More than 250 people tuned in Tuesday afternoon for Publishers Weekly’s first webinar conducted in partnership with Digital Book World. Entitled “Children’s Publishing in the Digital Age,” the webcast focused on the whirlwind of technological advances in children’s publishing, touching on everything from apps (both original and book-based) and digital marketing to the threat devices like the iPad might pose to picture books. PW’s Jim Milliot moderated the panel, which consisted of Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books; Rick Richter, founder of Ruckus Media and former president of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing; and Kate Wilson, founder of London-based Nosy Crow and former managing director of Scholastic U.K.

The panelists opened with brief presentations about their companies’ efforts in the digital sphere. Katz, a 23-year veteran of HarperCollins, explained that the house’s digital marketing strategies for children, tweens, and teens center around “creat[ing] a direct dialogue with consumers,” rather than relying on retailers as in decades past. “Now because of digital devices, we have this fabulous opportunity to sell directly to consumers,” she said.

For children up to age eight, “Parents are the direct point of contact,” said Katz, citing e-newsletters and Web sites targeted to mothers, such as and For tweens, Katz said that HarperCollins has been creating “game-centric destinations, where activities are built around our franchise authors and franchise brands” like the Warriors or Big Nate series, as well as partnerships with Web sites like Poptropica.

And because, Katz noted, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (which restricts marketing to children under 13) doesn’t apply to teenagers, Harper can “interact with [teen] consumers in a way that’s much more similar to an adult.” Katz couldn’t reveal many details about a soon-to-launch network of teen-focused Web sites the publisher is planning, in addition to its current online marketing efforts to teens (which include the use of social networking and QR codes), but said that it would feature channels for paranormal, romance, and dystopian fiction, as well as other popular genres.

Richter, who is on his third startup with Ruckus Media (following previous positions with Picture Book Studio and Candlewick Press), said that this newest venture is focused exclusively on the digital market. “My sole goal here is to try drive the app world. For me, it’s the most interesting part of digital publishing right now.”

Rather than an “either-or” company (from which a consumer would either purchase an app or a book), Richter said he considers Ruckus an “either-and” company and that its apps will offer links to “drive people to bookstores.” Ruckus has an extensive backlist (from the Rabbit Ears Library) that it is bringing to the app format, and this week the company is releasing its first original app: A Present for Milo by Mike Austin; Austin’s agent, Richter said, has just made a three-book deal with a publisher (Blue Apple) “on the back of this app.”

Richter also highlighted challenges on the digital frontier, not least of which is “discoverability” in a ballooning market. He noted that there are 20,000 children’s apps in Apple’s App Store, “and 19,500 terrible children’s apps.”

Wilson said that Nosy Crow isn’t limiting itself to digital products, but rather is a “publisher of print, e-books, and apps” that “view[s] intellectual property when it comes in and think[s] about how it’s best suited for delivery.” Calling Nosy Crow a “personal, informal, and mom-friendly” outfit, Wilson said the company’s goals are to connect, curate, collaborate, and create, “bringing together a wide range of talents, across a wider range of media.” At its most basic, that can mean adding animation and music, among other interactive enhancements, to the text and art found in traditional books.

Nosy Crow’s first two products, an app and a book, are due in early 2011. After showing some images from the development of its forthcoming app 3-D Fairy Tales: The Three Little Pigs, Wilson emphasized the importance of commissioning projects to take advantage of the various features of digital devices (such as the iPhone’s accelerometer, which allows the device to respond when it’s being tilted) as well as to not “disappoint the child who is used to touch-screen interactivity.” Which is to say: the bar is only going to be raised higher.

The panelists also answered questions submitted by those listening to the webcast. First up was a question about whether teens actually use quick response or QR codes (bar codes that require users to take a photo of the code with a smartphone to unlock digital extras). Katz said she didn’t have a number handy, but believed that Harper’s use of them, such as on books by reality TV star Lauren Conrad, have been successful, and that they “will prevail more and more.”

Opinions were mixed on how devices like the iPad and Nook Color might affect the picture book market. Katz felt that Harper’s strong picture-book brands would be unhurt, but acknowledged that the devices could present a “challenge for smaller picture books that aren’t as well known.” And while Richter said that apps can feed picture books and vice versa, Wilson’s outlook was less rosy. Urging publishers to pay attention to what customers want, she said that as a mother, “On the move, there is no question I would rather carry with my packet of raisins, cookies, change of clothes... a lot of exciting stuff compressed into one device. I think there’s a good chance mobile devices will replace those scruffy copies of books carried around” (at least while waiting in doctor’s offices or at bus stops). Wilson, however, also added that she believes there is “beauty in a beautifully produced picture book,” and there is “something quieter and more peaceful about the [print] book and page-turning experience.”

After an illustrator asked how tech-savvy children’s book artists need to be, Wilson said Nosy Crow is “working with people with a range of technical ability,” but that the most important thing is to have “the spark of imagination. [Artists] have to understand what a truly interactive app is and does. Once they’ve done that, it’s possible to introduce other people... who can help make that process happen.”

Milliot asked Richter whether the print publisher was reluctant to purchase A Present for Milo since digital rights were already taken, but Richter said, “In fact, they were very supportive.” Asked whether she would acquire a book for which digital rights were already sold, Katz deferred, saying, “I’ll leave that for another day.”

And while Richter got a laugh for saying he planned to attend the 2011 Bologna Book Fair “as an app,” both Katz and Wilson said they believe the show won’t be losing its importance anytime soon. “To me, Bologna is about a community of people who care about children’s reading experiences,” said Wilson. “Will that be necessary [going forward]? Of course it will be.”