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

In Children's, Europe by Guest Contributor

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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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.