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?

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

Why is electronic literature different than traditional print?

As an ebook avoider who is more likely to thumb through an auto parts catalogue than actually look at an ebook, I realized that the first thing I had to do in exploring the world of digital literature was to get straight on what I’m talking about. I needed some definitions, because I had a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot more out there to be curious about than just electronic books.  What exactly are the new forms that we’re seeing today?

I came across a 2013 Library of Congress program entitled “The Electronic Literature Showcase”, 3 days designed to raise awareness of the growing field of digital literary expression, which included the exhibit, “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms.”

The curatorial statement for the exhibit defines electronic literature as a “digital born” literary work, or something created on a computer and usually meant to be read on a computer.

Which, honestly, makes me kind of start snoring a little bit.

But, hang on. Read through an overview of the exhibit, and it gets more interesting. Electronic literature, by this definition, is special because it takes advantage of what’s unique and different about computers and devices. It builds upon, experiments with, and extends what we’re already doing with print, but goes beyond it, in ways that print can’t.

The overview goes on to say:

Words dance across computer screens while games become poems become puzzles, or readers choose their own path through multi-layered hypertext narrative or use hand-held devices to view works that are location-aware.

It makes sense to me (especially after taking a look at some of the latest, best offerings, which I’ll share in a later post) that there really are new emerging forms of narrative that are their own animal. Think about the early days of television. People in the industry would have had to figure out that you couldn’t just slap a head-on stage production on TV – they had to figure out a whole new form, with cuts and camera angles and all the endless touches and techniques that differentiate screen from stage.

The exhibit’s notes also make the point that electronic literature is an artistic medium, just like any other medium. “Give an artist something, anything, to create with––air, animal skin, paper, computer screen––and she or he will find a way to use it for making art.” 

The takeaway: there’s a whole experimental form called “electronic literature”, which is so much more than just ebooks.

Why this blog? (And where’d I go for 4 1/2 years?)

2017 02 Spaceheadz
You may notice (ahem) that there is a wee time gap in this blog. When I started blogging several years back, I was working on the manuscript of my first novel. I wanted to be a part of the ongoing conversation around books and publishing in the kid lit world.

I was excited to plunge in, but the demands of writing took over, so I took a hiatus from blogging.

Some years later. Manuscript is done. My wise and wonderful agent, Sarah Crowe, patiently helped me to revise, and is now seeking a home for said manuscript. And I still have all the same questions, plus a few more.

I’m curious about where books and storytelling are headed, given this technological revolution we find ourselves in. I want to understand what the opportunities are for telling and delivering stories in new ways. I hope this blog will explore:

  1. What’s the state of ebooks, and other emerging forms of books today? What’s the basic vocabulary? As a physical-paper-book loyalist who doesn’t own a tablet, and an author who wants to stay up to date, remain relevant and take creative risks (without totally selling out what truly moves me), what do I need to know about the ebook industry? About this tech and kids’ books? I need a nuts-and-bolts vocabulary, and I need reasons to be inspired instead of overwhelmed. And annoyed. Maybe you do, too.
  1. What’s being done today in this field, especially for kids? What’s rising to the top, and what can we learn from the best? I’m talking about not just ebooks, but authors using digital in creative ways to extend the story. (For starters, think Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka. That’ll give you a sense of where my heart’s really at.)
  1. Beyond the new technologies, what else is pushing the boundaries in books for kids? Whether it’s new ways of reaching reluctant readers, topics we haven’t touched before, diverse voices and characters, or subversive ways to get the message out in a newly Orwellian world—what’s on the cutting edge? And what can those on the front lines tell us about how kids read and relate to books that are busting up categories and boundaries? The ones who actually put books into kids’ hands--librarians, teachers and parents.

Let me know what questions you have about this world, and what you think is important to know. Onward.

Our Gutenberg Moment

This blog is all about the Gutenberg moment that many (like me) believe we’re in the middle of. This “point in time that dramatically changes the way we read and publish, much like the day Johannes Gutenberg rebuilt a Rhine Valley wine press in the mid fifteenth century to bring moveable type to the west.” (Thanks to Meanland.com for that concise summary.)

How is this technological moment changing the way we create and consume fiction?

One refrain we’ve been hearing for a while, and will continue to hear, is that “Literary fiction is dead.” Or gasping for its last breath. Or at least on life support. Source of trauma? Kindles, say the doom-sayers. They blame self-publishing, too. You don’t see much literary fiction in the Top 100 of the Kindle Store, or in the self-publishing success stories.

But David Gaughran, in a recent piece in the HuffPo, says it's a mistake to assume that things will always be this way, or that literary fiction will continue to suffer in a digital world.

“Literary fiction has never been the biggest seller and has always been dwarfed by romances or thrillers. However, even if literary fiction is doing relatively worse in e-book form than in print, I still don't think that's any reason for dismay."

"There is nothing special about literary fiction readers - they are switching to e-books, and will do so in greater numbers - they just started a little after the romance, thriller, and science-fiction readers. They are coming through, though, and there are enough of them there to push a backlist book by Iris Murdoch up to #5 in the Kindle Store at the start of August.”

