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What's the state of the eBook industry today? Let's shed some light on the landscape.

One of my favorite parts of the various writers' conferences I attend regularly are the industry panels, where insiders offer their take on the state of things--current trends and forecasts for the near future. I wasn't lucky enough to attend Digital Book World, SCBWI, or any other conference this past winter, and I haven't seen many insights about eBooks from any sources yet. But here's a patchwork of highlights and quotes from the past year, that collectively paint a picture of the landscape.

By way of Lee Wind, Digital Book World Pre-Conference Interview Roundup, talking with Kristen McLean, Director of New Business at Nielsen Book, a part of Nielsen Entertainment, March 2016:

The one thing that has remained constant at the heart of the children's market is STORY. You can create the most fantastic multi-media platform in the world and if it doesn't have a good story to tell, it's going nowhere.

Parents remain very invested in print books for their children, and even teens have a strong preference for print versus eBook...we expect eBooks to remain steady...or perhaps even decline. 

Tablets…are basically curiosity libraries for kids' interests, and the most successful digital representations of kids' books and story-worlds are not eBooks, but other forms of media like games, TV shows, YouTube videos, apps, and even audio in new platforms like podcasts.

The challenge for parents is going to be making sure kids get a balanced "play diet" with digital engagement in proportion to other kinds of things like imaginative play, building & construction, and getting outside. 

Authors, illustrators, and content professionals…will be surprised at how self-aware, positive, hopeful and engaged today's kids really are. In my experience, most of our adult fears about disaffected, tuned out kids should be completely re-written. I'm very hopeful about these children. I think it's very exciting. 

Keep an ear to the ground for interesting case studies, successful media projects and good insights about kids & families. Stay curious--about both your readers, and your art, and don't buy into negative fear mongering about today's kids.

From Lorraine Shanley at Digital Book World, February 2016:

The digital world that we might have anticipated when we started these conferences in 2012 has not evolved much, at least for children’s books. That’s not to say that children’s books haven’t been affected by the enormous changes of the last few years…rather, the effect has come in different ways than expected.

Children don’t read that many eBooks, and online storytelling is not the only way teens read and write (though hats off to Wattpad for their continued success).

Contemporary authors, in the meantime, have gone online to find and interact directly with their readers in a variety of creative ways, on every social media platform that comes along. Ironically, their marketing prowess has taught publishers how to up their game.

Again by way of Lee Wind, SCBWI: The Blog, attending KidsLaunch at Digital Book World, March 2016:

"Kids prefer print to digital. Kids love to share, which is harder to do in digital." ~ David Kleeman (Senior VP of Global Trends, Dubit)

"The kids in kindergarten this year have NEVER been alive without tablets" and will have "fundamentally different expectations of technology." ~ Ashley Anderson Zantop (Chief Content Officer, Capstone)

From Porter Anderson, Publishing Perspectives, "Children’s Book Summit: Nielsen on Kids, Their Trends, and Their Parents", Nov 2016

Ebooks in the children’s market seem to have peaked in 2014 around a high number of film tie-ins. And while print juvenile content held steady from 2014 to 2015, eBooks registered a 33-percent decline in the sector without similar tie-in power to bolster them. ~ again from Nielsen's Kristen McLean

There’s “a push toward mindfulness, having conversations face-to-face, and have more analog interactions” as a core element of millennial interest, which might argue for the kind of pushback against digital seen in some young family settings today. At the same time, there’s less black-and-white separation for this generation of parents between the on- and offline worlds. ~ from Jordan Rost, Vice President, Consumer Insights, Nielsen 

Again by way of Lorraine Shanley, attending Kristen McClean's talk at Digital Book World 2017:

“Audio is going to be the digital platform for books.” As ebook reading declines, audio (including podcasts and audiobooks) will surpass it. 

The takeaway from all this, by way of me: eBooks haven't taken off as much as was expected about five years ago. Parents are still guarding their kids time away from screens, which makes me happy. Story is still paramount beyond the bells and whistles of technology. Some of the most interesting things may actually be happening in social media, as authors figure out how to connect with readers. Other interesting spaces are non-story products like games, TV shows, YouTube videos, apps, and even audio in new platforms like podcasts. Authors might think creatively about how to create content for those channels. Audiobooks are a space to watch (happy to say I'm a HUGE audiobook listener). It remains to be seen where millennial parents will take all of this. And finally, I suspect that the digital landscape is a bit like the weather in New England. If you don't like it, wait five minutes. It'll change.

(Thanks to Nutsa Avaliani for the lovely illustration.)


What makes a great e-book for kids?

Colorful-app-for-toddlers-oh-louis-rigaud-seen-cuteandkids-blog
The BolognaRagazzi Digital Award, given annually, helps to draw attention to the best in digital books and apps for kids. I’ve found the coverage of the award over the past couple of years to be a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration for anyone looking to create something in this space—and particularly helpful for those who are entirely new to the endeavor.

The award was established in 2011 “to identify best practices in this emerging category of commercial products, on a global scale,” so the winners can be from anywhere, which is part of the fun.

LaunchKids 2015, a conference on digital books for kids, shared a list of insights into what did or didn’t work with that year’s BolognaRagazzi winners, and the lessons learned can serve as a roadmap for creating digital books and apps. (I haven’t seen a similar analysis for 2016 or 2017, but I think the lessons are still relevant.)

So, what makes a great e-book, and a not-so-great ebook? Here are a few pointers that caught my eye, as I begin to toss around ideas of what’s possible:

  1. Interactivity: If you’ve got items on the screen that look like they should respond to a touch, make sure they do! Don’t invite the touch of a curious child, only to have no payoff. Look at "Oh!" by Anouck Boisrobert & Louis Rigaud, a 2017 BolognaRagazzi winner.
  2. Interactivity, 2.0: Make sure interactivity advances a narrative. Don’t simply toss in illustrations and hot spots to jab.
  3. Kid-controlled: Make sure you have a mute button that enables a child to control the experience. You’re looking for a psychological balance between screen and child initiation.
  4. JackandtheBeanstalk-726x726Innovation: This is probably the Holy Grail—easier said than done. Try to stay a step ahead on the innovation wave, and do something new. Don’t just offer up a “collective mush of mediocre quality stories with limited features and perhaps a jigsaw puzzle, a coloring page or a game of concentration. There’s so much more the medium can do.” Don’t create what the judges referred to as just another “page flipper.” As an example, check out Nosy Crow's "Jack and the Beanstalk". At 9:03, the child mends a broken mirror with an image of his or her own self. This is something that had never been done before, and won the app a 2014 BolognaRagazzi mention.
  5. Teaching moments: Help the emerging reader. Labeling strategies, closed captioning options, and touch and hear techniques to help a child build a bridge toward becoming a reader—all these won points.
  6. LoopimalThe human touch: Don't focus on technical fireworks at the expense of great quality sound, and good old fashioned warmth and humor. Apps needn't dazzle and overwhelm. The simplest of apps can engage and delight. An example is Loopimal by Yatatoy, which won a 2016 BolognaRagazzi mention.

 

More useful links:
LaunchKids 2015 full downloadable report
BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, 2015
BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, 2016
BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, 2017