Digital trends in Children’s Book Publishing

Miranda West, Children’s Editor, The Literary Platform

This year’s Bookseller Children’s Conference held on London’s South Bank got off to a buoyant start as Philip Stone, the Bookseller’s chart editor, blasted a newly-caffeinated audience with his impressive stats and a rather special game of author Top Trumps.  Compared to the broader industry, the children’s sector remains fairly robust with the big hitters – Donaldson, Walliams, Rowling, Morpurgo, Wilson, Kinney and Collins – all generating huge turnover. And that’s before the inevitable spike in sales in the run-up to Christmas.

First up was Roberta Chinni, project manager at the Bologna Book Fair, who talked about trends across the international market and reminded us that next year’s book fair -running 25-28 March 2013, with the Tools of Change conference taking place the day before – will celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Last year’s digital exhibition area proved so popular that it will be expanded next year. Ditto the response to the inaugural Bologna Ragazzi digital award of 2012. Due to the large number of submissions – 98% of which were on the iPad – more categories will be introduced next year, which could mean submissions across a wider range of platforms.

As the digital retail market continues to expand, it was heartening to hear from the bookshop and book buyer panel about some of the innovative ways they are engaging young customers. Whether it was the children’s book festival organised by the Tales on Moon Lane bookshop in Herne Hill – when renowned illustrators turned the shop into one BIG picture book – or the newly created kids section in the Westfield Stratford branch of Foyles with its flying books and magnetic walls, it reminded us all that children love to explore books.

Yet interestingly, the panel – which included Claudia Mody, children’s buyer at online retailer Red House books – were cautious when the discussion moved towards ebooks. All seemed to be waiting for the tipping point before selling ebooks through their channels. This sense of ‘wait and see’ was felt throughout the conference as the day progressed. Jill Coleman, MD at Little Tiger Press, was prepared to let the bigger players use their budgets for digital innovation. Speaking on behalf of many small to medium-sized publishers, she felt they simply do not have the funds to experiment and produce apps, etc, when the cost to do so remains prohibitively expensive.

What does seem to be happening is that publishers’ digital spend is going on marketing campaigns. This, along with hard graft and a work ethic than means no stone is left unturned, has meant that children’s books are reaching a mammoth audience through all manner of channels. Whether it’s Facebook ‘likes’ in their hundreds of thousands, or unlikely partnerships – such as Penguin’s presence on Photobox and Swapit.co.uk (a sort-of eBay for kids) when they launched Jeff Kinney’s latest Wimpy Kid title, Cabin Fever. Publishers are at least seeing a return – in the week of publication Cabin Fever sold one copy every 4 seconds.  In addition, Lisa Edwards, Publishing and Commercial Director at Scholastic, shared insight into their formidable campaign to launch Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, alongside the film adaptation. By working as a team, forming a strong alliance with Lionsgate Films, and putting in the hours, they created a global phenomenon. As Edwards says, publishers must be ‘ready to pounce’.

Sharna Jackson, Editor at Tate Kids – the online art destination for 5-12 year olds – gave one of the most riveting talks of the day and shared some equally salient advice. She had a refreshingly honest take on how to engage, entertain (and educate) children and her advice on how to interact with kids was hilarious but also deadly serious. Golden nuggets included: Don’t punctuate everything with an exclamation mark, don’t over-use the word ‘Awesome!’ and please don’t try and ‘get down with the kids’. Still she signed off with the words ‘Game on and be playful’…which neatly takes us to the games sector panel discussion.

What quickly became evident was the most successful games or apps for pre-schoolers were being created by small boys trapped in the bodies of fully grown men. A bit like Tom Hanks in ‘Big’. Peter Sleeman, director at P2 Games, and Jamie Cason, senior producer at MiniClip, are clearly having far too much fun.  Still, it’s working. Of the twelve apps produced by P2 Games, six have gone to Number One. Their advice? Apps for the pre-school market must be intuitive and make sense, repeatable but not repetitive – otherwise your audience will stop playing. And I think most parents in the audience appreciated the line that, ‘We’re not selling a game to a child, we’re selling peace and quiet to a parent’. Reinforced by the fact that sales spike on rainy days.

In the midst of debates on zero pricing, publishers and developers will have been heartened to hear both Sleeman and Lindsay Mooney, Vendor Manager at Kobo, urging them not to under-value their content and that premium pricing does work. Although children’s books only make up about 5% of Kobo’s overall sales, they are growing and will continue to do so. Especially with EPUB3 and more e-readers coming onto the market this year alone, including their own Android-based Arc and two others. As the devices become more sophisticated, so to will the content and Mooney hopes to see more digital picture books for children being made available as a result.

So, by now, everyone was having fun and enjoying the day. But for me, the ‘wow’ moment came when Russell Harding, Creative Director at Sony Europe introduced the Wonderbook.  This augmented reality technology – that allows children to open a ‘book’ and see virtual objects leap off the page and into their living rooms – was a glimpse of the future. We know that the Harry Potter-themed Book of Spells – out this November – will give children one of their first immersive reading experiences. But with news of more collaborations to come (Walking with Dinosaurs, as well as Moonbot Studios – whose own augmented reality app was reviewed in our autumnal round-up of kids apps) this meeting of incredible content and truly innovative new technology could mark one of the most exciting phases in children’s book publishing.

And it was content that formed one of the buzz words of the conference: IP or intellectual property. As the games developers, Sony, and Nickolodeon introduced their remarkable wares, and talk was once again of collaboration and partnership, the publishers in the room became increasingly aware that they were probably sitting on the crown jewels.

Eric Huang, director of New Business and IP Acquisitions at Penguin, neatly summed this up as he gave the last presentation of the day. He referred to publishers as the ‘Masters of Storytelling’ and shared interesting observations on how, in his experience, a traditional book publisher had a very different approach to storytelling than that of a gaming company. Narrative arc, structure, fully-formed characters, all combine to produce wonderful stories. He urged publishers to think more about protecting this, as well as exploiting it. And in order to do that, publishers need to step confidently into this brave new digital world. To think less about print + digital, and more about the brand. As print sales decline, Penguin are already re-positioning themselves as a media company who own and exploit some of the very best IP out there. But they’re not alone. The room was a full of talented publishers, authors and illustrators who will continue to produce incredible content for this young, smart, digitally-savvy generation. What they must do is look after it during these changing times.

Our favourite line of the day came from one of our most highly-regarded children’s book illustrators, Chris Riddell: ‘I will try and use jargon because I’m on a platform’. Of course he didn’t, and neither did the other speakers. For once, this was a refreshingly jargon-free conference.

Miranda West is Children’s Editor, The Literary Platform.

Further Reading:
Autumnal Round-Up of Kids Apps

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