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Mass-Market Trends Push Children's Book Sales

For the biggest news in children's books, look no further than the old baby-toe rhyme: "This little piggy went to market."

"The most significant long-term trend is the switch from an institutional to a retail market," observes Craig Virden, vice president and publisher of Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers. "Libraries and schools are not the market for children's books they once were. They're not getting the funds."

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But bookstores are, and business is booming. According to literary agent Sheldon Fogelman, a few years ago, the industry published between 2,000 and 2,500 titles. In 1995, that number jumped to 5,550.

If schools and libraries aren't buying, who is? "Baby-boomer parents and grandparents," laughs Lin Oliver director of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). "It's the boom-boom, people with lots of money, raising what I call 'gourmet kids.' Nothing is too good or too expensive for these children."

Indeed, the number of children's specialty bookstores soared from seven to 700 in the 1980s and has dropped only a bit, while the mega-bookstore chains with large children's departments have done nothing but expand over the past few years. Publisher Virden comments, "I was recently driving down a one-mile stretch of Route 1 [in Princeton, N.J.] and I saw a new Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Zany-Brainy."

Not surprisingly, as the children's market has expanded, it has taken on characteristics of the adult market. "It's more market driven than ever before. Everybody's looking for the stars that will hit big," Fogelman says, adding that "what's hot right now is the phenomenally successful paperback series, such as R.L. Stine's 'Goosebumps' and Ann Martin's 'Babysitter's Club.'" Publishers are scrambling for new series ideas, and, in a fresh twist, particularly for boys.

"Historically, publishers always thought that boys don't read as much as girls," Fogelman explains. "Stine proved them wrong." He says that this fall, Putnam is coming out with a series for boys called "The Zack Files."

Virden points out that this is only one of the 42 new series that publishers will launch this fall, hoping they will strike "serial" gold.

The enormous success of these mass-market paperback books for kids produced a tizzy of concern within the world of children's authors at a recent convention of the SCBWI, leading to impassioned jeremiads against "junk-food literature" and "McBooks."

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But Connie Epstein - the former editor-in-chief of Morrow Jr. Books and author of a yearly market report on all the major children's book publishing houses - makes an important point: "The mass market paperback book sales support the literary hardcover books for children, which really couldn't make it on their own."

Of course, with mass-marketing comes merchandise. Children's bookstores today increasingly look like toy stores as they stock the merchandising book tie-ins such as dolls, crafts, clothing, computer software, CD-ROMs, etc.

"The big movers these days are the interactive crafts books and multimedia ideas such as Klutz Press and Dorling-Kindersley," Ms. Epstein says.

The Dorling-Kindersley integration of fabulous photographic hyper-realism in a number of mediums, from books to videos to CD-ROMs in a wide range of non-fiction topics, has transformed nonfiction books for children.

"This is the visual and hands-on generation," says one Los Angeles middle-school librarian.

The current boutique hit, the "American Girl" series by The Pleasant Company, features five elegant, historical (and ironically, European-made) dolls, each accompanied by a six-book series as well as a slew of furniture, clothes, and crafts.

All of this is a sign of things to come, as the large vertically integrated entertainment companies increasingly gear up for the children's market. These companies (such as Time-Warner) are looking for every possible way to take advantage of the properties they own," such as instant books from successful films, Virden says.

And then there are the more ephemeral fads that take one book to get started. Epstein ticks off a few:

*The surprise hardcover hit, "Math Curse," which has produced a sub-genre of math-themed books. Harper has put out the "Mathstart" series and Scholastic has produced "Hello, Math readers," while other publishers have more in the works.

*"Grossology," which, as many American parents may wish they did not know, is a lightweight tome detailing bodily functions and other suitably "gross" topics. Epstein says it has been a "huge hit - in the six figures, which for children's books is big," and has spawned a series of similarly themed books.

*Newbery Medal winner Karen Cushman's historical novel, "The Midwife's Apprentice," which has singlehandedly resurrected the supposedly dead category of historical novels.

What happens when a fad peaks and tastes move on? Just ask Philip Lee, Publisher of Lee & Low Books Inc. His company debuted in 1993, when multiculturalism was a hot topic for childrens' books. He says a number of publishers stopped publishing multicultural books when the spotlight moved on, but, he adds, "I'm in it for the long run, not just the trend." He says he looks for a good story, not just the politically correct topic.

Mr. Lee says he's committed to more timeless values - expanding children's horizons with good literature about many cultures.

He's excited about his company's publishing coup, debuting this fall: a collection of letters from civil rights activist Rosa Parks, entitled "Dear Mrs. Parks." Is it multicultural? "Yes," says Lee, but adds with a sly smile, "more important, I think we've got a hit on our hands."

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