At pre-DBW #LaunchKids: Good trends, many examples, little understanding

At pre-DBW #LaunchKids: Good trends, many examples, little understanding

'Just look at what this little thing has turned into'

Mike Shatzkin had borrowed a spare outlet to power up and check messages on his phone during the lunch hour at #LaunchKids. His Publishers Launch series of events was producing the fourth such outing focussed on children's publishing. He stood for a minute with me and looked out over the long expanse of a room that held more than 200 eagerly networking professionals, some gathered around tables to talk with speakers. 

The winking Shatzkinian smile was wide. "Just look at what this little thing has turned into."

Or, as the uncles of the world never fail to say about the readers of children's literature, "my, how you've grown."

A longtime industry observer and consultant, Shatzkin can take pride in his programming of many Launch programmes in association with Digital Book World, which opens its main conference -- hashtagged #DBW15 -- today (14th January) at 1:45 p.m. GMT / 8:45 a.m. ET.

And  while DBW, proper, rolls in with a slate of no fewer than six keynote events for an audience that F+W Media reports at more than 1,200 this morning in New York -- culminating in a much-anticipated onstage interview with Amazon's Russ Grandinetti -- the nature and needs of a #LaunchKids programme are different.

For example, it's probably impossible to avoid a sort of case-study window-shopping format to such a day as #LaunchKids. Publishing's center has a lot to benefit from learning of various start-up efforts in the field. Occasionally, that leads to what can sound like commercial pitches from the stage. This might have been the tone in presentations about I See Me, a 16-year-old personalized-book company, for example, or about children's ebook subscription programmes MeeGenius, Speakaboos, and (not yet launched) SmartyPAL.

Certainly, Sourcebooks' Dominique Raccah is a forceful advocate for her large company's success. During her presentation, she announced that her "Put Me in the Story" personalized book division -- we covered it Tuesday -- is going into one of its several brand-franchise relationships with the Lemony Snicket line to produce a new series of personalized picture books priced in the $30 range and ripe, of course, for adjacent gift-merchandise development. 

In communicating models and successes, maybe there's no way to get around the aura of advertisement. If anything, this makes all the more welcome some of the data-driven explication of the children's market, a sector that seems to be surveyed, studied, and reported on almost daily.

What Nielsen knows, per "Jonty" Nowell

Before we began, I joked with Nielsen Book president Jonathan Nowell that were I to introduce him onstage, I'd inevitably present him under the name "Jonty," as his Twitter handle has it -- @JontyNowell. And I found out I'd walked right back into children's territory. It's a childhood nickname, of course. 

And it's Jonty who -- as Nielsen's folks so frequently have the pleasure of doing at these events -- gave the audience a couple of its biggest jawdroppers of the day in terms of statistical analysis. 

Chief among them:

Eighty percent of YA books sold in the US today, per Nielsen's findings, are being bought by adults for themselves.

This being good news to those who sell YA, of course, no one in the room gasped, "What's wrong with those adult readers?"

And, of course, nothing's wrong with them, although in some circles it would not be out of line to ask what drives more mature readers to return so heavily to these stories with their generally strong emphasis on romance and youth.

But the unanswered question -- one that resonates in the UK market's slide-by of adult trade by children's as well, as our Tom Tivnan is reporting -- hung over the whole day at #LaunchKids.

It may have made some in the room wish that instead of a parade of "we do this" and "we're having great success with that," we might have heard, "we believe we're seeing this trend because it answers this need." 

In other words, much of what Young Jonty brought us set us up with pressing quandaries about a comparatively booming market that we only partly understand. There are cultural revelations underlying what's going on here. Their exploration could be good both for business and for booksellers' sanity.

More from Jonty?

  • In the UK, 34 percent of the print book market lies in the children's wing.
  • In the US, that rises to 37 percent of the print market going to the kids.
  • In China, you're looking at 18 percent of a print market given to kids' books.

