Children’s Literature & eBooks: The Current Landscape
For many people, childhood books have a certain affiliation with feelings of nurturing, parental relationships, and interests they had when they were kids. Whether it was about cars, dolls, or cats, there is a favourite book out there for every child that they will remember for the rest of their lives. The impact that eBooks have on the current state of children’s literature showcases a huge and direct impact on the future of book publishing. Parents have the influence of passing their attitudes and beliefs on what their idea of a book is to kids, but that is dramatically changing as the purchase of eBooks increase and children become more and more comfortable with technology. However, there is also the role that publishers are doing to stay ahead of the game for children’s eBooks and apps. I want to take a closer look at where they are focusing their priorities in the market, and what is being done to change the landscape.
It has been a nightly ritual for parents all over North America to read to their children before going to bed; a favourite good night story evokes feelings of closeness, and further develops the relationship between parent and child. Story book reading and reading out loud has become a tradition that has proved to be the most important activity for successful literacy skills and building the foundation for future learning. There is a direct correlation to word decoding, reading comprehension and fluency, and writing skills (Kouri & Telander, 2008). Eager for the success of their children, parents will invest time and money into their children’s education, including new technology. Parents have a direct influence on their children’s perception and interaction with eBooks, and can push forward the market for children’s eBooks and apps. They understand that they can use this together with regular and already existing books, and that each tool compliments each other. eBooks hold a great potential to encourage children to read.
The current state of children’s eBooks and apps includes an enhanced and enriched reading experience, where there are features such as reading out loud audio and intuitive interactive gimmicks. While there is much research indicating that reading together with children improves writing and spelling skills, young children demonstrate more interest and derive more meaning from the interactive features and pictures than the words themselves. More and more eBooks are offering the ability to draw on the screen, make pictures move, and sound effects that enhance the reading experience. It successfully holds the child’s attention and parents are satisfied that they have been able to further support their children’s reading experience. eReaders and tablets are an easy way to introduce children to technology, especially when they are not yet nostalgic about reading a real book. Children who are often reluctant readers can also gain self‐efficacy and confide power in their skills when they read from an eBook as it is presented in a format that is attractive to children, especially those who grew up with computers and technology in the first place. eBooks bridge the gap between the relationship between reluctant young readers. (Maynard, 2010)
Take the NOOK Color, for example – this eReader exclusively produced by bookstore giant Barnes & Noble has opened up a wide channel for kids to experience the full potential of an eBook. At $249, it is marketed as being cheaper than an iPad, and has books that specialize in interactive technology for children (Barnes & Noble, 2011). The new KindleFire, released days ago by competing Amazon, is driving a hard market that not only offers a colour screen, but an Android operating system and web browsing, not to mention an eReader, all in one, for a mere $199 (Marks, 2011). At one time, the Nook was the number one competitor to the Kindle, but with the release of the new KindleFire, there is great potential for the current landscape to change (Maxwell, 2011). There is tough competition for the eBook markets, especially when economically, eBooks and their readers are cheaper than purchasing real books, and there is less room required for storage and space (Shatzkin, 2011). Since 2007, there has been more than a tripled increase in eReader sales (Curtis, 2010). On iBooks, where you can download books from iTunes and read from your iPad, iTouch, and iPhone, children’s books can go as low as ‘free’, $.99, and up.
Even though in the past, adults aged 35 and over have been purchasing eBooks and eReaders, there seems to be a trend that is being directed towards youngsters that have grown up with eBooks in order to maximize the potential of the market. For Kindle purchasers, this demographic makes up over 70% of the market, indicating that they have decent incomes, a university degree, and a family that they pass their technological values to (Florida Communications Group, 2010). According to the IDPF, there has been a near 370% increase in eBook sales from January 2009 to January 2010, ending at $31,900,000US (Curtis, 2010). There is much potential to be tapped into towards the children’s literacy market, and publishers and book developers alike are in a race to see who can break into it first.
In May 2011, publishing megapower Random House acquired digital media firm Smashing Ideas Inc. in order to further improve their eBook section and technological capabilities to stay on top of their game. This move has allowed Random House the power to gain and hold existing author brands and literary properties that seek growth in apps and eBooks (Trachtenberg, 2011).
