Once more unto the reach

In 2005 I heard a teacher talk about Luke, a 10-year-old reluctant reader, who discovered that reading was “cool” after all, as long as the content was accessed on his handheld device, not through print and paper. This set me off thinking about various opportunities to reach more children with our stories and content, such as: would more children enjoy reading if we delivered stories to their favourite devices? Could we reach a new audience with interactive storytelling on a handheld device or through social media? If two-thirds of children’s books are bought as gifts, can you recreate in the digital world the emotional satisfaction of giving a print book?

I was open to working with any “digital” partner to explore these different ideas, and any author and agent willing to test this brave new world with an open and collaborative mind. I hoped that some of these ideas might help arrest the decline in reading for pleasure by convincing all children that reading is for them.

Ten years on, The Bookseller asked me to share some lessons learned. I have observed what others have done, dissected what we have tested and, crucially, Egmont has researched over a number of years the attitudes and motivations of adults who buy children’s books and the children who do (and don’t) read them. Here are a few insights:

The emperor’s new clothes. Just as a poorly written story doesn’t become a masterpiece when you publish it in a novelty format, technological embellishments won’t fool the reader for long. For my money, a good book is the true immersive experience. I like Peter Brooke’s theory of the “irreducible minimum of theatre”, where all you need is an actor and an audience; the rest—stage, set, lighting, costumes—are superfluous unless they improve the experience for the audience. Similarly, reading is about
the author’s story and the reader; anything else must be justified on the basis that it adds to the reading experience.

Digital is important to children’s books, but not in the way we thought. It turns out that children want their devices to play their favourite games...and print books to read all about them. A cleverly edited and packaged print book enhances the fans’ experiences of digital worlds.

Professional storytelling and user-generated storytelling are not the same. As Bill Wright, creator of The Sims, says (quoted by Frank Rose in The Art of Immersion): “There is something about having a professional storyteller with a unique vision telling you a well-crafted story. But I have never wanted to tell a story in a game. I’ve always wanted to support the user’s story.” As publishers, our expertise is in bringing the professional writer and illustrator’s work, or expertly curated information, to the widest possible audience.

Print sells. Last year, the children’s print book market grew by 7%, while e-book sales remained low at around 4% of the overall children’s market, which was a 30% drop on 2014. Egmont’s research shows that parents are anxious about excessive recreational screen time. A printed book is a highly desirable alternative. At the same time—shout it from the rooftops!—14 million adults value reading as something special and different from other forms of entertainment, and gift-buyers want the emotional reward of giving a physical object.

Children haven’t changed. Egmont’s most recent research, conducted with Nielsen, shows that 75% of children prefer print formats—yes, even teenagers. They can share, collect and show off their books, behaviours that are constant, even in this online world. And there is something more, too, something about the physical and emotional experience of reading a book versus on a screen, which we are currently exploring.

I’ve relished every moment of my digital experimenting, be it working with Electronic Arts (EA) to develop interactive stories for the Nintendo DS, working with Apple to make Winnie-the-Pooh the only e-book to be pre-loaded on the first ever iPads, or with TouchPress on the award-winning War Horse app. It hasn’t ended, but right now nothing satisfies our readers more than the product borne of a technology invented more than 550 years ago: the print book.

Ten years ago, I thought “digital”—whatever that was— would break down the barriers to reading and make books more inclusive. I am still on that quest but I have come to realise that the answer lies elsewhere...

Cally Poplak is the managing director of Egmont Publishing.