Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Book, will be presenting retail data, consumer trends, and critical insights for the children’s publishing community at the third annual Global Kids Connect conference in New York City. With 20 years of publishing industry experience in roles including retailing, sales, marketing, and industry advocacy, McLean speaks extensively on issues facing the publishing world, such as the effect of technology and culture on books and reading, as well as evolving models for content and publishing.

The theme of this year’s Global Kids Connect is “Publishing in an Unpredictable World: transforming challenge into opportunity.” PW recently spoke with McLean about what she is seeing in the most recent retail data, and what socio-economic trends are signaling to her as significant to the book business.

Let’s start with a challenge facing the industry. What is top of mind for you?

What is jumping out at me as I review the most recent quarterly sales data for both books and toys is the speed with which kids are picking up and dropping things they’re interested in.

This is happening across all forms of media right now, but is a particular challenge for publishers. Typical book schedules are a year to a year and a half, while adoption and decay around kids’ content and things kids are passionate about can be much faster than that.

For publishers who need to parse what is a momentary fad and what is a longer-term trend, it is getting tricky. Investing in what kids are interested in and managing risk when the interest inevitably falls off has always been a challenge, but it is exponentially more so now that the discovery process is happening completely out of sight of most adults.

Discovery is no longer Saturday morning cartoons and the latest toy commercials— although there is still plenty of that—it is YouTube,, and many others we adults are not aware of yet.

You’ve pointed out a challenge. Can we look at an emerging opportunity?

Almost a counterpoint to the speed challenge is the continued strength in classics and backlist sales. This correlates to a rising consumer trend towards “nostalgia,” which we’re seeing play out in really interesting ways in the kids’ media and entertainment space.

“Backlist strength” traditionally refers to early childhood perennial bestsellers like Goodnight Moon and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, or characters with historical brand equity like Curious George. I’m talking about something else, a new era of nostalgia for pop culture brands from the 1990s, 1980s, even the 1970’s—what I would call contemporary classics—for middle-grade and older kids.

Pokémon is the most obvious example. On the toy side, Teddy Ruxpin is making a big comeback. Specific to books, the Goosebumps reissues in tandem with the film release had a nice moment, and a film sequel has been announced for 2018, so that will likely continue.

These are books and properties within recent memory for parents, who are introducing them to a new generation, and partaking of them again alongside their children. The opportunity here is for publishers to look at their catalogs with fresh eyes.

Here in the U.S., we’ve experienced unprecedented retail contraction. The NPD Group analyzes sales for a myriad of products across the globe. From your vantage point, what is a challenge for retail today?

The middle layer of the retail market is super stressed. Shoppers are looking for one of two things, either experience or convenience. This appears binary, but you’ll see instances of both within a single household: they may be supporting their local coffee house, but then go online or head to a big box store to purchase a range of products they could buy locally but don’t because they view one-stop shopping as more convenient.

Specialty retailers that provide a really strong experience are doing great. Amazon is crushing it. It is the middle of the market that is of great concern. These important retailers for books have some challenges ahead of them. And when we think back to the last time we lost a major retailer in this space, it had significant ramifications. We need to think about discovery and how we cultivate retail.

There are opportunities in children’s books to create an amazing experience at retail, which is what indies are doing, and doing a good job of it.

Is there another aspect of shifting consumer expectations and behaviors that points toward opportunity?

We are in a hyper-customized, on-demand world. Consumers are buying less “stuff,” preferring to invest more in things that feel special or provide a unique experience. There is opportunity to translate these cultural trends into the way books are created, marketed, and sold.

What Sourcebooks has done with Put Me in the Story is a powerful example of what can happen when a publisher looks for over the transom revenue and is willing to invest in an experiment.

The gift market seems ripe for personalization and customization. Perhaps there are ways for publishers to enable kids to “publish” their own stories. Personalization and customization are not without challenges—it may require significant investment, and it may be hard to scale.

But imagine you are the parent of a child who is interested in cooking and a fan of YouTube star Rosanna Pansino. Now imagine you can walk into a specialty retailer like Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table and customize, on demand, Pansino’s Nerdy Nummies cookbook while you’re buying the branded bakeware to go along with it. This creates an experience for the parent, and a gift of unique value to the kid who receives it.

Bonus question: Much of your work is focused on the confluence of consumer behavior, technology, and reading. Is there any aspect of what is happening in the wider culture that you are keeping a close eye on?

While there have always been concerns around electronic and digital media for kids, the larger technology conversation in recent years has been about the excitement, power, and possibility of connectivity. But now I’m sensing a tipping point of awareness of the digital dark side for adults, and I’m very interested in seeing what the repercussions are in terms of how we think about technology and kids.

McLean will be presenting data, insights and actionable takeaways at the Global Kids Connect conference, Publishing in an Unpredictable World: transforming challenge into opportunity, on Monday, December 4 in New York City. Produced by Publishers Weekly in association with the Bologna Book Fair, this half-day event is followed by Celebration!, an exclusive cocktail party celebrating the authors, illustrators, translators, and publishing professionals who participated in the making of the best-of-the-best titles featured in PW’s 2017 Children’s Starred Reviews Annual.

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