We recently had our Family Day long weekend, and the Beloved and I spent some of it at the home of his sister. She’s the mother of a toddler and a newborn, and while we were visiting, the subject of books came up. I enjoyed having the opportunity to pick the brain of a parent on this particular subject. (What did this mom think were the biggest mistakes children’s book publishers are making? What does she look for when she shops for her kids?)

Some of her comments surprised me.

1. Children’s Book Advertising

Why aren’t they doing this? That was her biggest question. When her toddler watches the occasional DVR’ed kids show, there are tons of ads—some geared to kids (toys, food products), and some geared to parents (stores, health items and so on).

Why are there no commercials for books? She’s never seen one. Of course, her child does ask for things he sees on television. Maybe books would be more successful, she surmised, if they were advertised the same way as other products made for children.

2. Special Promotions

Why aren’t they doing this, either? Another troubling lack she pointed out to me was sloppy marketing. She just picked up Alligator Pie to read with her two-year-old, and it was a special anniversary edition re-issue. Why didn’t the bookstore have a display for this? Why weren’t they trumpeting this special release?

Books are a kid purchase more often initiated by parents. Shouldn’t a nostalgia purchase—a special re-issue of a book the parent might have enjoyed as a child themselves—be heavily pushed at them?

3. Parent Power

I touched upon this above from a marketing standpoint, but it bears repeating on the content front as well: The younger the child, the more likely it is that the book was chosen and purchased by a parent. So the content needs to move beyond television tie-in stuff.

The Beloved’s sister admits she doesn’t buy as many books for her kids as maybe she should, but she also complains that much of the ‘modern’ content is simply unappealing to her. “The old stuff, the stuff we read when we were kids, is better,” she told me. Maybe the publishers are happy to just keep collecting a royalty for Alligator Pie until the end of time; it’s not for me to say. But it’s clear that the media tie-in content doesn’t speak to every parent.

4. The Power of Book Discovery

As a teacher, I have access to different discovery channels than she does, and I do know that there are books—good ones—still being published which are not just media tie-ins. But obviously, this news isn’t reaching regular parents like her.

Thomas the Tank Engine costume for toddlersAside from her own childhood favorites, she may occasionally buy her son a book he especially enjoyed at his preschool program. But beyond that, she simply didn’t know there was anything else out there. She had dismissed modern children’s book publishing as nothing but a sales engine for Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine.

How can publishers of quality stuff reach people like her? Goodreads? Amazon? Is this an area where in-store retail might still have a foothold?

I don’t know the answers to some of these questions. And it may well be the case that there are several good answers for different types of customers. But I do think it’s clear that there is a promotion gap, and perhaps an information gap, too. There’s certainly room for improvement.

Customers are willing to spend in the children’s book category. Indeed, the primary feeling she has about children’s books is guilt—guilt that maybe she isn’t reading to them enough.

A smart publisher—a smart marketer—can sell to a customer like that! So … why aren’t they?