The future of children's book publishing

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jeff Kinney has worked full-time for a decade designing popular kid-friendly Web games. He also writes stories, but his best-selling series, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," was originally published online, not in a book. This free online version regularly gets 70,000 hits a day.

If he can capture the attention of so many teens and tweens on the Internet, what is he doing still publishing books on paper?

"I feel like I am hedging my bets by keeping one foot in the print world and one foot in the online world," Kinney said. "I think a book still has a special kind of magic." Plus, as a practical matter, there is no financial incentive for authors to give their stories away for free.

Kinney's balancing act reflects the broad strategy of children's publishing today. Publishers are trying to entice kids to read books by offering companion Web sites that are graphic-rich and able to plunge young readers into the story. Along with the tale on the page, kids can dip into online videos and games, win prizes, create Internet identities and get into social networking. It is a tricky gamble for publishers, one requiring a deep commitment of time and money.

Michael Norris, an analyst for the media research firm Simba Information, said publishers of children's books are "unbelievably important" to the survival of publishing as a whole. "If you think about the long-term future of the industry, the people who are reading 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' today will hopefully be reading a thick piece of literature in a few years."

Children's publishing is often viewed as a stable segment of the industry, thanks to reliable sales to parents and school libraries. Suzanne Murphy, vice president of Scholastic's trade division, said children's publishers "have fared well during a very tough economic time. I think parents may -- especially during the holiday time -- cut back in other ways but are willing to spend money on something they think is valuable to childhood and education."

Nielsen BookScan reported that sales of juvenile books were the strongest of any category in 2008, rising 6 percent from 2007. In 2009, Nielsen reported, sales held mostly even. By contrast, last year adult hardcover and mass market paperbacks both declined nearly 4 percent, and trade paperbacks fell 2 percent.

Norris said that sales of children's books are still "very strong." But he cautioned that publishers should not become overconfident. Sales of juvenile books may be skewed because many adults are buying young adult titles such as "Harry Potter" and "Twilight."

Kinney knows from book signings and other events that adults are buying a good number of his "Wimpy" books, 28 million of which are in print in the United States, according to his publisher, Abrams. "Great stories are being told that do not rely on violence or sex or those sorts of things that are the hallmarks of literature that is intended for adults," Kinney said. "I think we focus more on storytelling. There are a lot of adults I encounter who exclusively read children's literature."

That may be good for the bottom line at children's publishing houses, but entertaining the kids with the printed page seems to grow more difficult by the year. Children's appetite for cell phones, computers, video games and television far exceeds that for books. In January, a Kaiser Family Foundation report found that the time spent on all entertainment by kids from 8 to 18 rose from 6.5 hours a day five years ago to 7.5 hours a day. But only 25 minutes were typically spent reading a book. The Department of Education found that in 1984 only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds reported that they "never or hardly ever" read for fun on their own. By 2008, the percentage had jumped to 24 percent for both groups.

"The budget of most video games rivals that of Hollywood blockbusters," said Kinney, who worked on the "Wimpy Kid" movie that opened over the weekend. "The kid gets to be the star of the story, and it's really tough to compete with that."

Yet several publishers are making the attempt. Scholastic launched a 10-book international mystery series called "The 39 Clues" in the fall of 2008. Scholastic hopes it will appeal to 8-12 year olds, an age group they have successfully captured in the past with titles such as "Goosebumps," "The Babysitters Club" and, of course, "Harry Potter." Much of the action takes place online, however, where kids amass hundreds of collectible cards and compete for prizes. According to Scholastic, they have 760,000 registered users.

Disney recently started an online book subscription Web site, Disney Digital Book, with hundreds of titles available, in hopes it will cast a spell over kids and their parents. You use a "magic pen" to turn each digital page.

Last fall, HarperCollins published a missing-girl mystery, "The Amanda Project," with a major online social networking component. And Simon & Schuster is getting into the game this June with its multimedia venture "Spaceheadz." Written by Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man" and the former Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, "Spaceheadz" is centered on aliens who come to Earth disguised as fifth-graders. Simon & Schuster also plans to release it as an e-book.

Although e-reader sales have exploded in the last year, kids have not been terribly keen on these monochrome digital ink devices, and most children's publishers still offer only a smattering of titles that way.

Norris is not convinced that e-readers will be good for young readers in the long run.

"To read and get through a book takes time and engagement," he said. "I don't know how well a kid can engage with a book on a device that, say, vibrates when they get a call from a friend."

The question remains whether all these multimedia add-ons to the reading experience will pay off. "At the heart, you still have to have good storytelling," Kinney said. "You can't resort to gimmickry and hope to retain an audience."

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