Children's Features

A "Revolution" Waiting to Happen?
Shannon Maughan -- 1/29/01
Children's book publishers are figuring out their approach to the e-book quandary

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These days it's difficult to find a story about publishing that d sn't mention e-books--a term that has become an industry buzzword in recent months. Stephen King's maiden venture into this brave new digital world with The Plant (a self-published, Internet-only story) last summer arguably put the e-book craze on the map, forcing most publishers to take a closer look at this technology and how it might shape their future business plans. But where do children's books fit into the evolving publishing landscape? PW recently spoke with a cross-section of children's publishers to ascertain what strategy, if any, they have for entering the e-book fray.

When it comes to e-books, the paths being chosen by children's publishers thus far are varied. Some publishers are forging ahead at full speed, while others are hanging back with a wait-and-see approach. But everyone we spoke with is at least exploring the genre, investigating the advantages and challenges of bringing e-books to market.

Last August, Farrar, Straus & Giroux became one of the first publishers to produce an e-book for young adults, with the simultaneous e-book and p-book (traditional printed book) release of J y Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos. "The technology is something even small companies can try," said marketing v-p Laurie Brown of her house's willingness to attempt something new. "It's fine to have a whole division working on this, but we didn't see any reason not to learn by doing in these early stages," she added.

As for making Gantos a guinea pig, Brown and others at FSG had confidence that he was a good choice to start with. "In Jack we had a very lively, adventurous author who knows kids because he is always working directly with them in classrooms," Brown explained. "And we thought that kids, who are so Internet savvy now, would be among the early adopters of the e-book format."

Unfortunately, all these positive factors still could not produce an unequivocal e-book winner for FSG. "Press response has been very enthusiastic," Brown noted, "but customer response has been very quiet." Thus far, the five FSG Gantos books available on (other titles from the author's FSG backlist were put into e-book format as well) have sold fewer than 75 copies each. "We haven't found there is a developed audience for e-books yet," said Brown. "We were hoping that the Rocket eBook launch would be great. But, frankly, it fizzled, with a high price point and low availability." This relative disappointment has not soured FSG on the e-book concept, however. "We're going forward," Brown said, "with a much bolder initiative with Byron Preiss's company, We're just about to sign the contracts for 30-35 picture books, including many of our William Steig backlist titles."

Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing is following the lead of its company's adult division (which published Stephen King's Riding the Bullet in e-book format last March), and taking a strong stand in the children's e-book arena. Most notably, S&S announced it would publish an instant children's e-book biography of the presidential candidate who emerged victorious on November 8. Of course, no one could have foreseen the glitch in the "instant" part of that plan. But finally, on December 14, the e-book biography of George W. Bush was made available for download at $5 per copy. An original paperback edition of the same title was released on January 9, retailing for $4.99. According to publisher Brenda Bowen, the e-book biography has sold "a handful" of copies to date.

Looking ahead, Simon & Schuster will likely have a roster of children's e-books released before George W.'s first year in office is completed. "Our tentative plans for fall 2001 include converting our Newbery winners and Newbery Honor books to e-book form," said Bowen. "We also plan to release e-book editions of Andrew Clements's books and a slate of sci-fi and fantasy titles from our backlist."

Bowen added that her division will initially focus on the institutional market. "The way kids will get e-books is through schools and libraries," she said. "We want to go through teachers and librarians--as we always have--to reach those readers. People are still a little skittish in this area, but we think the books that teachers, librarians and students will want in e-book format are the Newberys, and titles by authors like Clements."

She seemed undaunted by the fact that ready acceptance of e-books may still be a ways off, even in schools and libraries, and believes that her company is making an important move--despite the hurdles it faces. "There are costs to be borne on our part, and it will be expensive for a while," she said. "But we are seeding the landscape. There will be a lot of e-book readers in the future. We want to get to the point where every book has both an ISBN and an e-book ISBN, where e-books are seen as just another way of distributing the same book. We are working within the industry to find the best way to approach this--what and how to pay authors, how to price e-books. Authors, agents and publishers--we're all making it up as we go along."
"Authors, agents and publishers--we're all making it up as we go along."
--Brenda Bowen, S&S

