This Week’s Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit: Research Over Guesswork


When Your Reader Is Not Your Customer

Most kids aren’t choosing and buying their own books. Most of the time, parents are the ones at the cash register, right? Of course right. But think about the marketing challenge: are you trying to reach the kid? Or the parent? Don’t be too quick to think you know the answer.

As publishing industry specialists gather on Wednesday (16th September) in New York City for The Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit, the room will be focused on one of the most complex and yet upbeat stories in contemporary publishing.

It’s upbeat because while much of trade publishing has been sorely tested in recent years by the impact of the digital dynamic, a questionable environment for bookstores, and historically unprecedented competition from the fast rise of electronic media, the children’s sector has stood out as a bright spot of comparatively strong sales.

Important note for those not in publishing: “children’s” includes YA, the somtimes intensely lucrative young-adult category of the industry’s output. YA is the classification home to such multi-platform blockbusters as the Twilight and Hunger Games material, as well as the Divergent series and The Fault in Our Stars. This puts a lot of wind at the back of a large sector of the industry that clearly isn’t all picture books for tots. This, despite the fact that even these market-making mega hits aren’t always easy fits for the sector: the NA (“New Adult”) category of less restricted content is an unsettled but frequently mentioned adjacent classification.

Granted, the contours of entertainment represented by some of these major hits is relatively well understood. Vampire love, dystopian sacrifice, and attractive suffering are long-honored contexts. By comparison, trying to spot a hit in the vagaries of literary fiction can seem monstrously daunting, with no standing audience of fans, no set age group, no genre definition, no sure themes, no reliable tone or worldview.

And yet life is not simple in the children’s sector of literature, either. It has a wealth of challenging factors that only become apparent as you watch practitioners grapple with them.

To show you what I mean, let me share with you some of the titles of reports and panel events coming up Wednesday at Nielsen’s conference, under the direction of co-chairs Kristin McLean, Nielsen Book’s Director of New Business Development, and Jonathan Stolper, Senior Vice President and Global Managing Director.

All Customers Are Not Created Equal: Meet Your Highest Value Consumers

They don’t know they’re “highest value customers”? Right. And what this title tells you is encapsulated in the blurb about a new report from Nielsen:

Until now, the children’s book industry has understood the basic factors about where and how children’s books are being bought and consumed, but we have never had a clear understanding of which segments of our market are the most valuable in terms of both wallet and mindshare. Now, for the first time, Nielsen Book rolls out the results of its first-ever segmentation study of the children’s book market. Starting from “why” certain consumers buy children’s books, and focusing on patterns of influence, spending, and likely triggers to buy, this study will shed light on which of our customers we should be focusing on for maximum impact.

Go back to the point we started with: most readers of children’s books aren’t the ones buying them.

Whether a kid’s book is bought by a parent, a grandparent, another relation, a friend, a school or a reading program, the reader is not the customer until you get into the teen years.  So part of what this session will seek to do—in a presentation by the always-terrific London-based Jo Henry—is try to parse what’s driving the real buyers to select what they buy and under what circumstances.

Here’s another:

Who Are the Adult Crossover Readers of Young Adult Books?

The bombshell statistic of the year in the US children’s books industry turned up in January when Jonathan Nowell, the affable outgoing Nielsen Book president, spoke at the Children’s Launch program in New York at Digital Book World: Eighty percent, he announced—yes, 80%—of YA titles, are bought by adults, not young adults, according to Nielsen research. And those buyers are buying those books to read, themselves.

This puts industry operatives, of course, in a difficult position: what, in fact, does the YA designation mean if 80 percent of its titles aren’t being read by young-adult readers?

Nielsen’s canny approach to this quandary is to haul these readers in.

A “live focus panel, as it’s termed by McLean and Stolper, has been assembled to speak with Stephanie Retblatt of Smarty Pants Research before the conference assembly, and talk through just who they are and what they’re getting from YA literature.

