Milk, Bananas, Scotch Tape and Harry
Potter: Retailing Children’s Books
By Paul A. Paterson
Once the exclusive domain of booksellers, consumers can now find children's
literature almost everywhere, from grocery stores to mass-market retailers.
While opinions differ on when and why this trend began, there is even
more disagreement on what it means to the children's book industry.
"Books being sold outside traditional bookstores has had a huge
impact on the market," said Carol Fitzgerald, co-founder and president
of The Book Report Network, a series of book-related
websites, including one on juvenile fiction aimed at kids.
"In the price clubs, books are not displayed. They are piled onto
tables," Fitzgerald explained. "And they are being sold without
the visual display afforded in traditional book buying locations. These
stores and Target and Wal-Mart have
made book buying easier for busy parents. Think about how these stores
stand as a one-stop destination for many products. And how easy it is
to add a book to the cart as you are shopping, instead of stopping in
yet another store to pick up a book.
Tessa Strickland and Nancy Traversy
Some in the publishing industry view this accessibility with cautious
"As books are made available to a broader audience, it's a good
thing," observed Nancy Traversy, president and founder of the children's
publisher Barefoot Books.
But others watch the encroachment of mass-market retailers with more
"It's definitely a trend that has several retailers worried, particularly
the large book retailers," agreed Jeff Abraham,
executive director of the Book Industry Study Group.
The issues raised by critics include the ability of mass marketers to
cut book prices to levels independent stores could never achieve. And
while the element of convenience is certainly a strong motivator for parents,
Fitzgerald believes buyers need to recognize that it comes at the price
The encroachment of mass-market retailers
is a trend that has children’s books retailers worried
"One drawback is that these stores often lack the depth and breadth
of the chain bookstore or the local independent," she said. "The
browsing experience is not as extensive as the choices are more edited.
It allows a smaller group of books to nail the kinds of success that authors
and publishers dream of."
Independent booksellers view this added competition as just a fact of
"It's been another way of chipping away at the market for us,"
said Anne Irish, executive director of the Association
of Booksellers for Children. "I think they usually only
carry the best sellers so we're pretty used to dealing with that, because
the Barnes and Nobles and Borders do that. I think they're competing more
with Barnes and Noble than with the independents."
For their part, mass-market retailers insist buying children's books
in larger chain stores is nothing new.
"We've been carrying children's book selections since before 1985,"
pointed out Karen Burk, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. "We
certainly understand the popularity of books with parents."
Thanks to a wider selection of available products than in traditional
bookstores, large retailers have more options for display and product
groupings to help drive sales.
"Many of these stores will have separate book and magazine sections,
while other smaller stores will have a book and magazine aisle,"
explained Burk. "You will see some cross-merchandising. You may see
the Harry Potter book in an area with Harry Potter merchandise,
and you might find a Spiderman coloring book where the Spiderman
By contrast, Irish says independent stores have been fighting fire with
fire for years, noting that her store has been stocking non-book items
since 1976, and many store owners are adopting bestseller discounts for
brand titles and authors to compete.
"They'll have a small group of best sellers that are discounted,"
she said, noting the different approach for book publishers makes large
price variations difficult. "Books are different than toys, in that
there is a fee scale that everybody fits into. You can elect to buy them
non-returnable for a large discount, and that's what the larger retailers
"In times like these, every publisher is looking
harder at their lists before they make acquisitions."
In spite of her concerns about selection in the larger stores, Fitzgerald
believes tha,t so far, it hasn't translated into a lack of selection for
consumers, with publishers choosing titles based on their mass-market
"In times like these, every publisher is looking harder at their
lists before they make acquisitions," she said. "Sure a market
like this may mean that gems never make it to the shelves, but looking
at the catalogs that we are seeing, and the collection of titles on our
book table at the office, we do not think there is a lack of selection."
At the end of the day, Irish isn't convinced the major retailers will
be a long-term player in the book selling game.
"I don't think they're making a whole lot of money on them, so the
jury is still out on that," she said. "They are trying to appeal
to a higher income range. That's why they put books in, because they appeal
to a higher-educated market and therefore a higher income market. It gives
them a classy air."