Digital Book World Day Two: Catering to Kids

Blogger Stephanie Pitts
Blogger Stephanie Pitts

As a lover of children’s books, I was pleased to find that there were three panels on day two of Digital Book World devoted to this segment of the marketplace. So, once my volunteering duties at the coat check were over, I made a beeline for the first kids’ book panel of the day. (As my fellow NYU Publishing student Thea James noted in her post about day one, hanging up wet and snowy coats wasn’t a bad trade off for the chance to sit in on a conference where registration costs upwards of one thousand dollars!)

Kristen McLean of the Association of Booksellers for Children moderated a presentation of findings from the 2010 ABC/Bowker Pubtrack Consumer Study: Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age. The study provided many insights into the children’s market and debunked two prevailing myths surrounding teenagers. The first myth is that teenagers are universal adopters of technology and a ready-made market for ebooks. In fact, the study demonstrated that no segment in the teen market shows significant ebook sales (5-6% average adoption compared to about 30% in adult trade). The panelists attributed this to the fact that teenagers tend to adopt technologies that are sharing in nature like texting and social networking. Ebooks with limited sharing capabilities are actually less social than print books, which are readily passed around friendship circles or classrooms. Furthermore, many teens still don’t have access to e-readers, and because not all have credit cards, they rarely shop online for books.The second major myth debunked by the consumer study is that teenagers don’t regard their parents as sources of influence. While parent/teen conflict may cause some household angst, the study shows that parents still rank among the top influencers for teens when it comes to choosing reading material. Parents, teachers, and librarians act as gatekeepers for children’s and YA books, and reaching those influencers should be a goal of any successful marketing plan. In comparison, the study reports that media advertising is considerably less effective at reaching youths.

Student volunteers (l to r): Bethany Habinek, Miriam Bridenne, Sonya Grayson, Sabrina Ricci at DBW

Other important findings of the study: teens don’t generally exhibit author recognition, but instead readily identify with the characters in a series; more than 80% of children’s books purchased are pure impulse buys—meaning that the bookstore browsing experience is still essential to purchases in the children’s market.

The second session I attended focused on marketing challenges in children’s books, particularly on how to build engaged communities of readers in the digital age. Sara Shandler of Alloy Entertainment discussed creating digital manifestations of content (websites, games, blogs) that make sense and arise organically from the nature of the book. For example, the digital platforms for the Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard include a website, an author blog and a TV series on ABC Family. Ideally digital platforms would be created as close to the book publication date as possible so readers can immediately engage with their favorite characters and series online. Deborah Forte of Scholastic Media cited the success of the digital platform for Clifford, the Big Red Dog, which provides games, interactive stories and printable activities, to this already well-known book series.

Panelists also discussed the importance of author engagement with their audience online through blogs, websites, and webcasts. According to Shandler, children’s and YA books today can’t be written in a vacuum and the job of the author has become twofold: to write books and to manage audience engagement. Forte explained that such relationships cannot easily come from a marketer; kids are increasingly sensitive to corporate influence and they value personal communication with an author.

The third and last panel I attended that day was by far the most exciting. In a session titled “A New Kind of Publisher for a New Kind of Product,” panelists from technology start-ups discussed how apps are changing the face of children’s publishing. Companies such as Ruckus Media Group, Oceanhouse Media, and Callaway Digital Arts not only license content from traditional houses, but they are also full digital publishers in their own right, acquiring and producing original content. Rick Richter of Ruckus Media Group (formerly of Simon  &  Schuster and now a professor in NYU’s M.S. in Publishing program) highlighted the difference between digital publishers and app developers; he explained that Ruckus actually works with various app developers to achieve different aesthetic styles, much the same way a traditional publisher chooses illustrators for different projects. For example, an app called Andrew Answers looks like a Saturday morning cartoon in the form of a book, and it has a very different feel from another app, Present for Milo, which features collage-style illustrations and characters that dance across the screen like cut-out paper dolls.

Publishing students Mariana Ramos (top) and Laura Flavin help out at DBW

The children’s book app industry is still in its early stages, and the panelists shared their visions for the future of the medium. Michel Kripalani of Oceanhouse Media explained that his company designs children’s apps to be a “lean forward rather than lean back experience.” For example, in Dr. Seuss’s ABC, individual words light up like in a sing-a-long as the story is read, and when a curious finger touches a picture, words zoom up on the screen to identify that object. Richter described how Ruckus aims to originate a new kind of work designed specifically for tablet devices. He quoted his friend, famed children’s book author and illustrator Eric Carle, in saying that in the future we can look forward to “books you can play with and games you can read.” The future of children’s publishing sounds pretty bright after all.

by Stephanie Pitts

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