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Children's conference: transmedia is essential

Publishers must explore transmedia approaches to engage children whose lives revolve increasingly around gaming, online communities and social networking, The Bookseller's annual children's conference, sponsored by Huzutech and Dubit Research, heard last week (29th September).

Jeff Norton of Awesome Media & Entertainment urged delegates at the event, held at the British Library, to "think not about platforms, but audiences". Peter Robinson of cross-media research company Dubit Research said: "Kids expect a presence for a story across platforms. There are so many ways that kids can consume a story."

Egmont m.d. Cathy Poplak said BZRK—the company's first experiment with transmedia, which has seen a young adult thriller series launch as a cross-platform project, beginning with an alternate reality game and social networking—has had 87,000 visitors to website www.gobzrk.com since its September launch.

"In the industry we want to turn children on to the joy of reading. I still believe in the universal appeal of a good story, but have to accept that some children can't see the story for the book," Poplak said. However, she stressed the need to remain grounded in the storytelling basics publishers know best, with BZRK's plotline and characters created by "practised, professional" writer Michael Grant, working in a traditional relationship with his editor.

Andrew Piller of new media production company FMX Fremantle described the art of telling stories in the digital space as a "creative model which is the future of storytelling". Online teen dramas like "Freak" and the forthcoming "Threads" include a linear story told by online video content, boosted by non-linear backstory content such as blogs and webcam footage, plus interactivity allowing the audience to get involved by becoming extras in the TV filming or providing music for the soundtrack. Money is made through commercial partnerships with the likes of Tampax, with a "loyal audience ready to follow us to branded microsites", Piller said.

FMX Fremantle, with Sorted Ltd, is also responsible for Sorted, the online "cooking community" set up across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and its own site, which offers the 15–30 demographic an "immersive entertainment experience" and now has 80,000 subscribers in the UK. Sorted recently signed a book deal with Michael Joseph for 2012.

Eric Huang, Penguin's publishing director for media and licensing, said virtual world websites had great potential for publishers, with Penguin selling over three-quarters of a million Moshi Monsters books thus far. "It's great for publishers, because it's much more personal than film or TV," he said.

However, Graeme Harvey of social gaming platform Huzutech gave delegates a reality check on the potential costs of creating a bespoke virtual world, such as that for Scholastic's newly launched Horrible Histories. The site has totted up 15,000 registered users in its first month and Harvey said existing intellectual property could be "rejuvenated to generate new revenue streams and new audiences" through such a development. He revealed a potential price tag of over £200,000 to create such a site, with ongoing costs for community moderation and development to keep users engaged.
Meanwhile book2look's Ralph Möllers presented his low-cost web marketing widget, designed as a digital wrap for all the information consumers need for an e-book.

- Templar unveiled an iPad game app for Monsterologies in partnership with US game developer Nukotoys. Each set of collectable physical cards, every one featuring a different monster, can be tapped onto the iPad screen. The tap brings the monster on the card instantly to life, and tapping a second card means a further monster appears on screen and the two can compete with one another. Children work their way up in the Monsterology game through the competition. Doug Penman, Nukotoys joint c.e.o., said: "Kids move between media. You have to remove the barriers, and the ‘tap' of the card is easy." The app, which provoked an exceptionally positive reaction from conference delegates, is due for launch in February 2012.

- Games and social media are increasingly influencing how children form their identity, with the potential to create an alternate self through an avatar proving to be an "incredibly creative process", Dr Barbie Clarke of child development consultancy Family, Kids & Youth told the conference. Clarke said children were adopting different genders or different countries of origin for their avatars. Children are also more willing than adults to use one screen for everything in their transmedia experience, she said. But she warned it was "normal" for teens to possess two Facebook sites, one "official" one which family was allowed to view, and a second for their inner circle of friends.

- Tamara Littleton, c.e.o. of eModeration, warned that brands have a duty of care to protect children by moderating online sites. "Kids all have phones and access to computers in their bedrooms so publishers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment," she said. Littleton said that while grooming by adults was rare within her professional experience, children regularly have to be prevented from posting their contact details online, and there are "lots" of instances of bullying and self-harm issues, she said. Littleton recommended filters and visible community management for Facebook pages, warning that children often gave away personal information when trying to contact celebrities and authors.