Children’s publishing came under the microscope at Byte The Book’s September event, in the plush surroundings of Regent Street’s Café Royal. Jo Henry (VP of Insight & Analytics at Nielsen) chaired a discussion between three diverse industry experts: Jane Harris, a publisher at Bonnier Fiction; Arabella Stein, a senior agent at Bright Group International; and Louie Stowell, an in-house author at Usborne.
Our sponsors Nielsen from left to right: Mo Siewcharran, Anne-Claire Woodfield, Hazel Kenyon and Jo Henry
So what, currently, is the role of digital in children’s publishing? Arabella opened the floor by stating that digital’s role changes incredibly quickly, and what was true yesterday may not be true today, and certainly won’t be tomorrow. “We’re still at an exploratory stage,” she said, and while authors’ hearts do generally still lie with the physical editions of their books, the benefits of digital when it comes to marketing and promotion are obvious to all. Jane argued that children’s publishing has recently experienced a renaissance, and this is something that digital can only enhance. Publishers, she said, need to “experiment and investigate” as much as possible.
Our panel from left to right: Arabella Stein, Louie Stowell, Jane Harris and Jo Henry
Louie then spoke about the use of digital in schools. Her projects with Fiction Express have included episodic educational stories where students vote on multiple choice cliffhanger endings, and these have proved enormously popular. She’s noticed that these stories attract comments from children along the lines of “I hate reading, but I love this!”, and observed that this kind of digital interaction really helps young people to feel invested in a narrative. Arabella also extolled the virtue of digital in schools, explaining that books on tablets are particularly helpful for children who struggle with their reading skills. On a digital device, students can’t tell how far through the book their peers are, and this helps diffuse the competitive element that can often creep into class-time reading. Expanding on this, Jane pointed out that digital has been a huge boon for dyslexic readers, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and boys in general, the latter of whom respond much better to the “cool factor” of tech gadgets than they do to traditional books.
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Finally, the panel discussed some digital marketing Dos & Don’ts for authors. “The key thing is authenticity,” stressed Jane, “especially when it comes to the teen market”. Teenagers, she explained, are extremely discerning, and they don’t like being sold to, or patronised. Arabella agreed, adding that teens are obsessive about finding out the “inside story” behind the book. They like to feel they “know” the author, and social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram provide all the tools a writer needs to facilitate this process. Louie reminded the audience that the immediacy of social media, while fantastic for connecting with readers, can also be dangerous, and that publishers should seek to invest in some level of media training for all their authors. You only need to say the wrong thing once, and the world will know about it.
So what’s the future for digital in the world of children’s publishing? Hybrid formats. Augmented reality. Ever more bespoke reading tools, designed to ensure that every child, regardless of background or ability, can benefit from the power of storytelling. Deeper and more sophisticated author-reader interactions through social media. Dinosaurs coming to life on the page.
And that’s just the beginning…
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