E-books may date from the early 1970s, when Michael Hart launched Project Gutenberg, but the revolution in e-books for kids has only just begun. True, three novels from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series were library distributor Overdrive's three most downloaded e-books for 2008, but adult and children's digital books combined still make up a small percentage of book sales—less than 1% of revenue at Random House, according to Bertelsmann CEO Markus Dohle in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal. And only recently have children's e-books become fully integrated into even the largest houses' publishing strategies.

Amazon's recently unveiled Kindle 2.

HarperCollins, which began publishing e-books in its adult division in 2001, typifies the experience of many publishers. E-books for children didn't become “absolutely standard operating procedure” in six e-book formats, including the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, on print publication date until this winter, says Ana Maria Allessi, v-p, publisher of Harper Media. In fact, it was Harper's success with moving selected backlist titles by Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman and Beverly Cleary into e-book formats beginning 18 months ago that led to the decision. “I really do think it makes for more readers,” says Allessi, who plans to continue adding more backlist e-books.

Looking for the Sweet Spot

The Stanza application for
the iPhone.

It's no secret that teens live online—Twittering, blogging, posting videos on YouTube and downloading from iTunes—or that most teens (80%, according to a national survey last fall) have cellphones. Together that adds up to a sizable potential market for mobile phone and Web-based e-books. Google and Amazon have no intention of ceding that business to developers of iPhone apps like Stanza. Earlier this month, they announced that they will provide e-content for mobile phones. Google will release 1.5 million public domain titles; Amazon will adapt books already in the Kindle format.

Like earlier technological innovations such as the Walkman, prices for e-readers will clearly drop. But for now, few teens can stretch their allowances to buy one. Nor is it likely that any of the e-readers on the horizon, such as the Plastic Logic 8½”×11” e-reader due out next year or the large-screen iPod Touch rumored for fall release, will be cheaper than, say, the current 8GB Touch, which has a suggested retail price of $229. And one of the most promising e-readers—a paper-thin, flexible electronic screen that can be rolled up and stored in a pocket—won't be available for civilians anytime soon; it is being developed to provide soldiers with lightweight access to maps and other printed material.

“We should worry less about the delivery system and more about inculcating sustained reading in kids,” says Michele Rubin, an agent at Writers House. “Books are something they should see as enjoyable.” No one is arguing. In fact, one scenario that publishers are exploring to raise the fun quotient is mixed media à la Scholastic's The 39 Clues (the series combines traditional books with online gaming and card collecting).

Patrick Carman's newly released ghost mystery, Skeleton Creek (Scholastic, Feb.), offers a book and dedicated Web site with videos, while The Amanda Project by Stella Lennon (HarperCollins, Sept. 2009) is even more ambitious. This mystery series, aimed at girls ages 12—14, brings together traditional print with Web games, social networking, blogs, music and merchandise.

Not that being online necessarily indicates success. One of the few successful children’s books to start out as a Web exclusive, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Abrams/Amulet), gained even more traction when it moved offline. It was initially “published” in 2004 on Funbrain.com and garnered more than seven million visits in a year and a half. Since Diary of a Wimpy Kid launched in book form in spring 2007, it and its three follow-ups have become enormous bestsellers, with a combined 11 million copies in print.

The Great E-Book Grab

Part of what's driving digital content for kids is the sense that the e-frontier could be publishing's new Wild West, offering a land of opportunity in a troubled industry. “We're very gung-ho on e-books,” says Don Weisberg, president of Penguin Young Readers Group. “We as publishers have to be ready for it all. However anybody wants to consume a book—on your computer, on an e-book reader or a printed book—we're going to be there.”

In addition, Penguin, like other children's book publishers, is experimenting with cross-promotions to spur sales of e-books and traditional print. Starting in mid-January, the children's division ran a monthlong giveaway of The Ruins of Gorlan, the first volume in John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series. Penguin also posted easily downloadable e-books on Scribd.com, an Internet startup that aspires to be the YouTube of books and other written documents. The giveaway was timed to coincide with the paperback release of the fourth book in the series, The Battle for Skandia. To generate excitement for the August release of the sixth book, The Siege of Macindaw, bloggers who embedded the e-book got an advance reader's copy of that title.

Although it's too soon for all the metrics to be available, Penguin is pleased with the response. In the first two weeks, 20,000 people downloaded Flanagan's book, 10 times more than participated in a similar promotion for Ingrid Law's Savvy (Dial/Walden Media) last spring. Forty blogs hosted the giveaway and another 1,000 sites mentioned it and drove readers to Penguin's Web site.

