I’ve fallen in love with printed books. Again. Especially those for children.
Twenty years into my book publishing career—which included marketing for trade book publishers and founding a children’s imprint—I had the opportunity to go digital, move into the future, hang out with the cool guys, play games, do the bicoastal thing, and grow a ponytail.
What a blast! No warehouses, no cartons, no shipping, no returns. A seamless and global online market: no territories, no customs, no docks, no bribes. It was like living in a sparkling new home—no legacy issues, no repairs, no haunting contracts. Digital publishing schedules are a matter of hours, not years. Post a paragraph in the morning, and by dinner it’s been read 20,000 times. No pre-pre-, pre-, or postsales conferences, and no catalogues. Yet for all of our digital efforts, the work was always at its best when it arrived in printed-book form.
I had the good fortune/luck/smarts to publish Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid online before it published in print. Soon there were 40,000 readers per day, then 80,000. We had the most-read “book” in the country. Beyond those thousands of kids, however, absolutely nobody gave a damn—not Hollywood, not agents, not librarians, not non-English publishers. After putting the content onto paper and into bookstores, suddenly it was a bestseller in more than 40 languages, there were three Wimpy Kid movies and lots of merchandising, and Jeff was featured as one of Time magazine’s most influential people of the year. Which is a lot cooler than bicoastal ponytails.
Same with Big Nate, Galactic Hot Dogs, and, I expect, the soon-to-be-published Mystery of the Map. Books validate and monetize digital content. Books encourage parents, librarians, teachers, and reviewers to say wonderful things across very powerful platforms, bringing commercial success that dramatically extends the content across media, territory, and language. Books are a powerful launching pad; the bestseller list is the mother lode that Hollywood and broadcast media mine for hits. Ironically, if you want characters and stories to travel far, into the lives of as many kids as can be imagined, for as many generations as possible, then get the content onto the pages of... yawn... a book.
Sure, the publishing industry has its bullies, but they’re wimps compared to invasive, monopolistic, and egotistical digital thugs. Seriously, the rules of conduct in print publishing are known and mostly abided by, on an enduring and fair playing field, so one can make a reasoned decision regarding investments and projected P and L. Not so in Silicon Valley, where the terms of agreements, unexpected fees, massive investments, new technologies, operating systems, baffling algorithms, and ownership change daily.
Print book sales are healthy, funded libraries keep buying books, Common Core and caring parents demand books, and educators and consumers (kids and parents) value books. The same cannot be said of the thousands of apps released each day. Kids interact with books in the safety of classrooms, libraries, bookstores, and homes, whereas digital content is discovered via social media, where bullying and other dangers are harder to monitor. Each of us has limited years in which to help kids to discover really good content; it’s why we’re in this business. Why knowingly make that moment happen in a dark alley instead of a safe place?
But most of all, it’s book technology that caused my rediscovered love. Digital technology is constantly blown up. It’s overhyped, made obsolete, and the resulting damage is forced upon consumers: this have-to-have device is introduced, that one abandoned; gotta use this month’s operating system, not last year’s; gotta get the new iPhone, gotta download that app again, gotta redevelop what’s already been published for a new screen; gotta dump the Blackberry and flip phone and iPhone 4; gotta recode everything. But Apple doesn’t allow that coding, while Google insists on that coding; gotta double the number of programmers; still more and more angry calls; triple the customer support staff; gotta do this, gotta do that, gotta get a drink!
Yet I can pull a 70-year-old book off the shelf and the technology works perfectly. Pages turn, narrative advances. Yep, I’ve fallen in love with printed books. Again.