On the eve of the 49th annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair, an international crowd of just under 400 turned out for the second Tools of Change Bologna, an espresso-fueled daylong conference held Sunday at the Palazzo dei Congressi, on the fairgrounds. Apps vs. e-books? HTML5 vs. EPUB 3? Apple vs. Android? The questions were many, and the answers—discussed in four keynote addresses and nearly two dozen breakout sessions—perhaps fewer. Integrity of e-products, especially those intended for children, was a recurring theme (“Digital is just another format,” said Andrew Sharp of Hachette Children’s UK at one of the afternoon panels. “Hold true to your current ideals”), as was the array of digital options available to publishers, each with their advantages and disadvantages in terms of development costs, pricing, competition, and more.
In opening keynote addresses, Russell Hampton, president of Disney Publishing Worldwide, and Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks, drew from their companies’ experience to provide overviews of the current state of children’s e-publishing. Hampton noted that one in four homes in the U.S. now has access to a tablet like the iPad, and he expects that number to double in the next two years. “Kids with access to digital devices are reading more,” he said, and e-products are “getting reluctant readers to engage like they never did before.”
Hampton used The Son of Neptune (2011), the second book in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, to illustrate the growth of the children’s e-book market: 38% percent of that book’s first-week sales were digital, and that figure holds at 20% of sales to date. Disney’s strong positioning in the digital marketplace was also evident: the company has more than 30 apps available, and their e-products regularly appear in the top spots in the App Store and other marketplaces globally. “The digital revolution is about giving readers choice,” Hampton said; by allowing readers to find the products they want where, when, and how they want them, “we will reap the rewards of digital success.”
Raccah’s presentation offered a general overview of the children’s e-publishing landscape, including a reminder that while growth is exponential, this is a nascent (though crucial) part of the business. Sourcebooks’ e-book sales were up nearly 800% in 2011 (accounting for 28% of total revenue), but children’s and teen titles made up only 2% of that figure. “Physical distribution is still very, very important,” said Raccah, a sentiment echoed by other publishers throughout the day.
Declaring that we are in the middle of “the transition that will define the future of the book,” Raccah also discussed some of the more recent players on the children’s scene (including Scholastic’s Storia and Capstone’s myON as well as challenges (file size, pricing, a multitude of platforms and formats, discoverability) and trends like the growing functionality of e-books, with such features as animation, narration, and interactivity becoming more common.
The sheer difficulty of competing in the app space surfaced in several of the panels and presentations that took place over the afternoon. The crux of the app versus e-book dilemma: apps are more expensive to produce, face greater competition (there are more than 600,000 apps in Apple’s App Store, where publishers are up against games and other entertainment), yet need to be priced low. “Apps that cost more than $.99 or $1.99 are seen as a rip-off,” said Woody Sears, founder of Zuuka. E-books are comparatively inexpensive to produce, are often sold through sites tailored to book buyers, and can command higher prices despite having less features (for now). “Audio is essential,” said Kevin O’Connor, director of business development and content acquisition at Nook Kids, while adding, “Be smart about animation. Not every book needs bells and whistles.”
And all those flashy app features may not always be a good thing. Besides not always being true to the story or narrative, they can sometimes even “disrupt” learning, as Junko Yokota of the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books noted in her afternoon keynote. Yokota used the example of a child and adult reading a Beatrix Potter app, which featured leaves and berries that floated around the story’s pages and could be moved with fingertip swipes. The child was so distracted by on playing with the leaves that the grandmother couldn’t read the story. She saw value, however, in the ability of an app to offer instant translations into multiple languages (even though those may not reflect “storybook language.”
For publishers just dipping their toes into the digital world, as well as those more that are established, the afternoon panels offered helpful suggestions and advice, if not definitive solutions. In a presentation titled “The Discovery Problem,” Hermés Piqué of Robot Media used humor in his “poor man’s guide to app discovery” (since the real tools needed, he joked, are money and black magic), suggesting publishers “code discoverability into your app” and noting that the app icon (one of the few pieces of info that customers see when making an app purchase) is the “most important design element of an app.” “Market locally,” suggested Sharp at Hachette. “[Your app] may be available globally,” but that doesn’t do much good if you “only have one core country where there’s marketing.”
The closing keynote belonged to Elizabeth Wood, the director of digital publishing for Worldreader, a nonprofit organization that provides children in developing countries without books or libraries with access to reading material. “If you don’t have books, you’ll never have the opportunity to become a book lover,” Wood said. Worldreader’s efforts have heretofore involved sending Kindles to students, who use the e-readers both at school and at home, with new books regularly pushed out to the devices (the group estimates that a single device ends up being used by three to five people). The organization’s next move will be the release of a Worldreader app, which allows users access to the entire, free Worldreader library and—most impressively—will work not just on smartphones but on less advanced “feature phones,” which are much more common in the developing world.
The day closed with the announcement of the first-ever Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award, which went to Dans Mon Reve, a French mix-and-match app from e-Toiles Editions. Attendees were left with a quote from Pixar’s John Lasseter: “The art challenges the technology and the technology inspires the art.” Fitting words for a day in which both challenges and inspiration were readily on display.