Despite prophecies of a brave new dawn, the digital revolution in publishing has so far proven less revolutionary than expected. For us and the children’s publishing sector as a whole, at least, print editions of our books remain the single largest source of revenue by a wide margin. Contrary to what was said a few years ago, young readers do not seem to have lost interest in analogue text and illustrations, despite the array of digital media at their disposal. If anything, books have taken on a newfound novelty for these young readers, offering a tactile respite from the screens through which many of us now lead our lives.
However, digital technology is undoubtedly changing the world and will go on doing so. I suspect that the reason publishing companies have been slower to react to this trend is partly because of memories of similar excitement around CD roms back in the 90s. The speed with which that expensive technology went from being cutting-edge to given away free with newspapers served as a warning to publishers, many of whom had lost a great deal of money investing in it. Unfortunately, this has led publishing houses to ignore the creeping influence of digital and allow companies like Amazon to gain such an enormous share of the digital publishing market.
I’m careful not to let my enthusiasm for a given bit of new technology overwhelm the need to maintain a balanced business model and publishing slate, prioritising those areas in which we’re already skilled, experienced and successful.
However, at my publishing business, The Salariya Book Company, we’re more often than not just as excited about technology as anybody. In fact, we’ve even been a little ahead of the curve on some occasions: One of our first forays into digital, a few years ago, was to design and build two augmented reality picture books for young children. We’ve also created apps based on our graphic novel titles containing animation and sound effects, as well as a game called ‘Rosy Glow Farm’ that allowed parents to remotely communicate with their children via the software from the other side of the planet. We also experimented with hosting free masterclasses for people wanting to get into publishing, in Brighton where our business is situated – a publisher-audience interaction model that has become increasingly popular since within the industry. Although these projects were creative successes and often sophisticated, we struggled with the issue of ‘discoverability’. When we brought our augmented reality books to our sales team, at a time when the technology was not really understood outside of a few initiates, they didn’t really know what to make of it, and so the project was never effectively marketed.
When margins are tight, it’s not just betting on the right digital projects that makes all the difference, but being familiar enough with the market to know that an idea has found its moment and is ready to be capitalised on
It is only now, of course, that this technology is becoming better understood generally and delivering on its initial promise. And this personal experience taught me another lesson about navigating the pitfalls of digital publishing: when margins are tight, as they are for all independent publishers, it’s not just betting on the right digital projects that makes all the difference, but being familiar enough with the market to know that an idea has found its moment and is ready to be capitalised on. If you’re too early, like us, you risk bewildering people, and if you’re too late, you’re in danger of becoming quickly obsolete.
Indeed, it is the fast pace of digital technology that makes it such a challenging and daunting prospect for publishers. We typically deal with a medium – the paper-based, bound book – that hasn’t substantially changed its form in hundreds of years, whilst digital devices change constantly. Our business is structured on being able to revive and refresh our copyrighted content for new generations, and whilst digital technology clearly provides great opportunities in this regard, it’s vital that any such reinvention is geared towards long-term profitability and relevance. In short, we think that digital children’s publishing should be about enriching and prolonging the storytelling experience, as it is the story that communicates the message to the reader, rather than offering whiz-bang, disposable gimmicks.
To this end, we’re now looking to build a multifaceted multimedia property out of our existing back catalogue and company identity. Part of this will involve creating digital teaching resources for teachers and children alike, such as quizzes and short plays that can be performed in the classroom, that will be packaged onto our new website as free supplementary materials to our books. Another plan is to build an interactive educational game around our highly successful You Wouldn’t Want To Be books; a series of humorous, illustrated history and science titles aimed at children aged 7+. The aim in ‘gamifying’ our intellectual property is to reach out to young groups of readers who are typically reluctant to engage with books, particularly boys, and encourage them to associate reading with other activities that they might consider more cool and fun, such as playing computer games.
Broadly considered, our philosophy regarding digital publishing is one based on valuing both continuity and progression. We don’t want to neglect our print publishing, because it’s the lifeblood of our business and, we believe, offers an important, valuable alternative to the ubiquity of digital media in children’s daily lives. But we also search out opportunities to use new digital technologies to support and enrich our existing work in ways that make sense specifically to us. Instead of a digital revolution, we believe in a digital evolution: that the right course for children’s publishing is one that prepares for a multimedia future without abandoning the wisdom, values and lessons of our analogue past.