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Three years of TOC at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Trends, topics and transformations in a market undergoing change

O’Reilly Media took its Tools of Change in Publishing Conference to Italy for the first time in 2011, teaming up with the Bologna Children’s Book Fair organizers to focus on opportunities for children’s content in digital publishing. That year the conference attracted 270 delegates from 27 countries, mostly publishers and developers. It was the first foray into the digital conversation for at least 40% of attendees. Two years and three conferences later, TOC Bologna has grown both in numbers as well as participant make-up, with authors and illustrators joining the discussion, and has spearheaded a maturing professional exchange on how the children’s sector might adapt, and thrive, in the digital landscape.

This article provides an overview of TOC’s three years at Bologna and highlights the trends, topics, and transformations currently at the forefront of a market striving to re-define itself as it heralds the future of publishing.

Children’s book market: The bellwether?

The big take-away from TOC Bologna 2011 still holds true today: while the entire publishing industry is undergoing change, the children’s sector is leading the way. Moreover, the pressure is on to get it right, for the industry itself is at stake. As Kate Wilson, Managing Director of Nosy Crow, stated in her 2011 keynote address, “What we do now will determine whether or not we have a market.”

Most publishers, however, remain fearful of the changes facing their industry. If they are wading into the swirling ether at all, they are doing so with classic titles or already branded content. Which begs the question: what does this mean for all the authors and illustrators out there whose careers depend on selling original work?

TOC Bologna 2013 saw the participation of more content creators than in the previous two years. There to share the pros and cons of self-publication vs. partnerships vs. collaborations, they highlighted the emergence of the artist as entrepreneur and hinted that issues once reserved for publishing house conference rooms are now the talk of internet cafés.

Kat Meyer, TOC Conference Chair, observed, “this was the first year we’ve included the voice of the author and illustrator in the conversation.” She found it refreshing and important, stating that we’d be hearing more authors and illustrators at future TOC events.

Who’s driving content emergence?

Established publishers have been slow to move into the digital arena, leaving a vacuum in children’s content being filled by developers, start-ups, and self-published authors. Developers coming to digital storyapps and books through gaming are bringing with them an evolved understanding of interactivity and how to stretch the boundaries of the linear narrative. Start-up publishers going “direct to digital” are moving content more swiftly to market, offering novel business strategies for traditional publishers who are working to adapt models entrenched in print. And authors and illustrators accessing new, affordable avenues to self-publication are finding viable means for earning additional revenue on their intellectual property. Tools such as Kindle Direct, NOOK Kids, and iBooks Author in eBooks, and Demibooks Composer, AppGeneration Kids Book Maker, and Robot Media StoryBuilder in the app space – all of which were introduced at TOC Bologna 2012 – now enable content creators to go digital without a developer or coding knowledge.

Kristen McLean, CEO of Bookigee, observed in her 2013 keynote address that we have entered the age of the empowered – or entrepreneurial – author who has made the move to digital with or without a publisher. McLean’s statistics show that “hybrid authors”, those publishing in both print and digital formats, are out-performing their peers still only in print. This presents a huge transformation in the publishing industry, lessening the stigma once attached to self-publishing as more and more authors bring quality content to digital markets and find it lucrative to do so.

Where is the quality content?

The emergence in the children’s market of more self-published authors and direct-to-digital publishing agencies presents challenges for both the traditional publisher as well as the consumer. For the publisher, it highlights the need to adopt digital formats to remain competitive. For the consumer it has led to a dearth of choice, not all of it good, as more and more content escapes the approval of industry gatekeepers and floods App, eBook and iBook Stores.

This question of “Discoverability” – or how to ensure that your target audience finds your eBook or app in a crowded, noisy and heretofore disorganized space – has been addressed at all three TOC Bologna conferences. And it would appear that the discussion is here to stay.

One positive response to the problem can be seen in the growing number of on-line bookstores, many attached to authoring tools and targeted platforms that cater to a niche. Isabella Products, for example, sorts and categorizes content for educators, providing reliable search functions not found in Apple’s App and iBookstores.

Another answer is the re-visioning of marketing strategies dedicated to the digital space, which offers publishers a longer-tail sales model than does print distribution. For all agree: whether you are a publisher or self-published author, the digital ecosystem is not a “build it and they will come” environment. You need to regularly push your content out to the consumer in order to pull them into the store where it may be purchased, through tried and true means, such as reviews and press releases, but also through social media networking, blogging, maintaining a dynamic web-based presence, and more. In this way, sales may grow over time, rather than spike and then decline as in the print world.

In her 2011 keynote address, Kate Wilson stated that creating a book app for kids is as much about developing a marketing strategy as about producing the app itself. This was no less true in 2013. But this year Wilson presented a solution, one echoed by many other conference speakers: Create digital products not as single properties but as brands, where everything from apps to eBooks to print offerings work together to create a coordinated, self-reinforcing and cross-promoting ecosystem of storytelling.

Creating for digital: Same or different?

Even two years ago, the few publishers venturing into apps and eBooks for kids tended to be using established content from their print list or already proven branded content. Meanwhile, developers were entering the space with the rights to content by well-known children’s authors and digitizing these properties. Thus, our earliest examples of storyapps and eBooks were often mere digital versions of products created for the page.

In 2013 this production model has shifted, as both artists and publishers note that user experience and interaction with a screen is different than that of print. Not better. Or worse. But different. And both valid, depending on such factors as location of use and time of day. Thus, more and more publishers are moving toward creating content specific to the distribution format.

Junko Yokoto, Director of the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books, finds this change exciting. “We’re starting to see more work from both new and known authors developed directly for digital and dedicated to that format, not scanned from the old and forced into the new.”

