It’s common to see children on a bus or a plane, completely absorbed in their parents’ iPad. As the presence of tablets increases, publishers and readers alike have speculated about the future of juvenile books in regard to digital content. Recent studies show that ownership of ereading devices for children is still increasing, due to both new devices being purchased and used devices being handed down to children. Further, parents are showing an increased willingness to give ebooks and other digital goods as gifts (DBW Nov 2014). How should publishers evolve with technology while maintaining the value of the print text? This paper will examine the beneficial impact of subscription models such as Epic! and Storia School Edition, cross-media content such as that created by Scholastic and Ruckus Media Group, and social reading network Wattpad on the sales and profits of children’s publishers. In this new digital space, with increasingly tech-savvy customers, children’s publishers need to maintain sales in print while diversifying both their editorial efforts and their revenue streams by adopting several different technologies to continue to reach their target demographic, and profit in the digital space.
The subscription model is seen by many as the next wave in ebook publishing. As children’s service Epic! continues to acquire titles, Big Five publishers are slowly being wooed, with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins already signed on. “For us, working with HarperCollins symbolizes a change in the marketplace wherein leading publishers recognize the value of a subscription model and recognize how well it works for the children’s space,” says Epic! co-founder Kevin Donahue (DBW May 2014). Children’s book bigwig National Geographic has also signed on (Taylor). Epic!, which has dubbed itself the “future of reading” was founded in 2013 to “create a unique and fun experience to get kids excited about reading” (DBW Jan 2014). Epic! aims to bridge the gap between kid-friendly bookshelves and ereading technologies (Taylor). The app offers personal accounts which offer a child reading options that are curated for his or her age group and interests, chosen by Epic!’s board of experts which includes children’s book industry experts. The main reason Epic! works so well for the children’s space? Instant access to content, without need of parental permission or involvement to purchase reading material (DBW Jan 2014). Another major benefit of the platform is the gaming element. Readers read to earn badges and awards, accomplish goals and reach achievement levels, which creates a more enticing reading environment (DBW Jan 2014). All of these advantages of Epic! offer an opportunity to publishers to mimic or improve upon.
“It has seemed to me for some time that all of the Big Five houses could peddle a subscription service for kids ebooks that would be a reliable generator of cash flow and customer acquisition as well. Many parents would love to be able to let their young kids take the iPad in hand and “buy” books, as long as they weren’t actually spending any money. The big houses all have extensive juvie publishing programs. Each one could offer a subscription service that would keep many kids amused for months. It could be a “totally cool” 6th (or 5th or 8th) birthday present. While it is true that there are others competing for the kids’ market, any of the Big Five could pull something like this together very inexpensively and, over time, build a customer base that would be both proprietary and lucrative.” – (Shatzkin Nov 2014).
For Big Five publishers, starting their own backlist kids subscription app seem obvious to Shatzkin. It would be easy to market, through the print books they already publish. It would be low cost to start, with the popularity of subscription services in publishing and in other multi-media industries. He also notes a major advantage to publishers, should any of them choose to embark on their own children’s ereading app – lead generation. In the case of picture books, many are read to children multiple times. “A subscriber who looked at a picture book 27 times might be enticed to buy a print copy, so the subscription activity could be lead-generating” (Shatzkin Jan 2015). Plus, publishers have the opportunity to hold back certain titles, perhaps only including select titles from series in order to entice users to purchase additional titles in print form sooner than they are available for streaming on the subscription app. This lends itself well to the children’s space due to the prominence of series and branded books.
Scholastic recently closed its children’s ebook platform app, Storia, to focus on Storia School Edition, a subscription model. Storia School Edition smartly focuses on annual subscriptions from schools to allow access to students at school and at home. A family plan is expected to launch in 2015 (Dilworth). Other children’s ereading subscription services seem to be aware of the value of school in the digital space (Shatzkin Jan 2015). Increased control over reading achievement and progress is appealing to both teachers and parents. With Storia School Edition, teachers can track their students’ progress with assigned readings, and parents can monitor time spent reading. In a world where parents can monitor their children’s whereabouts through tracking apps on their iPhones, offering more visibility into reading habits will entice parents to subscribe.
