The TOC Bologna conference may be no more, but this year's Bologna Book Fair attendees had a chance to get several perspectives on the ongoing impact that changing technologies are having on children’s publishing at the first Digital Rights Workshop, held on Wednesday afternoon. The workshop was held in association with IfBookThen, an annual conference that explores the future of publishing (organized by Italian e-bookstore BookRepublic), and its participants emphasized a need to think nimbly and flexibly, whether one is a traditional publisher, a developer, an agent, or an author.
Eric Huang, development director at children’s media company Made in Me, opened with a keynote address that traced his own career path, from a kid who “loved geeky things” to his attempts at working in film, which eventually led to positions with Disney Publishing, Penguin Australia and U.K., Mind Candy, and elsewhere. Using his own successes and missteps as evidence, Huang built his presentation around four areas: brand over format, user experience, iteration, and discoverability.
With regard to branding, Huang spoke of his time at Disney and Penguin (“Love them or hate them,” he said of Disney, “they are a master of brands”); regarding iteration, he encouraged publishers to think the way app creators do, regularly releasing updates, bug fixes, and adjustments to their products. “If you put something out and it’s not perfect, it’s OK,” said Huang, “because you can constantly test and tweak it.”
Describing his time with Made in Me, whose free Me Books app offers a large library of digital children’s books available for in-app purchase, Huang shared that consumers’ behavior in digital shopping environments often mirrors their activity in physical ones (“The first thing people click on are offers”), that being proactive is key (“Apple and Amazon aren’t going to help you. You can’t wait for Apple to feature you [in the App Store]”), and that discoverability and marketing remain crucial. “Banner ads simply don’t work. Print ads don’t seem to do anything,” he said of Made in Me’s efforts to draw in app downloads through those avenues. “What does work is promotion with brands. We look for companies with bigger traffic than ours and try to convert their traffic to ours.”
Following Huang’s presentation, literary scout Katie McCalmont of Maria B. Campbell Associates moderated a panel featuring Stephen Barbara, an agent at Foundry Literary + Media; Cecilia de la Campa, director of children’s subsidiary rights at Writers House; and Janelle Deluise, associate director of subsidiary rights at Scholastic. The panelists explored the intricacies of digital rights with regard to international publishing partners, and Barbara also spoke about The Studio, the just-launched e-publishing imprint from his client Paper Lantern Lit.
Although the panelists represent their authors’ interests in different capacities and to different markets, they were often in agreement on several points. All three found Brazilian publishers to be strong, innovative international partners for digital endeavors, with a knack for social media campaigns and marketing. “They’re doing something right,” said Deluise, adding that they have a “very sophisticated e-book market.”
The prohibitive costs of translation (which de la Campa referred to as “the elephant in the room”) came up as a factor at multiple points during the discussion. When both Barbara and de la Campa discussed the creation and selling of e-novellas to international markets, de la Campa said that the cost of translation (on the part of the foreign publisher) had led them to simply give away the e-novellas as a promotional piece for them to use. She also noted that some publishers opted to print the e-novellas, adapting the digital content in a way that made sense in their home markets.
De la Campa also found that giving away assets (such as e-novellas or book trailers) to foreign publishing partners to use as they saw fit made more sense than trying to charge for them. “It’s better for building an international brand,” she said. However, both de la Campa and Deluise were adamant that they were not interested in treating ebook rights as a subsidiary right.
What Barbara described as a “waning enthusiasm for apps” on the part of publishers was attributed in part to “prohibitive” costs and in part to a lack of evidence that they’re all that beneficial. Having an app “is not going to guarantee more book sales,” said Deluise. “It’s not a proven success yet.”
The final part of the presentation belonged to Ashleigh Gardner, head of content and publishing at Wattpad. Gardner emphasized Wattpad’s role as a writing-driven social network, one with impressive numbers backing it up: the site has 25 million visitors monthly (Gardner noted that this is a group that has “self-selected” as readers), and two millions uploads, with users who typically spend 30 minutes on the site in a session.
The nimble thinking Huang described in his opening address was evident in Gardner’s descriptions of the ways Wattpad adapts in reaction to how readers and fans were interacting with the stories. Among the native features Wattpad has added: allowing users to easily create Instagram “quote art” and a feature that lets them “cast” the actors playing the characters in the imagined film versions of Wattpad stories. Both changes were driven by things members were already doing on their own. Gardner also mentioned Photoshop fan art, fan-created soundtracks, and even cosplay as ways that Wattpad readers are investing in the stories on the site.
Gardner also discussed how Wattpad is being attentive to their authors’ copyright and the potential for piracy, as well as how they are working with traditional publishers and established authors. (Random House acquired Beth Reekles’s The Kissing Booth at last year’s Bologna Fair, Sourcebooks partnered with the site this past year to find new YA talent, and Margaret Atwood is among the site’s millions of users.) Some authors have even been serializing previously released work on Wattpad, posting chapters on a weekly basis – with a link to buy the full book online “if you can’t wait” for the next installment, Gardner said.
Gardner believes that the social aspects of Wattpad are among its key strengths, from the encouragement and feedback writers receive for the work they post to their ability to cultivate a fan base and share that demographic evidence with potential print publishers. “What Wattpad is good at is building fans,” Gardner said. “Everyone that comments [on a story], follows you, or votes – those actions appear on their feed. The audience has an audience as well.”