The Digital Future of Children’s Books
E-books may date from the early 1970s, when Michael Hart launched Project Gutenberg, but the revolution in e-books for kids has only just begun. True, three novels from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series were library distributor Overdrive’s three most downloaded e-books for 2008, but adult and children’s digital books combined still make up a small percentage of book sales—less than 1% of revenue at Random House, according to Bertelsmann CEO Markus Dohle in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal. And only recently have children’s e-books become fully integrated into even the largest houses’ publishing strategies.
It’s no secret that teens live online—Twittering, blogging, posting videos on YouTube and downloading from iTunes—or that most teens (80%, according to a national survey last fall) have cellphones. Together that adds up to a sizable potential market for mobile phone and Web-based e-books.
“Books are something they should see as enjoyable.” No one is arguing. In fact, one scenario that publishers are exploring to raise the fun quotient is mixed media à la Scholastic’s The 39 Clues (the series combines traditional books with online gaming and card collecting).
“We’re very gung-ho on e-books,” says Don Weisberg, president of Penguin Young Readers Group. “We as publishers have to be ready for it all. However anybody wants to consume a book—on your computer, on an e-book reader or a printed book—we’re going to be there.”
One of the attractions of e-books for teens, she adds, is that reading becomes a social activity. “There are good things to be said about the book as a solitary pleasure,” Thomas says. “But with an e-book you can highlight and share a line instantly—e-mail it, Twitter it. It becomes a communal activity.” That’s one reason that, as the company upgrades Web sites for its two most popular brands, the Twilight series (TheTwilightSaga.com) and its Poppy imprint (PickaPoppy.com), it will link to an iPhone app in the Apple store and offer downloadable audio and e-book samplers.
Even enthusiastic embracers of digital books for teens, like Kristin McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, who sees educational e-readers as a solution to the problem of the 50-pound backpack, have difficulty envisioning picture books going digital. “Books like The Black Book of Colors (Groundwood) will never translate,” she says.
Despite the promise of e-books, a number of challenges remain. In terms of the school market, limited budgets are problematic, as is the issue of whether students would be able to take e-books home to read, or even how they would do so. Many parts of the country are still without Internet access, and many more children have access to cellphones than computers.
Like her colleagues, Meghan Dietsche Goel, children’s book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Tex., is trying to figure out the best way for a bricks-and-mortar store to monetize e-content. “We’re talking about how the retail store fits in, whether it’s best to have a sign in the store or just to sell them online.” So far she hasn’t seen a trickle-down effect from publishers’ efforts to seed the potential e-market with free digital downloads of teasers or full books. “We haven’t had anyone come in and mention it,” she says.
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