Friday, October 8, 2010

Has the ugly duckling had its swan song?

Chatter within the children's book community exploded this morning thanks to an article published on the New York Times web site entitled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. (Note: registration required.)

The article, written by Julie Bosman, discusses the decline of picture book sales. Writers, illustrators, publishers, book stores--the entire industry has felt the pinch.

Credit: Central Highlands Regional Library Corp.
Everyone seems to have an opinion as to why. It's the slumping economy. It's pressure from schools to meet greater testing standards. It's urging from parents to get their kids into more advanced books, whether for educational or social status reasons. It's digital distractions like video games, TV, and the Internet.

One parent, Amanda Gignac from book review blog The Zen Leaf, even had to go so far as to publicly defend her quote in the article. Not surprisingly, it was edited completely out of context, falsely painting Gignac to be a heretic for not encouraging her young child to read picture books.

In my opinion, humble as it is, the real issue here should not be why picture book sales are slumping, because all the reasons given are correct, and all the reasons given are beyond the industry's ability to change. The real question is how should the industry respond?

Some writers and illustrators want to band together and campaign for a massive push towards encouraging kids to read printed picture books. It may sound attractively grassroots, but reality says it would just be a Sisyphian effort. After the big push, kids would go right back to whatever's dividing their attention.

Here's a crazy idea: Why not embrace the direction things are going?

We as a society are just now learning to walk, rather than crawl, through the digital age. As a result, our children are growing up in a very different environment than generations past. Every form of popular media is now available in digital format, from games to music, movies and, yes, books.

It isn't that kids have lost their love of reading. It's that their developing minds are drawn to things that engage their attention. The world has conditioned them to prefer interactivity, and I, for one, see nothing wrong with that.

Warning: Armchair Author Advice Beyond This Point

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
Picture books like the one seen
here are appealing to younger
and older readers alike.
To my fellow parents, I would say to keep buying picture books for your kids, even when they seem to have graduated to chapter books. There are some brilliant picture books out there, with superb writing, challenging concepts, and engaging characters. The fact that they are illustrated doesn't make them less of a book--just look at the popularity of graphic novels for evidence of that.

To my fellow writers, I would say your task is two-fold.

First and foremost, let's write better books. After all, for thousands of years, no matter what the industry, it has always been consumer demand that drives a market. Realize that the days of Dick and Jane watching Spot run are over. Kids are smarter, more attuned to the adult world, and they know when they're being patronized.

Recently I attended a presentation by a literary agent who claimed over 100,000 book manuscripts are submitted to publishers each year, but less than 6,000 see publication. I'm not sure about the accuracy of those figures, so take them with a grain of salt, but it seems about right. Editors and publishers know what's brilliant, what's marketable, and what kids want. Apparently 94% of writers don't.

You could argue that current economic conditions dictate the volume of titles published, and you'd be right, but it doesn't change the fact that only the best will ever become books.

Secondly--and I'm well aware this is a point of contentious debate in the industry--we as writers and illustrators need to embrace technology.

Look, I adore a printed picture book. The feel, the aroma, the crackle of fresh pages, and the sight of beautiful illustrations mixed with brilliant words--four out of five senses can't be wrong! (Conceivably five senses, if you lick your books, but I digress.) But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that digital books are going to become the norm. From the Kindle, to the Nook, to Apple's iBooks and iPad, there is simply too much consumer momentum and retail inertia to prevent it.

Being A Good Student of History

The music industry should serve as our cautionary tale here. Napster exploded on the scene in the late 90's, and the music industry freaked. Instead of embracing this rapidly proliferating technology called digital music, they fought it tooth and nail, suing tens of thousands of consumers and businesses in an effort to stamp out any threat to their decades-old approach to sales and distribution.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book
Novelty books, which need
to be in print for full effect,
will never go away.
What did that earn them? Heavy consumer resentment for starters, which tends to happen when you take little old ladies to court. But more importantly, the music industry's balance sheet paid dearly for its lack of ingenuity.

Now the bulk of profits from online music sales go to sites like iTunes, instead of to the publishers or the artists. Finding an independent record store these days is like sighting Bigfoot--even if you claim to see one, no one cares, and they all think you're a kook.

Most shockingly is that, despite plummeting production costs, the music industry still charges a whopping $19 MSRP on all new CDs, the same price they were in 1988.

Translate that to the publishing industry, and you're left with some fairly clear options. You can fight the consumer, or you can align your ideals with theirs. This isn't a capitulation, it's just smart. It's the evolution of all media.

