Books and authors as brands, being smart about entering the app race, and the empowerment of consumers – especially kids – were major themes at the third annual Tools of Change Bologna conference, held Sunday, March 24, the day before the opening of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. The daylong program was entitled “Play, Learn, Grow – Publishing for the Next Generation” and featured keynotes from Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, Kristen McLean of Bookigee, Francesca Dow of Penguin U.K., and Alice Wilder of Speakaboos.

“For a long time, we’ve made kids read what we wanted to them read,” said Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah in her opening presentation. But increasingly, she added, “Children are driving the market by what they choose to read, rather than the adults who purchase the books on their behalf.” The sentiment echoed throughout the day. Bookigee founder Kristen McLean described learning and education as moving from a “cathedral” model to a “marketplace” model. “Children are fundamentally in charge of their own inquiry,” she said,” and that’s only going to become more so, moving forward.” And the “Trends and Forecasts” panel – which, in part, unpacked findings from Bowker’s recent “Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age” survey – revealed that the top influences in a parent’s purchase of a children’s book were children asking for the book or being familiar with a series.

Also during the “Trends and Forecasts” panel, Ann Betts of Nielsen Book noted that print markets were down in all nine international territories in which Nielsen Bookscan tracks sales, with the exception of India, where sales were up 16% across the board, and up 12% in children’s (in general, declines in children’s were less dramatic than in adult publishing). In the overall U.S. book market, Nielsen has seen “steep declines” since 2008, through the children’s market is comparatively stable, with a rise in nonfiction; the U.K. children’s market was described as “remarkably robust,” holding steady at around £280 million annually. On the children’s e-book side, Betts said that the rate of growth was slowing, something echoed by Bookigee’s McLean later in the presentation. “At best, e-books are plateauing for children,” she said. “We’re not seeing exponential growth in digital content for kids.”

A particularly interesting finding in the Bowker survey was the significance of adult readers/buyers in the YA market: of adults ages 30-54 who purchased YA, a full 80% were buying the books for themselves, not for teens; teens accounted for just 16% of YA purchases. “What does YA mean when 80% of your market for that category are not teens?” asked McLean.

Further highlighting the idea that consumers are the ones in control, Raccah of Sourcebooks said that, “From the customer’s point of view, they would like to have an integrated experience,” calling digital “the democratization of print.” McLean laid it out plainly: consumers want “what they want, when and how they want it, and at the price they want it. They don’t care about our limitations, territories, concerns, rights, or profits.” (What do they care about? Price, narrative quality, novelty, imagination, and word-of-mouth.) “Your customer is in charge,” McLean said, “You must become customer anthropologists.” And that, she said, involves “getting out of the building and talking to them. One of the most disruptive things you can do is just to start the conversation.”

During her morning keynote, Francesca Dow, managing director for Penguin U.K., outlined a bold plan for Penguin’s future. “We’re moving into a new world, the world our consumers live in,” she said (behind her, a slide displayed the Penguin logo beside logos for Disney, Pixar, Sony, Google, and other major media companies). “Stories are at the heart of our business, but now we make brands.” Those include book brands like Moshi Monsters, Skylanders, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (John Green was also listed as a brand in Dow’s presentation), but also three Penguin U.K. brands, tailored to different age groups: Ladybird (which Dow sees as “a true consumer preschool brand” à la Fisher-Price), Puffin for primary school readers, and Penguin for teens. “Books are just one part of a bigger picture,” said Dow. “E-books, apps, consumer products, licensing – everything works together to create an ecosystem of storytelling.” Live events, merchandising, multimedia, investing in new talent, and reinventing older properties (such as Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, for which Penguin now controls all rights) are all part of the plan.

Other brand acolytes (or at least proponents) included Sarah Odedina of Hot Key Books (“We see authors as a brand, we see ourselves as a brand”), Till Weitendorf of Verlag Friedrich Oetinger (“In the future you won’t speak about books, you’ll speak of brands”), and Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, who has built her company into a recognizable brand in just two years, describing it as parent-friendly and child-focused, “an umbrella for people to shelter under.”

In contrast to the branding theme, however, was an emphasis on keeping people in mind—as people. “We’re all human, and we have to have time off,” time away from the screen, said Neal Hoskins of Wingedchariot, while moderating a panel about “Navigating the Digital Landscape.” Several publishers and developers cautioned attendees about not allowing technology to overwhelm storytelling, as well as being “nimble and experimental” when considering moving into apps, in particular, as Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum, put it. While Wilson of Nosy Crow also highlighted the idea of experimentation, she urged caution before diving headlong into creating apps. There are several key elements to have in place before creating an app, she said, including: having content that gains from a touchscreen, having content that’s international, having partners to share the risk, having reviewed the competition, and having a brand that means people will search for your content (she recommended being sure of at least two of these criteria before creating an app). First and foremost, Wilson said, if you’re going to make an app, “make a great app.”

In closing, Alice Wilder of Speakaboos discussed the ways that she has used direct feedback from children to create content (for Blue’s Clues in the past, and for digital stories from Speakaboos in the present). Additionally, the winners of the second annual BolognaRagazzi Digital Award were announced: in fiction, the winner was “Four Little Corners,” with mentions going to “Monster’s Socks” and “Rita the Lizard.” The nonfiction winner was, oddly enough, a novel, the app version of Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse,” (interactive enhancements include interviews, battlefield maps, interactive timelines, and more), with mentions going to “Endless Alphabet” and “Franklin Frog.”

The idea of remembering the humanity underneath the tech also arose in closing comments from Roberta Chinni, director of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. “As much as today is about technology, we believe it’s also about people,” she said, “underlining the human-ness of the fair.”

With reporting by Diane Roback.