US kids eBook biz keeps changing shape

The US children's and young adult eBook category drew US$469 million last year, a 117% rise over 2011. But while the numbers seem big, developers and publishers are still thinking small.
June 21, 2013

Recently, Graham Farrar’s four-year-old son went on a reading binge. The kindergartener—whose father is the co-founder and CEO of mobile publisher zuuka—developed a strong affinity for the Meet Biscuit storybook iPad app, which he would sift through more than 10 times in a row in just one sitting.

Maybe it’s because the book app, which uses animated stills from the popular HarperCollins series, was developed by his dad with him in mind. It’s also possible that the younger Farrar is on the cusp of joining a class of young boys, known as reluctant readers, who are finding more reading inspiration in digital book offerings.

In fact, Scholastic’s biannual Kids & Family Reading Report found that 25% of boys who have read an eBook say that they are now reading more books for fun. It’s undeniable that electronic book usage among kids is growing—the number of US children reading eBooks nearly doubled between 2010 and 2012, up from 25% to 46%. The Association of American Publishers and Book Industry Study Group found that eBooks accounted for 20% of total US book publishing sales in 2012, or US$3 billion. And within that, the children’s and young adult eBook category drew US$469 million, a 117% rise over 2011.

But while the numbers scream big, developers and large publishers alike are still thinking small, both in terms of the overall piece eBooks contribute to the total US$15-billion publishing industry, and the actual mode of content delivery.

“What’s attracting kids to digital books is the content,” says Farrar. “There’s a demand for bite-sized media. Look at popular games like Tiny Wings and Angry Birds, where casual experiences can be had in five minutes. The same is true for eBooks.” Farrar’s iStoryTime library is home to more than 200 book apps, all of which are based on licensed properties such as Ice Age, The Croods and Smurfs. iStoryTime also develops content for large publishers like HarperCollins, with whom the company has developed five Biscuit titles for iOS, Kindle, Android and Nook devices.

Farrar says his company’s ability to achieve 14 number-one book titles in the US App Store is partly due to the character recognition found in its products. “Kids like their characters. There’s an element to having Shrek there that motivates them to have reading experiences,” he says, noting that brand recognition and discoverability are both key to standing out from the 50,000 apps being submitted to the App Store each month. “Right now, discoverability is a real challenge. If you create something with Daisy the dog and you’re not in the Top 10 on iTunes, no one is going to know it exists. It could be amazing, but unknown.” That’s what drove his company to develop a channel-like home for kids digital books last month, putting all titles for the demo into an iStoryTime app that will house all the content on one virtual bookshelf.

As well as licensed book apps sell, Corinne Helman, VP of digital publishing and business development at HarperCollins Children’s, says at an industry-wide level publishers are sticking more to traditional eBooks than interactive story apps. (To be sure, standard eBooks are available in digital bookstores, such as the iBookstore, while book apps are sold in app stores and include more interactive features.)

“We all ran to the app as fast as we could, but discovered that they are expensive to make, Apple promotes very few of them, and buying ad space doesn’t generally work,” says Helman. She adds that of the “big six” US publishing houses, the number of licensed book apps being published has decreased by 75%.

Still, HarperCollins has seen digital book app sales rising quickly for popular brands such as Big Nate. The gaming app developed by Night & Day Studios is based on the bestselling book, and Helman says the early success of the app coincides with the popularity of the printed Big Nate titles.

Helman also believes that kids and young adult eBooks are getting shorter. She says serialized novels and shorter, 150-page per title, series are almost always standard for the tween and teen demos because they cost less and are more easily consumed. In fact, Helman says she is seeing the strongest rise in eBook sales among the teen and tween segment, although the latter hasn’t experienced the same device penetration. And in terms of digital picture books for young kids, which HarperCollins commissions third-party developers to make, less than 2% of the market is digital. “In general, your e-sales are about 5% to 10% of print books. These numbers are true for children’s overall, but teen is more like 30%,” she says. “The fastest growth is happening among six- to 12-year-olds, but the majority of sales are happening in teen.”

Even though the numbers are rising, “the physical book is still driving everything,” says Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s children’s division. Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report also showed that a full 80% of kids who read eBooks still read books for fun primarily in print.

Anderson says S&S’s most successful kids eBooks to date are titles that have been the most successful in print, which include the female-skewing Cassandra Clare series and Dork Diaries titles. (He says girls books almost always outsell boys books.)¬† “We will adapt from the physical book where appropriate. But parents view apps and physical books as separate things—apps tend to be seen more as games and not reading.”

Still, zuuka’s Graham Farrar thinks the continued proliferation of mobile devices will cause digital book consumption to rise significantly more this year. “Tablets only hold a 25% market penetration in the US. I think the iPad Mini, for instance, is a better device for kids books than a Tom Clancy novel. It has bright colors, interactivity and sound effects,” he says. “I think once¬† more people get their hands on the devices, and see what can be done with digital storytelling, it will be enormous.”

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