In December, Simon Pulse offered a similar digital download as part of its viral marketing campaign for the omnibus editions of L.J. Smith's Night World series. “It was hard to measure the impact on hardcover sales, because it was the holidays,” says Mara Anastas, v-p, deputy publisher for Simon Pulse and Aladdin, who notes that “while the growth is exponential in e-books, the raw sales aren't close to hardcovers.” Even so, the house saw enough of a spike in e-book sales for Night World that it is going to see how well it will work to promote the final volume (book 10) in D.J. MacHale's Pendragon series, The Soldiers of Halla (May), with an e-book download of the first book. Simon & Schuster is also working on its first children's e-book original, which will be released later this year.

Hachette, which currently has 250 children's and YA titles available as e-books, is also using digital books to drive series sales for other e-books in the same series. “In the digital world, the last page of a book is the first page of the next. For a series like Gossip Girl or The Clique, readers can be captured in the moment of heat when they finish the first book—and then they are easily able to start on the next,” says Maja Thomas, senior v-p of Hachette Digital and Audio.

One of the attractions of e-books for teens, she adds, is that reading becomes a social activity. “There are good things to be said about the book as a solitary pleasure,” Thomas says. “But with an e-book you can highlight and share a line instantly—e-mail it, Twitter it. It becomes a communal activity.” That's one reason that, as the company upgrades Web sites for its two most popular brands, the Twilight series (TheTwilightSaga.com) and its Poppy imprint (PickaPoppy.com), it will link to an iPhone app in the Apple store and offer downloadable audio and e-book samplers.

Learning to Read the E-Book Way

Even enthusiastic embracers of digital books for teens, like Kristin McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, who sees educational e-readers as a solution to the problem of the 50-pound backpack, have difficulty envisioning picture books going digital. “Books like The Black Book of Colors (Groundwood) will never translate,” she says.

Whether it's the exception that will prove the rule or the beginning of a trend, this past weekend, on Valentine's Day, Sourcebooks became the first major print publisher to release an enhanced digital picture book, Laura Duksta's I Love You More. The mixed-media edition enables readers to turn off the audio or read along with it. Duksta is the voice of the mother, while illustrator Karen Keesler reads the son's part. “This is all about extending the author's voice and driving people inside the book,” says publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah. “We want to keep people focused on the story.” She sees a home market for busy parents who load the book on their laptops, as well as a school market where e-picture books will augment work in the classroom but not replace teachers reading books to their students.

Even so, publishers have few options when it comes to marketing e—picture books. Amazon is rumored to be readying a way to add them to its Look Inside program, while financially troubled LookyBook.com, one of Time magazine's 50 best Web sites of 2008, currently comes closest to replicating the experience of turning the pages of a physical book. “The whole premise of the site,” says cofounder and children's book author and illustrator Craig Frazier, “was to make it a unique experience, like being in a bookstore.” The site showcases 500 titles and draws nearly 60,000 monthly visits.

While LookyBook was designed to spur consumer sales, software like Follett Digital Resources's new Follett Digital Reader was created to provide a better e-book experience in schools and libraries, using interactive whiteboards connected to a computer and projector. “Our new reader will make picture books more viable in a digital format,” says v-p of eContent Markets Steve Siegel. “It's really going to engage students unlike anything in the past.” The reader is free, although Follett is weighing moving to a subscription model for e-books. Its current pricing structure is akin to purchasing a physical book.

Some e-book programs, like Scholastic's BookFlix, are being developed to help beginning readers learn independently or in groups on computers in classrooms or school libraries. BookFlix pairs video storybooks of children's classics like Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day from Weston Woods with nonfiction e-books like Katie Marsico's Snowy Weather Days from Scholastic.

Trouble in Paradise?

Despite the promise of e-books, a number of challenges remain. In terms of the school market, limited budgets are problematic, as is the issue of whether students would be able to take e-books home to read, or even how they would do so. Many parts of the country are still without Internet access, and many more children have access to cellphones than computers.

On the consumer side, there's that sticky issue of how to pay. It's all well and good for adults to download digital books, which are then charged to their credit cards, but what about kids? Possibly online retailers will borrow AudibleKids' model, which enables parents to provide an electronic allowance that determines how much a child can spend.

Then, too, there's the issue of author royalties, which cuts across both children's and adult e-books. In July, S&S sent an e-book amendment to many of its authors in which it tried to set a rate of 15% off the “catalog retail price” of the e-book. Other houses seem to be using 25% of net receipts, which is roughly the same as that for audio digital downloads.

Still, everyone in the industry accepts that the e-book genie is out of the bottle. “Because we're so used to thinking of a 'book' as a physical entity, I do think people are looking at separate pieces of technology as if the hardware or device is the 'book,' ” says literary agent Jill Grinberg. “I think it's helpful to equate 'book' with 'content.' Technology is evolving and will continue to evolve. The constant is the content.”