Picture books are so unpopular these days at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., that employees there are used to placing new copies on the shelves, watching them languish and then returning them to the publisher.
“So many of them just die a sad little death, and we never see them again,” said Terri Schmitz, the owner.
The shop has plenty of company. The picture book, a mainstay of children’s literature with its lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket, has been fading. It is not going away — perennials like the Sendaks and Seusses still sell well — but publishers have scaled back the number of titles they have released in the past several years, and booksellers say sales have been suffering.
The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first-graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.
“Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda, the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.”
Booksellers see this shift, too.
Many publishers have gradually reduced the number of picture books they produce for a market that has seen a glut of them, and in an age when very young children, like everyone else, have more options, a lot of them digital, to fill their entertainment hours.
At Scholastic, 5 percent to 10 percent fewer hardcover picture books have been published over the past three years. Don Weisberg, president of the Penguin Young Readers Group, said that 2 1/2 years ago, the company began publishing fewer titles but that it had devoted more attention to marketing and promoting the ones that remain. Of all the children’s books published by Simon & Schuster, about 20 percent are picture books, down from 35 percent a few years ago.
Classic books like “Goodnight Moon” and the “Eloise” series still sell steadily, alongside more modern popular titles like the “Fancy Nancy” books and “The Three Little Dassies” by Jan Brett.
Borders, noticing the sluggish sales, has tried to encourage publishers to lower the list prices, which can be as high as $18. Mary Amicucci, vice president of children’s books for Barnes & Noble, said sales began a steady decline about a year ago.