One company that has moved along quicker than most in the children's e-book industry is, launched last August by former p-book editor and software/Web site developer Byron Preiss. "I have a long history of involvement with the technology of e-books, including 35 book-related CD-ROMs," said Preiss, "and I've done quite a bit on the children's book side as well." acquires rights to both in-print and out-of-print picture-book titles and converts them to an e-book format. "We have acquired close to 1,000 titles so far," Preiss commented, naming Henry Holt, FSG and Little, Brown as a few of the major trade publishers that have already sold rights to "We hope to work with every trade publisher," he added. In addition, Preiss said, the company will eventually offer "enhanced e-pop-up books" that will incorporate music and "make use of the extended capacities of the Web." currently has a staff of seven, all of whom have strong publishing backgrounds, a factor that "makes us appealing to trade publishers," according to Preiss.

Currently Preiss's company has more than 100 books available for download either at (Adobe Acrobat format) or from and (Glassbook and Microsoft Reader formats). Most of the library at this point consists of previously out-of-print books now reintroduced in e-book editions. Original e-books will follow "in time," according to a letter posted on the site. Advertisements and news items in various trade publications have helped spread the word about the new venture thus far, a strategy that has garnered some attention: it is rumored that will soon be acquired by a major media company.

A More Conservative TackLike other publishers we spoke with, Random House Children's Books has tested the e-book waters and found them a bit chilly. In 1999, the company released a Rocket eBook edition of Dinoverse, a middle-grade novel by Scott Ciencin about time-travel to the time of dinosaurs. Fall 2000 saw the launch of e-book versions of the new Blair Witch Files series titles. According to Mary Beth Kilkelly, director of new media marketing for Random House Children's Books, neither of these projects registered more than a blip on the e-book radar screen. "E-books haven't found a market yet, but we wanted to test the waters," Kilkelly said. "What's great about e-books is the promotional value they offer. We will learn more about the markets for them as we go forward. Right now our e-book strategy is still in the planning stages. We don't have a time frame, but eventually we will probably begin by offering our award-winning and top-selling titles in e-book format. We will start with books that can be read and used on PCs at school, at home and in the library, and our marketing focus will be teachers and kids in school," she explained. "The challenge is deciding how we will match our traditional book formats to the evolving e-book formats. It's not easy, but it's fun trying to figure it out."

Similarly, at Scholastic, executive v-p of learning ventures Margery Mayer commented, "We are putting together our e-publishing strategy right now. We think that e-publishing is an emerging technology and we are going to be there when it emerges as a viable business for the company." Mayer points out that in fall 2000, Scholastic published a title called Hate Hurts by the Anti-Defamation Leagueas an e-book and regards it as "dipping our t in, learning about the technology." Though there is no timeframe for Scholastic's adding e-publishing to its mix of services, Mayer said, "We are making sure we've done all the groundwork within the company so that we're ready."

Harcourt is among those publishing houses that are waiting to enter the e-book market via partnerships with technology and distribution companies. "At this point, e-books for children are primarily books known as text only, such as YA and middle-grade novels," said Tim Cooper, v-p of strategic operations at the company. "It's hard to know if or when the technology will be ready to make a quality picture book [in e-book format]. We are developing business relationships with distribution partners and may be scheduling some e-book versions of some of our genre-related YA titles in this calendar year," he estimated.

The Next, Next Big Thing? Some publishers and librarians we spoke with are already looking well beyond what we know today as e-books, believing that some future technology will be the one to win a substantial following. Five-year-old Winslow Press is considered a leader in integrating p-books and computer technology. For each title the company publishes, readers can extend the experience of the printed book by accessing a Web site created to enhance that particular title. To date, CEO and president Diane Kessenich has no plans to embrace the current e-book trend. "About a year ago," she said, "Publishers Group West, our distributor, asked us to help them out with an experiment, asking if we would do an e-book. We released the young-adult novel Harley: Like a Person by Cat Bauer as an e-book in fall 2000. Truthfully, a handful or less were sold at $5.95. We feel that the e-book, in its present form, really isn't the answer right now. So far we've seen the e-book replacing print very abruptly and in a very awkward way."

But not going the way of others in e-publishing d s not mean that Winslow is not going forward in terms of technology. "We are talking with companies whose technologies dovetail with our patents and it's very exciting," Kessenich said. "We believe a new kind of publishing will evolve out of what we are doing now that will be more interactive, more powerful and more exciting than the e-book as we know it. We hope to show or announce something later this year."

