In today’s connected, social media world, kids are increasingly becoming empowered consumers. So how are publishers looking to connect with kids in the digital age--and what works? On Wednesday, a Digital Book World panel moderated by Kristen McLean, founder and CEO of Bookigee.com, assembled a slate of heavy hitters to discuss a critical question: what are the challenges and opportunities as technology begins to change the way publishers and kids connect?
The panelincluded Jacob Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Figment, an online community for teens and young adults; Sara Shandler, v-p and editorial director at Alloy Entertainment, a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series, and films; Lyle Underkoffler, v-p, Digital Media at Disney; and Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media.
Amid all the uncertainty of the digital age for publishers, McLean noted in her intro, children’s books have been a bright spot for the book business. Since Harry Potter, they have gone from being an “admirable side-project” to become a “stable, recession-proof” business that serves to turn kids into lifelong readers. But figuring out how to reach readers "is becoming a really critical issue,” McLean noted. “We are seeing the breakdown of traditional marketing.” In today’s world, she said, third-party marketing is rapidly losing influence to personal recommendations on social networking sites, bloggers, and fan sites. How can publishers navigate this new world—and is a “cradle-to-college” strategy that would move readers from one series to the next age-appropriate series feasible?
Lewis began, saying it was possible to curate a community of kids, but that kids were really only interested in doing things in their own way. He talked about a social network prototype his company had worked on with kids, but said it felt like a party where kids were forced to wear nametags, and suggested that building one’s own social network was not worthwhile, because kids already have one: Facebook. “It’s ludicrous to try to mimic that.” Shandler said keeping kids’ attention and transitioning them from series-to-series as they grow would be a great, but added that was more an industry wish than a kid’s wish.
Underkoffler and Forte were less moved by the idea of a cradle-to-college connection. Focusing on “great franchises and storytelling” is the key, Underkoffler said, noting that Toy Story, for example, has an over-18 audience. Forte agreed, adding that the real challenge is “keeping a personal relationship with a kid in a digital age with so much noise.” The book world, she noted, is more quiet. But as books move to screens, screens present a new challenge, because of all that kids can do with them, from games to Web sites to social networking and cartoons. She also noted that younger kids are not on Facebook, and that most of that marketing is obviously done through parents and teachers—but, still, if you want to keep a connection with kids you have to focus on creating an experience they love.
You do that, the panel agreed, by creating ancillary, additive elements enabled by the digital age, and by conceiving of projects not just as books that can, for example, be made into movies, but as properties designed to work in all mediums: books, Web sites, TV shows, games, movies. “When we develop a project, we think, what is the book, what is the Web site, what is the TV show, the film," Sghandler said. "It used to be here is the book, maybe it will take off.” She conceded that necessitates a change in the way authors and publishers work—no more is it just about writing “eight hours a day” but also about launching platforms where authors are visible, where readers can interact and be part of the author’s world. “It’s not just about writing, but engaging with the audience. Books shouldn’t be written in a vacuum.”
The panel also agreed that kids love to feel like they are a part of an author's world, that they have “remarkable radar for corporate marketing,” and they love to interact with authors as well as each other. “I can put an excerpt up online and no one will read it,” Lewis said. “But if I put an author in a forum, they will flock to it. If you make your authors available, kids will flock to them.” Forte noted that kids don’t pay attention to critics or reviews—“they want to go on Rotten Tomatoes and vote. They want to see their vote.”
McClean ended by asking the panelists to outline what they felt was the biggest challenge for publishers going forward, prompting some insightful parting thoughts. “Reinventing a legacy industry,” Underkoffler said; “changing the infrastructure” to support a new model going forward, much like others, such as the music industry, have faced.
“Communicating a new value proposition for digital reading,” Forte asserted. “A paperback book is a good value proposition if it is a good story.” Value in the digital world, she stressed, will come with products that are better than the ones kids currently have.
“Connecting with kids so that reading stays relevant,” Shandler said.
Discoverability, on both sides,” Lewis concluded, noting the power of technology to both help publishers know their customers better and to better get their products in front of customers.