The Bookseller Children's Conference showed what a curate's egg the kids market has become.
Print is growing and sales of physical children's books are on course to record their biggest year ever through bookshop tills - thanks in large part to offshoots of digital phenomena such as Minecraft, and playground crazes such as loom-banding.
Meanwhile, the kids are increasingly active online, both in terms of their use of social media as well as access to tablets and mobile devices.
And yet their desire to read print continues unabated, with this demographic particularly sensitive to the costs of digital content and the quality of what they are reading.
But perhaps the biggest area of debate coming out of the Children's Conference was around the future of the book app. It has long-fascinated me that despite the huge growth of the Apple App Store, traditional book publishers have struggled to find a way of building sustainable app-based businesses. As The Bookseller's children's editor Charlotte Eyre has written recently, children's publishers have become particularly wary and many have simply vacated the space.
The sobering view of this market was provided by Michael Acton Smith, c.e.o. of MindCandy, who said he has struggled to build a successful Moshi Monsters app as part of a wider transition of the Moshi Monsters platform to mobile.
“We have created lots of apps, from free to paid to in-app purchases, and although we have lots of downloads we haven’t found the commercial secrets yet. One of the challenges is how crowded the app market is. It’s great because the barriers to entry are low and consumers have choice, but it is challenging.”
The book app was further challenged by comments made by Nicolette Jones, children's reviewer for the Sunday Times. Nicolette spoke hesitantly but passionately about why she felt children's digital books (including apps) had so far failed to succeed in replacing the print book, warning that the technology can interfere with the story. Her hesitancy was that she knew there had been well-made apps, just none that could be regarded as a good replacement for physical texts. "I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better,” Nicolette said.
In response to Nicolette's comments, Nosy Crow's Kate Wilson blogged a well-argued riposte. Her chief point was that "successful making of story apps requires an understanding that apps are another country, and we should do things differently there". Furthermore, publishers absolutely have a responsibility to be wherever children are. "If children are spending a lot of time with touch-screen devices, I think that we should want reading to be part of the entertainment they find there. And I think that, if they find reading there, it has to compete effectively with other things they find in the same place – TV, games and social media."
App reviewer and freelance technology journalist Stuart Dredge also penned a considered comment. "My first response to Jones’ comments was to feel a bit defensive, then, but the more I listened, the more I thought about where her criticism was coming from, and why it sparks some important debate for anyone making children’s apps." Dredge concludes by challenging the developers to come up with apps that suit both sides of this debate: "the considered criticism from experts like Nicolette Jones is an incentive for more developers to strain to reach those heights".
That's all good, but I can't help but go back to Acton Smith's comments: "We have created lots of apps, from free to paid to in-app purchases, and although we have lots of downloads we haven’t found the commercial secrets yet."
This combination of huge abundance and the difficulties of commercialising the products should not be under-estimated when looking at book apps. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whether particular apps work, or don't, but not enough time figuring out how the market conditions may be impacting these developments.
One of the best talks from the Children's Conference came from former iBookstore executive Georgina Atwell, who debunked "seven myths of discoverability". Rather than accepting that the platforms have failed to create diverse and suitable ways of finding content, she pushed the ball back towards the content producers. She chided publishers for publishing too much, and paying too little attention to marketing that content. If we published less, and promoted more, we'd raise the bar, she said. There are parallels with the App Store, but here there are scarcely any barriers to publication, and the shop-windows through which to market or display content are incredibly narrow. The app-store opened in July 2008: yet it already has more than 1.3m apps available -- as many in fact as there are printed children's books to buy on Amazon.
The key difference may be time. In the book world publishers have had years to develop the rules, and adapt to the changing environments. While HarperCollins' children's executive publisher Ann-Janine Murtagh talked of a golden age of children's publishing, she also spoke about how this had been built from a platform of classic content created decades ago. As my colleague John Lewis spelt out, the backlist is incredibly important to this market: and it also sparks new publishing. The Crocodile Under the Bed, Judith Kerr's follow-up to The Tiger Who Came to Tea, has just been published, 46 years after the original. Imagine an app developer with that kind of strategy! Longevity is an asset in book publishing, in the app space it's a foreign word.
It may be then that the answer to Nicolette's challenge is not to chide publishers or developers (or even readers) for their lack of imagination, but to focus on whether the platform itself provides the right environment for exploiting the type of content publishers produce. To borrow Wilson's analogy, it is not just that the app world is "another country", it may also be a hostile environment to the types of publishing practised by children's publishers for decades, and extolled at the conference by Murtagh.
I agree with Wilson when she writes that "reading" ought to be part of the app experience, but I see very little evidence that Apple is doing anything to help with this transition. And if that's the case, it is little wonder that so many publishers are simply not bothering. That should concern us all, except with sales of kids print books growing publishers will fret less than they ought to. However, if I was Apple, or any other tablet developer, it would concern me greatly. I would want to figure out how tablets can be as good for readers are they are for gamers—and I would want publishing's golden legacy to have a seat at that table when the next young-reader comes to tea.
Image - Shutterstock: 2xSamara