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 TeenReads.com 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.

29 Replies to “Ebooks, E-readers and the Kidlit Market: A Short Version”

  1. Thank you so much for answering my question and featuring on it the blog.
    You brought up a lot of good points.
    About the iPad, my husband was watching a commercial for it and looked at me and said, “Do you want to get an iPad? I was thinking we could load it up with movies and give it to Zoey.” (Zoey is our two year old daughter who is as sensitive with tech as a T-rex).
    “That’s what the portable DVD player is for and it’s not $800.”

    Besides if I got an iPad, I wouldn’t want to share it.

    Although I do really like the idea of exclusive web content for an ebook.

  2. I think it might catch on with teens (particularly males) with their love of all things in the realm of electronic gadgetry. It might boost readership. I also think for college students to download texts would be fabulous. No, clunky awkward texts to cart around any longer.

  3. Thanks for this Mary. I actually have a great feeling about ebooks and I’m excited to see what evolves in this new book evolution.

  4. It’s so funny…I just had an email conversation with a YA writer friend about this topic.

    It’ll catch on as soon as the price comes down and when there are more titles available for kids. Walking through B&N the other day, I noticed that less than 10 books were eReader available in the kid’s section (which did not including YA).

    And once it does, there will be really cool skins kids’ll buy to personalize their eReader…like skeleton or vampire designs.

    I do think that eReader developers will have to do more to market the device, like the embeddd components Mary mentions. Integrated fan blogs, instant ratings for each chapter that post to FB, etc., would all be a draw for the younger crowd.

  5. Lisa — Yes, I think that ebooks and e-readers in educational publishing will be huge. (And, eventually, ebooks and e-readers in kidlit.) If I was in college and there was some kind of partnership or sponsored program that let me get an e-reader and my texts in digital, searchable format (by leasing or without paying full price for an iPad or Kindle DX), I would be ALL OVER IT.

  6. Good thoughts. I’ve been thinking about PBs in the ebook market. My own two children can’t keep their paws of my iGadgets, and I’m okay with that. There are several versions of Dr. Suess books that have that extra whizz-bang added for the iPad that have been fairly well received. Also, there was a version of Alice in Wonderland that was making the rounds on the internet that seemed to nail that balance between honoring the text but adding some extra pizazz with interactivity.

    While they may be expensive, many iPads and iPhones end up in the hand of kids. It’s the ultimate trump card for a parent at their wits end: in the car, waiting in line at the DMV, long trips on airplanes, etc. And if we can succeed at getting PB’s out there at a reasonable price, the market is huge. As a parent, I’ve hunted for this kind of stuff, and I have been disappointed. There just aren’t that many available and those that are seem to lack the interactivity the iPad lends itself too. But the potential is massive (it seems).

    But it isn’t easy to add those interactive features. I’d love to see that kind of interactivity added to my own (future) books but I surely don’t have the know-how. The work would have to be farmed out, I would guess, or publishers would have to find the people that could take the illustrator’s work and adapt it to an interactive format. I suppose PBs could be reformatted into digital format without the extra features, but I think the market isn’t going to support them. Think of each book as it’s own app. Instead of showing up in iBooks or the Kindle marketplace, each PB would be a stand-alone app like the Dr. Suess books currently in the Apple app store.

    Either way, the idea thrills me to no end. While I don’t think traditional PBs are going away any time soon, the potential of interactive PBs could be massive.

  7. “give the book all sorts of whiz-bang digital appeal”

    I want that.


  8. Ripple Reader has just launched with children’s picture eBooks — and the books are all recordable so the child (or parent or grandparent) can record and add the listening element to the reading experience. Our eStore has over 300 titles from houses like CharlesBridge, ZonderKids and Red Chair Press and we’re in talks with the others. http://www.ripplereader.com

    Love to know what you think!

    Melissa Taylor

  9. Josh — The market and technology and development potential IS massive… But a lot of creators and publishers and agents need to get the rights situation for existing and future properties figured out ASAP, as this market will only be moving forward at warp speed.

    I can’t wait to see what they do for your future books either! 🙂

  10. I’m actually hugely anti-e-reader. I hope they don’t catch on. I think one of the reasons YA isn’t in eReader format in copious amounts yet is because of the price of the readers. Parents own the readers, not the children. If and when the prices come down, YA might have an eReader uprising.

