By Natasha Gilmore and Matia Burnett
Children’s book industry professionals gathered on December 12 at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium in Manhattan, for the inaugural Nielsen Children’s Book Summit, a full day of presentations revealing the findings of the 2014 Nielsen Children’s Book Industry Report. The studies, conducted over a four-year period, sought to collect data that would provide insights into the ways in which children and teens consume media, specifically books, in an era of rapid technological advancements.
Among the key take-away points from the day were: children’s book sales have risen steadily across all categories, though performing strongest is middle-grade and YA fiction; children and teens have an overwhelming preference for print over digital books; tablet use has risen exponentially, even among young children; and, as raised by a panel of teen readers and other presenters, the categorization of books as YA can be problematic for book industry professionals who find the classification inadequate and for teens who are resistant to labeling.
Conference co-chairs Kristen McLean, founder and CEO of Bookigee, and Jonathan Stolper, SVP, Nielsen Book, provided opening remarks about the impetus for the Nielsen studies that would be explored in-depth throughout the day. The goal behind the project, which launched in 2010, was to develop a clearer “understanding of the shifting marketplace” by “following the consumer,” said Stolper, and to determine “who is buying and why.” With shifting technologies and changes within the bookselling industry (including the closing of Borders), the ways that readers consume books has clearly evolved as well, and so the need to acquire “actionable data” with which to help reshape bookselling business models, was fundamental said Stolper. The data presented during the summit was gathered through multiple sources: Nielsen BookScan, Nielsen Books & Consumers U.S. survey, and Nielsen’s Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age survey.
The Kids Are Alright
Keynote speaker Rey Junco, a psychologist and social media researcher, delivered an uplifting presentation called The Myth and the Reality: Kids’ Lives In a Connected World, emphasizing that the results of the Nielsen studies point to significant growth in the children’s book industry, across multiple channels. He discussed the dizzying evolution of digital devices, noting that “technological progress does not necessarily mean social progress,” and that anytime new technology is seen to be replacing older forms, there is inevitably tension, which is not a new phenomenon. The introduction of the telephone raised concerns that face-to-face conversations would become a thing of the past, while, as televisions became common place in American households, many feared that it would “destroy the very social fabric” of our world. Suggesting that “we tell ourselves a lot of stories as a society about how technology has changed us,” Junco pointed to many of the current misconceptions about the way kids interact with technology and social media. Contrary to what many adults believe, studies have shown that young people’s use of Facebook actually “strengthens bonds,” and their online interactions lead to increased engagement within their social networks offline. In fact, Junco said, “No study has shown that online interaction detracts from social contact.”
Keynote speaker Rey Junco.
He went on to debunk another myth: that “social media is detrimental to academic performance.” In fact, a study of Twitter users showed “improved engagement, persistence, and better grades.” Speaking to an issue of great relevance to the book industry professionals in the audience, Junko lastly debunked the myth that kids don’t read and only read digitally. According to Nielsen, “67% of kids read for fun fairly often,” and that there is a significant preference for print over digital books, with 71% of kids purchasing in print. These misconceptions about the way youth consume media, Junco said, come about through the lack of “good information,” and what he called the “adult normative perspective.” He believes that views of technology tend to often align with “panic narratives,” or the belief that new forms of technology will morally corrupt and “progress narratives,” which suggest that “technology will save us from everything.” Neither is an accurate view. One thing is for sure, he said in conclusion: “Our kids are not only okay, but they are thriving.”
A Global Context for Children’s Publishing
The next presentation, Global Trends in the Children’s Book Market, was led by Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Book, which provided a global context for those in the U.S. market. According to Nowell, the worldwide book industry is strong. Books are the media sector with the largest content creation, with $151 billion a year in sales, ahead of movies at $135 billion Global consumer confidence is strongest in India and weakest in Italy; this also carries over into book sales. Looking at these worldwide trends, Nowell sees potential for growth. He noted that sales are growing in China, the nation that has claimed the spot for the second biggest book market in the world (the U.S. is first). Additionally, countries like Brazil are showing rapid growth in their book markets. To Nowell, this means big opportunities aboard for American publishers to expand their properties around the world. “In China they’re hungry for titles from the U.S. and U.K.”