A "cooler", more creative children's publishing industry on show at CMC

The theme of this year’s Children’s Media Conference (CMC), which took place 1-3 July in Sheffield, was “All Change”. Which is apt, because the children’s TV industry (from which this conference was originally born) is experiencing a disruption just as profound and perhaps more urgent than anything facing the publishing industry.

The key difference between the two is that while publishers accuse Amazon of stealing their lunch money, TV producers envy and fear the biggest child in their playground, YouTube. It was hard to find a single session at the three-day conference in which a senior producer or creator didn’t express worry or bafflement about kids turning away from TV towards watching YouTube on a mobile device.

By contrast the children’s publishers who attend the CMC in growing numbers seemed far more confident. This year a delegation of publishers that included Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan and Walker Books made the journey to Sheffield. The collective signal was that publishing was there to lead the buying, selling and co-creation of new children’s content across the media.

Speaking in the Transmedia Journeys session, the founder of Bright Group literary agency Vicki Willden-Lebrecht summed up the increased commercial and creative clout of the sector, saying: “Children’s publishing is a much cooler place to be than ten years ago”.

She was also confident in the ability of children’s books to form the foundation of wider media empires. “We always start with a book, but we view that as a start," she said, pointing out that the key to building stories out across media is “about approaching content mindful of how it’s going to travel”.

Lebrecht did strongly advocate a gradual approach for creating new brand franchises out of books, saying: “Our transmedia journey is very organic. We develop stories into series, then worlds and into complementary products.”

Her words echoed a warning in an earlier session on brand licensing “Licensed To Thrill”. Here, Penguin RandomHouse’s head of licensing, Susan Bolsover, said that “consumers know when a brand is being stretched too far”. She added that  “the key to updating a loved brand is to be sensitive, authentic and think what customers want”, citing her experience of developing the Peter Rabbit stories as a CGI cartoon as a key example. She said the creative team had developed an updated look and feel for the show, but stayed faithful to the spirit of the original by going to the Lake District to paint background locations directly from life.

PRH was also present at one of the CMC's closing sessions alongside speakers from LittleBrown and RCW in 'Commissioner Conversation with the Publishers'. In what amounted to a whistle-stop of the publishing process for TV professionals, PRH's acquisitions and new business manager said events like CMC were increasingly important to the multimedia future for children's publishers. He recounted how PRH mounted its first TV co-production with Puffin Rock after seeing an early version of the show at the conference. By working closely with production partners publishers can, Haines said, build creative that works equally as well as a cartoon as it does a book.

The session, and the publishing industry's contribution to CMC 2015, ended with Little Brown publisher Karen Ball mounting an impassioned defence for creating new children's content as a collaborative process. In answer to a question about whether there was a substantial difference between an author-driven book and one created by a book packaging, Ball said: "There's a lot of snobbery around content packaging. It's unwarranted. Content packagers are talented people."

A publisher attending this year's CMC would likely come away with the unmistakable impression that children's media is at a key point in its development. The impetus in children's TV in particular may be rolling away from content consumed in a scheduled way on devices such as televisions towards an on-demand model where the individual child has much more freedom to pick the content they want to consume. In such an environment the creators and producers of children's content will need to pick their partners and their channels carefully. Getting attention for content in this new world involves going where the consumers eyeballs are - whether that's YouTube or Snapchat - rather than relying on a captive audience. The good news for children's publishers is that going by many of the examples cited at Sheffield this year they already have many of the collaborative, commercially-driven qualities they need to thrive in this era.

Chris McCrudden is head of technology and new media at Midas PR