  11. This is why I want an agent. I could spend lots of my time hurting my brain by working out rights – e-reader, foreign or otherwise – but I’d rather let someone else who knows about this stuff figure it out for me and then haggle with the publisher to get my contract as good as possible. It’s also the part of the agent job that I think I’d like the least, if I were an agent.

    And, by the way, if I were an agent I’d so take me on as a client! he he he.

  12. Don Cummer says:

    I’m with Franziska. I think the role of the agent will be very interesting in this e-library. As more writers go online, it’s going to be harder to find books that have had the editorial input of agents and publishers. Maybe there will be a day when Mary’s blog will serve as a portal for those of us who want to read books that have met her editing standards.

  13. I hope more MG books come out soon for e-readers. My dyslexic son (9.5) loves to read books on my Kindle because:
    – he can make the font very large
    – on some books he can have difficult passages read to him
    – the eInk doesn’t tire his eyes as much as a paper book

  14. Thanks for the insight into the digital book market. Maybe we’re a little off as parents, but I would totally purchase a Kindle and let my toddler use it to read books (if I still had a toddler)! I mean, we purchased our youngest child a Nintendo DS when he was four (yeah, we’re insane). I’d much rather they have access to a Kindle and read books than play video games.

    I can imagine curling up in bed with the Kindle and my kids and reading a bedtime story (or watching it or having it read or whatever the technology does).

    I don’t currently own a Kindle or any ebook reader, but I do plan on getting one. =)

    I agree that the rights issues need to be sorted out. It sounds like it’s kind of a headache with so many angles to think about. Hope it gets sorted out soon though since ebooks seem to be on the rise . . .

    Thanks again for posting about this topic. It’s interesting to think about.

  15. As a reader, I’m torn on the e-book thing. I LOVE the idea of carrying a bunch of books and having a choice while I’m on public transportation (without the weight). But books are PAPER darn it! They’re touching and smelling and being protective of the pages. Oh, I feel so old! 🙂

    Thank you Mary…I’m glad there are people out there who understand the mess!

  16. …being a design bookbinder (who also studied ECE) I must state my love of the physical book and how it ignites most of my senses while reading which is why, I believe, we have come to love books over the centuries. I welcome the new technologies and hope to have an ipad in the next month or so. My concern is with how quickly we are introducing these devices and new way(s) of storytelling and reading to children not realizing how the brain actually need to read and work with the material. I sometimes see children (via their parents) who come to me with their broken, well loved, books for repairs and if it is a book that has no illustrations (or even a few) I will ask the child to illustrate the book so I can bind their images into the book before movies or fancy graphic designers or worse marketers have a chance to highjacked their visions and creativity. I have even rebound books with children teaching them why the books has fallen apart, taking the guilt out of it for them and building in a how-to-craft component. If the child has already drawn in the book I celebrate these early pictorial expressions and keep carefully include them in the binding for I feel they are important. I think books read in the codex format should be the first introduction to the story itself and after the child has digested the material and worked with it then reintroduce the book in the eformat with it bell and whistles – but not before. I believe this slower approach to reading books will allow children time to develop their sensory feelings around the material and to own their own thoughts and ideas longer.

  17. A lot of people talk about the tactile experience of reading print books – and indeed, I’m one of those people who live in a house which is really just there to put a roof over our books 🙂
    but if you like tactile, try the iPad. It’s just fantastic. I’m a comic book writer, and iPad is totally what comcs have been waiting for.

  18. Kelley York says:

    I think e-books will catch on, but more in some groups of people than in others. But when a lot of e-books are still priced at $9.99 and up? Pssh. I can go to the used bookstore and pick up three books for that price. Then again, I’m another one of those people who would prefer having a physical book in my hands and be able to flip through it before buying it. …And I’m a sucker for pretty cover art.

    Although I’m so all over the idea of textbooks being digitized. That would be made of awesome and I admire schools that already have this implemented.

    Also… what happens if your iPad or Kindle dies? Do you lose all of the books you purchased? Do you only get them back if you buy another of the gadget you lost?