Gaughran makes the point that digital media frees literary writers from the constraining economics of print. Writers are no longer restricted to an ever-decreasing market for short stories and novellas. No more the days of that single, against-all-odds chance at publication in The New Yorker—or nothing. And writers, influenced by TV, are experimenting with different forms like serialized pieces, which may be gaining traction.

Many classics are now available at low or free prices, thanks to digital, but that doesn't mean they're being ousted from the canon. Classics have been made available for a lot longer than digital. Gaughran reminds us that “libraries have been providing free books for generations, and that hasn't demeaned books or literature in the eyes of readers.”

So even if digital eventually becomes the form of choice for books, and even if the physical bookstore goes the way of the Blockbuster Video, literary fiction will continue to flourish.


Ebooks & Multiple PoV's - Sky's the Limit

Last week I mentioned Lise Quintana, a writer and entrepreneur who’s developing an app that will support ebooks with multiple viewpoints.


Think of televised sporting events, where you can change the camera angle. Quintana wants to do the same thing with books, for an unheard of level of storyworld immersion. You’ll be able to read the main character’s point of view, then the dad’s, then the dog’s, and then the talking can opener’s point of view.


“You’ll be able to read the same book over and over, and get a different experience every time,” says Quintana.


With digital publishing, she says, you can create “enormous, epic, self-referential works that fold in on themselves...You can actually follow a character just like in real life and see what they are doing. When you put the book down, the story world continues.”


So how does that change the story?


I would guess that stories will start to become huge collaborations between many different writers – because what writer is going to write all those POVs, and stay with one story for that long? I know I’d get sick of it after a while, and be eager to move onto my next story.


That’s not the only change Quintana sees. In this bigger, richer story, the reader gets to make choices about the story. She can even have some impact on the story, in some ways. We’re talking interactive story worlds again, which I’m too old-school to understand or appreciate right now. But I’ll post on it in the future.


And if the Dear Reader has an impact on the story... the writer is losing control over her creation.


Yeah, I don’t love the sound of that either. But perhaps that's one of the directions we're headed in, and I’m wondering how to embrace that.


thanks to Douglas Crets for his post which inspired this one.

When Is Paper A Must-Have?

Pop up book


Lise Quintana is a writer, techie and entrepreneur. She’s currently developing an app that will support ebooks with multiple viewpoints “in big, epic ways”. I’ll say more about her app in a future post.


For now, I’m intrigued by what Quintana thinks about the future of publishing.


“There will come a time when you'll need to have a reason to publish on paper,” says Quintana. “Pop-up books, for example, can only be on paper. They can’t exist electronically. In the future, books will have to have [that kind of substantial] reason for being printed on paper.”


That got me thinking about reasons for paper books. Which books will still beg to be published on paper, when ebooks are more and more accepted?


Some book lovers and industry watchers think that picture books will always be in paper format. The argument goes: who wants to curl up with a child on your lap – and a Kindle in one hand? Kind of destroys the whole experience. No more long, slow, suspenseful page turn. And if the book has audio, that competes with the parent/reader acting out the roles.


But apparently, a growing number of others like the convenience of ebooks, as sales for children’s ebooks show.


Different market segments may insist on paper books. I’ve seen reports that teens still want very much to own physical books, and it will be interesting to see if that continues to hold true.


Book clubs may insist on paper copies. The book club experience is about hanging out with friends and food, and tablets don’t necessarily add to that ambiance.


I’m guessing there will be market segments of non-adopters. Readers who just never get on board with ebooks and tablets, because of age, or access to technology, or other reasons.


What types of books do you think beg to be printed on paper?  



Continue reading "When Is Paper A Must-Have?" »

Ebook Enhancements? Start Thinking As You're Writing


Most writers have heard the classic writing advice: “Butt in chair.” Being a writer is about sitting alone in a room and staying there until the book is written.  


But I’ve been wondering – now that a book can be enhanced with music, sound effects, embedded content, and graphics – how do you create that kind of a book? Not by working alone, I’ll bet.


Deskology, honest edition


Do you have to team up first with web designers and digital artists? Or do you pitch the idea to an agent or  publisher, who then puts the team together?


I looked at Andi Buchanan’s process of writing Gift (an interactive digital YA novel released in March 2012 by Open Road). When Buchanan started writing Gift a couple of years ago, she was just beginning to read ebooks on a tablet. Wouldn’t it be great, she thought, to take advantage of the “shape-shifting, dynamic” aspects of the technology? And wouldn’t her book be a perfect fit?


Publisher’s Weekly talks about Buchanan’s process, from which we can learn a few lessons:

 1.      Think about potential ebook enhancements as you’re writing, and be open to where the new universe of possibilities takes your writing.


  2.     Know something about interactive design.  (Um... Methinks I see a future post. After I’ve learned something about, you know, interactive design.)


3.     Look for a music collaborator in the obvious places, like YouTube. Buchanan saw FreddeGredde’s performance there, liked it, and asked him to do the soundtrack for the book.


4.     Stay true to the story. “I wanted to respect the reader and not just have wacky enhancements because we could,” says Buchanan.


5.     Even as you’re staying committed to storytelling, have a vision for how the book might be on a tablet. Like Buchanan, come to your publisher with “a ton of crazy ideas.”


Thanks: Mary Kole’s post, “Digital Inspires Collaboration” (at KidLitApps.com) inspired this one.