The digital world is taking publishing into unchartered waters and, just like the current economic climate, it is hard to predict where it is headed. If the future landscape of e-books is uncertain, however, other areas of digital development have already been eagerly embraced by the publishing industry, including children’s publishers. Caroline Horn explains.
The online world offers a truly complementary role to the printed word. Digital platforms are being used to build audiences for new books, engage young readers and enable authors to communicate directly with readers online.
In marketing terms, the internet is opening up opportunities for children’s publishers in ways that they could only have dreamed of a decade ago. In April an entire book – Michael Grant’s Gone – was briefly made available online by publisher Egmont to help generate ‘word of mouth’ buzz and sales. Book ‘brands’ like ‘Beast Quest’ (published by Orchard) and ‘Young Bond’ (Puffin) all now have their own dedicated web space with activities, features to download and online fan clubs. Developing websites for major brands and authors is now a given rather than the luxury it was just two or three years ago – children expect to find this information online.
For authors, meanwhile, the digital world opens their reach to readers in a way that has never before been possible. The Jacqueline Wilson e-newsletter is now received by 100,000 young fans. A group of authors who write about monsters have got together to create their own website, www.TrappedByMonsters.com, while authors Darren Shan, Robert Muchamore and Cathy Hopkins are among those who have grown their fan base online using e-newsletters, blogs and two-way communications with their readers.
Potential new audiences
The internet has also enabled publishers to reach potential new audiences by promoting new titles and authors via gaming and social networking websites. Young readers themselves can explore new books and authors in a creative, inspiring way – check out Puffin’s YA website, Spinebreakers.co.uk, and the magazine approach of independent website ReadingZone.com.
For schools, websites have become essential viewing and publishers including Scholastic, Random House and Orion provide a range of resources and materials online – even including teachers’ notes for ‘Horrid Henry’ (Orion). Competitions, once unwieldy and expensive operations for publishers, can now be communicated to a variety of audiences online with entries sent at the touch of a button. Recent initiatives include Orion’s ‘Animals are not Rubbish’ competition (www.animalsarenotrubbish.co.uk), Evans Brothers’ regular story-writing competition for World Book Day and Bloomsbury’s short story competition (www.247tales.com).
The digital world offers a creative ‘add-on’ for the printed word itself. Speaking at an event that explored the future of children’s book publishing, Mick Landmann, Managing Director of Vivid Interactive, pointed to publishing programmes that are ‘conjoining’ books and digital media, such as Scholastic’s ‘39 Clues’ series in which the books include clues that can be used on a dedicated website to win prizes. Puffin also developed a live online game to support the publication of a ‘Young Bond’ title, Blood Royal.
Publisher Salariya (Book House), meanwhile, is developing a whole series of fiction titles under its Scribo imprint whose storylines will be supported with online resources including games, add-on books and more.
In the world of non-fiction, which has had a tougher time following the advent of the internet, publisher Usborne has embraced the online revolution by creating around 200 titles with embedded internet links to over 100,000 websites giving further topic-based information (www.usborne-quicklinks.com).
Landmann flagged up a web initiative for adult readers launched by HarperCollins, an interactive online version of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Created in partnership with the Institute of the Future of the Book, writers and academics will read the text online and submit comments, which readers can offer feedback on. This could point the way forward for how young people use educational texts in the future, he suggested.
Children as writers
Landmann also argued that children’s publishers need to be more creatively engaged with digital platforms. ‘Young people are creating and publishing their own narratives on Facebook, on Bebo, and narratives are no longer a linear process for them,’ he said. ‘Information is coming from many different directions and is being absorbed into other people’s narratives. No one has yet explored the potential of storytelling on Twitter, which came of age during the G20 summit. The whole world was twittering about it.’
Print on demand is, however, offering opportunities for young creators to get writing themselves and to have their work published within a printed book. There are now a number of organisations offering to produce ‘year books’ for pupils that include pupils’ written work. Scholastic has taken this a step further by providing online tools that schools can use to create their own book, which is then printed for them to the number required. The project, ‘We Are Writers’ (www.wearewriters.com), simplifies the process of schools publishing pupils’ material and makes it cost-effective – schools can order as many copies as they want at £5 apiece. The project is a happy marriage of internet and print on demand technologies.
