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Surveying the Surprisingly Sanguine UK Children’s Publishing Scene

By Roger Tagholm

The UK children’s book trade was surprisingly sanguine, when it gathered on London’s South Bank late last month for the Bookseller’s annual Children’s Conference in the Purcell Room, appropriately enough, opposite the apartment in which Peter Pan creator JM Barrie lived on the other side of the Thames. The adult trade may be going to hell in an erotic handcart (not entirely true, but it makes for a nice image), but here was Philip Stone, the Bookseller’s Charts Editor revealing that the children’s physical market was up 0.2%, with fiction up 2% and non-fiction 1.5%, as opposed to the printed trade as a whole, which was down 6%, with fiction down 5% and non-fiction down 9%.

This was a day packed with success stories — Scholastic Publishing and Commercial Director Lisa Edwards said Captain Underpants was “very silly” and had sold 2 million copies to date; there are 8m Dork Diaries (Simon & Schuster) in print globally, according to Venetia Gosling, Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Fiction Editorial Director; and Wimpy Kids Cabin Fever was the bestselling children’s book of 2011, according to Penguin Children’s Books Senior Marketing Manager, Vanessa Godden, who also said the brand had 350,000 friends on its Facebook page.

It was also peppered (Peppa-pigged, if you like) with delicious nuggets of information. Kobo’s UK Vendor Manager Lindsey Mooney revealed that their UK sales were up 369% on 2011 so far and their research showed that young readers read more once they owned a Kobo. Of course, if their research had shown the opposite one wonders if they’d have revealed it, but she was honest enough to admit that at present, children’s only accounted for 5% of their total sales. Could you imagine Amazon or Apple being so open?

The magazine had assembled some big hitters, notably the globe-trotting Eric Huang, New Business and IP Acquisitions Director for Penguin Children’s who used to be Managing Editor at Penguin Australia. He believes that the industry has gotten itself too hung up on brand strategy versus digital strategy and, rather, needs “to think about brand in its entirety”. That might include physical books, apps, toys, merchandise — you name it. He stressed the need for publishers not to forget their unique role as storytellers and noted that gaming companies were not interested in the back-story of characters. Story is key, he believes.

Eric Huang

By way of example, he talked about Whale Trail, the app developed by Us Two, one of the myriad companies to have sprung up by the so-called “silicon roundabout” in Shoreditch, East London. “We asked them what gender the whale was and where he or she had come from, and they felt it didn’t matter. But we said if this is going to be a book people will want to know. It’s our job to create the story.”

He drew an analogy between the movie industry and publishing, observing “the legacy of the publishing industry is very federal, unlike movie studios who rally around the release of say three films globally. Our industry needs to think about a coordinated global approach. As a media company we’re the original storytellers and we should be telling stories across all these formats. It’s the role of publishers to be an active driver to create the tools that allow kids to take our stories away from the page and screens, and to curate a world that encourages children to tell their own stories back to us.”

Russell Harding

Publishers were particularly interested to hear from children’s booksellers, among them Georgina Hanratty from south London indie Tales on Moon Lane and Rebecca Hart of Foyles Westfield branch, next to the Olympic Park. Both stressed the importance of reps — reassuring to hear in this digital age — with Hanratty saying afterwards “Reps are incredibly important — we wouldn’t be as good as we are without them. They have a much wider role now than selling. They tell you which authors are available and provide a valuable point of contact.”

Georgina Hanratty

On new developments, there was considerable interest in Sony’s Wonderbook, an innovation for the PlayStation (PS) platform, but this may have been because in the demo video it appeared as if the characters and animation were emerging from the pages of the book itself, like holograms. In fact, though the Wonderbook is real enough — a conventional, 12-page book — each page has special digital markers that the PS camera “reads,” translating the data to images on the screen. Still, JK Rowling’s Book of Spells, licensed from Pottermore, looked impressive and Wonderbook’s Creative Director Russell Harding — who used to work at DK many years ago — said discussions were now underway with BBC Worldwide concerning adapting Walking with Dinosaurs.

L to R Vanessa Godden, Venetia Gosling, Lisa Edwards

Gaming guru Paul Rhodes, who has just left Walker Books to go back into the gaming industry, said there were a number of parallels between the two industries. “In the gaming industry, it’s about a two-way conversation with the consumer. Engagement is now more important than above the line spend. It used to be about who shouts the loudest – now it’s about who looks after the customer best.” Many, many publishers are talking like this too.

On taking the digital leap, Jill Coleman, MD of indie Little Tiger Press, said: “I think we’re all watching the market. It’s expensive to experiment. A lot of the barriers are coming down, particularly with the arrival of ePub3, but it’s still something we can’t do by ourselves.” Hanratty said her shop was only selling five or six e-books a month. “There isn’t the demand at the moment.”

Lisa Edwards, Publishing and Commercial Director of Scholastic, publisher of The Hunger Games, had the daunting task of facing a roomful of envy to explain how a publisher creates a global phenomenon.

“Aim for a commercially active area and fire into the next brand,” she said, pointing out that this was the first YA novel based on reality TV. “And if you work as a team, the odds really can be ever in your favor.”

Finally, one of the most crushing statistics came from Nickeodeon’s Commercial Director, Kiaran Saunders. The channel asked kids who they were closest to. The answers went like this: Mum 94%, Dad 81% Family pet 80%. Hey Dads! Cling on to that 1 percent!!

DISCUSS: Celebrate Your Big Frankfurt Rights Deals with PP

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