« Children's, Europe

With Kid’s Books “It’s Not Just About the App, Dummkopf!”

Children’s book publishers are enchanted by interactive apps, but forgoing the inherent market advantages of the basic e-book is a big mistake.

Editorial by Ralph Moellers, Terzio Verlag

MUNICH: E-books for children have been getting a rather lukewarm reception by traditional German children’s book publishers. Not even in the US, where e-books seem to pummel the traditional print market worse every new quarter, is there any love lost between the children’s book specialists and the various e-book devices.

To be clear: I don’t mean children’s apps or books that originate as interactive apps. There are many of those and some even done by (or rather “for”) children’s books publishers. But the majority of those apps are developed mostly by small companies with no publishing background outside the app store. And, as in many other areas of publishing, the traditional players in the market look at these new developers with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment.

I do mean real e-books that work for readers, not as standalone apps. Why is there so little e-book activity among book publishers here? Even less than in the general e-book market in Germany.

First, the eInk technology is not really useful for most children’s books formats. It’s OK for narrative books but it’s totally useless for illustrated books. You want color in your children’s books. And a standard ePub file with reflowing text can seriously damage the text-and-illustration context. And you can’t have fixed double page designs, etc.

However, there are some well known print brands that work quite well as e-books. Narrative series that sell 100,000 copies a year in print, obviously do well as e-books. As a result, there are indeed families that let their kids use the family reader.

But there is another, let’s call it “fear factor” at work here: You can’t have any real interactivity or animation in a standard e-book. Kids see the reader device as more than just a book reader: to them it’s a computer and, accordingly, they expect some action (despite us publishers sharing this “It’s a book!” video everywhere).

So in Bologna this year at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change Conference the assembled children’s book “industry” did seem to agree on one thing: in the children’s market it is going to be the app, not the e-book, that take precedent. Kate Wilson and her German partner Carlsen showed some remarkable products, namely the Three Little Pigs app, and even claimed some actually very impressive sales figures. The message: Apps can better even the original book. Everybody seemed to have joined the “It’s the app, stupid” bandwagon.

But as is so often the case with our industry: even everybody agrees, it’s probably not true.

The reality is, right now most publishers that have tried the waters are retreating from the app business. The budgets that have been spent on not-so-sophisticated apps that have proven way too expensive for a market that is already hostile to traditional publishers:

What are the circumstances?

  1. You are in Apple’s hands. You can only hope that you send enough people to the app store directly to your app.
  2. In an environment where you get serious stuff for free, customers have totally irrational expectations of what they get for a tiny sum of money. This can lead to one star reviews that border on the absurd, with comments such as, “For 99 cents this app should have voice recognition.”
  3. The average sales are way too small to justify the budgets. You will not sell unless you have a strong brand that customers recognize or will look out for.

On the other hand, in the e-book market we see at least two important differences: The accepted price point is much higher for a book than for an app and the customer expectations are much more reasonable.

Try to sell an app for €9.99 and people will think this is outrageous, but if you ask the same price for an e-book with meager enhancements, say a bit of audio and some video, it is considered absolutely reasonable since it’s a book “plus” something.

But as I said before, there are hardly any good options for enhancements and quite a few restrictions for e-books. Most of the restrictions will be history when ePub 3.0 comes around. The standard will be defined by the end of this year, but it will take a while after that until it is implemented in the hardware.

So in the meantime we need something to work with. When Apple introduced the so called “fixed layout ePub” last year the rules of the game changed somewhat. Now we can publish illustrated books in full color, enhance the ePub with an audio option and even add small animations. The resulting ePub works only on the iPad and iPhone, but since the iPad is the only relevant full color reader on the German market (there is at least the Nook in the US) that is not really a restriction. Interesting fact: A recent survey by a major children’s audio publisher is Germany found 80% of iPad owners buy content for kids.

Seems like right now the iPad is the children’s e-book market.

Our own experience with enhanced fixed layout ePubs have been very encouraging. In cooperation with our development partners book2look, Munich, and WITS, Mumbay, we have pushed the envelope for Apple’s fixed layout ePub to the max. Check out our children’s musical books in the “Ritter Rost” series in the iBook store. You can listen to the music, have every page read to you and some cases even have small animations on the page.

Sales are picking up speed and even Apple is extremely supportive, a small miracle for a tiny publisher like Terzio. (By the way, we are happy to consult with other publishers.)

