In depth: children's mid and backlist

In depth: children's mid and backlist

Bestselling books and brand authors completely dominate the children's market. That is the received wisdom and it is certainly an easy assumption to make if you look at the marketing budgets and the amount of retail space at the major chains reserved for bestselling frontlist titles. It is a notion that certainly makes sense—during the past decade high street competition has toughened and retail spaces contracted—week in and week out we seem to see the same big name authors dominating the BookScan children's charts: Jeff Kinney, Julia Donaldson, Jacqueline Wilson and Francesca Simon

There is a real feeling in the trade that the focus has shifted mainly to bestsellers. Publishers once bemoaned the passing of the backlist, yet now it is midlist titles they are concerned about as the focus is drawn ever closer to the bestseller charts.

Agent Caroline Sheldon comments that where publishers used to say they were looking for "a girl series" or for "funny, middle-grade fiction", now they simply want bestsellers. "It can be in any of these categories but they want to be bowled over by it," she says. Stephanie Thwaites, an agent at Curtis Brown, adds that while publishers are still buying, they are being very cautious. "Authors have to re-invent themselves to have much more high-concept ideas that are instantly appealing, or literary, with prize-winning potential."

Bestsellers have become increasingly important to the bottom line at Penguin Children's Books, says m.d. Francesca Dow, with more of the publisher's turnover now accounted for by its lead titles.

Children's books can now make as much as adult bestsellers. Sales in 2010 included £16m from Stephenie Meyer; Julia Donaldson's books achieved £9.8m; Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series £5.3m and Fiona Watt's That's Not My . . .  Usborne board book series reached £4.5m.

Dow says: "We have, as children's publishers, to acknowledge the fact that certain brands are selling really well and to accept that kids really want to read those authors and that's great. My mission is to publish as many books as many children want to read.
"I would like to cover a range of authors and titles and brands but realistically, we are going to be responding to the consumer feedback and sales, and will be concentrating on the wins."

Behind this shift lies a change in retailing as high street chains have reduced their range, especially in the past three years. "Since the spring, booksellers have been even more focused on the ‘less is more' strategy and we have to work with that," says Dow, who plans to cut Penguin Children's Books' output further over the next three years.

Retailers' demand for bestsellers is impacting on the traditional midlist titles. While no publisher wants to describe a book as midlist, that middle ground of publishing is important and has traditionally spawned future bestsellers. Within the midlist you can have the books that aspired to be bestsellers but didn't quite make it, established authors with good track records but not a bestseller in sight, and newer authors who haven't yet quite "broken through". Yet, many publishers report the shelf space given to the midlist has declined as the focus switched to the frontlist.

Ingrid Selberg, publishing director at Simon & Schuster Children's Books, says the changes are not necessarily to the benefit of the consumer. "It's dismaying that quality books that would in years past have received support from retailers and the institutional market and would have remained in print are not now doing so. These books would have found a place in the market and been viewed as successful but there are a lot less of them now, and that has changed the nature of what we publish."

Author Andy Mulligan is a case in point. His title, Return to Ribblestrop, which S&S publishes, recently won the Guardian Children's Book Award yet, despite its quality, S&S was unable to persuade the chains to take on the first book in the series, Ribblestrop. While it did get some support following a Roald Dahl Funny Prize shortlisting, sales of Ribblestrop are still a very modest 3,700 through the TCM since it was published in April 2009.

Much of S&S' list is now built on very commercial titles and on a week-to-week basis, some 80% of its sales are now made up of 10 of its top titles. "That's because the new branded, highly promotable titles are the ones you have managed to persuade the chains and supermarkets to take into their promotions and they are selling in quite decent numbers," says Selberg. But that is costing the midlist and backlist titles. "Even quite strong titles like [Tony DiTerlizzi's and Holly Black's]  Spiderwick Chronicles series, which was huge a few years ago, have very modest backlist sales," she adds. "In the past, stores like Ottakar's would have run promotions based on range, for example, featuring the whole of an author's backlist, but these kinds of promotions are now rare."

Another significant trend that has dominated the charts during the past three or four years is the focus on the teen market. The number of top authors in 2010 is hugely skewed towards teenagers—in addition to Stephenie Meyer, top authors for teens include L J Smith, Lauren Kate, Becca Fitzpatrick, Alyson Noël, Rachel Caine and Maggie Stiefvater. Ten years ago the teen market had only a handful of big brand authors: Louise Rennison, Meg Cabot, William Nicholson and Anthony Horowitz. This has helped children's publishers sell to 20-something adult buyers, but it also means that less space has been available for the traditional heartland of children's publishing: the eight to 11-years-old range where bestselling names such as Michael Morpurgo, Rick Riordan and Jacqueline Wilson dominate.

Not all it seems
So, these trends point to a future where children and parents are offered less choice with a narrower range dictated by the chains? Well, not so fast.  However relentless the shift to bestsellerdom seems, when you look at the market as a whole, the figures tell a different story.

