That the publishing industry is undergoing a vast change due to digital publishing is no surprise. A walk through the 700 booths and tables at this year’s AWP Bookfair held March 7–9 at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center showed evidence of the divide between print and digital. Books as objects predominated, with numerous examples of handbound and, frequently, hand-printed books. But it’s no longer just fiction or YA that is facing the pressure to go digital. Picture books, once thought to be immune from the digital fray, are undergoing a transformation of their own. That made the AWP panel “Picture Book Writers in an E-Book and App Era,” moderated by writer Laurie A. Jacobs (Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie), particularly timely.

“There is a content explosion going on. Reading is moving to the screen,” said publishing exec-turned children’s book literary agent Rubin Pfeffer with East West Literary Agency. “By the end of 2013, 65% of U.S. children will have access to an e-reader.” Because apps are expensive to make and developers are looking for brands like Hasbro and SeaWorld or established authors and series like Marc Brown’s Arthur, Pfeffer sees the biggest opportunity for children’s book authors in the digital marketplace in simple e-books or enhanced e-books that incorporate multimedia and interactivity. Apps tend to be less connected to a book than inspired by the underlying story. Despite the format, he noted, “no matter what, it all rests on a great story. It all comes down to the same thing it has from time immemorial.”

“I come to e-books as a writer,” said Jean Heilprin Diehl, who has published enhanced e-books with Sylvan Dell Publishing (Three Little Beavers and Loon Chase) and uTales (What Color Is Fred? and Paloma’s Pie), in addition to traditional picture books. For Diehl one of the big questions is how long an e-picture book should be and what it should look like. “A traditional picture book is 32 pages. Writers and illustrators have been thinking for decades in terms of two-page spreads. With an e-book format, you don’t have to have 32 pages.” For a recent project, she chose 22 pages as the most appropriate length.

“My main focus is to bring some of my out-of-print books back,” said author and illustrator Emilie Boon, whose first book, Peterkin Meets a Star, is now available for the iPhone and iPad. Although publisher PicPocket Books lists it as an app, she regards it as more of an enhanced e-book, where readers can hear the crunch of the snow under Peterkin’s boots. It also has hot spots that make sounds on specific words.

A Troop of Monkeys author Julie Hedlund was the only panelist to be published first digitally. Although she was told by traditional presses that they were looking for character-driven stories with narrative arcs, the introduction of the Common Core standards meant publishers began taking another look at concept-driven books like hers. “I felt strongly when apps came out that this could be it,” said Hedlund, who attended the Bologna Fair and TOC Bologna last year to learn more about submitting A Troop as an app. Instead, she ended up creating her own template for submitting storybook apps, which she sells on her Web site. And she has two more apps due out later this year: Ocean Animals (May) and Creepy Crawlies (Oct.).“Financially,” said Hedlund, “it’s a mess right now. Nobody knows if they’re going to make money. The market hasn’t matured yet. Over time, I think apps are going to become more important.”

Whether digital publishing is a means to a different end or an end in itself, as Pfeffer pointed out, “We’re all fascinated with our iPads and cell phones and Androids. And we know it’s not a passing fad.” As an agent, he added, “It almost doesn’t matter to me initially what the format will be. It matters that it’s something I’m excited about and kids will love.” For some writers that could well be an app or just as easily a traditional picture book.