It’s been an unusual year.
Granted, such statements deserve to be met with a raised eyebrow and a nomination for Understatement of the Decade, but 2020 could have been a bad year for books. The Creative Industries have been hit hard, with many businesses forced to either adapt or close their doors indefinitely (some permanently). Book releases, tours, and opportunities to engage with readers were dropped suddenly into dark, uncertain waters.
But judging by the hope and positivity that graced The Bookseller Children’s Conference (which had shifted successfully to a virtual setting) at the start of this month, this was a time when the children’s publishing industry started swimming. Inclusivity, collaboration, and hope were the key words of the week, and in a world that seemed stranger than before, these words became beacons by which the industry could see where it needed to expand, improve, and adapt.
The positive results showed themselves in the numbers: Keira O’Brien, charts and data analyst for the Bookseller, stated that, since bookshops reopened in June, there had been a 13.4% increase year-on-year in the number of books sold—a third of those were children’s books. In the weeks leading up to lockdown, there was the expected upsurge in educational materials as families prepared for home-schooling, but post-lockdown figures showed increases for children’s fiction (+2.1% in both value and volume YOY), children’s non-fiction (+30% in volume and +28% in value YOY), and YA fiction (+23% in volume and a whopping +43% in value YOY, although this has been attributed to new releases from YA big-names Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins).
The effect of lockdown on young readers was a significant talking point. How are children faring in these extraordinary times? How can the industry respond to their experiences in a way that was relevant? As we saw in the figures, people were making the effort to visit bookshops again, with fresh enthusiasm. Something was working in the way publishers were engaging with their readers.
In his presentation, James Erskine, Managing Director of Rocket, outlined several methods of rethinking marketing and publicity to children. As a content business with a focus on young audiences, Rocket commissioned research about responses to lockdown, finding that 62% of children felt “bored”, 38% were “worried”, and a heart-breaking 81% “missed their friends”.
Erskine emphasised the importance of how booksellers and content creators should be creating positive experiences that are “likely to incentivise the children into engaging with the story and brand”. This included making sure children had a starring role in their campaigns—their infectious enthusiasm shone in the ‘Little Shots’ videos—and that children were reached on the platforms they used—Generation Alpha being technology-immersed, popular formats included podcasts, games, and TikTok videos. Not only did these provide that “incentivising” element, but also the communal feel that surely benefited that 81% who felt apart from their friends.
It seems the positive results come from refusing to see young readers as numbers. They are children first, consumers second. It will be interesting to see if these marketing methods continue into the post-COVID world, especially if reading now has a refreshed place among children and families—after all, anything to bring us a little closer together is surely worth investing in.