Nowell also touched on the recently buzzy concept of the YouTube stars, mentioning the 90,000 copies of Girl Online, the controversially ghosted debut under the name of Zoe Sugg, "Zoella" to her many, many fans. This bit came with the interesting tidbit that 63 percent of book buyers aged 16-19 in the UK report themselves to Nielsen to be active YouTube users. (No word from the inactive YouTube users, we're too busy writing articles for the press about the active ones.)

Where there were five juvenile titles in the Top 20 bestsellers of 2011, Nowell told us, there were eleven juvenile titles in the Top 20 of 2014

Twenty-one percent of children's books purchased in the US are ebooks.

And, Nielsen's Nowell let us know, children are starting to read ebooks at younger ages, the trend being that the devices glowing-up more among the 4- to 5-year-olds. 

Around 2012, children's books' purchases pretty much went online and stayed online. Consumer survey responses tell Nielsen that while book clubs and fairs seem to have had a bit of an uptick in the last couple of years, the buying of kids' books has profoundly shifted from a one-time concentration in chain bookstores to the ether. More than a quarter of the sales in the sector, overall, are taking place online.

Another able report heard from

David Kleeman, who styles himself as a "playvangelist" -- I'm not saying a word -- reported on the joint study done by Play Collective and DBW for this year's conference cycle. The complete report, The ABCs of Kids & e-Reading (Volume 4), is to be made available today at the DBW online store, in case you're interested in buying it. 

Full of interesting insights, this report tells us, for example, that in October 2013, US parents spent a n average $22.07 on kids' ebooks -- and one year later, in October 2014, an average $13.37, quite a steep drop.

And much was made of the idea of how "children increasingly have a say in choosing ebooks." 

While a key swing was detected, in 2013, with 37 percent more parents letting children choose their ebooks, that trend seemed to flatten in 2014 and has remained static, though not in retreat.


Illuminating talk from Paper Lantern and Susan Katz

At times on Tuesday, we heard of genuinely interesting models and approaches to the children's and/or YA market.

The standout was a conversation (pictured) between HarperCollins Children's president and publisher Susan Katz (right) and two of her very articulate authors Lauren Oliver (left) and Lexa Hillyer (center). They are co-founders of Paper Lantern Lit.

Referring to themselves as "story architects," they describe the platform this way:

Our unique literary incubator model means that we're also author-focused and committed to excavating the freshest new voices. We mentor authors step-by-step through the novel-writing process, providing a conceptual foundation, teaching narrative architecture, and constructing a platform for success.

"We wanted to tell our own stories," Oliver said, after many successes of their own with HarperCollins, "but we also wanted to be able to work with other authors and add real value to them....Authors today are asked to wear so many more hats," the skill set having become "more lateral and widespread."

Katz had made the good point that it's only relatively recently, with the rise of social media, that author access has become both possible and incumbent on many writers, whose readers are eager to be in touch. 

In some cases, Paper Lantern, a six-person digital imprint, will acquire self-published work. In all cases, "a story that feels fresh and relevant to today's reading," Hillyer said, is a key element for success in a project that Paper Lantern develops. She went on:"A story that's grounded... with characters in high-stakes situations...a powerful underlying message...and an incredible writer." 

We anticipate hearing a good deal more this week at DBW about that need for "an incredible writer," which underwrites success in every publishing effort, usually -- as the Paper Lantern approach highlights -- with a lot of teamwork involved, almost never as a true solo effort.

If we learned anything from #LaunchKids on Tuesday, it was that we're going to need to think and talk much more deeply to grok what social needs the industry-beating success of young people's books is answering. Window shopping is not the same as walking on into the store and trying on a few things. Imagine what we could do if we led instead of following such a trend in sales.

When "story architects" create material classified as Young Adult and bought at a rate of 80 percent by older readers, we're not fully capitalizing on what's happening without more insight into what's afoot.

Again, with mounting evidence that women are doing most of this buying and reading, some of us remain puzzled that the industry -- and this programme -- can't seem to stop and consider why boys and men aren't reading more. It's a topic (gender! run away!) that too many people seem to want to rush past, even if it means leaving potential male money on the table.

Nevertheless, what we did see at #LaunchKids, for the most part, were some interesting looks at all this success.

All we need to do now is understand it.