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Kids pubcos turn the page on eBooks

Unlimited distribution. Zero shipping costs. For publishers, the benefits of electronic publishing are obvious. The one snag to this fledgling sector, though (and it's a doozy), is that the eBook customer base has been slow to materialize so far. And that's forcing kids publishers to re-evaluate their expectations for their eBook divisions.
January 3, 2002

Unlimited distribution. Zero shipping costs. For publishers, the benefits of electronic publishing are obvious. The one snag to this fledgling sector, though (and it’s a doozy), is that the eBook customer base has been slow to materialize so far. And that’s forcing kids publishers to re-evaluate their expectations for their eBook divisions.

‘A number of publishers dove in headfirst in the last few years, investing lots of resources into eBook ventures, but I think we’re at least three to five years away from seeing a vibrant market develop,’ says Michael Jacobs, senior VP of trade books at Scholastic.

Currently, one of the bigger hurdles that’s preventing eBooks from catching on in kid circles is hardware. The most common way to read an eBook–while sitting at your PC–hasn’t won over many consumers, young or old. Meanwhile, more portable and user-friendly devices like electronic readers and other PDAs have yet to sufficiently penetrate the marketplace, says Mark Watter, an eBook analyst and editor at The Seybold Report on Internet Publishing. Pubcos are confident children will be inclined to check eBooks out because they already spend so much of their time on computers. However, Scholastic’s Jacobs doesn’t think a huge kids market can develop until there’s a handheld device that’s made and priced for kids.

He says that’s one of the reasons why Scholastic is wading into the sector more cautiously. ‘Our strategy is to treat it as a marketing tool: Let’s release some titles, get some feedback, and see what works,’ says Jacobs.

Since launching its eBook operation in late 2000, Scholastic has released three titles. First out this summer was Hate Hurts, a book for parents about racism. Then in the summer came the newest title from Animorphs author K.A. Applegate, Remnants, which yielded a total of 35,000 downloads over five installments. A Time For Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen (US$9.95), the latest release in Scholastic’s historical bio series Dear America, rounded out the trio in November.

As with Remnants, Scholastic chose to post its first non-promotional release Courage–which comes enhanced with audio and an expanded bibliography–well before the print version is scheduled to hit stores in March. ‘We want to get kids talking about the eBooks with their friends, to seed the market, if you will, for our print properties,’ says Jacobs.

It’s a strategy Scholastic will stick with for the 20 to 30 eBooks it plans to release this year, including the two titles it’s bowing this month as part of the launch of a new teen fiction imprint called Push.

While Scholastic has made its previous eBooks available through other eBook e-tailers, it will be offering the Push titles exclusively for 90 days through Gemstarebook.com. In return, Gemstar, which produces the interactive TV listing service that’s available on most TV sets in the U.S., will promote Push titles on the tube.

Though Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing has been selling eBooks since 1999, it has primarily aimed its marketing efforts at educators to date. ‘We need to get to the gatekeepers–the teachers and librarians–and educate them about the value of eBooks so that they’ll bring them into the classroom,’ says Brenda Bowen, executive VP and publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. In aid of that goal, last year, Simon & Schuster began releasing eBook versions of all its Newberry Award-winning titles and other strong sellers in the school market. In addition to regularly promoting its eBooks at teacher and librarian conferences, S&S unveiled an eBook shop on Simonsays.com this November.

According to Bowen, over the first three quarters of 2001, sales of eBooks had doubled, but she concedes that selling the category is still an uphill battle. ‘Right now, we see eBooks as an investment, which we hope will become a revenue stream in the future,’ says Bowen, who predicts eBooks will account for 5% of Simon & Schuster’s overall children’s book sales in the next five years.

Like Bowen, Mary Beth Kilkelly, director of new media and marketing at Random House Children’s Books, says her company is also resigned to taking a longer-term approach to the category. Its first major entry into kids eBooks last spring saw Random release two free Jurassic Park III tie-in titles, which drew a modest 4,500 downloads. Since then, Random House has also taken its cue from educators. In November (as its parentco announced it was nixing its adult-skewing eBook imprint AtRandom), it launched Random View Books, an eBook imprint offering high-brow kidlit titles for middle grade and YA readers. Included in the title lineup is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and Random View eBooks retail for the same price as the pubco’s paperbacks at US$3.99.

To highlight the educational value of its eBooks, last month, Random House unveiled Bookreportnow.com, a kids book report resource site that provides tips on writing reports, author bios and (naturally) links to buy Random House eBooks. The company has also developed a pen pal club on Epals.com, where it’s promoting its titles.

While emphasizing the educational attributes of eBooks may satisfy teachers and librarians, there’s no guarantee this tack will pique the interest of kids, beyond using them to complete a school assignment. Scholastic’s Michael Jacobs, for one, believes that eBooks will have to evolve into more of a multimedia platform before kids will want to pick them up on their own. ‘I think kids are going to expect more than just text on a screen,’ says Jacobs. ‘They’re used to that from what they already do on-line, whether it’s playing games or using CD-ROMs.’

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