‘Golden age’ of UK children’s books bucks falling sales and print runs

Sales of children’s literature across all formats – hardback, paperback and ebook – rose to £349m in 2014, a rise of 11% on the previous year

Children’s literature has become the most successful outpost of the British publishing industry, bucking the trend of declining sales and falling print runs.

Children’s books
Children’s books

Sales of children’s books across all formats – hardback, paperback and ebook – rose to £349m in 2014, a rise of 11% on the previous year, according to industry data published this week. Exports of UK-published children’s books did even better, rising 28% to £102m, said the Publishers Association. According to the trade body, 2014 was the best year for children’s literature since 2007 – when the final Harry Potter novel hit the shelves.

“This is a golden age of children’s literature,” said Dawn Finch, the fantasy author. “I’ve never seen such a steady flow of extraordinary fiction for younger readers, and children are far more prepared to read longer and more challenging material.”

John Dougherty, whose books include Stinkbomb & Ketchup Face, thinks publishers are more prepared “to take a punt” on edgier, riskier works in the children’s genre. “A lot of British authors are very ahead of the curve and British publishers have taken risks.”

The 2014 bestseller list for print was dominated by children’s books, with seven out of ten titles aimed at children and young people. Topping the list was The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s tale of a love affair between two teenage cancer patients. The book, which was turned into a Hollywood film and sold more than 900,000 print copies in the UK last year.

Filling out the top 10 were no fewer than four books dedicated to Minecraft – the computer game that allows players to create worlds from building blocks. The Minecraft books sold more than 1.8m copies in the UK last year.

In second place was David Walliams’s Awful Auntie, while Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpey Kid also made the top 10. Both titles outsold the biggest-selling adult fiction titles of that year: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Dan Brown’s Inferno.

The strength of children’s literature is a huge boost for the publishing industry, which is grappling with the shift to e-readers and the closure of high street book shops.

Aside from textbooks, children’s literature is the only part of the book market where sales of paper books are still rising: hardback and paperback sales were up 10% last year, compared to an industry wide decline of 5%.

“There is a reaction among parents to the all pervasiveness of digital and social media,” said Philip Jones, editor of trade magazine the Bookseller. “We want to give our kids something paper-based because we spend so much time looking at screens.”

Although nearly three quarters of households own a tablet computer, relatively few children use the devices for reading. Only 23% of children use tablets to read books, while 84% use them mostly for playing games.

Even the savviest new media stars are fans of the printed page. When YouTube vlogger Zoe Sugg, better known as Zoella, decided to experiment with fiction, she went to traditional publisherPenguin to produce Girl Online, a 352-page hardback book.

Teen readers “seem to value the ownership of physical things”, said Jones. “It is almost something they want to keep and possess as a piece of memorabilia.”

The success of children’s literature also reflects the popularity of cult series, such as the Hunger Games and Twilight, which attract huge numbers of adult readers. Industry experts estimate that around 62% of young adult fiction is bought for over-18s.

But children’s writing may not have a happy ending for everyone. Like the rest of the book market, some insiders fear that children’s literature is moving to a winner-takes-all model, where a few big-name authors become richer, while most see their incomes squeezed by relentless discounting.

“There has been a noticeable decline in people’s income. People are struggling a lot more than they used to,” said Jo McCrum, assistant chief executive at the Society of Authors, which represents around 1,000 children’s writers and illustrators. She said that discount sales through Amazon and the supermarkets are putting downward pressure on incomes, while publishers are paying less attention to the “mid-list” – writers with more modest sales.

“Everybody I know who has been in the game for a long time says it is harder and harder to make a living,” said Dougherty, who published his first book 11 years ago. Although he makes a living from writing and related activities, he said he feels he is living on a knife-edge. Heavy discounting has taken its toll: “[Some people] slightly begrudge £6 or £7 on a paperback when they spend that on a couple of coffees.”

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