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What Can Data Tell Us?: An Agent’s Thoughts on the 2015 Nielsen Children’s Book Summit

A few years ago, while on a trip to Paris, I met the great sports writer Simon Kuper for coffee. The author of the revolutionary book Soccernomics, a kind of Moneyball for soccer, Kuper and his co-author Stefan Szymanski had been using data analysis to skewer the decision-making of big soccer clubs in novel ways, showing how everything from racism to recency bias led them to behave irrationally in the marketplace. Intrigued by the insights a numerate view of soccer provided, I wondered if there were applications to my own, possibly unenlightened, industry: was publishing due its own data revolution? With a shrug that seemed typically Parisian, Kuper told me: “I don’t think you would gain much by applying data to publishing. Publishers just use it impressionistically at best.” He aped the voice of a thousand marketing people who had not actually conducted market research prior to making suggestions: “We’re publishing in July because we think it’s a perfect beach read.”

From the publisher’s side, of course, data analysis may seem like a distraction from the real work of editors and their colleagues. Don Weisberg, former president of Penguin Young Readers Group, once warned me of the unreliability of decision-making by numbers: data would have predicted Seabiscuit to sell 4,000 copies to the people who buy horse books on Amazon. Instead, it sold in the millions. Only an editor with taste and imagination could have told you that.

These conversations were on my mind in September, when I attended a half-day of presentations at the Nielsen Children’s Book Summit with that question I had put to Simon Kuper years earlier still fresh in mind: what can data tell us in publishing?

In their report on the 2014 children’s book market, most of Nielsen’s findings confirmed what intuition would already have told someone in publishing: that young readers are an increasingly diverse bunch in a changing, multicultural America; that the juvenile market is stable and extremely healthy. Jo Henry, Nielsen’s vice president of insights and analytics, presented a fascinating but familiar panel on the composition of readers based on Nielsen’s Books & Consumers project, which captures more than 70,000 unique book buyers annually. Her finding was that about 20-25% of children tracked in the report are “avid readers,” while most others are “social omnivores” who occasionally buy books to keep up with their peers but tend to consume lots of other media as well.

That is intuitive. A small but passionate minority of young people and adults alike prefer reading over other forms of entertainment, self-identify as book people, and spend more on books per capita than other groups. Most other book purchases seem to be motivated by something like “fear of missing out,” or the desire to be socially current. In what may be a common experience, while growing up I watched my parents buy one new book a year, usually an atrociously written but bestselling novel that sat on the coffee table and never, ever got read. It is thus amusing to think of the vast numbers of poorly- or non-read book sales that pad the statistics of bestselling authors.

For all that was familiar at this year’s Nielsen Children’s Book Summit, some of the insights presented on the day qualify as true bombshell revelations. In the “State of the Industry” address from Nielsen President Jonathan Nowell, here were the top five findings, all of which would have been impossible to grasp by impression alone:

  1. 80% of YA novels are now purchased by adults, with the vast majority of those purchases being for the adults themselves;
  2. Seventeen of twenty of the top-selling titles on Nielsen Bookscan in 2014 (tracked through 11/23/14) were juvenile books. Of these, most were movie tie-in editions (e.g., The Fault in Our Stars), media licenses (e.g., Frozen), or book products (e.g., Minecraft).
  3. The children’s/YA market in 2014 represented 36% of the overall print market, slightly smaller than the adult nonfiction market but slightly bigger than the adult fiction market, according to Nielsen data.
  4. The average price of a children’s book has not gone up since 2002. Nowell quoted Mathew Lyons in The Bookseller: “A good book represents absurdly good value for money…If you buy someone a book as a present, you can spend nearly as much on wrapping paper and a card as on the book itself.”
  5. Juvenile e-book sales declined by 1.4m units in 2014-2015. They represent no more than 15% of the 0-12 market and 26% of the YA market, according to Nielsen data.

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Taken together, Nowell’s presentation made the remarkable claim that the children’s book market is the key to understanding the book market as a whole, now and in future: print is strong, e-books are flat, publishers are benefiting greatly from increased savvy with movie tie-ins, media licenses, and backlist. In the “bookstore of the future,” according to Nowell, children’s books will be displayed in the front of the store rather than in hard-to-find side sections.

It’s not my intention here to dwell on the individual findings above, but taking these points as broadly true and supported by research that at the moment, at least, is unchallenged, we begin to see some troubling implications for the children’s and YA author and agent community.

To understand the problems of a professional kidlit author in 2015 in light of Nielsen’s data, we first need to grasp the underlying assumption of all juvenile publishing, which is the primacy of audience. Children’s books are the only type of literature defined by their audience, and it is never possible to forget this as an artist or writer in the children’s category, because the imagination and inner landscape of your readers — whether toddler, child, or teen — impose strict discipline on the forms of storytelling available to you. In theory you could write a seventeen-page digression on the nihilism of Western culture in the middle of a picture book, but because of your audience, you don’t.