  19. My kids, (11 and 14) are always sneaking off to corners when they’ve got homework or staying up when they’re suppose to be asleep in order to read. They’d have to each have their own e-reader (charged) in order to do that with an ebook. And to download a book off the computer, I’d see what it was. No more hiding racy books under the bed- as if I don’t ever vacuum! And I agree with Kelley- I love a good cover. Can’t walk through a bookstore without having to fondle a few. And kids are particularly susceptible to a cool cover.

  20. Walking into a used bookstores and inhaling that “musty book smell” is as comforting to me as warm chocolate chip cookies. Metal and plastic just doesn’t smell the same. Honestly, I would like to have one for work/travel, but I am still in love with paper and ink.

  21. We agree the iPad is transformative. The question is not about asking what you lose by experiencing a book on a digital device, but rather, what you gain. We’ve recently put out a children’s book service called A Story Before Bed (http://www.astorybeforebed.com).

    A Story Before Bed lets you use your webcam and your web browser to record a video of yourself reading a children’s book. It’s true that this is a fun way to be able to read to your kids or grandkids even when you can’t be there at bedtime, but in some ways, that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s not about replacing print books and reading to kids. It’s about creating memories. In our house, we’ve found the best experience is using A Story Before Bed to read books together. My kids love the recording process as well as being able to play back a book as often as they like (when I’m there or not).

    If only I’d had this service when my grandparents were alive, I could play them reading books to my kids today. At least now I can record my parents reading to my kids and know that some day my grandkids will watch those same stories. Neat.

    We’ve also released apps for the iPad and iPhone. While you can’t record on those devices just yet, you can watch the recorded books from A Story Before Bed at no additional charge. We’ve got lots of books to choose from and you can even subscribe for a flat fee and have unlimited recording of a select set of our books.

    The key is this… we should worry less about holding on to what we have, or doing head-to-head compairsons, and spend more time innovating on what new experiences we can create with this technology. When we find new scenarios, book lovers will decide quickly what place they occupy in their lives.

  22. katya, my dyslexic son has ebooks as part of his 504. Super sweet. I hope the emarket goes bananas for kids. I’d rather have them reading than playing straight video games.

    Not to mention, I love my Kindle for its ease and portability. I think this is a good thing in our mobile society. A different option than DS’s and game boys.

    Thanks for this post, Mary. It’s interesting to see this perspective and all the more reason for us writers to find agents.

    Now where did that agent go?

    : ) cat

    ~ cat

  23. My main worry is that once e-books are interactive and media rich, with audio features, moving images and links, plain old words might just get left to one side. Who needs to actually read if there’s an embedded sound file doing it for you? I suppose I’m scared th

  24. …at teen friendly e-readers will be so much more interesting to their owners as music, movies and games players that they won’t actually read anything on them.

    Sorry about the split message:)

  25. Very interesting post. I’ve recently purchased an e-reader (it’s in the mail) at the prompting of my husband. He doesn’t read fiction, but he invests in the company that will be selling the product. He wanted my feedback on it. I’m not really keen on the e-readers for numerous reasons, so he figured I would be the perfect tester. Problem is, as you’ve pointed out, there aren’t a lot of YA books available for it (it’s not Kindle).

  26. I am really excited about the e-readers and e-books. I own a kindle and absolutely love it. I’m not sure about downloading books from Amazon if you don’t own a kindle but there are other retailers out there, one in particular is Smashwords. It’s an amazing e-book distribution site. I have my YA book listed with them and they distribute to Kindle, B&N, Kobo, Stanza, Apple ibooks and in the near future Sony.

    There seems to be a large number of YA books available there and they can be downloaded into about 6 different formats for any pc or reader. I am trying out different pricing at the moment though. There seems to be two schools of thought on the message boards out there that if you price your book too cheaply people won’t buy it because they will think it’s not very good. But you should, IMO, price it cheaper than the cost of a paperback because, like one commenter mentioned, they could go to the used book store and buy 3 books for the price of one e-book.

    The whole e-book revolution is going to be interesting to watch but they are definitely here to stay, I’m looking forward to the day when the e-readers are cheaper so that the teens (that I write for) will have better access to them.

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