At a time when the amount of space devoted to trade books on college campuses is shrinking and many campus stores have dropped “book” from their name to reflect a greater breadth of products and services, children’s books are proving to be a bright spot.
Thanks to series like the Hunger Games and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and before that Twilight, children’s books are “the shining star in the print book world,” says Jack Barney, director of trade books for Barnes & Noble College Stores, which operates more than 650 campus bookstores. “For the past two years, they have filled four positions on our hardcover [bestseller] list.” Among B&N’s roughly one hundred “full bore” town-and-gown stores, all areas of kids, from picture books to YA, are up. “Our clients really want a strong children’s department,” notes Barney. “Our kids’ sections are drawing people in. Hunger Games is driving frontlist; backlist is still good.” And like many stores, on campuses or elsewhere, at B&N the recent death of Maurice Sendak has boosted sales for his already popular books.
The story follows a similar trajectory at Follett Higher Education Group’s approximately 850 stores, where children’s fiction grew 45% and nonfiction 53% in 2011, according to national book buyer Jennifer Macagba. Since Twilight, YA has been the backbone of Follett’s children’s departments, but picture books and chapter books are also strong, especially university-related titles like Go Irish: My First Notre Dame Words or Hello, Stanford Tree! Some Follett stores, like the 23,500-sq.-ft. Fairfield University Bookstore in Fairfield, Conn., which opened in November on the site of a former Borders, have a large trade footprint. But many of its smaller stores have cut back without sacrificing kids’ titles. “I’ve seen a decrease in trade space, but an increase in the amount of kids’ books on store planograms,” says Macagba.
Follett stores tend to do well with movie tie-ins like War Horse and The Invention of Hugo Cabret; national bestsellers like Press Here, The Book Thief, Inheritance, and I Want My Hat Back; dystopian YA like Matched and Divergent; as well as Lego- and Star Wars–related titles. Macagba also reports a resurgence of nostalgic brands like Hello Kitty and Mr. Men and Little Miss, and in response, she’s rolled out cross-merchandised tables with Hello Kitty and Angry Birds board books, activity books, clothing, plush, and drinkware. She also cross-merchandises YA fiction at more than 200 stores that have summer camps nearby. Last year she added a Buyer’s Pick table with her favorites of the season in 13 categories, from Best New Fairy Tale (Cinder) to Best Chapter Book Illustrations (The Chronicles of Harris Burdick).
Children’s Books at Indies
Declining adult trade sales coupled with growing kids’ sales is also a trend at independent college stores, and dovetails with Nielsen BookScan data. In 2011, e-book sales cannibalized print, which fell 6.9% overall for hardcover units, 5.9% for trade paperback. During the first six months of 2012, general book sales have continued to decline. “College stores have the same challenges and the same successes [as other stores],” says Steve Horowitz, a rep with Abraham Associates Publishers’ Representatives. “What they’re fighting now is the reduction of square footage for books.”
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is one of many schools to respond to declining sales by giving up square footage in its bookstore in favor of emblematic clothing and school-logo accessories, according to children’s book buyer Anita Charles. Even so, the store continues to have a large trade book department, which dedicates 19% of its space to children’s titles. In part that’s because BYU, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has a strong education department that champions children’s literature.
Each July for the past 25 years the BYU Bookstore has partnered with the education department and the campus and city libraries to host a two-day Books for Young Readers Symposium with six authors and illustrators. This year’s featured Jack Gantos, the 2012 Newbery Medalist. “The direct sales [from the symposium] are important,” says Charles, adding that “the residual effect [on sales] is also important.” The store holds weekly story times and children’s events throughout the year. And it partners with the Provo Library on additional programming, including a recent event with Rick Riordan that drew 1,500 fans.
Not surprisingly, given the number of bestselling YA authors who live in Utah—Ally Condie, Shannon Hale, Sara Zarr, and James Dashner, to name a few—the YA category is especially strong at BYU. “We sell a lot of fantasy—Hunger Games, Matched, Maze Runner, Mysterious Benedict Society, and lots of whatever titles the student employees currently favor. You can’t come into the children’s book department without some book-lover saying, ‘Have you seen this?’ ” says Charles.
