Disney’s Digital Future

In Children's, Digital by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Disney Digital Books

Much has been made of the emergence of e-books for adults, but the real early adopters of digital technology aren’t exclusively tech geeks but children. Anyone who has spent time with a teen, a pre-teen, or even a toddler, knows who quickly kids can adapt to something new and it goes without saying that e-books will be a big part of their lives.

The long held wisdom among publishers is that illustrated and picture books will be among the last titles to make the transition to pixels, since they require color-screen e-readers to fully translate into the new format. That said, earlier this year children’s publishing juggernaut Disney made a bold step towards attracting an online audience now, despite the current limitations of the technology: In September, the company — which sells some 250 million children’s books annually — launched Disney Digital Books (DDB), an online library of 500 titles, ranging from early childhood classics, such as Cinderella and Pinocchio to teen favorites like Hannah Montana and High School Musical.

The online experience of DDB offers a wide variety of interactivity: Children can browse titles according to their reading level, and can then either read the story themselves, have the computer read to them, or try a third option called “Story-Builder,” which deletes words from the text and invites the child to insert their own.

What’s perhaps most distinct about the project is its pricing structure: Disney has committed to a subscription model for the site, charging $79.95 per year (for a family of up to three children) or $8.95 per month. If you’ve bought children’s books recently, you might think that sounds like a pretty reasonable price. (It might make a wonderful “family gift” for a parent you know with a gaggle of children.)

Publishing Perspectives spoke with Jeanne Mosure, Senior Vice President, Group Publisher, Disney Publishing Worldwide, about the implementation of the project, plans for its international roll-out, and expectations for the future.

Her answers offer an insight into the direction digital children’s publishing may move in the near future and should be instructive to any publishers looking to get into a similar space.

Publishing Perspectives: What was the motivation behind going digital? How long did this take to develop and is it Disney’s first foray into e-books?

Jeanne Mosure: It is imperative that we, as a publisher, promote reading in every medium where our readers are and to expand the ways in which we deliver meaningful reading experiences to children. Disney Digital Books took three years to develop and launch. We’ve already been selling books on the Kindle and elsewhere, but that tends to be for an older audience and, given our content and art and focus on everyone from pre-schoolers through to tweens, we wanted to create a comprehensive digital library that we could offer to all our readers.

PP: What are the implications for the international market, where many of Disney’s titles are licensed to overseas publishers?

JM:  The international market is enthusiastic — we publish in 75 languages — and we’ll be having a great deal of conversation with our licencing teams about how we roll this out internationally. The first markets outside the US are likely to be the UK, then the Spanish-speaking markets, and Italy, where we have a vertical business. In each different country, we have to consider what is the best route to market, whether that is direct or through licensees.

PP: What kind of response have you seen in the US to the subscription model?

JM: We’re seeing good response. We realized early on that single book purchases for children weren’t viable, and at the same time we didn’t want to compete with our own retail model, so we decided on subscription. There really isn’t a model like this in publishing and we did quite a bit of testing to find the best model for a parent, to find out what works best for them and what they are willing to pay. Of course, this is primarily for younger children and early readers; for the teen market, you still want to be in e-books. So far, we hear people like this new way of consuming media.

PP: Is Disney looking at the academic sector for the digital program? Schools must be big customers for Disney’s titles?

JM: We are looking at rolling this out in schools. It is also likely to be the one of the first places that the product will appear internationally. Education is one of the reasons it was very important for us to have the “Story-Builder” feature on the site, which emphasizes learning the differences between nouns, verbs and adjectives. We want parents to really use this a tool for improving children’s reading and developing their interest in books.

PP: As it is, there is already a lot for a child to do on the site aside from “read,” per se.

JM: Yes, there are a lot of features. But these are “seek, read and reward” features which encourage a child to interact with books. There’s a “turn the page with the magic pen,” feature, for example. There’s also a dictionary and trivia challenge. Parents can track what a child is reading and send notes of encouragement. And a child can win “diplomas” after a number of books are read. We also plan add additional features, such as educational games, as we go forward. But there has to be trust first, and we know that parents will be concerned about any games that are introduced.

PP: Are there plans to generate revenue from advertising on the site, which is something that also might concern parents?

JM: No, there is no advertising or popups allowed on the site. We may have synergistic relationships moving forward with partners that make sense, but want to emphasize safety and trust above all.

PP: To what extend is Disney Digital Books part of an overall digital publishing strategy for the company?

JM: We’ve created an online experience for the kids that encompasses the fun and attractiveness of Disney’s characters. At then end of the day, this is about how you bring art, images and text into the interactive experience. We see Disney Digital Books as phase one and we’re hoping this is the first of many projects that will showcase new content and features, as well as being a way of keeping evergreen franchises alive.

PP: How many subscribers have signed up and how many do you expect to have in the near future?

JM: This is more of a long term strategy and it would be unrealistic to put a number against it. We do have a large target audience.

PP: Presumably that audience already has some kind of relationship with Disney? How do you transition them from print to digital?

JM: Disney is a quite large organization that has a direct relationship to our consumers — primarily through our mail order business and other sales channels.  We know who our customer is and have a vast database of information. Market testing is how we develop everything at Disney. For this, it was reaching out to Moms, talking to kids.

PP: How committed is Disney to digital publishing? Is there a risk involved in this move when print remains the very essence — and profit center — of your company?

JM: Certainly we have a belief in digital publishing — we had already digitally archived these thousands of titles — and determined this was the best step forward.  Having been in this business a long time, we have a lot of brainpower. But there’s always an intiution behind publishing, and one can never tell what is going to work in the marketplace, whether that’s Winnie the Pooh, Hannah Montana, Snow White or Tinkerbell. You may have an intellectual understanding of your customer, but whether or how they purchase, you never know 100%. What we do know is that children are familiar with new media, so we have to be where they are and are going to be.

TRY: Disney Digital Books for free.

DISCUSS: When are E-books Appropriate for Children?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.