When Growth in Children’s E-Books Hits the Poverty Line

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When it comes to digital revenue, children’s book publishers lag behind their peers in other areas of publishing. That may not change any time soon.

Adult trade publishers are getting between 15% and 20% of their revenues from e-books, according to the Association of American Publishers’ monthly numbers as well as annual reports from some of the largest trade publishers.

In contrast, Scholastic, a major children’s publisher, gets about 5% of its book revenues from digital books (this is not counting revenues from young adult fiction like the company’s popular Hunger Games trilogy). Bowker, an firm that tracks such things, pegs the number at 7.4% through the first three quarters of 2011. Between 5% and 7% is consistent with what I’ve heard from other children’s book publishers.

If device ownership has anything to do with it, children’s books may lag behind trade publishers for quite a while. Why? The poverty line.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, as of 2010, some 44% of children live in low-income families. That number has increased from 40% in 2005. By comparison, 15.1% of Americans live in poverty as of September 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Children make up a disproportionate number of the poor.

I started thinking about how this could impact the book publishing industry last week when I met with the Children’s Book Council (CBC). They worry – and those concerned about reading and e-reading among children should, too – that those children who are in low-income households won’t have access to the latest reading devices and will therefore not be a part of the e-reading revolution.

While there are non-profit organizations like Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) and Reading to Kids that provide children in need with physical books they can read and own, there is no such organization yet that I know of that provides e-readers or tablet computers for those kids. (Last year, RIF had plans in place to experiment with providing e-readers to some of the children it serves, but those plans were put on hold when the organization lost some of its funding.)

There are other challenges to children’s books going digital: the tactile nature of many children’s books; the cost and difficulty in digitizing elaborate illustrations; and lack of developed sales channels compared with adult trade, to name a few. But the barrier presented by the poverty line should unite the industry like no other.

Beyond nearly 50% of the population that will likely never get to engage with the latest Sesame Street or Berenstain Bears app, those at the CBC and RIF worry that a new digital divide is opening – between those who grow up with iPads and e-readers and those who do not. If reading at a young age sparks a love of reading for life, does the same hold true for e-reading?

There has been much fretting over whether screen time is “good” or “bad” for children, even if what they are doing with the screens is reading classic children’s books; and children’s book publishers should certainly be concerned with the outcomes of ongoing studies of the issue. But they should also think about that 50% of children who could be missing out on their neatest and newest offerings.

For the purpose of this post, I did not call any children’s book publishers and talk to them about this issue; this post was meant to be a conversation starter. My guess is that many of them are aware of this problem and are already taking action. I’d love to hear from them about it. I’d love to hear from those I regularly speak with as well as those I’ve never heard from. I’d love to hear from parents and concerned citizens. From librarians and teachers. This is a problem that could affect us all. What do you think? Email me at jeremy.greenfield@fwmedia.com

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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5 thoughts on “When Growth in Children’s E-Books Hits the Poverty Line

  1. Great conversation starter, I take my kids to the library as often as I can and think libraries are a big piece of this puzzle. That said, having books in the home is a big indicator of future benefits for kids so I can see a reason to make sure they have access to new media forms. I am big on letting kids be kids so we keep things fairly low tech but I get to choose that. I was looking at the “angel tree” of a local school at Christmas and most of the kids wanted gaming consoles so it would be nice if ereaders put reading onto their wishlists.

  2. Thanks for writing this piece, Jeremy. I work for First Book, a nonprofit that provides new books to kids in need, and people often ask us why we’re even bothering with physical books anymore, when e-readers are so clearly the way to go.

    While I use an e-reader myself, and think they are terrific for some things (like long train rides), they’re just not a realistic option for kids in need at present.

    First Book works with tons of great children’s publishers, like Random House, and we know they’re thinking about these things as well, and they’re equally concerned with ensuring that kids from low-income families don’t end up stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

  3. I’m a little unclear as to why it is so important that kids get to grow up with digital books instead of paper ones. Keep in mind that close to 100% of population didn’t grow up with kindles or ipads, but were introduced to them… several years ago. And we’re doing pretty well, despite out kindle/Ipad/ebook deprived childhoods.
    The crucial point is that kids should have access to books, whether they are rich or poor – but that is really orthogonal to the point you’re trying to make here.

  4. I beleive that e-books are going to really change the minds of our children today…when i sit and read to my babies they love going to the book shelves and scanning with their own two little hands something for me to read to them..the joy on their face…we have an i-pad and its not the same..they cant turn the page….no actual physical contact with the page i believe it is isolating and unrealistic…it has to take an effect eventually.I myself am in the process of printing childrens books inspired and written by my mom..which i have very many fond memories of her reading to me…so this whole e-book thing has taken my life into a whole other path..i feel confused and fake.i would love to get the real spirit of books back.i miss my bookstore and i miss the feeling of comfort i get kjust knowing its there…which its not…sports authority took over it…when libraries start going under because of e-books…i really start to wonder…what is the point…what is the collective of idea and motive…who is behind this..and what are they getting out of it…i am just a simple mom in Maui HI raising my 2 kids with one on the way…a world without books doesnt just affect me…but i see children all around me missing out on the full experience of taking time to sit and read with their loved ones…thanks for reading and thank you for writing an article as such..
    blessings
    ~gt

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