|Reaching the heart of a child
|Written by LESLIE SANTAMARIA
|Tuesday, 13 May 2014 04:43 PM America/New_York
Publishers aim to maximize value for today’s children’s book shopper
Recent news reports tout an economic upturn and growing consumer optimism, but Christian retailers still see customers spending cautiously and motivated by value. This includes, of course, parents and grandparents—the primary buyers of children’s products.
Harold Herring, owner of The Christian Soldier Bookstore in Goldsboro, N.C., sees customers’ spending changing a little.
“Generally,” he said, “people are coming in more interested in the product, although price is still important.”
At Prestonwood Kidz Bookstore on the main campus of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, Kelly Graham Flores, manager and buyer, had a similar observation.
“My customers want products that are a good value, for sure, but I don’t think price is the only thing that matters,” Flores said.
“Post-recession, we’ve talked about the ‘value-driven customer,’ ” explained children’s market expert Mary Manz Simon. “That usually references great prices. However, there are many forms of value, and consumers of children’s Christian products are looking for content with relevance.”
For Herring’s customers, this is more than simply adding graphics to a book.
“It must be content that increases the buyer’s perceived value of the product,” he said.
The children’s books, Bibles and devotionals Herring’s store sells most are visual and deliver a combination of “learning, creativity and imagination,” he said. “When a product has all of that, it’s a winner.”
“A strong story and message are always going to provide the underlying value of the book, but we can then build on that through engaging illustrations and product features,” said Peggy Schaefer, publisher at Ideals. “The reality is that children today are bombarded with all kinds of multifeatured media selections, so adding a little interactivity to a book can give it added value.”
The latest trends in children’s publishing reveal that companies are offering value in various ways, leveraging established brands and new partnerships, and providing content kids and their parents appreciate.
Special features publishers incorporate into kids’ products abound, including flaps, cutouts, removable activities, video and pens. In the general market, some items in the children’s book section are actually hybrids, sometimes termed “book-toys.” The My Little Pony brand’s “My Busy Books” each includes a storybook, a dozen figurines and a playmat.
Annette Bourland, senior vice president and group publisher at Zonderkidz, reported that “novelty or ‘value add’ type products are on the upswing in all markets for children. … Our team is looking to be innovative and creative when it comes to incorporating interactive elements. Books are more than just bound pages.”
At Zonderkidz, such elements include stickers, charms, play components and free covers with some storybook Bibles. Yet features can be costly, adding to the tension between price and the “wow” factor.
“We’re constantly balancing the cost versus the consumer value of the product,” Schaefer said. “We publish a number of sound books [such as VeggieTales’ God Is Bigger Than the Boogie Man, October], for example, that can be expensive to produce, so we need to be sure that the content is of value and that the product specs are of the highest quality possible.”
Bind-ups provide a cost-effective solution that adds value. These story collections offer multiple books in one package. The Berenstain Bears bind-ups from Zonderkidz include five 8-by-8-inch titles for $10.99 retail, whereas the individual price is $3.99 each.
Activity and sticker books such as My Very First Noah and the Ark Sticker Book from Kregel Publications continue to line store shelves.
“The fun art and affordable prices have made these a popular option for parents shopping at Christian bookstores,” said Noelle Pedersen, Kregel’s manager of trade and children’s lines.
Even as Christian publishers add special features, the main focus continues to be on the story and message of each book.
Schaefer cites Ideals’ new sticker and activity book format, in which the Christmas, Easter and other Bible stories are told.
“The activities add a layer of interest for kids, but the underlying story and illustrations can be returned to again and again,” she said.
Publishers often look to authors with proven track records to create new titles. Several such authors have crossed store aisles into the kids’ department as well.
“For the last couple of years, best-selling authors of adult titles have been dropping into the kid space,” said Simon, who not only tracks trends in society, education and product development that impact children, but also identifies related implications and applications.
“Consumers tend to gravitate to the authors or brands they are familiar with,” Bourland said. “From there, they will venture to new things. Being able to draw a consumer in with a recognizable name is one step to discoverability.”
In October, AMG Publishers, which provides a number of fantasy series for readers ages 8-12 and 13-17, participates in this trend with the release of The Gifted, the first installment in the “Daegmon War” series by Matthew Dickerson.