Beyond the internet, however, trade publishers (in contrast with specialist educational publishers) have been a little slower to adopt digital developments in a fast-moving world where there are still few business models and little security that an adopted model will last beyond the next 12 months. This is in contrast to schools whose whiteboard technology, handheld devices, mini laptops and broadband access have driven something of a technological revolution, culminating in the introduction of VLEs (vitual learning environments) and personalised learning.
There is a growing volume of useful digital resources supporting books and storytelling, from teaching-focused resources like Scholastic’s interactive ‘Read and Respond’ programme to the creative resources provided by independent ventures like author videos at www.childrensauthors.tv and the Storyspinner storytelling CDs.
The arrival of e-books
However, what many school librarians are waiting for is the arrival of e-books in a meaningful way. Beverly Humphrey, Learning Resources Centre manager and learning gateway coordinator for Woolwich Polytechnic School in London, has introduced some of her pupils to her own Sony Reader. ‘I want to get some for the library because I think it would be an easy way to enthuse those boys who come into the school with a real aversion to reading,’ she says. ‘Many of our boys have never grasped the basic principles of reading and therefore have been completely turned off books. They love the “kudos” of being allowed to use the Reader and enjoy feeling special.’ The other advantage is that the font size on e-readers can be easily enlarged to suit individual readers and the e-reader does not have the same ‘glare’ as reading on a computer screen. ‘I am hoping this will particularly benefit those students with dyslexia,’ Humphrey adds.
Author Steve Barlow, who co-wrote a book for children about staying safe online (Steve Skidmore, who wnts 2 no, published by O2), sees digital platforms as the way ahead for book publishing. ‘There is a gathering movement towards electronic books and Steve and I feel the internet is a valid place to go for books, but children need to be aware how to use it safely,’ he says.
During a recent school visit, the authors asked the children in the room how many had mobile phones with screens for text, such as iphones, and half of those present did. ‘There is the potential that they could have a book in their phone rather than in their school bag,’ comments Barlow. ‘I think things are going to move very quickly towards digital downloads of books and to where digital books and paper-based books will be used side by side.’
The US market is at least a couple of years ahead of the UK in its adoption of e-books with devices including the Sony eReader and Amazon’s Kindle firmly established and other users downloading onto iphones etc. In the UK, publishers have been slower to make e-book formats available, blaming the lack of an established business model and a natural mass-market e-reader device and formats. With e-readers’ price tag starting at around £200, these are not natural purchases for many adults, never mind for children.
Many consumers also argue that the cost of an e-book download – which is generally the same as the printed word – is offputting. Nor has a formula been established for lending rights on e-books through school or public libraries. The established US model is for libraries to treat each e-book it buys as an individual copy which can be loaned out to a single borrower at a time. With the US taking the lead, US supplier Overdrive has begun to supply a handful of libraries in the UK with e-books and UK library suppliers are now beginning to provide e-book formats, including Askews.
Publishers remain concerned that guidelines have not yet been established for library lending of e-books and have yet to confirm their preferred approach. However, they have started to make e-books available through high street retailers and online. Random House Children’s Books, for example, has around 100 books available as e-books via its own website, www.rbooks.co.uk, and retailers such as Waterstone’s. Publisher Andersen Press has recently announced that it will be making a number of its teen titles available as e-books, including those by authors Henning Mankell and Sandra Glover. Puffin has about 150 titles available and Macmillan around 100. Moving ahead, new titles are increasingly going to be published in e-book formats alongside the printed versions.
As for the schools market, smaller publishing houses seem to be stealing a march on the larger corporates here. Independent publisher Rising Stars has been developing e-books for some time, especially for children and young people with reading difficulties. Books can be downloaded from its website with site licenses costing £25 per title. Rising Stars is also bringing other publishers on board, making titles from companies including Evans Brothers available as e-books.
When e-books do take off, it could lead to an overnight revolution in publishing. Publishers have one eye on the music industry, for which digital downloads have been catastrophic. The move towards digital books is, however, predicted to be a gentler one because of the value and emotional engagement associated with the traditional book format. For now at least, the association between paper and digital formats is a positive one with the new technologies helping to drive digital-savvy readers towards the printed word.
Caroline Horn compiles children’s book news for the Bookseller.