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And a little child shall lead them

The subject line refers not to religion, but to publishing. The Washington Post did away with their print Book World standalone section, which used to come out every Sunday, but resurrected it today for a special edition on children's books. One of the lead articles, Michael Dirda's review of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, contains Dirda's usual in-depth information and insightful commentary.

In addition to reviews, there is also an article called "The future of children's book publishing." Interestingly, in print that article was titled "Is there a future for books? Just ask a kid." This illustrates perfectly the differing features of print and online. In a tabloid-sized page, the headline can span a lot of space. In the online world, layout is often confined to a single column as documents are read one by one after clicking a table of contents. Book World also illustrates another feature of digital publishing; the print version of the post has absorbed book reviews into other sections but in the online version, there is still a Book World "section."

The article goes into the difference between print and online publishing, focusing on the work of Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, who first published his cartoon-illustrated work online. He still does, even though the books sell very well and a movie is coming out any minute. Kinney has this to say about it:

"I feel like I am hedging my bets by keeping one foot in the print world and one foot in the online world," Kinney said. "I think a book still has a special kind of magic." Plus, as a practical matter, there is no financial incentive for authors to give their stories away for free."

So, Kinney sees his livelihood in print books, and so far he seems to be right. A quote from Suzanne Murphy, vice president of Scholastic's trade division, says it all: ". . . parents may — especially during the holiday time — cut back in other ways but are willing to spend money on something they think is valuable to childhood and education." We all (or almost all) want our kids to be readers, whether we are readers ourselves or not. Reading is a good thing; you need to read well to make a decent living. And because reading is important, kids books have a solid future. In fact, it seems like a lot of adult are reading kids' books these days, especially if you add YA books into the mix. One reason, cited in the Post article, ifs that kids demand a good story.

But in order to lure kids to books, publishers are strewing online goodies in their path. Where the witch in Hansel and Gretel used a house built of gingerbread, publishers rely on online social networking sites, free online games, and other such no-print, non-book treats. Book publishers are trying to compete without actually becoming the competition, a difficult balancing act.

There is a brief comment at the end of the article about kids and eReaders that dismisses Kindle-like monochrome devices as not appealing to kids, and then adds this almost contradictory quote from Michael Norris, an analyst for the media research firm Simba Information:

"To read and get through a book takes time and engagement. I don't know how well a kid can engage with a book on a device that, say, vibrates when they get a call from a friend."

A good argument for dedicated eReaders! And Norris makes the excellent point that kids books are important to publishing as a whole. It's much easier to sell books to grownups if they have already acquired the habit of reading. On the other hand, I think kids' books will survive in print for a longer time than adult books for the simple fact that until they can make an indestructible eReader with some kind of tracking device built in, no one is going to give a six-year-old an eReader.

In point of fact, my daughter stepped on her MacBook when she was a college freshman. Can you say "new hard drive"?

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Mar. 21st, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
I think one important thing to remember is that currently, ebook sales make up about only 3% of the total. As that number climbs publishers will have to make a greater commitment to the quality of ebooks they put out ( which will increase cost ). With more people buying ebooks, the demand for the print version will lessen ( which will drive the cost of printing books up--which may in turn cause more people to purchase ereaders ).

At the moment, they can get away with ignoring the devices because of the low economic benefit they provide. With a greater percentage of people using ebooks the cost of the devices will drop and may even take on the model of video game systems--where the profit is on the games and less on the system ( although books are cheaper than games ).

Forced between the two costs, publishers will try to find a way to lower their expenditures. Some may decide to operate in only one medium.
Mar. 21st, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
Eventually, maybe. But in business, it's not good to turn your back on revenue. I work for an information publisher, We turned the corner on getting more revenue from digital than print years ago, but we still publish in print, too. The trick is to find ways to produce your content from one source but output in every form you can make money from selling, be it print, CD, DVD, ebooks, and online. Which is not to say that I think print information products won't eventually go away entirely, but it will take a while. I expect fiction to take a lot longer because you can't write off the cost of a Kindle as a business expense if you're using it to read the latest best seller.

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