B&H Kids is once again partnering with author Angie Smith and illustrator Breezy Brookshire, who created the best-selling picture book Audrey Bunny, for a Bible storybook. For Such a Time as This tells the stories of 40 women of the Bible with period-authentic illustrations, and will be available in October.
Publishers also are releasing youth editions of best-selling titles. Here, the same author or a different one might write the children’s version. Barbour Publishing’s 2-million-copy-selling handbook Know Your Bible by Paul Kent has been extended with three kids’ products by Donna K. Maltese. These resources help readers ages 5-8 understand the Bible with age-appropriate text and colorful illustrations. The third, Know Your Bible for Kids: What Is That?, releases in July.
Brand recognition can further span categories through partnerships. A brand with a strong following can be licensed for products for additional audiences, extending its reach and life.
“Big revenue comes from licensing, so licenses are dominant,” Simon said. “Of course, the benefit of licenses is that multiple categories benefit from cross-format awareness. … Any advertising or media mention of one product is a brand reminder for consumers and retailers. This cross-pollination reaches children and the adults who make purchase decisions.”
The folks at Duck Commander have taken to licensing as a duck to water with agreements galore in the Christian products industry. The dynasty dips into middle-grade fiction with a series releasing in October from Tyndale. Written by Willie and Korie’s son, John Luke Robertson (with Travis Thrasher), each book takes readers into the zaniness and life lessons of Duck Commander and allows readers to choose how the story develops.
In each book is a note from John Luke “highlighting the theme of the book and making it applicable to today’s youth and choices they have to make,” said Patton, who expects adult fans of A&E’s Duck Dynasty will enjoy the books too.
The Beginner’s Bible is a longstanding Zonderkidz brand that the HarperCollins Christian Publishing team has licensed for products such as sticker books, puzzles, figurines and ornaments. In partnership with Crayola, DaySpring used the Color Wonder technology to create The Beginner’s Bible Color Wonder Coloring Pad and many other products.
In fiction and nonfiction, young readers want subject matter they can relate to—topics, stories and characters that accurately reflect their daily lives. And parents want content that aligns with their values for their kids.
B&H Kids aims to include content in all of its books that appeals to children and parents.
“Our books are each based on a teaching from the Bible and include a Bible verse,” said Rachel Shaver, marketing strategist at B&H Kids. “A Parent Connection is also available for each of our children’s books.”
The Parent Connection gives parents ways to connect with their kids and to dig deeper into the gospel together.
This fall, B&H Kids will release Catie Conrad by Angie Spady as part of the “Desperate Diva Diaries” series, which provides “a healthy alternate for middle-reader fiction that parents can trust and not worry about the content being inappropriate inside,” Shaver said.
Spady “has a heart for teaching girls not to get caught up in culture, but to look to Christ for a healthy perspective to life,” Shaver added.
Thomas Nelson “is dedicated to researching trends among children and families and creating products that will reach them where they are and meet needs in their lives,” said MacKenzie Howard, acquisitions editor of children’s and gift books.
The marketing team engages moms through the Tommy Nelson mommy blogger program and social networking to stay informed of market needs.
Likewise, Barbour Publishing seeks to connect with kids on their own turf.
“We aim for each product to reach kids with the gospel message while touching on topics that matter most to them—and if our kids’ products can entertain along the way, even better!” said Kelly McIntosh, vice president of editorial.
McIntosh refers to the practice among girls ages 10-14 of keeping diaries as a way to explore what is important to them. Barbour’s upcoming addition to the God Hearts Me” line, God Hearts Me: My Secret Diary (July), is a contemporary alternative to the traditional diary format, giving girls space for writing, sketching and doodling.
One serious concern many children face is bullying.
“The perennial social politics of middle school and junior high have shifted to a deeper level with sometimes tragic consequences,” Simon observed.
Christian publishers are eager to address bullying and exclusion from a biblical perspective. Best-selling children’s author Nancy Rue tackles the topic in the first book of her “Mean Girl Makeover” series, So Not Okay (Thomas Nelson). Rue handles the subject “with both grace and humor without making light of what is a very serious situation,” Howard said.