Children’s books continue to be strong at the 112-year-old University Book Store at the University of Seattle, which has nine store locations in and around the city. The store leads all college stores in the sale of books and supplies; it’s #2 in total sales volume. General trade represents 17% of overall sales, and children’s is 23% of trade. Children’s book buyer Lauren Mayer attributes the fact that trade book sales at the store are holding steady to the children’s category—with author events being a key driver. “University Book Store has a great kids’ department. Even before I worked here, I thought of it as the best selection around,” says Mayer. “And there’s a commitment to keeping the trade side around.”
The store regularly hosts big-name authors like Julie Andrews, Christopher Paolini, and Chris Van Allsburg, and held 55 children’s/teen events during the 2011–2012 academic year. Children’s represents 11% of the store’s event programming, says public relations and events manager Stesha Brandon. That includes ongoing series done in partnership with the local library like a monthly Teen Book Brunch with coffee, doughnuts, and favorite authors. When school ends, the store encourages children to keep reading with its second annual Summer Reading Rocks! program, which it complements with toddler rock concerts. Even though summer has just begun, Brandon is already planning events for big fall titles like Libba Bray’s The Diviners, which is set in the Roaring ’20s. She wants to create a teen-friendly speakeasy event complete with jazz and Charleston dancing.
The University Book Store reaches out to readers in other ways. For close to a decade it has offered its own awards, the Ubies, which it bestows at the same time that the Newbery and Caldecott Medals are announced. Staff members vote on their favorites, which sometimes overlap ALA picks; in 2010, Rebecca Stead won both a Newbery and a Ubie for When You Reach Me. This year’s winners were Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races for favorite novel and Patrick McDonnell’s Me... Jane in the picture book category.
Of course those aren’t the only titles that are big on campus among staff or shoppers. Graphic novels is one of the store’s fastest growing areas, and school and library sales are another component, through class visits and special presentations to faculty as well as school book fairs. Up until now, each store handled its own book fairs, but to increase that piece of the business even more, University Book Store recently created a book fair coordinator position to manage book fairs across all stores.
Smaller Scale Children’s Shops
Even at a time of stepped-up competition for online book sales and e-textbooks, textbooks typically outsell trade at college stores by a wide margin. At the University of Arizona in Tucson, trade book sales at UA BookStores were only 5% of the overall book division sales in fiscal year 2011. Of that, 10% can be attributed to children’s books, according to associate director Cindy Hawk. Picture books are the school’s bestselling kids’ category, young adult the lowest. Local titles are particularly strong, like Tucson author/ illustrator Guy Porfirio’s Jump! about a cactus barb and its journey. Other top-selling regional authors include Susan Lowell, Conrad Storad, and Jennifer Ward. Classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Curious George also do well, as do newer series like Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama books or Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggie.
“As an Arizona institution, we are particularly aware of our need to reach the younger age groups,” says Hawk. She cites statistics from Reading Seed, a local children’s literacy program, that one in five Pima County adults is functionally illiterate and a third of all students entering Pima Community College have to take remedial courses. The store plays an active role in the Tucson Festival of Books, which was founded in 2007 by Frank Farias, associate v-p of student affairs, and has raised more than half a million dollars for literacy programs. The bookstore holds a monthly Storybook Character Hour and has an A+ loyalty program for teachers. It also partners with Flandrau Science Center and the Campus Rec Center for weekly themed Summer Fusion Camps.
University BookStores keeps its children’s section in a central location on the main sales floor. It has a small reading area designed to resemble those in elementary school classrooms, with colorful micro-suede stools, rugs, and stuffed animals. “Families and young readers are an important part of our customer base,” says Hawk, “and we want them to have the same quality in-store experience as our college shoppers.” Children’s titles are cross-merchandised throughout the store. Art and activity books are displayed in the art department. Holiday displays include both children and adult titles. Children’s books are alongside textbooks for courses on children’s literature and education. And university–related children’s books are displayed in the clothing department with infant and toddler items.
The University of California at Los Angeles bookstore, UCLA BookZone, has shrunk by 50%, to 4,500 sq. ft., from 9,000 sq. ft. when it first opened in January 1997. “Trade books follow the general industry trends,” says buyer and general manager Scott Chapman. “It gets smaller and smaller. One of the things that surprised me when I took over in August 2007 was how robust children’s is. It’s one of the few areas we’ve expanded.”
