The New Breed of Children’s Book Authors

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This article was written for the program book distributed for participants of  Publishers Launch: Children’s Publishing Goes Digital, a full-day conference addressing the digital opportunities and challenges for children’s publishers as ereading tablets take off.

McGraw Hill auditorium, New York, NY, January 15, 2013

The children’s book business is changing – so much so that it might not be completely accurate to call it a “book business.” Between apps, enhanced ebooks and online social communities (see: 39 Clues), just to name a few of the new kinds of products children’s book publishers are producing, it might better be called the “children’s content business.”

Whatever you call it, it has given rise to a new kind of children’s author. In fact, we may not even want to continue calling them simply authors. They’re designers, developers, technologists, and producers. They’re creating digital experiences for children that are native to tablet computers, smartphones, and the Web. I propose we call them “children’s content creators,” or perhaps something a bit less antiseptic like “children’s artists.”

It’s never been a better time than now to be a children’s artist. Growth in children’s ebooks has lagged behind growth for adult trade ebooks but it seems to be catching up in 2012. According to the latest data available from the Association of American Publishers, children’s ebook revenues are up nearly 200% in 2012 and are on pace to get close to $300 million—similar to the size and growth curve for adult trade ebooks in 2010. And with a holiday season in which 40% of parents with e-reading children say they’re going to buy them a new e-reading device and 66% of them are going to buy them digital content, the growth is sure to continue.

One of the pioneers in working with the new breed of children’s book authors is Eric Huang, Penguin UK’s publishing director for media and entertainment. We sat down with Eric in late November 2012 to ask him what makes these authors different, whether the content they produce will be profitable, and what happened to the old breed of children’s book authors.

Jeremy Greenfield: Tell me about the new breed of children’s authors. Who are they? Where do they come from? What makes them different?

Eric Huang: The new breed of children’s picture book authors are animators and developers by training. The deliverables five years ago were mainly illustrations, manuscript, photography, paper engineering, and so on. Today, these new authors also deliver animation, composed music, code—often working alongside a traditional illustrator and author. Many developers and animators have mates who are already published, and they team up as these new author pairs.
JG: Why do we have this new breed?

EH: I think it’s because the next generation of artists and writers were born in a world that always had the internet and the web. And they’ve grown up with smartphones and are naturally curious about storytelling in this medium.

JG: How does Penguin work with them differently?

EH: We actually work with them in a very similar way. It’s just the deliverables that are different and what the editors and designers review is different, too. It’s still about great storytelling, artwork, design—but now there’s sound, game mechanics, and moving pictures, too.
JG: Are any among this new breed being rewarded for their added skills? That is, are these enhanced children’s books selling?

EH: Picture book apps are selling, but most of our digital-first picture books are launching from this Christmas (2012) onwards, so we’ll see—although I’m confident there is a market.
JG: Do you see sales increasing for these kinds of books soon?

EH: I do! The people currently making money from app books are gamers and developers. The consumer appetite will increase due to the increase of tablets being purchased for kids for family entertainment.
JG: Is the narrative structure for traditional children’s books the same or different from those in the newer products and other digital content like video games?

EH: The narrative structure is essentially the same in both digital and physical storybooks. What’s different is how the story is told. In digital picture books—apps and illustrated ones—there needs to be more consideration of what is shown (animated) versus what is said (written text). Also, in digital storybooks, you have a unique component: music. It can help set mood and tone that in a physical book you can only do with copy and static art.
JG: How are publishers dealing with the increase in complexity of these projects?

EH: They’re only more complex in that they require new skills, and new ways of approaching storytelling. I do believe that our editors and designers have the skills to be able to look critically at ideas and be rigorous about creative decisions. It’s about being a discerning consumer. Plus, we partner with people who live and breathe animation, digital storytelling, etc. whom we learn from.
JG: How has the rise of digital affected what children’s authors need to be thinking about and doing?

EH: A lot of new authors and illustrators are coming to us with a passion for digital storytelling. Many of them are multi-disciplined and can write, illustrate, code and animate. It’s these people who are naturally interested in stories beyond format that we have been signing up. But there is still plenty of room for traditional writers and illustrators. It’s been fun pairing up an illustrator with an animator and writers with developers.
JG: Can you give me an example?

EH: A great example is Edmund and Cecilie, a picture book brand we’re launching next year as an app first. The brand was created by Matt Howarth (animator/developer) and Chris Mould (published children’s illustrator and writer). They’re mates, and together they had an idea for a digital storybook that was a reading experience first and foremost, but heavily animated with simple gaming mechanics. This type of pairing is the typical team in our new media age.

JG: Is there a new children’s literature? A new kind of kid reader?

EH: I don’t think there’s a new reader per se, but I think the definition of what makes a book is changing to include more interactive elements. But the format is still in its infancy. There’s loads to be done about the balance of reading content versus gaming content, animation versus copy, etc.
JG: What about the old breed of children’s authors? Where do they go?

EH: They still are at the heart of what we publish. Many authors of physical picture books are being paired up with developers and animators to create new titles for tablets and mobile phones.

JG: What is the future for children’s authors?

EH: I think the future is very bright for children’s authors. Tablets and mobile offer so many more opportunities for storytelling and great ideas!

This article was written for the program book distributed for participants of  Publishers Launch: Children’s Publishing Goes Digital, a full-day conference addressing the digital opportunities and challenges for children’s publishers as ereading tablets take off.

McGraw Hill auditorium, New York, NY, January 15, 2013

Jeremy Greenfield

About Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield is the editorial director of Digital Book World. Opinions presented here are his own. Read more of his work here.

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