Can Publishers Compete on Tech’s Cutting Edge?

Mary Kole (credit: Nicole Sheikh | http://NicoleSheikh.comBy Mary Kole, Literary Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

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 DBW11, 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, her readers, and her 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 chancy, 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.

Mary Kole is an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, a former “dot commer” from the Silicon Valley, a children’s book enthusiast, and the author of acclaimed blog, one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers, 2010, according to Writer’s Digest Magazine. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in Brooklyn.

4 thoughts on “Can Publishers Compete on Tech’s Cutting Edge?

  1. Pingback: Can Publishers Compete On the Cutting Edge? | Kidlit Apps

  2. Karen

    Very thought provoking, Mary.

    We’ve been having these discussions at Children’s Book Council in Australia with some of our authors receiving no royalities on ebook sales, or wanting to do ebooks/apps and not having the freedom to.

    As an independent publisher, the moment I saw the iPad I realized that my interactive and tactile children’s book could be taken to a whole new level as an app and was free to start work right away. The result – a unique, interactive choose-your-adventure book app called Treasure Kai. See the trailer:

    In today’s digital world, smaller publishers and authors can create a global children’s brand using digital formats and the internet. The challenges: quality and marketing.

    Should be an interesting next few years publishing!

  3. Penny Ehrenkranz

    Thank you for sharing all this information. As a children’s author, I find this especially intriguing. While I love print for my books, I can see where digital is becoming more and more the book of a not very distant future.

  4. scor21

    If you look at someone Nosy Crow I think there is potential for publishers to compete on a digital scale. Have you seen the endless amount of features for the Three Little Pigs Application?



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