Months later, Scholastic joined with Ruckus Media to become Scholastic Ruckus, where they aim to publish a wide range of children’s a youth content across all platforms, from interactive content and enhanced eBooks media (“Scholastic, Ruckus”, 2011). The collaboration of these mega publishing houses with existing development firms is an example of the seriousness of the industry to break into the challenge that is interactive narrative. Digital developers need help from publishers to break into the market as much as publishers need them, and the money comes from the licensing of already existing brands. Scholastic already has the advantage of controlling the market for teachers and students in schools, as they are the main supplier for books and education materials (Shatzkin, 2011). They have a direct influence on the marketplace and can introduce new books. It takes money to create brand licensing on a particular book or series, and many view brand licensing in a negative light, saying that “books lose their uniqueness and become mass produced products” (Jobson, 2001, p. 23). Scholastic seeks to create a lifestyle brand that markets the book and products that go along with it.
What makes the relationship between Scholastic and Ruckus Media unique is that they have what can be referred to as a ‘label deal’ where Ruckus Media will develop content for Scholastic, who will in turn manufacture and distribute it. This method is rare in the publishing industry but often used in the music industry. As a result, Scholastic and Ruckus Media both share ownership of a product (Shatzkin, 2010). With Ruckus Media aiming to tackle existing content for Scholastic, they are also looking for existing out‐of‐print children’s books that can be developed for brand recognition and made quickly. They are willing to pay advances and their visibility gives them the advantage to get at those licences before other publishers do (Shatzkin, 2011). Parents have their favourite children’s books too, and to be able to pass them onto their children in a digital format would guarantee the sales of the eBook. Similar to making film adaptations of classical books, the eBook can play a role in encouraging and making young readers aware of the offered print medium. It will bring them one more step closer to the book itself and experience the intended style of writing of the author (Maynard, McKnigh, and Keady, 1999).
As Shatzkin pointed out, one reason why not every publisher has been eagerly jumping on the children’s eBook bandwagon is because of a particular aspect that the illustrated eBook era has brought to the table: it’s time consuming and expensive. When eBooks were first introduced to the market, most people were concerned with creating ‘reflow’, where it was necessary to ensure that the format for the eBook could be transferred from the computer to the eReader and that the text size could be adjusted. With the illustrated eBook format that is so popular with children’s books, a ‘fixed page layout’ is required, meaning that there is no reflow but rather artwork and text maintain in the same positions. Different eReaders and tablets would require different fixed pages, and each book will have to be designed specifically for each technology. Unlike converting a paperback to an eBook, with illustrated books there is the issue of existing artwork in books that need to be transferred in the right way to eBook format. Not only is time and money an issue, but the formula for a successful children’s eBook has not been created yet. Designers have just understood what makes an illustrated book appealing, but they are still learning how to maximize the potential of interactive features while still creating flow. (Shatzkin, 2011)
While eReaders are existent in the home environment, only recently has it been slowly integrated into schools. Despite issues such as limited budgets, lending eReaders for students to take home, and whether or not students learn better with the new technology, a school in the UK has just decided to archive over 2000 books into an electronic system. In 2010, the Standford University engineering facility decided to dispose of 70,000 books and copy them to an electronic library (Watts, 2011). Of course, there has been some resistance from parents. It is one thing to introduce eReaders at home and to supplement them with regular books and traditional teaching methods at school. It is something completely different to see it being implemented at schools, then there is the threat that traditional teaching methods would become ‘extinct’ and children would not be learning from a method that is already proof of success. As a result, children run the risk of becoming dependent on technology and not fully experiencing the wonders of a regular book.
Despite the current upwards trend of eBooks and the attraction that children and parents have, the novelty of interactive media and a new technology can very much well wear off in the future (Maynard, 2010). And like any other technology, prices will surely drop and eReaders will become more affordable. Whether or not the feeling between eBooks and regular books can be duplicated is a question that will have to be acknowledged later in the future once the market for children’s eBooks have stabilized. With over 38,000 children’s books that are available on the Kindle, this number does not even include the eBooks that are available on the NOOK Color or the iPad (Amazon, 2011). With Scholastic and Ruckus Media’s new partnership, the landscape for children’s eBook literature can very much change the course of the eBook and eReader itself, pushing forward with more interactive mediums and spawning future markets as children get older and become more technology savvy. While it may be too early to determine the direct impact that eBooks have, it cannot be denied that eReaders can bridge the gap between regular books and gain interest from reluctant young readers. A particularly technological determinist point of view, children today will have a very different relationship with books than you or I; eBooks and eReaders take up a small percentage of technology that they are exposed to everyday, and that is not including tablets, PVRs, and laptops.
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Watts, R. (2011, May 5). Top school ditches library for ebooks. The Sunday Times (London). News, p. 6.