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?


  1. “She had dismissed modern children’s book publishing as nothing but a sales engine for Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine.”

    I know this is a little off topic, but it irks me that you use Thomas the Tank Engine in the way you do. Yes, the marketing engine that Thomas the Tank Engine has become is a mockery of its former self. But Thomas the Tank Engine originated in the Railway Series by Reverend Awdry (and in fact, Thomas was not even in the first book – he came along later). I had a hardcover collection of the original stories that I used to read to my oldest son when he was very young and it is a fine example of quality children’s literature – unlike the cartoon caricature that the new Thomas and Friends – influenced by TV, movies, and toys — now represents. We read every story in the collection until the binding started to disintegrate and the cover hung by a thread and it is nothing like the cartoon drivel that they spit out today.

    I understand the point you are trying to make but it seems to me in using Thomas to make it, you are discarding valuable literature by forgetting its origins and assuming what it is now is all it ever was. Like assuming Winnie the Pooh has never been anything but a Disney trademark. Better to use Spongebob or Dora or any Nickelodeon commodity to make the point you are trying to make.

  2. The most intelligent comment about getting kids to read came from the Washington Post Book World, circa the late 90s. It said the best way for kids to discover books is to have parents who read. If mom and dad are watching the boob tube, ads or promotions for books will be about as effecting as chasing the horizon. However, if the parents read regularly, then the kids will want to discover wants on the page. Finding this book or that will just happen. No marketing required.

  3. Of course your focus here is on pre-school reading but, once kids are going to school, one should expect to get recommendations from their child’s teacher and the school librarian. Indeed, most K-6 teacher preparation programs have a required course called “Children’s Literature” (kiddie lit for short). It would be interesting to read about what courses in kiddie lit are saying to future K-6 teachers these days. Anyone know?

  4. My nieces and nephew get suggestions from their teachers, and we talk about it. I take them to them bookstore when I can because they enjoy reading.

    One thing my elementary school did (and still does because that’s where my niece and nephew attend) is have a book fair and sell books to the kids through a flyer. There are probably 30 or so books in these sell sheets and the kids pick out the books they want. So, in this case, there is a definitely a tie-in from a retailer to get books in the hands of children.

  5. I have a couple of comments to add to this posting. Yes, I work in children’s publishing.
    1) Publishing margins are miniscule and children’s publishing margins are even more miniscule. There is no money to advertise on books, in videos and the like because most children’s publishers just don’t have the dough – unless they are Disney and the like. Let’s be honest – Disney’s not in the publishing business, it’s in the taking over childhood business any way it can across multiple platforms where it can cross-collateralize (is that even a word? not sure.) all its assets. Not its books, not its content, all its assets. A very different thing.
    2) A simple way of discovering books is to go to a children’s bookstore. There, you will find not only the comforting classics of your childhood (which too many people rely on, frankly), but can also be shown by someone who reads and who pays attention to what’s going on with kid’s books, what is new and what they might like.
    3) the same can be done with the children’s librarian in your local library or with a teacher-librarian in a school. If your sister in law lives in Canada, as you do, Joanna, she lives in a country with a thriving library culture. Toronto’s library system is near the top of the world in so many ways, but so are others in the country.
    4) Special promotions – publishers try those all the time, sometimes bookstores take advantage, sometimes not.

  6. Dear Joana, if you have a chance to do it, we invite to visit wwww.boolino.com

    We are creating a new channel where share recommendations, advertising, …and buy, if do you whish it, only for children book’s (Spanish market at this moment).

    Unfortunately not everybody has a bookshop specialized around the corner…at least in Spain.

  7. I have just begun releasing my first series of ebooks, audio books and original Sing-Along Songs out on iTunes after many years of quiet research, discussion, plus lots of listening and learning from teachers on what they felt to be the ‘real needs’ of today’s Children. Adding my own thoughts and feelings as a parent and also a Grandmother! I am convinced, without doubt, that the correct marketing of books is the treasure. But getting it right is the secret for which we all search.

  8. Frank, I loved my school librarian. She was the smartest woman in the world and that is why I became a librarian. But school libraries are among the first things cut in these troubled budget times. Relying on full-time, high quality school librarians is not a long term strategy.

    I live in a college town where learning and books are valued and we still have fulltime elementary school librarians, but this is not true where I grew up. Even here, independent bookstores don’t carry much for children (mostly the classics) or are closing, and Barnes and Noble is all-in for the Disney hyper machine.

    One resource I like for book recommendations is Jen Robinson’s book blog: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/ The lists in the right hand column are great summaries of the main review content.

  9. Thanks for mentioning my blog, Chris! I found your comment as I was working on a post inspired by this article: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2013/03/how-can-we-help-parents-to-find-quality-books-for-their-children.html. I’m trying to figure out how children’s book bloggers can help to solve this problem – to fill this gap that clearly many parents have in finding out about all of the wonderful books that are being published today. I don’t have the answer, but I am hoping to start a productive discussion. Thanks for providing such food for thought, Joanna!

  10. I came over here from Jen Robinson’s book page so obviously I am from the demographic that pays a lot of attention to books (in fact I’m a writer), not the demographic you are wondering how to reach.

    I have people all the time ask me to make suggestions for their kids. I can do so mostly because my own kids are big readers, so I go off of their favorites. The only thing I can think of to suggest for someone to go to in general, easily and on-line is Amazon: look up your favorite book, and look at the “also likes.” I wish I could say go to Barnes and Noble, but their algorithms just don’t work as well.

    It won’t give you perfect selections. It still requires that a parent make a concerted effort and as a parent myself I understand the issue of time. How to get this information to fall in their laps, so to speak, is still a puzzle.

  11. Please, if you care about the safety of children, please go to http://www.kidshaveavoice.com and purchase the book, “Saved by a Whistle.” It’s a well written story that kid’s will enjoy reading while learning valuable lessons about safety.

    I would appreciate it kindly if you would spread the word because, Every child has a right to live safe around the world. It’s just up to us to teach them.

    Thank you,

    Sonia Denice

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