Although the bookstore is in the middle of campus, it draws lots of visitors, especially because of its location near the renowned Ronald Reagan Medical Center. Many families visit the hospital complex and end up buying books for their children. As a result the store’s top sellers include board books, picture books, and beginning level readers. Mainstream bestsellers like the Hunger Games trilogy, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Little Golden Books are also strong, according to Chapman. UCLA BookZone’s most successful events tend to be those with celebrity authors, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for What Color Is My World? earlier this year, or done in conjunction with school departments.
Like many campus stores, UCLA BookZone has seen its trade sales for both children’s and adults shift dramatically. While literature was once the store’s #1 category, it has since fallen off. The store’s bestsellers are sidelines, blank books, and journals, followed by bargain titles for both adult and kids. Over the last 12 months, UCLA sold 8,700 units, or close to $86,000 in children’s books. The category is 9.2% of units sold and 6.3% of total general book sales.
Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, is one of a dozen college stores in the past decade to open a downtown bookstore. Five years ago Grinnell made the shift and transferred trade titles to its then newly opened Pioneer Bookshop in downtown Grinnell, just three blocks from campus. “Children’s was our bestselling section on campus,” says textbooks and trade book buyer Harley McIlrath, assistant manager of both Pioneer Bookshop and Grinnell College Bookstore. Off campus, children’s books continue to do well and account for 20% of sales in 10% of the space. Picture books like Loren Long’s Otis titles are especially strong, since many books are purchased by parents and grandparents. YA titles like The Hunger Games frequently sell better to adults than teens.
UConn Co-op in Storrs, Conn., is planning a move in 2013 to the area’s newly built downtown. The store will be on the ground floor with four floors of apartments above it, and will have a large children’s area. “We’re definitely going to grow the kids’ section,” says general books division manager Suzy Staubach, who also plans to add more educational games and toys. No doubt she’ll take the claw-foot bathtub with a bear reading inside it and the barn play area/display, which was brought to the current location when it moved in almost a decade ago. Like her colleagues, Staubach sells children’s books to parents among the faculty and graduate students as well as the community at large, teachers, and college students. “We sell a lot of YA, both fiction and nonfiction. Picture books sell well, too,” she says. Although Staubach declined to give an exact figure, she notes that children’s makes up a significant percentage of the store’s trade sales.
In addition, the co-op co-sponsors the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair with the university’s Northeast Children’s Literature Collections. The two-day event, held the second weekend in November, draws thousands of attendees and raises funds for NCLC. Featured guests have included Eric Carle, Walter Wick, Jane Yolen, and Robert Sabuda.
Despite the growing emphasis on e-textbooks, e-children’s books have been slow to catch on. Only Barnes & Noble has found a way to successfully blend e-books and Nooks with print children’s books at stores like the Harvard Coop and Vanderbilt University Bookstore. Some storytelling events involve reading directly from the Nook. “The Nook is a great add-on, especially for the student markets,” says Barney.
Among independents, Chapman’s experience at UCLA BookZone is typical. “It’s been tough to find our place in e-books. I don’t know if it’s a function of the devices. I have young children, five and nine. They sleep with books. I don’t want them to sleep with e-books,” he says. However, Chapman would like to move more print children’s book sales through UCLA’s online store. “We sell a tremendous volume of textbooks and emblematic apparel. We’ve never sold general books online to the level I’d like. That’s something I’d like to change,” he says.
“We do not sell e-books,” says BYU’s Charles. “We sell very few licensed titles. That is one area I have chosen to decrease as I tighten inventory for declining sales.” University Book Store in Seattle offers Google Books on its Web site, but so far, selling children’s e-books has not taken off. Mayer would like to change that. “We’re looking for a way to keep the customer,” she says.
Nor is UA BookStores in Tucson, which partners with Google Play, selling children’s e-books in any quantity, even though it includes them in e-mail promotions. “For now, our children’s section remains a refuge for the printed word,” Hawk says. “It’s an especially special department because the children’s book, complete with lovely design and illustration, really retains the idea of the book as art.” And that’s something everyone can appreciate, regardless of their age or the changing times.”
At present, kids’ physical books on campus are more than all right. They’re bolstering sales of other trade books on campus—and off.