Thursday, September 24, 2009

Children's Book Publishing in a Digital Age

It is interesting to read the recent article in PW about the US forum held by the Children’s Book Council on “The Current State of E: Publishing in the Digital Age,” and also to note that The Bookseller is to hold a similar event on 1st October.

Digital children’s publishing is a difficult genre. After all there are significant differences between the needs of the various age groups. The infant is learning to read in basic steps and needs lots of images to help them, they are also read to by guardians which changes the dynamics of the experience to one that is shared.

Illustrations and graphics are important in these formative years and the stories or texts are often short and certainly the pages are full of colour. As the child develops and starts to read to themselves then the stories get longer and the need for graphics diminishes until they reach an age when pure textural stories take over and they are able to form their own images. Children’s book buying also changes over the development of the child where initially the books are bought by others to a stage where they are chosen and eventually bought by the child and even driven by peer groups. The age of the reading group also demands many similar changes over the creative, editorial, production development period which all can impact the content, the packaging, the marketing, selling and the way the work is read.

So having stated the obvious, how does digital impact children’s publishing? What should publishers be considering today and what is likely to happen moving forward into this Brave New World?

Publishing is a rights business and children’s publishing has had a potential wide usage of rights. After all, we can all picture images from our childhood, many of which had associated merchandising. Some were lucky to transform onto the small screen and some even the big screen. The classic rights rule of acquire wide and use narrow is never more true than in children’s books. It is likely to even be more important in the digital world where digital games, animation, graphics, video is no longer a skill of the few but open to all and the ability to exploit rights very easy. We also live in a global networked economy and although the words may change, the images may remain the same, or visa versa and digital technology can often now transform content and associated materials in a click.

The work itself is no longer straight jacketed between two pieces of stiff card. Publishers may not want to be the experts in technology but they now have to manage diverse technology and its interaction with content. We have often wondered which the more valuable asset the image is and artwork or the text and the story. Both go hand in hand and the lower the age group the more the balance. It is not just a case of capturing and developing digital content but managing it as digital assets that can be repurposed many ways. Publishers now must consider the interaction with the reader that digital offers and manage multiple user offers. There is also the question of whether the child can customise the work and ‘own’ it in a way that increases the value to them.

We all remember the books we experienced and enjoyed and often want to share these with our own children. However, like most books they go out of print and over a generation they can become orphans. The author’s rights may revert but the illustrator was fee based and remains tethered to the publisher or can be reverted but is separate to the work. As more and more digitisation exposes the potential wealth of the out of print world then the children’s market is one that offers huge potential. The books may require re editing to survive the politically correct world we now have to conform to but the material is an Aladdin’s cave as it is already known to many parents.

Marketing children’s books is about exciting parents and children. It isn’t about catalogues and dry AI sheets but about creating something that grabs the bookseller, the parent and the child’s attention. Publisher may create digital marketing material to sell physical books and never create a digital rendition and there is nothing wrong with that approach. Marketing widgets need to be two page spreads, support full colour and contain a wealth of support material and extras. They challenge is to get them in front of the buyer and not the store buyer but the consumer buyer. We should also recognise that the child, until they are old enough, will care less about the author or the illustrator but care a lot about the characters and getting closer to them.

Then there is the new laws on safety and whether the child is exposed to lead, danger etc. These would make you think digital could re introduce the sizzle that may be lost soon.

Finally anyone who believes that the digital ebook readers in there current form pass the test are mad. Its asking a child who is familiar with the internet, games machines, HD Television to go back to watching black and white TV. eInk is not just inappropriate in this sector it dies in this sector. Even in school it fails to even come close to the benchmark and publisher here must think as a child not as the devices manufactures wish them to think. Also here we must recognise that children do not have the most expensive smartphones but often the more practical and cheaper mobile. They do all have, or increasingly all have access to PCs, laptops etc.

This brings us back to the original article on the US forum. As reported it appeared to be more of a sales pitch by technology and channel providers than a serious look at the digital opportunities, trends and landscape that is children’s publishing. The US speakers included Follett Digital Resources, Ingram Digital, OverDrive, ScrollMotion. It is also interesting to note that the UK speakers come from Nielsen BookScan the BA children's bookselling chair, Scholastic Children's Books, and the panels includes Tesco, BCA, Bounce Sales & Marketing, Gardners, Penguin , PatandPals and TIGA, the national trade association that represents game developers in the UK and Europe.


Erin said...

Storybird is doing some interesting things in terms of digital storytelling for, and by, kids.
(I'm not affiliated with them; I just like the concept and execution.) :)

JS Huntlands said...

J. S. Huntlands author of 'Nick Twisted Minds' and 'Me and My Best Friend' with 27 books coming out over the next few years is now said to be one of the top 50 authors....