At the third annual Global Kids Connect (GKC) conference, held on Monday in New York City by Publishers Weekly and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, children’s publishing luminaries discussed hot topics in the kids’ sector in the conference’s first afternoon-only event.

Following opening remarks by GKC executive producer Charlie Schroder, PW v-p and children’s book editor Diane Roback, and Bologna Book Fair exhibition manager Elena Pasoli, NPD Book executive director of business developent Kristen McLean took to the podium to give an overview of takeaways on the children’s industry based on analytics from NPD BookScan. McLean noted that the children’s sector has grown faster than the overall print books market in the past five years, with 233 million units sold in 2017 compared to 181 million in 2012. As a result, she sees children’s as having become “a centerpiece” for many publishers in a way it wasn’t before, thanks to its stability and growth.

Hardcover, board books, and boxed sets are all up in the sector, accompanied by surges in categories including games/activities/hobbies, sci-fi/fantasy/magic, and relationships/family/health, as well as backlist; other categories, such as history, biography/autobiography, and reference/language, are down, while trade paperback sales remained flat. And, while McLean said that almost all growth last year could be attributed to the presence of a few big J.K. Rowling titles in the marketplace, sales are expected to rise again this year by 4% over last year, regardless of the lack of a Harry Potter title.

Some other takeaways:

  • The market share of readers under 12 has increased, while the share of those 13 and older has decreased since 2010, due in part to “a social-heavy, time-crunched world.”
  • Comics and graphic novels, with sales driven by indies and mass merchants, are hot; sales have grown since 2011 with almost a 25% growth rate between 2015-2016 alone, with books by Raina Telgemeier, Dav Pilkey, and Gene Luen Yang, and series such as Big Nate, Dork Diaries, and March all part of that trend.
  • Manga is a new growth area skewing young, with 76% of its buyers under the age of 29, and is the most diverse kids’ comics buyer market.
  • S.T.E.M. books are growing, and so are classics and early childhood books; Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and their ilk are still gaining traction each year.
  • Smartphones are replacing dedicated e-readers, and 198.5 million people own smartphones in the U.S.; this is the highest penetration for a technology ever, and it’s affecting kids, too.
  • Reading is still going on at surprising rates, but the challenge is keeping the balance between media—especially as kids reach 13 and up.

Following McLean, Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown Ltd. led a panel focusing on foreign rights, featuring Allison Hellegers of Rights People, Rachel Hecht of Rachel Hecht Children’s Scouting, and Kelly Farber of KF Scouts. The panel kicked off with a discussion of audiobooks and audiobook rights, which Hecht says she hears “an increasing clamoring” for, adding that she sees “parallels to be drawn with the boom of the e-book” in the current explosion in audio interest. Big players like Audible—and others, some of whom, Farber said, approach her clients directly—have been getting more and more involved, even hiring their own scouts to hunt down potential audio titles pre-sale.

Global changes, too, were a hot topic. The group agreed that the impending Brexit has put British publishers in a position where they’re racing to get their books out before March 29, 2019, as they have no idea what their economy, trade, or even currency will look like. And they see diverse stories growing a little internationally as well; Hecht referred to what she called a “real clamoring for stories of inclusivity” such as those focusing on the refugee crisis and Black Lives Matter. “It’s been rewarding, in a way, to have those conversations with customers and colleagues and clients internationally as we take on these somewhat frightening times together.”

Among other surprises—like the huge growth of English-as-a-second-language books in countries like the Netherlands and Scandinavia—is how hot the Polish market is, where rights, Farber said, are “selling at a rapid clip.” The group also pointed to the Spanish market’s growth, with Farber saying that Latin America may be even more stable than mainland Spain—so much so that she thinks it’s safe to no longer consider it an emerging market. “It’s been overlooked for so long,” she added, “but there’s so much potential there.” In terms of trends abroad, classics and YA contemporary romance are consistently doing well, while England is “overbooked” on YA fantasy, Clark said.

The following panel, with the catchy name “Attention, Please!,” was moderated by new Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group imprint head Daniel Nayeri, and brought together some of the kids’ world’s content gurus: Jennifer Emmett, senior v-p of content, National Geographic Kids; Meera Dolasia, CEO, editor, and publisher, DOGO Media; Kate Keating, director of digital marketing, PRH Children’s; and Jennifer Perry, v-p of worldwide publishing, Sesame Workshop.

Much of the conversation revolved around trying to make content stand out in a landscape in which publishers are competing with much more than just other publishers. “Content really needs to suck them in,” Keating said, adding that their true benchmarks for measuring interest in an IP are “clickthrough and engagement,” and that book trailers have been very successful at this. Perry added: “Over time, we’ve learned that by engaging our customer in something that is meaningful to them outside of the purchase leads them to the purchase.”

In the day’s final session, Kate Wilson, president of Nosy Crow, led a panel on how to continue publishing in an era of perpetual change. She was joined onstage by Lori Benton, v-p and publisher of Scholastic Trade; Mary Ann Naples, v-p and publisher of the Disney Book Group; and Jill Grinberg, president of Jill Grinberg Literary Management. Among topics discussed were the so-called Retail Apocalypse, how hooked we are on Amazon, if publishing is primarily a global or local business, if digital reading for children was a “false dawn,” sensitivity readers and representation in a changing marketplace, and if it is realistic to expect publishers to continue to be a leader in creating IPs in an era of brands like LEGO and Minecraft and big streaming services.

Some big takeaways:

  • “The chains definitely have seen a decline or softening, but the independents are surging,” Benton said. And while Amazon is a threat, “it can amplify bestseller sales and provide new life for backlist titles” and also force publishers to be careful about how they package and create metadata: “If you don’t care of the metadata,” she quipped, “the metadata will take care of you.”
  • Publishing is a global business, Benton and Naples agreed, while Grinberg said for her, it remains primarily local, and her agency “typically retain[s] rights outside of America.”
  • While e-books are not much of a power, audio is growing into one, and interactive AI assistants like Alexa and Siri have changed the game forever. “One of my colleagues came to work the other day and said, ‘My daughter asked Alexa to read her a book and it happened,’” Naples said. “When the kid can’t get a parent to read the book, are they going to sit down with this very diligent personal assistant?”
  • Streaming services, Benton said, are “out and looking hungrily for new properties to develop,” which Naples sees as a huge boon for publishing remaining an important producer of IPs going forward—even IPs that come from backlist.
  • Sensitivity reading is a complicated issue for publishers, the group admitted, but they agreed that the current push for diversity in the book world—which, Benton noted, is similar, if more powerful, to a push for the same in the 1990s—is both exciting and important: “If this is what we have to endure to get to a better place,” Grinberg said, “so be it.”
  • Grinberg would like to see more transparency between agents and publishers; as an example, she noted, “I would like to know where any given book will sit on the list.”

One thing that the panelists across all panels agreed upon was how good times are—and should remain—for the children’s sector. “It’s been very interesting for me to listen to the publishers,” Grinberg said. “My lunches with children’s editors tend to be much more lively and happy than my lunches with adult publishers…. Children’s does strike me as a growth industry.”

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