But audience is also the implicit reason for the underlying economic structure of children’s books: shorter page counts, lower price points, smaller advances, lesser royalty shares. Since we assume a young person is reading a YA novel, it tends to run about 50,000 words and retails for $16.99 in hardcover, with the author’s royalty starting at 10% (or $1.69 per book) and at some point rising to 12.5% ($2.12). Compare to an adult author’s novel which is perhaps slightly longer but retails for $27 in hardcover, generally commands a higher advance, and earns around $4 per book at the top royalty escalation of 15%. Take that math and multiply it over thousands of books across the entire industry, and that seemingly minor difference in price point and top royalty — between $2 and $4 in author take-home — starts to feel like fate. Write for young people, and you are worth half as much as a peer writing for adults.

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Publishing data by itself doesn’t have the power to “speak”: numbers sit on an excel sheet, or on a computer screen, and they require someone versed in publishing culture to get a feel for what they might mean. At the Nielsen summit, I puzzled over a series of tensions unique to juvenile publishing: children’s books have lasting value and many become evergreens — but they retail for a song. The children’s market is economically defined as a niche area of publishing — except it rivals the size of adult fiction and nonfiction. YA authors consciously shape their work toward young audiences — but teens are now a small minority of their actual readers. And authors for young readers tend to promote year-round through school visits and relentless social media engagement, contributing more to their publishers’ bottom line — but they take home lesser royalty shares than their adult counterparts. Isn’t it time, as an industry, to reckon with these contradictions?

Any call for change from agents must take into account the problems publishers face. As Andrew Wylie argued in a highly publicized speech at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto last year, publishers are dealing with a retail landscape imbalanced by the size and strength of Amazon, and publishers’ unfavorable deal with e-book retailers, which gives away 30% off the top of each sale, is going to prevent any large-scale reckoning with the present advance and royalty system. As PW reported Wylie’s comment, “the figure [30%] could have been zero because without the content supplied by publishers, Amazon’s devices are ‘useless pieces of high grade plastic.’” Until publishers are able to do business on an even footing with a variety of well-behaved retail partners, major changes to industry standard terms may be on hold.

In the meantime, though, we who work in juvenile publishing should consider making the following changes to current business practices, which will not hurt our business and may in fact help it:

  • Higher price points for YA. We’ve been laboring under the illusion that our readers are twelve- and fourteen-year-olds, when many of them are in fact in their twenties, thirties, and forties. We should thus experiment with higher price points, because adults are used to spending more on books. $19.99 for frontlist hardcovers and $11.99 for paperbacks, particularly for bestsellers, would be a conservative starting point. That change would enlarge publishers’ revenue, and throw off royalties closer to $3 in hardcover and closer to $1 in paperback for YA authors.
  • Revise starting royalty structures for YA titles. YA publishers should begin using the standard adult royalty structure for their books: 10% on the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5,000 copies, and 15% thereafter for hardcover books, trade paperback royalty rates of straight 7.5%, and mass market royalty rates that start at 8% and escalate to 10%. The current e-book rate of 25% of net proceeds should be revisited when the bookselling landscape finds its balance and e-book market share settles.
  • Address self-promotion in contracts. On the topic of promotion: the current boilerplate language in publishing contracts is “two weeks reasonable efforts.” That bears little resemblance to the actual work children’s authors are putting into the promotion of their books, fueled by the almost evangelical desire to reach young audiences. If publishers want authors tweeting, Facebook-ing, creating free “content,” touring and school-visiting year-round, we need to find language making clear the publishers’ corresponding obligations in support of these efforts, as well as to define limits and boundaries which authors cannot be expected to exceed.

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For a long time now, Nielsen’s BookScan service has been an impediment to authors, a stated rationale for reduced advances or rejected option books as publishers looked up numbers and chose to see not where that author might be going but the often-damning evidence of the writer’s “track” behind them. We finally have a chance to use Nielsen’s data to help authors. The children’s and YA market is stable, print-centric, thriving, and patronized by large numbers of well-funded adults who have become hooked on their entertaining story lines and redemptive messages. In making the above changes to their contracts, publishers would reward the hardest-working and most reader-focused segment of our industry, and add to their own bottom lines. That would be a happy ending for any adult or children’s book.

About Stephen Barbara

Stephen Barbara is a literary agent with InkWell Management in Manhattan.

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Comments

  1. “Two weeks reasonable efforts”??? As the indie published author of a children’s play, a mere fortnight doesn’t sound like enough time to spread the word about a new book. I’ve been marketing my book for two MONTHS. I feel lazy because I gave myself a break and didn’t tweet out an ad for my book today. The other indie authors I know are putting forth a similar amount of effort.

  2. These stats are really interesting. I was especially surprised that the e-book market for juvenile books went down in 2014-2015. That runs counter to everything we always hear about e-books taking over the world.

  3. Thank you, Stephen. Very enlightening, indeed. I hope you will be leading the charge toward rectifying this. Good luck and thank you for speaking out!

  4. Fascinating to me (but not surprising) that adults are buying the YA books. Like in so many things – we don’t want to pay any more than necessary and completely disconnect our actions with the ramifications it has on the very people we admire and hope to support (authors). I was REALLY happy to see that ebooks are not booming as was predicted. I think we underestimate young readers time and again. They like a book in their hands – they spend too many of their hours staring at screens. I think adults are buying YA precisely because it is such a great deal – the quality of the writing and the complexity of the stories has only gone up. Who doesn’t love a bargain? Nice piece. Made me think.

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