By Andrew Kelly
BOLOGNA: After attending sessions at an Australian publishing forum in Beijing just a few days before, walking into the Tools of Change for Publishing conference at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this past Sunday felt like stepping back out of a time machine.
And it wasn’t just a symptom of jet lag.
The message I heard repeatedly at the TOC conference was about how robust the children’s book industry — despite doubts about the adult side of the business — and just how far we have come in developing increasingly sophisticated children’s books, particularly digital children’s books.
China feels like it is where the publishing industry of the United States was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, focused on adult-driven children’s literature and concerned with teaching children good morals. In the 1970s publishers, teachers and librarians began to listen to what children wanted, and children became more and more engaged with reading.
The Chinese government tightly controls publishing in China, with only the state-owned publishers being allowed to have ISBNs, which are required for publishing a book. The government view publishing as something it needs to control and, accordingly, foreign involvement is highly curtailed and policed. As a result, China has a very top-down style of publishing.
Chinese parents worry about their children reading too much for leisure, as their children face two very tough exams: one to get into a good high school, taken at around age 14, and one to get into a good university, taken at around 18. But children’s reading in China is on the cusp of radical change and young Chinese are beginning to assert themselves. As Jackie Huang of Andrew Nurnberg & Associates, said, “They [young readers] want to be independent. They want to read writers who write for themselves.”
In contrast, the opening of the Tools of Change conference featured an impressive keynote speech by Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks. Dominique is a dynamic and generous presenter, and what she said was a marked contrast to what was happening with top-down publishing approach pursued in China.
She quoted Publishing Perspectives’ Ed Nawotka as saying that what makes a children’s book great is “the sheer exhilaration of falling in love with a book.” She added that digital publishing posed the question, “Can we make the warmth, the connection, the joy, the bonding…better?”
Raccah noted that the past 50 years there has been a marked shift towards placing the child center-stage. “For a long-time we made kids read what we wanted them to read. Digital is about choice.” And, she pointed out the analytics are showing that innovation driven by digital is inspiring children to read more.
Of course, any innovation should start with the customer experience and this means catering to child readers. As an example, Raccah cited Sourcebooks’ own Put Me in the Story app, which allows the child to “star” in best-selling books. The app allows each book to be personalized with a child’s photo, name and other options all of which are unique to each title. What’s more, she added, there is “interaction” between a personalized digital edition and print and children love to receive a print copy of their personalized book, which can be ordered online. Interestingly she said 50% of the orders are gifts. Dominique’s speech notes are available on the blog at putmeinthestory.com.
Books are now “touchable, social, experimental and deeply personal,” said Raccah.
It is almost the exact opposite of what I heard discussed in China.
Andrew Kelly is the publisher of Wild Dog, a children’s books publisher in Melbourne, Australia.