Extending content onto new media is nothing new for Scholastic. The Magic School Bus expanded across multiple platforms, starting with the television series in 1994. At the time, it was argued that educational content couldn’t succeed in a cartoon, which was quickly disproved with the show’s huge success (Evans). When asked about the subscription service model, Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Media, says, “We regard ourselves as a company that helps children learn and love to read and we do that in a variety of ways; one of which is by publishing great books. We look at screen-based media as an extension of that relationship, not a substitute,” (Evans). The argument from publishers in regard to media expansion has commonly been that they are in the book business, not the technology business (Shatkzin Nov 2014). However, in the ever-increasing digital space, the two industries are becoming the same – both create content and provide entertainment. Missed opportunities in the digital space will hinder the ability of publishers to keep up with the evolution with technology. Scholastic’s ongoing success is credited to “the development of a complementary media strategy across a variety of mediums, without losing focus on the company’s mission.” Forte says, “We have developed our brand so that it’s relative and meaningful to children when they want to read, when they want to watch and when they want to play,” (Evans). Publishers need to follow Scholastic’s example and expand their front list titles and brands into other mediums – rather than selling subsidiary rights and losing control of the brand.
The children’s book market has been a hot topic during the Digital Book World Conference in New York City in 2013 and 2014. This is likely due to tablets and ereading devices coming down in price, which is transitioning the market from niche, where few parents were willing to “let their kids loose with expensive devices”, to mass (Pilkington). Since it’s release in 2010, iPads have been sold in mass around the world, with over 21 million selling in Q1 of 2015 alone (Statista). Previously, tablets were most commonly used by wealthy individuals over the age of 45, but recent studies show that of the teenagers and children who have a tablet in the house, 41 percent use it at least one a day (Jackson). Rick Richter, previous CEO of Ruckus Media Group, who previously partnered with Scholastic on extending digital experiences, says of digital reading, “Kids will read everywhere they can, and if we can make that a very engaging experience, why, that’s even better,” (Pilkington). Although enhanced adult ereading content has been met with skeptical response, Shatzkin stated in 2011 that it makes complete sense in the children’s space. “We’ve been delivering “enhanced” children’s books for years. Die-cuts, pop-ups, and computer chips to make the books talk, sing, squeal, and be responsive to touch commands have been implemented for a long time,” (Shatzkin Sept 2011). For Ruckus, and its new owner, Kiwitech, and other digital children’s publishers, “digital content packages could rapidly overtake the appeal of books for these younger audiences and their gatekeepers” (Shatzkin Sept 2011). After all, digital natives want “digital-only solutions from publishers and… require new ways of packaging [and] marketing,” (Wilkinson). For customers who fear their children aren’t interested in reader and want to build up that interest, publishers can promote enhanced e-books as a good tool to “prompt less motivated young readers toward engagement when they might otherwise avoid text altogether” (Hazard Owen).
Marketing is an important consideration in the juvenile market. There are dual target demographics – the parents who purchase the content, and the children and teenagers who consume it. Digital natives expect content in digital formats. Social media is a main competitor for young readers’ time, but it’s also a key way for them to find media to consume. Digital natives expect to discover content socially (Jackson). This is where social authoring platform Wattpad comes into play for publishers. As Katie Shamash hypothesizes, Wattpad could serve publishers in the same way that YouTube has served for music and movies. On YouTube, music and movie rightsholders have three options to choose from when fans violate copyright to remix and remake content into their own version. They can choose to “earn a percentage of ad revenue from the video; to track its viewing statistics; or to remove the video from YouTube. The vast majority choose to make money,” (Shamash). With Wattpad’s user demographics skewing sharply to teenagers, publishers have an opportunity to foster an engaged and passionate fan base of readers and writers of fan-fiction. According to Jackson, young people “show a far greater willingness to adopt digital media products before developing a passion or interest in traditional media”, in which case discovery of content on Wattpad will lead to print sales.
There is no denying that print books still hold a strong position in the juvenile book industry. As Kara Liebeskind stated in an article on Digital Book World’s website, “there seems to be a time and place for both platforms, and families are perhaps just in the process of figuring out when and where each one works best,” (Bellis). Also at DBW, publishing consultant Joseph Esposito stressed that the book industry needs to innovate to beat forward thinkers like Amazon, and keep hold of their market share (Reid Jan 2014). Research into the children’s market by Scholastic shows that 51% of children aged 6-17 read for fun 5-7 days a week. In comparison to the adult market, the juvenile market is a valuable segment that publishers need to keep up with. Subscription models, multi-media platforms, and social networks are key to publisher success. In the juvenile market, publishers need to cover a variety of digital platforms so that customers can consume the content in the format of their choice.
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