The Digital Dilemma for Picture Book Publishers

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Top quality apps are expensive and direct-to-e-book conversions lack punch, so what’s a picture book publisher who wants to go digital to do?

Editorial by Robin Birtle, Sakkam Press, Japan

Robin Birtle of Sakkam Press

TOKYO: The publishers of novels have it easy. Despite all the hoopla over digital, the creative process and the immersive reading experience remain unchanged. For picture book publishers, though, all bets are off. A straight e-book facsimile of a picture book pales in comparison to the print original and using one of these to compete with the various gorgeous iPad apps for children is like taking ink and paper to a video editing fight.

The reason why even technically superb digital renderings of a picture book can fail to excite is that they do not enable the same experiences that picture books provide. Although children sometimes read picture books by themselves, most of the dearest picture book experiences arise from an activity shared between parent and child. The parent is an actor, performing for the child; the two are teammates as they jointly explore illustrations. If the mood is right, the parent can be a teacher, using the text to reinforce a point relevant for that particular child. Before a single word is read, parents convey the message that the printed word is to be respected by the careful way in which they handle each book.

Even in the hand of an enthusiastic parent, the current crop of picture e-books rarely give the same experiences. The oft touted magic of the iPad steals the child’s attention and there is no tingle of excitement when the first digital page is turned. The iPad is not a good prop for the performing parent and illustrations not designed specifically for a tablet do not work well.

Publishers, conscious of these shortcomings, have enhanced picture e-books with the addition of “read-along” capabilities that seduce potential buyers with the promise of children learning as they play. Typically, though, a read-along book’s playback speed makes it comfortable to listen to, but too fast for a child to read along. Even proficient early readers will pause on harder words as the voice-over races ahead of them. Some publishers compound the problem by pairing voice-overs with text in highly stylized fonts which are nearly illegible for emerging readers. A small number of publishers attempt to address these issues but the overall standard of read-along is low.

Publishers may eye the success of the “Gorgeous Apps” for kids with a tinge of envy, but these apps have been a long time in the making. At least fifteen years before the first iPad was sold, software companies started churning out interactive books for the PC, and doting parents paid high prices for software of vastly variable quality. The software, when a parent could find a supplier of it, actually seemed to age. Not many companies kept their software ranges current and as parents upgraded their PCs, fewer and fewer of their titles still worked. The best titles were very good but the process was expensive and nerve wracking.

Along came the iPad and, with it, apps that are easy to find, easy to buy, affordable and reliable. Although developers have become very adept at converting printed picture books into interactive apps, the most impressive of the Gorgeous Apps on the iPad are original works with no print legacy. This hints at the root of the malaise surrounding the production of picture e-books — moving a work that relies heavily on visual and spatial elements from one medium to another is extremely hard to do well.

Fortunately for picture book publishers, there is an alternative to expensive to produce apps and lackluster e-book reproductions. This alternative, though, is not a particularly easy one. Publishers must commission some digital-only picture books to explore what the creative possibilities are when print is not the starting point. Research is needed into how children interact with the new medium and effective ways to include read-along voice-overs. Finally, publishers should analyze what parts of the reading experience are not well addressed by Gorgeous Apps and ensure their new creations go some way to filling the gaps.

These creations need not be isolated e-books; they may be e-books that include components based in the web or other media. A challenge for publishers embarking on these projects will be assembling teams which combine strong technical as well as creative skills. Indeed, it is likely that these teams will start to resemble software start-ups that iterate rapidly and employ usability testing to verify whether a given technique is working or not.

For the publisher prepared to experiment with new content forms, the payback will be a clear vision of the future of digital publishing. Furthermore, these publishers will be best equipped to turn their backlist of treasured picture books into equally compelling e-books.

Robin Birtle is the founder of Sakkam Press Ltd and can be contacted at robin dot birtle at sakkampress dot com.

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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.