So if you ask me, it’s not only the app that is going to define the children’s e-book market, there are real e-books in our children’s future

Ralph Moellers is the owner and publisher of Terzio Verlag in Munich. He will be speaking on the panel “The Role of Language in the Children’s Market: The impact of multi-lingual delivery and English-language availability” at the Children’s Publishing Goes Digital conference taking place at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 11, 2011, 9.00 am – 1.00 pm, Hall 4.2, Room Dimension.

DISCUSS: Do You Read Your Child “Apps”?

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  1. Apsignificant
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but I have to point out several contradictions in this “editorial” piece: You say “a market that is already hostile to traditional publishers”, but later state: “You will not sell unless you have a strong brand that customers recognize or will look out for”, when precisely it’s the bog traditional publishers the ones that hold the greatest brand recongnition!

    Also you state that in the ebook market: “the customer expectations are much more reasonable”, but you had previously said that :”You can’t have any real interactivity or animation in a standard e-book. Kids see the reader device as more than just a book reader: to them it’s a computer and, accordingly, they expect some action”.

    I’d like to know where you get your data, to conclude that: “The average sales are way too small to justify the budgets”? Do you have sales data, other than Tizio’s, to justify those comments? Do they refer to small, mediocre ventures into book apps, with either bad illustrations, flat stories, or uncreative interactions? What is “average”?

    I visited the Bologna Book Fair myself this year: there wasn’t so much “app buzz” going on as you mention (I don’t think I even saw more than a couple of stands showcasing book apps, for that matter), while everyone was trying to find the gem among the piles of commercial, crappy first books for toddlers, or the TV-license-books. Is it hard for consumers to find good book apps? Right now yes, but not harder than finding a really good book in a brick-and-mortar hypermarket. I believe Apple is going to catch on, and implement a solution to improve visibility and discoverability, similar to Amazon’s “suggestions” and ratings, plus more and more curators and critique reviews will probably help traditional media’s role of promoting new products.

    I think signing off something that has only been here for a year, is frankly pessimistic, and discouraging to those that want to make really creative children’s books and innovate.

  2. Lorelei
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    @ Apsignificant- aside from seeming to be most interested in a negative tear-down, you also seem to be missing the tidal wave in front of you. I wonder what age bracket you are in, and what activites occupy you? Because if you are youth current, your understanding of the role of interactivity and computers would be pointing out your pathway, and it’s called the Interactive App.

    I’m in media production, and I’ll guarantee that 7000 downloads at $.99 cents is not going to pay for a Three Little Pigs interactive book production. There’s a significant issue with pricing that has been introduced with the $.99 App. If you charge more, say $2.99 or even $4.99, you start losing customers exponentially. Their expectations ARE that you should have it all. And, I may add, the reviewers are 12 year olds, 40 year olds, mechanics, bakers, students, professors, you name it. What reviews are is the public voice, not the professional reviewer.

    My thought is that the small companies that are making things happen out there are media-makers and gaming industry professionals that see an opportunity, AND have buckets of talent and money in order to front load some winning products. They’re probably not going to make their money back on those early showcase titles, but they’ll gain brand loyalty and then be able to pepper in lower cost products, as well as leverage their now in-house experience for cutting costs. As we know, research and development cost a lot of time and money. The last point is that what these small, non-publishing house firms have is nimble, quick-acting size. What they don’t have is access to the literary talent that guarantees them name-recognition with authors and titles. They’re using copyright-free stories and sometimes artwork (Three Little Pigs was all downloaded off of the US Library of Congress website) to give themselves a running start.

    I say Apps Apps Apps.

  3. Apsignificant
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink


    Did you not read my last paragraph? I am precisely pro-App, and saying that to sign off Book Apps right now is discouraging for both publishing industry companies and developers. What I’m trying to convey is Book Apps need to be given a chance, because not all publishing people are fully aware of the possibilities yet (that’s why I pointed out Bologna Fair behaviour this year)

    I’m not missing the tidal wave, I’m getting on it! My age bracket is 35-40, with an array of experience in kids, educational media, and publishing. For me the path is clear, and precisely what I’m saying is that we need to see sales and cost figures for many book apps, before we can cross out Apps and say “ebooks are more profitable”. Im case you didn’t get it, I’m expecting figures to come out in the open, but from several companies producing good book apps, like Moonbot Studios, Loud Crow Interactive, Mobad, Ayars Animation, Auryn, and yes, Tizio… I don’t want an “average” that includes poor Apps, that abound.

    So it would be great if more developers and publishers were frank about their ROIs in the upcoming Conferences touching upon Ebooks and Apps, or articles in ezines like this.

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