To start with, the children's market is looking very healthy, indeed. Between 2001 and 2010 it has grown significantly from £193m in 2001 to £325m in 2010. That's a TCM value rise of 68% when the overall market has risen by only 36% in that time.  
According to Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market, sales of the Top 20 bestselling authors have grown by 47% in the past decade, up from £60.7m to £89.3m in 2010. A decade ago, there were 18 -"millionaire" authors or brands—those whose annual sales were £1m or over through the TCM. By 2010 that had nearly doubled to 34, and many more of these were achieving sales of more than £2m; some 20 authors and brands sold £2m or more of books last year, compared with five such authors in 2001.
Yet comparing the top authors to overall figures, the percentage of sales accounted for by the top authors has actually lessened over the past decade. So in 2001, the top 10 authors were worth £49.7m, or 25.7% of TCM children's sales; in 2010 the Top 10 were worth £62m, or 19% of total children's sales. This is the same for the top 100 authors, who were worth £94.8m in 2001, or 49% of sales, and £147.5m or 45.4% of sales in 2010.

In other words, the frontrunners account for less of sales now than a decade ago. Drilling further down, the top 500 children's titles tell the same story, growing around 32% between 2001 and 2010 (to £105.7m).  Perhaps even more significant is that books sales outside the top 500 have almost doubled over the course of the decade since 2001, rising by 93% to £219m in 2010.

The figures tell us that the overall shape of the children's market today is no different from what it was a decade ago, and in fact may be even better for the backlist. Part of this may be due to the fact that there is just more on the market. The number of titles published each year has also grown—or to be more accurate the number of ISBNs listed through Nielsen BookData—from 18,041 children's books in 2001 to 20,298 in 2010, an increase of 12.5% (this figure includes the same book publishing into new formats and editions).

Non-traditional boost
To many people in the industry, this comes as something of a surprise. So why is our perception of the market—that we are far more dependent on bestsellers than ever before—so different from the reality of the BookScan data?

On the ground, the fact remains that it is remarkably difficult to get books, especially fiction, into the front of store at bookshops, and that is down to the consolidation in the market. A decade ago publishers had Ottakar's, Borders and Woolworths as well as Waterstone's and W H Smith to reach consumers. Fewer opportunities to showcase books inevitably means that fewer books will get those prized places, and that the ones that do will sell more.

However, the children's market is more than just the size of its fiction parts and the range of books is huge, covering infants to 16/17 year-olds; so from board and cloth books for babies right up to the latest paranormal books that are being picked up by adults. It includes licensed characters, study guides, picture books, novelty, non-fiction, sticker books and so on.

Publishers have had to work harder to find new channels for their books—but they have been finding them. There are non--traditional outlets selling children's books—from book clubs to gift shops to museums and art galleries. Supermarkets have boosted their range of children's titles, as well as the rise of internet sales, with many children's publishers reporting increased online sales during the past two or three years. The institutional market, schools and libraries, has also held up so far despite budgetary concerns.

The children's market is also very reliant on overseas sales on co-editions and while these don't show on the TCM figures, many of the books being sold into the UK wouldn't be there (and nor would their publishers) without the support of international sales in both established and emerging markets.

Random House Children's Books m.d. Philippa Dickinson believes that the focus on top sellers has created the gap between people's perception of the market and the reality. "The figures we get from TCM are a tiny part of the market; a huge amount of sales are happening well below the radar, and that is the same as it was 10 years ago."

Hard won
At Egmont, group sales director Gillian Laskier also argues that while the top authors and brands are important and have always taken a huge slice of turnover and profits, in fact the company sees little difference in the split of its backlist and frontlist sales today from four or five years ago.

Bestselling children's authors now sell in numbers that we could only have dreamed of a decade ago, but they still represent a small part of the market—£62m for the top 10 authors compared with the market as a whole of £324m.

Authors and brands outside the top 200 are still selling, and selling well with growth in the past decade coming mainly from this group. Exclude the top 200 authors and children's sales are up 80.45%, from £85m in 2001 to £153m in 2010 (Nielsen TCM).
Robert Snuggs, m.d. of sales and marketing company Bounce—whose publisher clients include Templar, Piccadilly Press and Nosy Crow—says that while everyone would like to have some bestsellers, it is still possible to do "really well" even without the obvious market leaders. "We have novelty books that quietly sell 3,000 to 5,000 units (these) may not hit the TCM Top 5,000 chart but they are really selling. We have also extended the outlets we sell into to include the gift market and luxury retailers, where you don't have the same pressures on price.

"While we would always like to have bestsellers, all the publishers we represent are up this year on last year's figures, and that is due to a mix of sales through a variety of markets—toy and gift as well as booksellers."

Dickinson points to hardback fiction as another success story. "It has only been in the past 10 years that retailers realised that children's authors can sell in decent quantities in hardback and that hardback market is still there; we publish very successfully in hardback and although the numbers wouldn't feature on the bestseller lists, it's very profitable for us."

However, publishers have to work much harder to achieve those sales, says Gail Lynch, sales and marketing director at Frances Lincoln. She cites Keren David's When I Was Joe as an example. This was published by Frances Lincoln on its fledgling YA list and while the title has not been supported by the major chains, sales have still reached nearly 10,000 copies, which Lynch attributes to the unflagging efforts of the author, sales reps, indies and the number of regional book awards it has featured in. But she adds that each and every sale has been "hard won".

Where books are selling and how they are sold is changing, and the burgeoning internet and e-book markets will change this further. What hasn't changed, however, against all expectation, is that midlist and backlist titles, as well as the "quieter" new books, are selling—and they are selling even better than they did a decade ago.