Runt is a character who faces bullying in Daniel Schwabauer’s “Legend of Tira-Nor” series for middle readers. One theme in the second book, Runt the Hunted (Living Ink/AMG Publishers, April), is the pecking order among children, which can be a type of bullying.
Dale Anderson, vice president and publisher at AMG, said the Runt books address issues middle-graders might not normally talk about and give parents opportunities to encourage their kids to talk about what’s going on at school.
For the picture-book crowd, Tyndale House Publishers handles the topic in My Princesses Learn to Be Brave, part of the “My Princess” series. Releasing in September, the story by Stephanie Rische tells of two girls who face a bully at the slide and use a Bible lesson to figure out how to respond.
An emerging value among parents, which Simon identified, is that of co-play and bonding with extended family.
“We’ve moved beyond the smaller nuclear grouping to include others in the ‘momtourage’: aunts and uncles, neighbors, friends who are like family, etc.,” she said. “At Toy Fair in New York City [in February], companies consistently positioned themselves as family companies, instead of children’s companies.”
Herring observes this value in his store.
“We sell a lot of interactive devotionals like Ergermeier’s Fun Family Devotions [Warner Press, 2013],” he said. “Devotionals work well when the whole family can work together.”
Reader comments on Amazon related to Annie Tipton’s “Diary of a Real Payne” series (Barbour) for 8- to 12-year-olds reflect this value. A substantial number of commenters indicate the whole family reads these books aloud together. The last installment, Diary of a Real Payne—Oh Baby!, releases in September.
For many middle grade and young adult readers, not all relevancy will come from the books, but from interacting with the books’ authors. Anderson reported that the books that do the best for AMG are by authors “who get out and embrace social media and market and communicate with readers.
Simon refers to information as “social currency” for children and moms. For buyers, knowledge is also empowering and fosters the retailer-consumer relationship.
“When we close the gap between presenting product and showing consumers how to use the product, that adds another type of value,” Simon said. “For example, every single retailer can offer practical tips on their website of ‘How to choose a children’s Bible.’ Every single publisher can provide retailers with video loops to run in-store and online that show a parent what to look for in toy and game packaging.”
Retailers who work at informing buyers set themselves apart from competition. Online connections can draw buyers into the store where face-to-face assistance, coupled with informative product labeling and in-store aids could keep them returning.
One way publishers could provide buyers with information is by utilizing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, corestandards.org) that had been adopted by 44 states at press time. The politically charged initiative is one that divides publishers and retailers alike.
As an early-childhood educator, Simon has worked with the standards and is eager to establish the facts.
“CCSS are milestones in English language arts and math that a child should reach, beginning with kindergarten,” she said. “The goal is to make sure all students have the basic skills to succeed in life.”
Simon expects Common Core to stimulate the production of more nonfiction material, particularly in higher grades.
“Because nonfiction reading is emphasized in the standards, CBA publishers have an opportunity to expand reach into the education marketplace, if they so choose,” she said.
In Texas, Flores’ customers are showing an increased interest in educational products on topics like history and science.
Even Christian publishers not in the educational market can apply the standards in ways that help consumers.
Zonderkidz indicates on back covers and in catalogs where books align with standards and publishes a quarterly Common Core Newsletter.
“Our goal in providing resources that align with [CCSS] is simply about engagement and offering those who support the standards alternative materials,” Bourland said. “We want Christian products to be in the mix when gatekeepers are looking for resources. … These titles are very much in line with our company mission, so whether people support the standards or not, our titles are great resources.”
Most publishers appear to be neutral so far, mainly because they simply don’t know yet how best to respond. McIntosh expects CCSS to be “a point of discussion in the coming months” at Barbour Publishing.
At Ideals, Schaefer reported “ongoing discussions around Common Core, but we haven’t really integrated it into our publishing program yet.”
Patton said the team at Tyndale is actively “looking for the best ways to communicate this information to parents, teachers and librarians.”
Back at the store, Herring said CCSS is not yet an issue. He’s aware of the standards, but not hearing his customers discuss them. He added that Common Core might be more of a factor in homeschooling supplies.
“We aren’t into politics,” Bourland said. “We simply want to provide resources, in any manner, that further the kingdom of God.”