good novels," said Fruchtman of the Children's Bookstore, "and we sold very many of them. I thought the novels were stronger than the picture books this year." Fruchtman did well with T.A. Barron's The Great Tree of Avalon (Philomel), Gifts by Ursula Le Guin (Harcourt), Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls (Atheneum/ Jackson) and Story Time by Edward Bloor (Harcourt). Natacha Pouech, children's buyer at Bear Pond Books, Montpelier, Vt., said she was "happy to see that The Tale of Despereaux [Kate DiCamillo's Newbery winner from Candlewick] was still selling," even though it was published in 2003. Chaganti did well with Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers (Disney Press), the new Princess Diaries title from Meg Cabot (Harper) and Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo (Scholastic/Orchard).
For Ann Teitel, children's manager of the Dolphin Bookshop, Port Washington, N.Y., "Mike Lupica's Travel Team [Philo- mel] "blew out of here. It sold itself." She was also pleased that Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press), a summer title, "kept up its momentum" and had continued to sell well during Christmas.
There were also some unpredicted disappointments for our booksellers. For several of the indies we spoke with, James Patterson's santaKid (Little, Brown) didn't perform as well as they had hoped. Zlotnick pronounced the title "a flop," adding, "Maybe it sold at the warehouse clubs, but it didn't sell here." BookPeople hosted a Santa Claus supplied by Little, Brown who read the book aloud; Bailey commented, "They did a big promotion here, and no one bought it."
Davis reported that "the second book by Carl Sams [Lost in the Woods] didn't have the life that Stranger in the Woods has had. We carried [the new title] throughout the season, but it didn't have the same level of interest."
Though it's sometimes hard to predict what will strike a chord with customers, heightened demand at the holidays always brings with it a stock shortage of some titles—some years worse than others. This year there were intermittent problems, but other than The Polar Express, nothing that caused major complaints from retailers. For Dinah Paul of A Likely Story in Alexandria, Va., "Ida B [by Katherine Hannigan; Greenwillow] was a big seller leading up to the holidays, but went out of stock. Lynne Cheney's When Washington Crossed the Delaware [S&S] was popular here and would have sold more but it went out." Chaganti said that she sold out of the first Lemony Snicket title, as well as a few others in the series. "We ran out of Travel Team a few times, but were able to replenish it," said Teitel of Dolphin Bookshop. Davis called the situation "hit-or-miss this season. There were a few days when you couldn't get a title or two, but I just kept sourcing around and could get it. Egyptology was out for a short time, and the Polar Express Gift Set went out in the middle of December and never became available again."
Looking Ahead to 2005
With the holiday rush already a memory, booksellers have a new year's worth of books on the brain. Asked which titles they were anticipating the most in 2005, Paul spoke for all in saying, "Harry Potter, of course! We're already in the planning stages for an event that will, hopefully, top our last five events." Other than Harry, which will undoubtedly be the bestselling children's title of the year, booksellers are looking forward to Eldest, Christopher Paolini's sequel to Eragon, due out from Knopf in August ("everyone's anxious for it," Davis reported); and Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares (Delacorte) ("all my teen readers are waiting with bated breath for that one," said Bear Pond's Pouech). Other titles mentioned included Eric Carle's new picture book, 10 Little Rubber Ducks (HarperCollins); Speak author Laurie Halse Anderson's March novel, Prom (Viking); and Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit (HarperCollins).
Teitel was less enthusiastic about the season's prospects than some of her fellow booksellers. "There's nothing for spring that has made me really excited," she said. "And the release of Harry Potter is coming at just the wrong time for us. Most of our kids will either be at camp or in Europe when the book is released. I don't think our sales will be anywhere near what they were last time."
But most booksellers said they were looking forward to having a new crop to sell. As Ristau put it, "There are some great titles coming out. It goes in cycles and I think now, kids are reading more." Fruchtman says she is "always optimistic," pointing out that "even in times when money is tight and the economy isn't great, people will spend their money on good ways to educate their children. They don't buy the more frivolous things and buy books with the money they save instead."
At Yellow Brick Road, Zlotnick said she was not necessarily gung-ho, but at least was "not as pessimistic" as she had been a few months ago. "Our school budgets are so pathetically cut," she said. "A lot of our books go into the school classrooms, so with budgets down I don't see a lot of the books selling. To put it a nicer way, I'll say I'm guardedly optimistic."