Imagining Multiplatform Publishing

Karen wrote in to me the other day to ask about multiplatform publishing:

What is the role of the artist/writer of children’s picture books in parallel platform markets if they are to be successful? How can knowledge or experience in multiple areas be leveraged when submitting to one platform with the hopes and vision of it transcending to multiple platforms? Should something be included in the query letter?

multiplatform publishing, book app
Sure, SAMMY THE SKUNK might make a great book app…but make sure that ol’ Sammy has a solid book before you even think about shoving him into this guy’s phone.

Focus On Your Book

When someone is talented or knowledgeable in many areas, it is difficult to know how to wrap it all up in one package. However, I urge debut writers whose interest lies primarily in landing a print book deal to focus there first. If you try to pitch an idea in too many directions at once (as a magazine, book app, TV show, clothing line) without first having any print titles under your belt, agents and editors will think you’re ambitious…and not in a good way.

Focus. Create the best book you can, publish it well, and let audience demand for your talents make ideas evolve into multiplatform publishing. Don’t start by stretching your idea in many directions right off the bat.

Don’t Mention Multiplatform Publishing In Your Query Letter

This happens to me all the time in query letters. (Check out my post on query letter tips for more on this topic.) The author will write something like:

While I think SAMMY THE SKUNK would be a very strong picture book in today’s market, I am also envisioning a book app with the same branding, and have turned Sammy’s story into a feature film. The script for potential theatrical release is being written as we speak.

This almost makes me think that the author isn’t in love with his idea being a book…he’s just in love with his idea and will throw it against any wall to see if it’ll stick. That’s not a focused approach when trying to enter the publishing game, because we are into books. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. And it takes a lot of passion, dedication, knowledge, and, yes, really strong ideas to be involved in the book world. You have to really want to have a book, specifically. Drop the multiplatform publishing aspirations until that book is under your belt.

It Bears Repeating: Focus

Lots of books do get picked up by other platforms and go online or into theaters or into toy stores. Sure. But those properties are usually leveraged when the property that started it all (be it a book or a movie or whatever) stood on its own merits and attracted and audience and made other platform gatekeepers and tastemakers seek out the creator.

I’ll say it again: Focus. Seek to make one really strong impact on one part of the entertainment/content industry, then spread out from there.

If you’re committed to writing a book, my editorial services will help you make your project the best it can be.

Digital Book World and the Future

This article first posted over at the DBW website. Thanks again to Guy! Even though this information is most relevant to agents, editors, publishers, marketers, and digital developers, writers should at least keep their rabbit ears up and tuned in to the digital discussion. It will keep on going and there’s no getting away from it anytime soon.


It has taken me a few weeks to really sit with all that I learned at Digital Book World 2011. It was absolutely invigorating to see all those agents, developers, and publishers launching themselves into the digital landscape feet-first, arms pinwheeling. Since the first digital event I listened to in December (a PW webinar, “Children’s Books in the Digital Age“) and now DBW, I have heard executives from Scholastic, HarperCollins, Writers House, and many brand new companies (Nosy Crow, Loud Crow Interactive, Ruckus Mobile Media, etc.) talk about apps and digital opportunities for children’s books.

I’ve met with them, played their games, and seen the future.

Not since I came of age in the Silicon Valley did I see such innovative passion for something new and tech. Traditionally, print publishers have been cooler, slower, gentler. And high tech developers, programmers, and designers have been white hot, coding all night, pushing out releases, getting instant feedback, shooting across the world with their latest and greatest.

The two cultures could not be more different. But now they’ve collided, and that juncture, cold front meeting heat wave, is a storm of activity.

In my opinion, here’s what’s next.


First of all, publishers will start keeping digital rights. Old contracts are being renegotiated to include ebook, enhanced ebook, digital, interactive multimedia, etc. Some publishers, like Bloomsbury UK, are already refusing to do business unless a deal includes digital. But do publishers want to become tech developers themselves (or keep a hefty contractor Rolodex)? And will all of these digital rights get exploited to their full potential? Or will they all get the standard ebook/app treatment? Most books currently in the marketplace can’t seem to be broken out in huge, unique ways by their own houses. Do publishers want to take on the burden of breaking out a book’s digital components, too?

And where does that leave agents?

We’ll have to determine the value of digital rights (and, ahem, valuations are tricky in the tech sector) and use that in negotiations, exploit the digital rights we do hold, and mine our backlist for properties. We’ll also have to nurture contacts with digital players who may become customers down the line, just like editors, audio publishers, film honchos, and foreign markets are today.

More importantly, we’ll need to leverage those creators on our lists who may have independent app ideas that could be a good fit to partner with either the client’s existing publisher or an independent developer. Take, for instance, the Sandra Boynton line launch with Loud Crow. It’s good for Boynton’s camp, readers, and existing houses, but it’s also a coup for Crow.

