This past Tuesday afternoon, children’s book publishers convened at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City (former home of the B. Altman department store) for its annual meeting. Executive director Robin Adelson told members that that CBC had successfully completed a move to its new location at 54 West 39th Street, and a treasurer’s report showed that the CBC had made a profit for the third year in a row. Ongoing efforts for the organization include building Children’s Book Week to make it bigger and more well-known, and raising awareness of the Children’s Choice Book Awards. Adelson also gave word of the CBC’s next big project: a national public awareness campaign, in which parents and caregivers will be asked to take a pledge to read to children 10 minutes a day. CBC is a founding partner in this initiative, along with Famous Amos founder and longtime literacy advocate Wally Amos, and other partners. The initiative should launch sometime around next year’s Children’s Book Week, Adelson said.
The first of the meeting’s two speakers—Mary Amicucci, the new v-p of children’s books at Barnes & Noble—gave some insight into ways that she and her team try to understand customer desires and behavior. “Children influence a myriad of people around them,” she said. “Understanding all of these influences will help us find ways to connect to our customers.” One of her key points: “The beauty of children’s books is that our customers live in the moment.” And she described the importance of the shopping experience, the moment when the customer is standing in front of the books and understanding why they need a particular book in their homes. “We want to create an experience that lasts long after the customer leaves our stores,” she said.
Amicucci gave the example of a holiday promotion that will be in B&N stores this coming November. She described her team’s brainstorming process, which involved doing research and looking at historical sales for the holidays. “What’s in the minds of our customers at this time of year?” was the question they pondered. “We decided to celebrate the family, and go after a cooking theme,” she said, “to celebrate the family through cupcakes, cookies, and gingerbread.” Then she discovered there weren’t enough frontlist titles for this promotion, and had to scale it back a bit. However, she said she plans to continue thinking along those lines; “as publishers and as retailers, we need to partner together to think about the child, and to celebrate these moments.”
To conclude, she spoke of how excited she was about the future of children’s books, and said she hoped to work with publishers “to find new and exciting ways to delight and satisfy our customers.”
The program’s second speaker was Nick Bilton, lead technology writer for the Bits blog at the New York Times, and author of the just-published I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works. His talk about the future, and what it might mean for book publishers, was enlightening and also somewhat unsettling for some in the room. “In the next generation,” he said, “everything will be a game,” citing Foursquare as a current example, and using Twitter as an example of how instantaneously news can be disseminated.
Bilton described the research labs, R&D projects, and analytics teams at the Times, which all have the goal of looking into the future. On the Internet, “we’re consuming a tremendous amount of information.” If you visit 200 sites a day, you may see an average of 600,000 words. “That can be overwhelming to say the least.” Companies are currently developing solutions, he said, so that people will no longer feel so overwhelmed.
After describing a flexible reading device that’s currently being developed for the military and won’t be available for commercial use for the next several years, he asked, “What will this mean for books, if they are no longer printed?” The key, he answered, is smart content, which will apply to every industry. “You get dumb content when it comes to your doorstep. But what if it knew that you didn’t like the sports section?” Also in the future, he says, your content will be able to follow you around between devices, and will know if you have already read certain articles and not show them to you. “If you can do it with your email, why can’t I do it with my book?”
Though scientists disagree, Bilton says, and claim that the brain can’t evolve so quickly, he says it’s clear that brains have adapted, for multitasking and for reading, an activity that’s very recent on the evolutionary scale. “Our brains were never designed to read,” he said. “That’s our brains adapting.”
Going online is a completely new narrative, in his view. “Kids are learning a digital literacy and there is nothing to say one is better than the other. It’s just a different kind of storytelling. Everything about storytelling is changing.
Bilton did say that he didn’t see books going away, though in his view, “the next generation will have a much closer connection with devices than a piece of paper.” Food for thought, for all of the children’s publishers in the room.
Talk about the program was lively among publishers, at the cocktail hour that followed. “Whether they agreed with or disagreed with the speakers,” Adelson said, “everyone was discussing what they had just heard.”