Here is how the conference describes that session:

We focus on the elusive but influential adult consumers that make up nearly 80% of the buying audience for young adult books. The discussion will explore why these readers like young adult books, how they find out about the books they read, what role media and word of mouth play in their choices and what they’d like to see more of in the coming seasons.

When Your Customer Had No Plan To Buy

Another of the broader issues the children’s book industry grapples with is a widespread report from surveyed buyers—usually parents in this case—that their purchases of children’s books for their kids are impromptu.

In a section of its Spring/Summer 2015 Children’s Deep Dive survey broken out in late August for the media, Nielsen’s staffers wrote:

Last year, US consumers bought 226 million children’s print books, with moms leading the charge to the register. According to Nielsen BookScan, the 2014 sales represent a 13% increase from 2013. And despite growing e-commerce options, consumers purchased half of the year’s books at physical stores. Over one-third of purchasers bought multiple books a month, and new research shows that very few actually planned their purchases. What does that mean? Kids’ books seem to fall squarely into the impulse purchase category.

If children’s book buys are being made on impulse, then trying to market to those consumer-parents is incredibly difficult. How do you target such an unfocused customer base?

When Your Consumers and Readers Are Teens

Suburban Teens on Reading, the Young Adult Label, and More

One of the most anticipated parts of the program on Wednesday will be the panel in which Retblatt moderates a discussion with teen readers.

This panel will explore myth versus reality when it comes to teens and reading, and will allow the audience to ask key questions directly to the teens themselves. We will cover topics such as sharing books, the importance of print and the influence of friends and family in what they choose to consume.

In staging this part of the day, Nielsen’s team works to sidestep a frequent problem of any survey work, the presence of intermediaries. This approach provides conference attendees the chance to make direct contact with some of the voices that contribute to the research, and to evaluate these young readers’ understandings of their own motivations and interests.

At my request, McLean gave a finely balanced report at the International Digital Book Forum (IDPF) Conference in May in New York, targeting teen reading as her topic.

As I said in my writeup for The FutureBook, McLean both echoed some things we think we know about teen readers, and she surprised us with some others. A few excerpts:

We have a tendency in the publishing industry to only think about our customers when they are reading.

In our minds, they are always reading. And the truth is that they are not always reading. It’s important now that media have become so distributed and so porous to think about what else is going on in these households. And that’s how I’ve tried to focus my research at Nielsen, to think about to look at the full 360-degree view. [This is the prompt to the kind of deeper segmentation we’ll hear about on Wednesday.]

It’s not enough for us to focus on what’s going on within the four walls of the publishing industry.

Tablet usage, she told us, was on the rise:

In our current households, children from a year-and-a-half are using tablets and engaging with content. When we ask the parents if that’s cool with them, they say yes. “I use tablets when I need to keep my kids busy” or “I teach ABCs and 123s with tablets” or “If my child wants to read on a tablet, I’m okay with that…although I generally prefer for my child to read in print.

And she brought some interesting ideas to the question of why many younger readers seem to prefer print over digital:

I think what’s going on here is that the blush is off the rose in terms of understanding what books are for teens. They’re settling into a habit of what they like in print. Partly they like to share them. Teens also like to carry books around, show off what they’re reading. Partly because they’re [print books are] easier to get without a credit card, they like to use the library. And they also don’t have the productivity needs [that many adults have] of carrying around lots of books on an e-reader.

We’ll hear much more on Wednesday at the conference.

And you can follow what’s being said on Nielsen’s hashtag: #KidsBookSummit —I’ll be doing live coverage there on Twitter and you’re welcome to follow. Give me a shout and let me know you’re there.  If you’d like to make a last-minute registration for the conference as long as seats last, Nielsen has authorized me to offer you the code PorterKids2 for a $100 discount on your registration.

Much more info is ahead as the conference convenes in Manhattan. We’ll have more to come on this.