When Growth in Children’s E-Books Hits the Poverty Line
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 firstname.lastname@example.org