Do I think physical printed books will ever go away? Absolutely not! After all, they still make vinyl and they still make CDs. E-books and print can co-exist. But the market is finite, and thus one medium must give up market share to the other.

Printed book sales may continue to ebb, but an opportunity exists to really open up the flow of creative picture books into the marketplace.

Dusty D. Dawg, an interactive digital picture book series,
has been popular with kids and parents alike.

Credit: Apple iTunes.
Some truly great things are being done with digital books. If you haven't seen one yet, picture books (in both e-book and app form) look amazing on a device like the iPad or iPhone. Using touch technology, parents and kids can literally turn the "pages" and get all sorts of bonus content like character profiles or author commentary right at their tiny fingertips.

Granted, it doesn't work for novelty books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle) or Open Me, I'm A Dog (Spiegelman)--which is why those books will always have their niche--but for a good majority of picture books it's a really engaging experience!

Best of all, while e-books have been around for a while now, there is currently a surging commercial interest in children's books in digital form. No industry battle royal is brewing over distribution. Publishers, authors and illustrators are, for now, playing nicely over things like royalties. Pricing is admittedly lower than printed books, but it should be, and consumers aren't objecting. So there's an opportunity here to not combust like the music industry and actually do this whole e-book thing right!

That's my rather lengthy $0.02 on the matter. What do you think? Do you like the way the industry is going? Do you think we should encourage kids to go into chapter books sooner? Or should we be making better picture books? Digital picture books? Picture book apps? Comment below and let me know your thoughts!


  1. I am not sure you can compare the music industry to books. It is like comparing apples and oranges. And the benefits of teaching kids via a hard bound book versus new technology are also different, book sales notwithstanding. Studies increasingly show that our children are not benefiting- well, forget our children, none of us are benefiting from the new technology the way we would like to believe we are. More and more of us show ADHD like symptoms. Fewer of us a happy. What will happen with our children? I think we're trying a social experiment that will ultimately fail. Our children will not be smarter or more capable. In fact quite the contrary. But I doubt that anyone wants to hear from this dinosaur of a mother.

  2. Thanks for the perspective, Danette!

    I like to think music & books are more like Fuji vs Rome apples instead of apples & oranges. :) As media, they're both distributed similarly, often by the same companies (eg. Ingram). They are produced, marketed and sold in almost identical fashion.

    Don't misunderstand me--I love printed books and agree teaching from a printed book has benefits. But I don't discount that an e-book is still an experience in its own right (think color TV vs black & white, or attending a concert vs listening to a CD), with its own benefits to offer in its own unique way, many of which we haven't yet realized because the tech is still young and unexplored.

    As the father of an ADHD-diagnosed child, I've never personally read any empirical evidence suggesting that technology is a root cause (my parents generation likely said similar things). I'm sure studies are out there, and your post has given me some food for thought to do personal research. This Veruca Salt Syndrome we've formed as a result of instant technology could certainly be blamed for our diminished lack of patience.

    When I was a kid, if you couldn't sit still during class or focus on a project, there was so medical diagnosis for it. Most of those kids grew out of it, or just became very frenetic adults. Nothing wrong with that. And, of course, we didn't have the same tech then that we have now, so it's possible the rise of ADHD is just an effect of a much broader cultural shift, not assignable to any one factor.

    For the record, my 3 kids have an extensive print library. But if they asked me to get them an e-book on Mom's iPad, I wouldn't object. To me, encouraging a love of reading is far more important than what format it's in.

    Thanks again for your comments, and for reading my blog! :)

  3. Oops. Typos: "instant technology" should be "instant information" and "so medical diagnosis" should be "no medical diagnosis."

    A pox on Blogger for not allowing comments to be edited! :-P

  4. Martin, insightful comments. I'm in the process of self publishing one of my short stories as an ebook. For Kindle, ePub and as an I-app. I don't expect to make tons of money, but feel this is the future and want to be there. I'm in SCBWI also and will be posting my progress (or lack of)

  5. Thanks for the comment, Ben. Congratulations, and I wish you the best in your efforts! Also, I love the name of your web site, and the design is top-notch!

    You're likely correct that e-books are the future. As I mentioned in my post, I want them to co-exist alongside traditional printed picture books. But it definitely looks like they're in a prime position to not only gain market share, but also help the overall picture book market (print AND digital) to rebound as the economy levels off.