Marc Aronson, editorial director of Carus Publishing, believes that what will catch hold with young readers is "some cool new thing that has an edge to it and is not just a downloaded novel. Some combination of serial content/game/simulation that will appeal to kids who are already using cell phones and Palm Pilots," he said.

Judith Rovenger, youth services consultant for Westchester County Library System, concurred. "I suspect that the technology will eventually shake down in a way that combines a phone, the Internet, e-books, games, activities and other things all in one handheld device," she said. "That's how kids will be living, instead of using a bunch of separate devices."

Aronson added, "We're not doing anything directly with e-books, but continue to explore what all the different formats have to offer each other. We are learning what multimedia and the Internet can offer as an enhancement to print." In that vein, he described a new nonfiction magazine Carus will launch in 2002 that integrates print and Web site publishing. "It will have 32 print pages and the equivalent of eight pages each month published on a Web site. But the online material is not an attic for what didn't make it into print; the two are designed to be linked from the beginning," Aronson said.

Aronson raises one of the biggest concerns of children's publishers when he contemplates translating picture books to an e-book format. "Picture books are typically 32 pages long, the accepted print format," he said. "That length would be completely frustrating in electronic form--the books would all feel too short." This opinion seems to be shared by a number of publishers who realize that simply scanning a picture book into the computer is not likely to create a satisfying reading experience. "I believe an e-version of a picture book is animation; it has to go to some next step," Aronson said. "We have to learn what is the best form in an environment that is not defined by print. There will be new kinds of expression that work in this new format. We'll see interesting experiments in animation, where you're dealing with a length of time, rather than space." He uses the example of photographs versus film: "Film moved beyond the photograph as a new way of storytelling that flourished in a new environment."

"Where it g s in terms of creative invention is the real challenge," said Rovenger of the e-books phenomenon. "Creative people will be working not to simply translate their work to a new format, but will be creating in the new format. If you're doing a picture book, you'll need different rhythm changes than you have in print, for example. Some things would naturally be animated, which makes it essentially not a book." It's clear that as the parameters of what constitutes a book may be shifting, children's book publishers face a daunting list of challenges.

Another key consideration when translating illustrated books to electronic formats is the age of the reading audience. Picture books are often read by adults and children together, and many are aimed at a general range of ages four to eight, a group just mastering literacy skills. Bowen of S&S commented, "That age child [the picture book audience] has special needs. We've talked about doing some e-book projects with illustration, but we want to get it right. It's an area we want to be careful with." Exploring all the facets of current technology, as well as trying to anticipate the e-book of the future, seems to be giving some children's book publishers pause.

The quandary of how to categorize/ define children's e-books has become such a sticky wicket for the Association of Library Services for Children (the ALA division that administers the Newbery and Caldecott awards, among others) that at the recent ALA midwinter meeting, it was decided that outgoing ALSC president Virginia Walter would create an e-book task force to study the question. ALSC v-p and president-elect Carol Fiore explained that the question of whether to consider e-books for the ALA awards is not new, but has become more pressing. "Several years ago, the Batchelder [Award] committee was presented with a book that was only available on the Internet," she said. "At that time, ALSC members determined that to be eligible, a book had to be something you were able to hold in your hands." With the advent of handheld reading devices, Fiore noted, "ALSC now needs to clarify that definition."

There are other questions to address, too, as to whether self-published books (common in e-publishing) should be eligible for prize consideration, or only publications that have been through a true editorial process. "We want the task force's decision fast-tracked," said Fiore. "We want to have an announcement before the annual conference this summer, before the next award committees are under the gun to make that decision."

Clearly, it may take some time for children's book publishers to find a steady course in the uncharted territory of e-books. Aronson and others understand publishers' reluctance to jump in with both feet. "Lots of people were burned by CD-ROM," he said. "Even the Stephen King flush has faded. This is a case where children's book publishers' conservatism may be rewarded."

But Rovenger is among those who are confident that all will shake out satisfactorily if the players keep the proper focus. "It's about the story, not the format that drives it. At the heart of children's services, we believe there are important stories children need to hear that help them become the people they are. No matter how you stretch it--into an e-book, audiobook, movie--the formats are basically the same if you have great content at the heart."