The Westminster Room at the London Book Fair proved to be a study in contrasts on the first morning of the fair this past Monday. Two consecutive conferences discussed issues pivotal to the future of the publishing industry as it wrestles with—and readjusts to the effects of—technology. The conferences showcased a stark difference in the way the old guard and the new guard of children's book publishing could engage with the evolving possibilities online.
For the first conference, Children's Literature and Digital Imagination, there was a glut of people waiting outside the doors upon arrival. The conference was... full. Full?! Full. This alone seemed to speak to the interest in and curiosity about digitization. People were none too pleased to be shut out, however. "Anyone else see the irony in a conference about digitization not having the foresight to have an online pre-registration?," a disgruntled woman noted dryly.
Those who managed to get inside heard the opinions of Neal Hopkins (of Winged Chariot Press), Amanda Wood (of Templar), and author Naomi Alderman. Hopkins spoke about how digital books have much in common with games, as both require "an interactivity to move the story forward." However, Alderman suggested that the industry really needs new nomenclature for this digital medium. Neither "book" nor "game" is quite apt to describe something like Alderman's The Winter House, an online short story, with visuals by Jey Biddulph, that is both linear and interactive. Trying to pigeonhole evolving technological developments doesn't do justice to the work or honor the medium it is being lumped in with, Alderman reasoned.
For Alderman, new media is exciting, not something that compromises traditional and beloved forms of storytelling. "I hear a lot of fear from writers and publishers, but there are a lot of amazing things you can do onscreen that you can't do on the page," she said. Digitized books create new roles between writers, designers, illustrators, and publishers—all of these parties want to tell stories, and with this shared desire at the heart, their collaboration can have compelling results thanks to the fusion of different skills, she added.
Alderman feels that the best use of these new methodologies is "something native to the format," saying that to attempt a transposition of what already exists won't do it justice outside of the way it was conceived. Adapting traditional imagery is not always possible onscreen, she said, or even necessarily desirable. Digital books are still in an interim period where creativity can be stretched, but a balance between what is commercially viable with what experimental methods could bring has yet to be established.
Although the written description of the seminar forewarned that "the emphasis will be on the creative aspects of the work rather than the copyright and economic issues," these topics inevitably arose. One audience member queried how to market "iPads and jam"—in other words, how to make high tech tools and digitized stories accessible to children. The response was, barely jokingly, that a Fisher-Price version would probably be on its way any minute. But moreover, as both the panelists and audience members said, children now have tech devices in their daily lives from the get-go, as they observe dad on his cell phone and want to play with mom's digital camera. The idea of technology being beyond the reach of childhood has already expired; technology is part of the world, and part of growing up. As Alderman noted, "The kind of work [on new media digitized stories] is going to be done by people who are three years old right now. We're only paving the way."
The digital seminar was followed by a session called Strategies of Children's Bookshops in the Face of Online Competition. Moderator Jonathan Douglas was jovial and inquisitive as he asked John Newham (of Newham Bookshop) and Simon MacKay (manager of a Foyles Bookshop) how their local shops coped with the vastness of an online market. Both Newham and MacKay responded that they have employed the same strategies they always have. That is to say, to deal with online competition, they do business as usual but with a bit more zeal.
Both speakers emphasized that their shops operate on a community-based scale and feature quality service and expertise for customers, with occasional events. Douglas pointed out that this emphasis on public service sounded like the role of a library, not a retail environment. Moreover, this method of creating an in-store sanctuary consolidates an already established market instead of integrating newer, tech-forward generations. But neither MacKay nor Newham seemed eager to adapt to suit the habits of new customers. Their maintain-the-status-quo attitudes seemed to increasingly exasperate Douglas, who kept trying to elicit responses about how to confront the fact that a contemporary customer knows how to Google a title and navigate Amazon.
The respect for the tradition of bringing books to kids was obvious, but an unwillingness to confront the presence of online book-buying could prove problematic, said Douglas. Regarding the threat of the wide world of the web, MacKay argued that "if you think about it too much you stop doing what you do well." Douglas countered that if you don't think about it too much, you could blind yourself to a market that has enormous power. The reality that technology is steadily encroaching on and morphing access to literature will occur whether or not shops make some concessions to their old tactics. Douglas asked the booksellers what online presence they did have. Newham and Foyles each have Facebook pages and Web sites, though the speakers conceded that their online presence is secondary to the idea of creating an in-store experience.
While both conferences discussed the online influence in children's publishing, the enthusiastic response in the first panel, and the reluctant reactions in the second highlight the fact that new media is a subject that people react strongly to. Naomi Alderman's point that technology doesn't need to replace the past but open the possibilities seems to be the most harmonious approach to dealing with this phenomenon. The seminar showed those who might grumble about new formats that they could also be pleasantly surprised by them.
This carries over into the content of publishing as well. Brenda Gardner, publisher and managing director of Piccadilly Press, noted that, at last month's Bologna Fair, "aside from a pick-up of interest in picture books... I did notice that anything with a twist in the tale, anything just slightly different in the plot was very well received." New ideas do not have to dethrone old ones, in form or content, but readers and publishers alike could well be delighted by these twists.