Kate Wilson stated that at Nosy Crow they prefer to create apps from stories that can be told best on a tablet device, rather than replicating a story meant for print and “squashing the beauty of that product onto the screen”. Their latest digital release, Franklin Frog, mentioned by the 2nd Annual Digital Ragazzi Award committee, originally came to Nosy Crow as a picture book manuscript intended for print. But the team saw in it numerous interactive possibilities and convinced the author-illustrator team to let them take it to the iPad instead. There are things you can do this delightful storyapp that could never be achieved on the printed page.

Thinking digitally

The very fact that digital apps and books are now included as a separate category in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Ragazzi Award considerations is testament to the transformations taking place in children’s publishing. Warren Buckleitner of Children’s Technology Review, one of the four Digital Ragazzi Award judges, commends the Fair organizers for consistently making an effort to include the state-of-the-art in children’s publishing. He remembers the unveiling of CD-ROMs and other digital teaching tools for kids at the Fair in the 1990s. He sees in storyapps and enhanced books the logical convergence of proven ideas about teaching and learning with technological advancements as developers and publishers join ranks to create products that make the best use of today’s digital formats.

As part of TOC Bologna’s 2013 Author & Illustrator panel, I recounted how I tried for two years to find a publisher to produce my interactive story-based historical treasure hunts for teens and ‘tweens. Though numerous editors loved the concept and lauded the execution, they found it too unfamiliar for print. As it happens, I was already thinking digitally and didn’t realize it, due possibly to my years teaching with CD-ROMs and web-based learning tools. When I held an iPhone in my hand for the first time, I knew I’d found the right format for my project. Still, I could find no publisher looking to acquire such a property. I was left to create a company, form a team and publish the proof of concept myself.

Julie Hedlund, another member of the Author & Illustrator panel and breakout author for digital publishing start-up, Little Bahalia Publishing, knew that her rhyming poem teaching about collective nouns in the animal kingdom had many interactive possibilities. She could find neither a publisher working with digital manuscripts nor a methodology for submitting one. So she developed her own template and used it to pitch her idea to Little Bahalia Founder, Stacey Williams-Ng. Last month, the two released the first of three storyapps expected to hit the App Store this year.

What does my analyst say?

One reason for publisher trepidation to move into the digital arena has been the lack of reliable data to help track and explain the ever-accelerating industry transformation. Indeed, three conferences ago we had little idea about what properties were selling, who was buying books and on what device and format, and who wasn’t. Today, however, clearer statistics are at hand thanks to emerging analytical tools by Bowker and Bookigee developed expressly for measuring habits in the digital space.

Also in her 2013 keynote, Kristen McLean revealed data to suggest that access to educational content appears to be moving from a “cathedral” model, whereby the adults make the purchasing decisions, to a “marketplace” model, as more and more children become empowered to take charge of their own inquiry thanks to digital tools and products.

In 2011, Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks, stated in her keynote address that the children’s book industry transformations are redefining “the meaning of the book.” Digital books, Raccah states, have given children control over the narrative with read-along options and other interactivity that support 21st century skills and encourage exploration. In 2013 she seemed to have shared notes with McLean, noting that kids are also, more and more, driving selection.

Bowker’s recent survey “Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age”, unpacked at the 2013 conference, shows that the top influences in a parent’s purchase of a children’s book today are children asking for the book or being familiar with a series. Thus, in addition to having entered the age of the empowered author, McLean believes we’ve hit the age of the empowered reader as well, even among the very young.

Raccah states that the way in which readers are accessing and engaging with stories has changed with the emergence of digital formats and products. She and McLean were not the only 2013 speakers to advocate seeking the opinions of consumers before and during the product development process to ensure that it meets their needs and desires. Quoting McLean: “Your customer is in charge. You must become customer anthropologists.”

Be agile, be aware, be authentic, be human

In 2011, TOC Bologna participants were considering why and how they should enter the digital arena. In 2012, they were there to share where and when they entered, what was working and what pit-falls to avoid. In 2013, they appeared more confident in and dedicated to what they were doing, ready to take on the future and bring others along with them.

This growing sense of self-knowledge and security were reflected as well in the increasingly larger presence of TOC’s Digital Café in 2013, which became a haven for publishers, developers, and digital content creators alike during the five-day International Fair. Their responses to the question, “what was your greatest learning in the last two years?” echoed sentiments put forward over the past three years of TOC Bologna:

Be Agile. Publish in sprints. Develop, then test. Listen to your customer’s feedback and use it to go back and develop some more, then test again. Working digitally allows us to do this, and ensures that we eventually bring a better, and more commercially viable, product to market.

Be Aware. Know your customers. Ask them what they want and be willing to listen. Do so, and they will lead you on your way. They will tell you if you’re creating what they want. Or not.

Be Authentic. Do what you do best. Don’t be afraid to be small. Specialize. Focus on the sector that you feel passionate about that you know you can serve.

Be Human. Technology need not strip us of what brought us to the children’s market in the first place. At the end of the day, whether producing for digital formats, print, or both, everything starts and ends with story. We’re all in it, ultimately, for the love of narrative. We understand stories. We’re experts at storytelling. And today we have the opportunity to develop stories for a variety of readers who want to consume these stories in different ways. In the end, it’s about them: our readers. So why not give them the best stories we can in the format or formats of their choice.

Sarah Towle’s Time Traveler Tours combine the traditional power of storytelling with the latest in mobile technology to bring history’s seminal moments to life for teens, ‘tweens and the young at heart. Narrated by characters whose actions helped shape their age, they represent an entirely new concept in digital publishing. If you’re heading to Paris this year, you won’t want to leave home without Sarah’s first StoryApp iTinerary, Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, now also available as an as interactive book for teachers and students the world over.

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