Just Kids: Publishers Launch Children’s Publishing Goes Digital at DBW

Kicking off the week of the Digital Book World conference was Publishers Launch Children’s Publishing Goes Digital day, where speakers from the children’s book community discussed how the market is changing in the digital era. Representatives from start-ups and traditional publishers and authors, as well as trends analysts, were on hand for the January 23rd event, which was emceed by Market Partners International’s Lorraine Shanley.

“Content is King,” Russell Hampton, President of Disney Publishing Worldwide, pointed out in his presentation, which is easy to appreciate, given  Disney’s ownership of all its own content (and beloved characters). Still, content is also key for Oceanhouse Media, which doesn’t own any of its own content. “Brands matter. Authors matter,” said Michel Kripalani, President of Oceanhouse Media, as he explained that the company’s design philosophy is to stick to the original content of the book, with  enhancements used for educational purposes over entertainment. Even Fancy Nancy author Jane O’Connor humorously announced that rather than be called an “author,” perhaps she should be called a “content provider” from now on.

Youth Markets Alert President Ira Mayer encouraged publishers to think about how their customers are going to “live a book across platforms,” especially given a landscape where most teens are device agnostic. Scholastic‘s Deborah Forte also warned that, while it is important to consider devices for digital products, publishers also had to keep in mind that they must be careful not to get locked into one ecosystem. “It’s important to note,” Forte said,” that the Apple iBooks Author was not designed to sell apps and books, but to sell Apple products.”

On the research front, many figures from RR Bowker and YouthBeat focused on families and how relationships between parents and children are shifting. While YouthBeat’s Amy Henry showed that there are fewer traditional households,  with working,  single or divorced parents, she also demonstrated that parents and children are showing increasing common interests,especially in categories like music, a once-divisive sticking point. Also, as Bowker’s Kelly Gallagher and Bookigee’s Kristen McLean revealed in their presentation, 72% of parents of children 7-12 years old buy their books based on recommendations from their children, signifying that parents are listening to their children more than ever.

Though much of the focus of the day was on trade publishing and consumer content, the Education Meets Digital panel was illuminating in showing how schools are using digital in their classrooms—and how all types of children’s media can participate in providing content. Neal Goff, President of Egremont Associates, mentioned that schools should and can implement “BYOD” or Bring Your Own Device, which would take advantage of the prevalence of smart phones and tablets already in students’ possession in the classroom. Capstone Digital’s Todd Brekhus also pointed out that the movement from centralized IT to individual devices can allow teachers to be more creative with what materials students have access to, though the biggest challenge Brekhus pointed out will be “shortening the sales cycle,” as funding for school materials requires a district wide, top down approvals process.

What emerged as the biggest challenge facing publishers was discoverability in an increasingly cluttered digital space. Lori Culwell, Founder and Marketing Consultant of Get Creative, Inc., talked about the importance of Facebook ads for exposure at a low fee, and Simon & Schuster’s Lucille Rettino and Justine magazine’s Jana Kerr Pettey talked about the opportunities that group author events offer. Todd Brekhus presented Capstone Digital’s myOn Reader, which was described as “Netflix for reading in schools.” By assessing a student’s reading level, myOn Reader recommends appropriate books for students and allows them to access the books digitally. One marketing ‘Don’t’ that Alloy Entertainment’s Josh Bank shared from experience was that publishers need to be careful about aggressive cross-promotion, as people have complained when they are being marketed products outside of their specific fandom.

As far as what the future of digital books for children will look like, authenticity remains key. Many “newbie” content developers from the Publishers Launchpad panel pointed out that all the bells and whistles must be used meaningfully. Loud Crow’s Calvin Wang demonstrated how their animation mirrors that of print books to make them complementary, not mutually exclusive. Wendy Bronfin and Kevin O’Connor of Nook said that ebooks with audio are amongst the Nook store’s children’s bestsellers. Sesame Workshop’s Jennifer Perry listed the qualities that make the best ebooks for preschoolers, and ease-of-use was on the top of list for making visuals easy to understand and straight-forward navigation. (See Paid Content’s article about her presentation, along with Bowker stats.)

More than anything, however, the day-long conference demonstrated how  digital content and marketing present a myriad of opportunity for publishers. . “At the beginning of 2011, digital was an option,” said Zuuka’s Woody Sears, “but by the end of 2011, digital was imperative.”

For more information on the speakers and the schedule for the Children’s Publishing Goes Digital event, click here.