Children’s Book Publishers Think ‘Outside the Book’
Children’s books may be about finding the kid in all of us, but everyone in the children’s publishing business agrees that they have to grow up when it comes to taking advantage of profitable opportunities. The Internet is clearly not going away, yet with the need to protect children from cyberspace predators, publishers have to go through parents to get through to their young audiences.
Once you reach them, however, it can’t hurt to be as multidimensional as possible. Jason Wells, publicity and marketing director for New York-based Harry N. Abrams Inc., says kids are looking for books that are not just self-contained but also have supplementary aspects to them. “We publish three series that have interactive elements unique to that series,” he says. “We have books like ‘ttyl’ [Talk To You Later] about instant messages—how could you not have an Internet initiative to go along with it? It may seem counterintuitive to put an instant message into a novel, but it builds a new generation of reader. Look at ways kids express themselves these days. If you don’t include the Internet, you’re not relating to them.”
Book-Specific Web Sites
Wells also says this means having Web sites for the books and ways for readers to reach the authors, even though they produce 85 to 100 children’s titles a year. “Lauren Myracle wrote the ‘Sisters Grimm’ series, and we made a dedicated Web site. This allows Myracle to respond directly to children’s e-mails. We even have ‘Sisters Grimm’ games to let kids write their own fairy tales.”
Wells continues, “You have to get [the kids] involved. And if you don’t think kids care [about the Web], then how do you explain the e-mails that complain about a new character not having a Web site yet?”
Lisa Holton, president of Scholastic Book Fairs—which partners with schools around the country to host more than 120,000 book-sale events annually—says the J.K. Rowling site and the Scholastic Harry Potter site are popular because, “kids love the games, the additional material about the authors, videos, and all the different interactive elements online that extends their book experience. … In addition to sites for specific titles or authors, Scholastic has an online book club called Flashlight Readers … an entire community of readers engages with one particular book for a period of time through this site.”
Berkley, Calif.-based Tricycle Press’ marketing manager Laura Mancuso says her company, the children’s imprint of Ten Speed Press that produces 25 children’s books a year, has gone as far as to re-launch its site, offering downloads equivalent to the CDs that come with its books. “It’s about making it convenient for the reader as much as anything,” Mancuso says. “That being said, we haven’t really found the Internet to be a great source of money for our business. But we look at it as an extra value we’re giving the consumer.”
Sondra LaBrie, marketing manager of La Jolla, Calif.-based Kane/Miller Publishers, says every single book her company puts out has its own page on the company’s Web site and a consumer site to add the book to a shopping cart. “We have a blurb for the book, reviews, and most of our authors and illustrators have a bio and a link to their Web site if available.”
Deborah Shine, publisher of Long Island City, N.Y.-based Star Bright Books, likes to keep it simpler, mostly using her company’s Web site just for book ordering. It also limits e-mails to consumers to new book announcements. “A lot of publishing companies bother people with endless e-mails,” she says. “I think there comes a point where that can have a negative effect.”
One thing is for certain: Children are more engaged with technology than ever. A recent study by Scholastic revealed that four in 10 children use technology for reading, with the computer cited as the device most often used. A somewhat surprising correlation was that children who tended to use technology for reading were found to read more often than those who didn’t.
This has inspired some companies to use text messaging campaigns to children, but Mancuso thinks it’s more for branding purposes than for more rings of the cash register. “I just don’t see kids getting an IM [instant message] and then immediately running to the bookstore,” he says.
Dawn Van Zant, owner of Point Roberts, Wash.-based Wild Heart Ranch Publishing, says MP3 and audio formats are turning free samples of content into sales. “People hear a sample of a book and want to buy it,” she says. “Or even being listed by Google [Book Search] works well—we have uploaded through Google and get traffic back through that. If a potential buyer can get a couple pages, that could entice them. We even did audio [in Chinese] for a Chinese book … and found it effective.”
Strength In Numbers
LaBrie says Kane/Miller’s monthly e-newsletter has been extremely helpful. Separate editions are distributed for parents, teachers, librarians and other groups, and are not sent directly to children. “We have around 5,000 people receiving [the e-newsletters],” she says.
Wells says sometimes joining forces with other publishers of similarly themed titles can be another strong way to reach retailers and audiences. “This fall, [Abrams has] a book called ‘Hellphone,’ he says, “and Simon and Schuster had ‘Hellbent’ coming out, so we pitched our books together to places …. Simon and Schuster also has a book on Iran and its culture, as do we, so we may join forces there, too.”
LaBrie also sees mobile content and blogs that are more specific to children as growth markets for the future. “We call it ‘thinking outside the book.’ But even though blogs and cell phone marketing are hits with adults, it will take time until that’s a part of a young child’s world. Everyone in the industry will be watching this closely,” says LaBrie.
Quality Over Quantity
Publishers exploring new ways to promote their books may be able to focus those efforts on fewer titles. According to Bowker, the U.S. ISBN agency, 2005’s preliminary book production figures compiled show a drop in the number of new juvenile titles produced—the first drop recorded in at least the last 13 years. In 2005, children’s books showed double-digit decreases in new titles and editions.
John Thompson, president of Bellevue, Wash.-based Illumination Arts Publishing, notes that publishing is just a challenging business, and a key to success today is finding the right books and the right authors.
“The average book publisher loses money, so you have to be a little crazy to be in this business. [You] also have to be discerning,” he says. “We [receive] 2,500 submissions … a year, and this year we picked only two titles to print. It can be frustrating for a potential author, because they end up quitting or self-publishing.”
Thompson says it’s critical to look for a great writer who is also a great promoter. “One of our best-written books was done by a lady in her 80s,” he says. “We’d have to think about whether we’d use her again though, because sales of books have a lot to do with authors willing to do signings, go to schools and do speeches at major conferences. Many publishing companies make the mistake of not picking someone who can go out and do the steps necessary to sell the book. They don’t just sell themselves.”
While publishers may be being more selective and printing fewer titles, 2005 also saw an increase in children’s book sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, 162.2 million children’s books were sold during 2005, an almost 20 percent increase over 2004.
Eric Butterman is a New York-based writer and creator of the seminar “Better Business Writing: From E-mails to Everything That Makes You Money.” He can be contacted at EricButterman@Yahoo.com.