Out of a Year of Upheaval, Into a Year of Uncertainty
By Deborah Halverson | SCBWI Insight | January 2021
January is typically the time of retrospectives, but in the spirit of good riddance, let’s cast our eyes forward. The health of our special market is uniquely unpredictable in this tenth month of nationwide lockdowns. Even so, as we roll into tiered vaccinations and flex the new skills, insights, and advancements that 2020 forced upon us, trend-lines have emerged. The publishing industry has shown resilience in keeping the supply chain chugging despite early fears of buckling, and Trade (consumer books) has slimly bettered 2019 sales. This, from an industry often likened to a dinosaur with an ocean liner’s maneuverability. The successes have been hard won and patchy, however. Here are some predictions for the children’s book market in this uniquely unpredictable year.
People will continue buying books for kids. Sales for every children’s book format—print, digital, downloadable audiobook—rose during the pandemic. The kinds of books being sold has changed, though. Sales of puzzle and activity books and books that supplement distance-learning juiced nonfiction numbers. That trend will likely continue at least through the first half of 2021, since many K-12 students will remain distance-learners for much, if not all, of the remaining 2020/21 academic year. After the school year ends? The crystal ball gets cloudier then. The National Retail Federation predicts overall consumer buying to continue at its current pace until summer, and then to boom as people leave their homes and spend money on activities and experiences despite record unemployment and economic hardships. Will the get-out-and-spend mindset allow for sitting down with new children’s books? 2020’s surprising sales performance leaves room to hope.
Consumers’ shift to digital book-buying will continue, further straining indie bookstores. The way people bought their books changed drastically after the pandemic began, and that’s likely to continue. In the first 10 months of 2020, bookstore sales dropped 31%, while online book sales—both print and digital—rose. The Association of American Publishers reported Children’s and YA eBook revenues jumping 69.7% in the first nine months of 2020. Exhausted brick-and-mortar booksellers are bracing for five to six months more of lockdown-modified consumer behavior this year, while prepping for an unrecognizable post-pandemic retail landscape. The American Booksellers Association reported 20% of its member bookstores in danger of closing in 2021; 52 shuttered in 2020. More indie bookstores and consumers will turn to Bookshop.org, an online book retailer that pools its profits for member independent bookstore affiliates. Bookshop.org serendipitously launched as the pandemic began and by the end of December had distributed more than $10 million to its 1300+ affiliate stores. Barnes and Noble will continue its transition to a more local-store approach, giving branch buyers the power to buy titles they know appeal to their particular areas. Amazon, estimated to be responsible for 40% of all book sales prior to the pandemic, will continue its dominance in 2021.
The supply chain will continue getting books to market despite strains. The pandemic forced fast adaptations at each step in the supply chain, to surprising success. Companies worked together to avert early fears that books postponed from Spring 2020 would fight Fall 2020 books for printer, warehousing, and shipping resources and that paper and staff shortages would hamper efforts. Reported problems have been more anecdotal than systemic. Because K-12 publishers experienced drastic drops in print orders due to schools using digital materials, printers could handle Trade’s shifting needs. Decreased international travel meant airlines had the capacity to freight. Publishing supply chain expert Tim Cooper, of The Consulting Garage, predicts the industry’s trend toward consolidation of companies will continue amidst the pandemic’s hard economic realities. “The ecosystem is changing dramatically from what everyone was used to.” He says traditional publishers will likely do more digital printing while continuing their pandemic shift to longer lead times with traditional printers, making them less nimble to address buying trends. “When publishers have to place their orders further in advance, they are less accurate and there’s more risk.” Ingram Content Group, a major player in digital printing, upgraded its global printing and distribution network and increased capacity in its US print-on-demand plants, including hiring plant staff.
Institutional book-buying will take a hit. Institutional sales (library, schools) are a significant part of the children’s book market. School districts are already directing money away from school libraries. Cities will reassess public library funding. Libraries will assess their spending priorities as they rebalance building safety, patron services, jobs, and collection building. School book fairs are offering various models, including drive-throughs and all-virtual, to keep their sales flowing. Opportunities for author/illustrator school visits will likely increase as schools grow more comfortable with virtual visits. That’s a double-edged sword. School visit expert Alexis O’Neill points out that virtual visits don’t require travel expenses, so “authors who’ve had a pretty solid presence in their home state might be finding more competition for securing local gigs.” Bookstores, though, are eager to get back to in-person events.
Publishers will continue acquiring new projects for the post-pandemic market. We’ll need new books for post-pandemic lists. So, editors acquired during the pandemic. Anecdotally, many agents shared with me that 2020 was their best and busiest year for sales, with editors reporting steady acquisitions for their 2022+ lists.
The general public will come to a fresh realization about children’s books role in recovery. As the pandemic continues to surge, our nation is experiencing trauma with little chance to process it. That’s likely to change post-September, the oft-sighted month when Americans may start feeling “on the other side” of the pandemic. Then, the reckoning will begin. 2020 gave empirical evidence that Americans turned to books in this time of need. They will buy books post-pandemic with a different mindset. Agents Molly O’Neill of Root Literary and Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary chewed this over in a year-end episode of Laughran’s Literaticast podcast. “People are being thoughtful about what kinds of books will be important for readers to have as they are making their way through,” O’Neill said. “I think that’s some of the magic of any kind of book, but especially a picture book. You can read it in different moments and it says different things to you.”
Above all, the pandemic will continue giving zero flying figs about market predictions. Our global health crisis is ongoing. Its economic fallout will span years, even decades. We’re a year wiser, though, and used to absorbing punches—and even ducking a few. For our part, as creators, our storytelling goal remains the same at its core: Developing fresh takes on universal experiences of childhood, with our young readers’ betterment in mind.
Deborah Halverson is the author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and Writing New Adult Fiction, as well as teen novels and books for younger readers. Formerly an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books, she’s now a freelance editor of MG/YA and picture books, the founder of the writers’ advice site DearEditor.com, and an advisor for UCSD Extension’s “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program. DeborahHalverson.com, @Dear_Editor, Insta deareditordotcom