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Ebooks, E-readers and the Kidlit Market: A Short Version

Erinn recently wrote in to ask:

With the iPad selling 1 million in a month, how will the e-readers change children and YA literature? I’ve notice there hasn’t been a whole lot of YA ebooks, not as many as “adult” books. Has the e-readers revolution effected the children literature market?

Great question, but complicated. As you can guess, this is a hot topic at the agency and one us publishing people, inside publishing houses and out, discuss all the time.

The first part of the puzzle is the e-reader user base in kidlit. It isn’t as big as the e-reader user base among, say, business travelers who download the latest business or financial nonfiction while they’re on the go. Even though teens are really into gadgets, most are also on budget and can’t afford to be early adopters (they’re also notorious for breaking stuff or covering it in duct tape and Sharpie marks). According to a survey done by and Publishers Weekly late last year, only about 5% of teens get their books electronically.

Overall, it’s important to remember that ebooks account for only about 5-10% of the market share in all of publishing, but they WILL account for much more in the near future…so that’s why everybody is freaking out about them now, and rightfully so.

Lots of people predict that ebooks will kill publishing, but that’s a very dramatic and outsider view of the issue. Insiders have many more specific concerns. What’s one particular head-scratcher from behind the scenes? Well, rights issues in this sector are a huge area of discussion right now. I don’t get into rights issues a lot here because many of them are really nitty-gritty and you don’t need to worry about them until you start actively selling your projects with an agent. However, this is an interesting glimpse into the ebook debate.

Let’s say you wanted to make a YA book more attractive to teens by embedding exclusive content or a link to a YouTube video from the author. Or you wanted to enhance a picture book by giving it animation or voice or video components. One problem: which right is that?

A book, from an agent or publisher’s perspective, isn’t one whole thing as much as a bundle of different subrights that can be sold. Does tweaking the original content in a digital format fall under the “ebook rights” category? (“Ebook rights” have traditionally included the right to publish an unabridged version of the product in ebook format…basically a digital version of what you’d find on shelves, with nothing extra.) Is it “multimedia rights”? “Enhanced” or “abridged ebook rights”? (I don’t know if this has gotten any widespread traction since there’s different precedent at different houses. You can have “abridged audio rights,” for example, to publish an abridged version of a book in audio format, with additional materials or music included in the recording, but not a lot of “abridged ebook” so far.) Per Kristin Nelson, the film industry defines “ebook rights” as not including any extra content.

Or how about this…what if a book was published way before ebooks, way before Internet, way before Kindle? It was published in such distant prehistory that there’s no ebook language in the contract. Does the publisher have the right to publish an ebook version because they published the print version in a time before ebooks, or does the author hold their ebook right (and the ability to sell it)?

A lot of people have different answers to these questions. That’s the problem. Some publishers are trying to argue one way or the other, some agents are on a different side of the fence, but there’s no industry standard yet. Some publishers still haven’t even agreed to the widely-accepted ebook royalty standard, though most are in accord.

So the cool thing about ebooks for the kidlit market especially — that you can add content and give the book all sorts of whiz-bang digital appeal — is in murky rights territory right now. And not a lot of teens are adopting e-readers yet. Picture books are be a natural fit for the e-reader market (Color! Sound! Motion!) but, for many, the device itself is a barrier to entry. What parent would give their toddler a brand new iPad to gnaw on? (They certainly can’t have mine…)

This answer will change very quickly, though. It’s very much an ongoing and in-depth discussion and this is merely a quick glance into an issue that’s here to stay.



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