From speaking with several app execs, I know that a lot of their early business models depend on having big names that will draw the crowds through the unfamiliar noise of the iTunes App Store. Ruckus Mobile Media is partnering with celebrities like Meryl Streep and Robin Williams for voiceovers. Loud Crow has beloved creator Boynton on board. Not only do app developers want great projects to turn into products, but they need to attract buyers, and the celebrity angle is a tried-and-true magnet.


Which brings me to the next challenge: How do we market these digital offerings?

Whether you’re a publisher or a developer or an agent with a digital-ready client, it’s not enough to just thrust something out into the app space. As we know with the Internet, if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. Remember all those bands who threw their mp3s up on MySpace? (Come to think of it, remember MySpace?) How many aspiring musicians actually got a decent playcount out of the bargain, let alone a record deal?

The celebrity angle is one way to gain market traction. A Facebook funnel page and other social media efforts make for another strategy. Getting to the top of the downloads list or becoming recommended through the App Store is a great way, but that’s chancey, like depending on a Newbery Award that may or may not come. The issue here is the same that picture books have experienced for years: the buying audience is not the same as the reading audience. Sure, there are apps for teens, which hope to sell directly to the plugged-in buyer/reader. But most children’s apps, those for younger readers, rely on courting the parent gatekeeper (and gadgetkeeper). So the robust YA online community is out as a promotion vehicle. As are most booksellers and librarians, even the plugged-in ones who recommend ebooks over apps these days. What will rise up as the best tool to reach savvy, kidlit-loving parents?

The best asset in this upcoming product rush will be app quality.


A lot of developers and publishers are putting their first offerings on the table right now. As mentioned at DBW, most app companies are two years old or less. Some just want to have something out there so they put out buggy wrecks. It’s surprising how many live demos at the expo showcased problematic functionality instead of the app itself. Other developers are giving it their best shot but failing to rise above the familiar hot spot/page turn/animation/voiceover effect that has already become industry standard.

Which is why I wonder about publishers keeping digital rights. Are they going to innovate with each release? Are those properties going to get the creative and back-end tech treatment they deserve?

A smaller number of developers are breaking new ground. We’ll have a new wave of available technologies, ideas, and developers in the next two years. We’ll also see publishers adopting a more focused strategy and releasing innovative apps for key players on their lists instead of creating apps for apps’ sake. Some developers will fade, as start-ups often do. A rock star or two will come to the forefront and wow us all.

Here’s where the tech game is frustrating and yet exciting. Revolutionary technologies, once played, seem old hat. Tech innovation has taught consumers to always quest for the newest gadget, the best UI, the biggest wow factor. Everyone is always asking for what’s new, then immediately for what’s next. That’s what happens when you climb up to the cutting tech edge. It sure is sharp and fun up there, but it’s easy to lose one’s footing.

Some will be ready. Others won’t.

One thing will not change, though. All these apps, no matter what technology is behind them, no matter who is coding and marketing and innovating, will need content. And that’s where writers, agents, editors, and publishers will continue to thrive. The human connection of reader to story will not change, even as kids start reading with their fingertips as much as with their eyes and hearts.

Live from Digital Book World!

This week has been a whirlwind so far. Digital Book World, which is where I’m sitting right now, listening to a talk on ISBNs, started for me on Monday afternoon and goes through the end of the day today. I’m here with my colleague, Andrea Brown agent Laura Rennert, and we’re soaking in all the latest news of the digital book landscape.

What’s the biggest takeaway so far?

Standardization. We needs it. I can haz mutual agreement? There are many, many platforms for users to consume ebooks and apps, from the iPad to the Android to the Kindle, etc. And each platform has related-but-different-enough standards and protocols for coding data. So a publisher is running the same book or app through the coding process several times through to fit with every available platform. This makes no sense. A publisher should be able to export in one standardized format. That’s where EPUB3 comes in, and it aims to make the digitization/export process more cohesive.

There are just so many things out there to take advantage of. Almost like all the sites we’re bombarded with these days…Twitter, MySpace, flickr, Facebook, WordPress, Blogspot, tumblr, aaaaaaaaaah! So many! What do we do? It seems to me that with a standard format, it’d be much easier to leverage the same content across multiple venues.

On the agent/rights front, we’re still standardizing which rights should be owned by who, what rights go into digital publishing, standard ebook royalty rates, etc. That landscape is going to shift rapidly, and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the turmoil on the rights front.

I’m going to be writing up a much more cohesive post when I’ve had some time to mull DBW over. Since I’m still in the middle of it, I feel like I’m just spewing ideas. These are my biggest impressions so far. You’ll have more from me on Friday!

For those of you who are on Twitter, you can get lots and lots of tech-savvy people live-Tweeting the event with a series of custom hash tags. A general one to follow is #dbw or #dbw11!

The Agent’s Role in Today’s Digital Book World

It’s a flummoxing time in publishing right now. Most publishers, editors, developers, marketers, and creators freely admit that the digital book world is the Wild West. We don’t quite know what to expect, but most of us are hitching up and riding for the horizon.

