Storytime Goes Digital: Assessing the Children’s E-Book and App Market at TOC Bologna

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O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair focused on apps vs. e-books, legacy publishers vs. start-ups, and adapting to this digital world.

By Sophie Rochester

TOC Bologna

The children’s market is a huge opportunity within the digital publishing arena, but for the first time, computer and tech publishing giant O’Reilly Media took it’s “Tools of Change” conference on the road to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.  The conference attracted 270 delegates (a mix of publishers, writers, illustrators and developers) from over 27 different countries.

Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow opened the event with an overview on the children’s digital publishing landscape, one she says is experiencing “extraordinary and accelerating change.” According to Wilson — whose company produced the Three Little Pigs app — the process of developing apps is as much about developing a marketing strategy as it is about the production of the app itself – and this was a sentiment echoed by many speakers throughout the day. One thing is certain – marketing book apps is tough when you’re competing against everything else in the App Store. The way readers find and engage with stories has changed, the traditional processes have broken down, it is now “much more complicated and there are more two way connections,” Wilson said.

Throughout the day, several themes emerged:

Apps Over E-books, iPads Over Everything Else

Three Little Pigs App

Richard Kerris from Hewlett Packard (a key sponsor of the event) likely found TOC a tough audience — after all, he wasn’t flogging a new Apple OS app or add-on to the iPad, the device of choice among children’s book publishers and developers. Still, his comprehensive presentation on HP webOS and its portfolio of forthcoming devices — including a TouchPad tablet, which HP is expected to launch shortly — offered some key takeaways. Among them: HP’s new programming environment allows developers to easily port existing tablet apps to the TouchPad, a process enabled through a new development framework, and HPs he cloud-based operating system and other webOS features will enable readers to access their content from any device. Kerris’ company is really committed to becoming a player in this space and should be an interesting company for publishers to watch.

Furthermore, there was little talk about illustrated e-books –- the focus of the conference was almost entirely on interactive editions for iPad. Apple’s iBooks 1.2 has just launched in the UK with both Harper Collins UK and Pan Macmillan trying out illustrated e-books on that platform. The key difference here goes beyond content, to the question of discovery: When illustrated e-books are sitting on a shelf in a category the iBookstore, are they more likely to be found by readers than an interactive app in the App Store?

Sales of e-books are well demonstrated already and are reaching new heights. Kindle dominates the market (though, it should be noted in this context that it has not yet been released in Italy), so if there is any truth in a rumored “color Kindle” on the way, then a smart publisher might do well to looking at illustrated e-book options as a way to expedite profits from the sale of digital editions of children’s books.

No, it really isn’t all about the App market. It’s still a growing marketing and while the number of iPad owners is impressive, there is no guarantee that they are using their devices for good (reading) rather than evil (other media consumption). With the Kindle, we know at the very least that owners of this device are reading books (or digital magazines and newspapers).

Laura Donnini

Mondadori's Laura Donnini

Still Adapting to Digital

What became evident throughout the day was just how little data is available to the industry about what is selling and what isn’t, about how is buying books on what device and format, and who isn’t.

Laura Donnini, general manager of Edizioni Mondadori, was one of the few speakers of the day to stick her neck out (albeit in the closing remarks) and admitted Mondadori’s best-selling children’s app has sold 2,000 copies. Is this good or bad? There is precious little to compare it to and we don’t know the production costs.

When Donnini made that statement, the makers of the Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime app chirpily tweeted to say “we sell that in a day.”  Great –- this is heartening to hear -– but the Nursery Rhymes app was created by developers sitting wholly outside of the publishing industry (not to mention the fact that their app is in English, a market with a vast head start over the Italian one — which doesn’t yet have the Kindle — and where Mondadori operates). Still, somewhere along the line publishers need to work out what these developers without any prior publishing experience are doing right.

Major publishers benefit from having some big-name authors to try out on new platforms, but they’re still adapting a business model entrenched in print. As Lyle Underkloffer from Disney pointed out, the digital publishing process is greatly improved if you have discussions about digital as you’re acquiring content — so perhaps this is why it’s almost easier for agencies starting afresh. Coming to agreements about how and where content will be used following traditional publishing deals can become complex, demonstrated neatly by Julia Donaldson’s reluctance to take her very successful Gruffalo books to any form of e-book publishing -– a case referred to several times during the conference.

Classics vs. New Books, Legacy Pubs vs. Start-ups

Many of the apps mentioned fell into the “classics” genre (e.g. Nursery Rhymes, Three Little Pigs, etc.) or established brands (e.g. Guinness World Records, Sesame Street, etc. ). This begged the question: What will happen to new writing? Where do emerging and new writers and illustrators fit into the fiercely competitive children’s book app arena? Likewise, where does digital fit into the ecosystem of the existing publishing house?

In our session — one I moderated — on the co-production model, Sara Berliner from Scroll Motion reassured delegates that new writers were still key, but qualified this by saying that they need to be a different kind of writer, one who is willing to be engaged across all platforms. (It is a concept shared by Chris Meade of If:book with his vision of the “Amplified Author.”) And, on the publishers side, Laura Donnini of Mondadori advised publishers to create a digital team of young, enthusiastic staff.

This is certainly one approach, but there are caveats here, too. Dominique Raccah of SourceBooks in the US (voiced at her event at TOC Frankfurt 2010) believes that ghettoizing the digital team is counter-productive –- publishers need every member of staff to understand the digital business. This sentiment was echoed at TOC Bologna by Tom Conway from Harper Collins UK who said, “everyone in the process should have access to devices and understand that this isn’t necessarily complicated.” There appear to still be huge skill gaps in the major publishing houses -– if publishers are going to compete with every other content provider in the app market then where are the user experience (UX) and technology experts? Even if publishers are working mostly in co-productions with digital agencies then are staff informed enough on digital to properly brief these agencies?

Think Globally, Always

One tip to delegates was to think globally. Underkloffer from Disney noted “hyper globalization is an imperative for content creation”, and Brian O’Leary from Magellan Media listed it one of the key things to think about in futureproofing a publishing business. Kate Wilson suggested to think early on about co-editions and suggested forming partnerships with foreign publishers. Delegates were also urged to start thinking now about developing on other devices — the Android market is huge and HTML5 will be a game-changer. Sampling content can drive sales, “free” can build audience — but “free can also be a slippery slope,” as pointed out by Underkloffer. Pricing apps is also complex if interactive book apps are competing in a market where you can download Angry Birds for just 59p. In a nutshell, it’s a minefield.

It was estimated that for 40% of delegates, this very conference was their first foray into digital publishing. You could sense that, to many, this was a important first step, with many delegates leaving in a combined state of trepidation and excitement.

The children’s market is, arguably, the frontline in the battleground for readers. If the publishers and producers get it right, they can ensure the longevity of the publishing industry itself. After all, today’s children — if they become readers now, either in print or in pixels — will become the readers of tomorrow. Or, as Kate Wilson put it, “What we do now will determine whether or not we have a market.”

Sophie Rochester is the founder of The Literary Platform.

DISCUSS: Can Anything Beat the iPad for Children’s Books?

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