Literary agents are among those forging new trails. Some spectators (and even some colleagues) are now wondering whether there is a place or even a need for these middlemen of publishing in the digital future. As an agent, I want to say yes, of course, and, self-interest aside, I do think there are new and exciting opportunities for both authors and agents in this changing landscape.

At the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, we’re working on concrete strategies for apps and ebooks every day. Since we’re a sales leader dealing almost exclusively in children’s books—a sector where app and game opportunities are growing rapidly—we’re seeing a lot of the changes firsthand.

My thought is this: There will always be people who want to produce writing or art and see it be made available to readers/viewers/players. There are creators and their content, and then there are the people bringing that content to market. The agent’s role will still be necessary to act as intermediary between the two parties, whether working to create an app, a film, a licensed t-shirt, or a printed book.

In fact, I’ll argue that, as publishers embrace different content delivery systems and processes, agents will take on more packaging responsibilities: editorial work, marketing consultation, design, etc. Whether we’re presenting a book to editors or an app proposal to a digital publisher, we will have had a more active hand in its reaching “market ready” status.

That’s not to say that editors, marketing staff, sales teams, and all the other hardworking people of traditional publishing will be obsolete. But already, as we saw from James Frey’s latest venture, publishers are relying more heavily on “camera ready” packaged work. It makes good business sense (as long as you don’t use Frey’s contract) to invest in a developed product ready to go to market.

My colleague Laura Rennert has recently been exploring digital options for her clients, some of whom include high-profile children’s bestsellers like Ellen Hopkins, Maggie Stiefvater, and Jay Asher. “We have to figure out digital parameters as we did with book rights parameters,” she says. “What rights we hold, what rights we cede; what royalties, revenue share, and subrights splits should be. This is the time of start-ups. We have to figure out what media or dimension a book’s content should occupy.”

Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management agrees: “The role of the agent, fundamentally, is to act as an author’s advocate and to serve as a bit of a sieve between aspiring writers and content producers. People will still be writing. And they will still want to connect with readers and make money off of what they write.” Traditional roles, in other words, are relevant no matter the medium.

Blogosphere favorite, former agent, CNET staffer, and author Nathan Bransford sees a segmented agenting community in his digital crystal ball. Agents, he thinks, will be broken up into those that have blockbuster clients and those who don’t. Agents-to-the-stars will deal primarily with major publishers and do business as usual, while others will act more like managers, consultants, and publicists to help smaller authors navigate small presses and self-publishing.

“As long as the polarization between blockbusters and everyone else continues,” Bransford says, “it’s going to be hard for agents to make money unless one of their clients should take off. There’s still a need for authors to be able to draw upon experts who can help them get a leg up and reach their readers, and smaller agents may fill that niche.” In Bransford’s view, then, it’s possible for agents to exist, but they’ll work and earn their keep in new ways. “It seems like it’s a time ripe for experimentation with new agenting models,” he concludes.

For now, I say we delve into new venues for our existing properties and experiment. We should negotiate contracts with the shifting new digital parameters in mind, hold digital rights, insert renegotiation clauses for digital deal points, monitor ebook sales, and collaborate with print publishers as they devise digital strategies for our clients’ existing books. Several of my colleagues are now developing standalone digital book or app ideas and approaching the new crop of digital publishers and developers.

In fact, I’ll argue that agents should start treating their clients’ business like a tech start-up. As a Silicon Valley ex-pat (and a former product manager for a Facebook app development venture that recently sold to Google), I feel lucky to know the ins and outs of the dot com sector from experience. The key there is relentless development, speed, novelty (Twitter, anyone?), and the willingness (and often capital) to delve into new ideas.

For clients rapidly expanding into digital, I predict that no-advance/higher-royalty sales and experiments that require start-up costs will be much more prevalent in the next two years. Agents will also have to keep a hard eye on tech and industry developments, learn the basics of the gadgets, understand tech and programming capabilities, explore what makes a good app (a good starting place is School Library Journal’s “Planet App: Kids’ book apps are everywhere.”), and be at the forefront of brainstorming digital strategy with clients who want to play in the app arena, including developing new properties to pursue. The revenue-sharing model for the agent/client relationship might also change, especially on the digital front and for properties developed mutually.

I’ll be the first to admit that seeing digital topics on our agency meeting agenda always seem to coincide with the flare of a tension headache. Just like the original frontier cowboys, though, we’ll all have to strap on our six-shooters and figure out just what kind of terrain lies over the western ridge of the great Print-Digital Divide.

The one thing we can’t do is pretend that things aren’t changing or that apps don’t exist. Things are and apps do, and that’s why I’ll be at Digital Book World 2011 in two weeks, to see what all this change means for this year and beyond.


This article originally appeared on the Digital Book World website, and I will be doing a more extensive write-up of my thoughts after I attend the conference, which is January 24th through 26th. Thanks to Guy, Chuck, and the Writer’s Digest team for the opportunity!

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com