WWWhat Are We Scared Of?

Digital Publishing and the Future of Children’s Books

For the first time, a generation of children is reading more off screens than they do off paper. And while for the older generations this issue is one of technology, for young people it is one of lifestyle. It doesn’t matter if you’re not into computers, ebooks or the web. If you’re passionate about children’s books, this textual revolution is going to affect you whether you like it or not. There is a tidal wave of new developments coming straight at us and the children’s book industry needs to start paddling like hell to stay ahead of it.

For people who love books and abhor the very idea of electronic media rendering them obsolete (which I believe isn’t likely to happen for some time yet), it’s worth remembering that print itself was once a revolutionary technology. There was a time, only a few hundred years ago, when people realized that books were no long going to be written by hand.

We are entering an era of equal importance now.

I firmly believe that, in many ways, the children’s book industry is better prepared than most other strands of literature. But we also have the most urgent need to adapt quickly, because our audience is at a critical point in their development and they won’t wait while we sit around trying to make sense of this new world.

Text – that simple arrangement of two-dimensional words on a page – has become fluid, amorphous, multi-functional and interactive. This is throwing a whole range of new challenges at those who produce and distribute it, and offering unprecedented choices to those who read it. The publishing establishment is seeing its life flash before its eyes. Let’s follow the course of a book’s life and see how things are changing: As an author, I squat like a bookend, occupying both the beginning and end of the publishing process – authors write the story from scratch at the start, and then go out and promote the book at the end. And in the vast majority of cases we do both more or less on their own. Anybody who makes their living from writing and claims they don’t keep a wary eye on the market while doing so is either lying or a complete eejit. We are self-employed and have businesses to run.

Every era of writing has styles that define it, styles that influence each subsequent generation of writers. Japan’s current bestseller list is dominated by books that were originally written on, and for, mobile phones – a genre known as Keitai Shosetsu. Normally romance stories written in screen-sized, cliff-hanger excerpts – each takes about three minutes to read, the average length of time between stops on the Japanese Tube – they have taken the country by storm. Japanese literati are having conniptions. Reared on the melodramatic world of manga and anime, the teenage ‘thumb tribes’ cannot get enough of this new style of storytelling.

It reflects the increasing trend in young readers for reading quickly and shallowly, demanding ever more gripping, punchier writing from storytellers. It also introduces a brand new hazard for professional writers – the danger that you could walk out onto a road and be hit by a car while composing a sentence.

Keitai Shosetsu are the extreme end of a new writing culture, but one that has still ended up being facilitated by a publisher of sorts; a networking site that distributed each episode and then later released the most popular stories as books. However, just as desktop publishing put typesetting, graphic design and printing into the enthusiastic hands of everyone from office workers to schoolchildren, so the worldwide web has enabled anyone with a computer to publish their work into a global market, placing their products right alongside those of mainstream publishers. The question must then be asked, can the publishing industry as we know it now, continue to exist?

Publishing has taken a wide variety of unanticipated forms – so much so, that it’s hard to say where the boundaries are any more between a phone text, a blog, a newspaper article, a website article, a social network, an ebook, a photo or art gallery, an audio book, a game, a music- or film-sharing site, a video library, a radio or television station. Businesses now have to work across a number of these media and children’s publishing needs to be at the forefront of this wave of activity. Because that’s where the kids are.

Book publishers who, for centuries, have centred their activities around printed matter, are having to face up to the fact that the book is changing beyond their control. The bound collection of printed pages that has, for so long, been the focus of their industry is now just one of many forms in which they need to deliver stories. Even picture books, those untouchable conveyors of storytelling magic, must now compete with the likes of TumbleBooks, offering animation and audio along with the pictures. These are already available from South Dublin Libraries. The word ‘book’ can no longer just refer to printed pages, bound and wrapped in a cover. Now, this is just a print-out of the real book – the original digital file provided by the author (and sometimes the illustrator) that publishers have been using for decades. The book, as we must think of it now, is the raw creative material, which can be produced and consumed in a range of storytelling materials, including but not limited to: printed books, books in Braille, ebooks and audio books, stretching on into other established media such as radio, television and film and more unknowable forms in the future. Perhaps, some day, we’ll be able to read a book using just our sense of smell – who knows?

One of the reasons that the publishing industry is in such a panic, is that this raw creative material is so hard to protect, once it can be accessed in a digital format. Just as the music industry has been devastated by online piracy, so the book publishers are afraid that once they make their content available online in any kind of digital format, that raw material will be stripped of its protection, reproduced and passed on for free to the same audience they’re hoping will pay them good money for it. Music shops have lost all but the most loyal, most discerning, or least technically literate of their customers.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the publishers are making exactly the same mistakes as the music industry. By trying to strengthen legal controls that will be completely disregarded by code crackers worldwide anyway, they are building a more rigid and fragmented structure, rather than a more flexible one. Their first concern should not be creating work for lawyers; they should instead be ensuring that readers can access their legally produced books as easily as humanly possible.

As a consumer, I want to know, while sitting at my computer, or looking at my eReader or mobile phone, how many times I have to click to get that book – and any added value I can get with it. Lawsuits have not provided many solutions to the music industry. iTunes has. We need an iTunes that specializes in storytelling material. And it needs to have the flexibility to change as this new market develops. And it needs competition. What we have to avoid is a situation where one company emerges with a complete control over the sale and distribution of books.

Which is why the Google Book Settlement is such an exciting and frightening development in the world of publishing, and one that will change the industry forever. Google have done a deal to scan the entire stock of some of the biggest libraries in the world, and convert those files into ebooks. The last figure I heard was that they had scanned seven millions books so far, and that each of their robotic scanners was still going strong at several pages a minute. The plan is to make the content of all of these books available to search on Google and for sale in various forms. With one astoundingly ambitious and autocratic move, the book industry is being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. A class action suit taken in the US by the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers has forced Google to recognize copyright law, but means that authors, illustrators, agents and publishers have to register individually with Google to exercise their rights over every single book of theirs that may have already been scanned, or is likely to be. This is a daunting task for any author with few years of titles under their belt, but it’s an absolute nightmare for publishers. Which, we can be sure, was part of Google’s plan all along. It is easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission, particularly in publishing. And it is likely that every book published or sold in the US is eventually going to find its way onto Google’s servers. Because now that they have achieved this critical mass, this momentum, nobody in the book industry will want to be left out.

Even though this class action suit has only forced a system into place in the US, the nature of the web means it affects all of us. Google has already become the single largest depository of knowledge in the history of the world and it’s only getting started. The fact that a single company is controlling access to all of this information has people up in arms;

But we also have the problem that all of this content is now available online, with weak security, as far as I’ve seen, and no guarantee that when this content is sold, its creators will be rewarded and the product will be in a non-reproducible form. I am not particularly worried about Google having all-powerful control, because the anarchic nature of the web will soon break down that control and eat away at the boundaries of its dominance. My biggest concern is for the very idea of copyright – of creators of content being rewarded for the reproduction of their work. If Google does not exercise enough control, copyright could become obsolete, irrelevant. And once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back. There are already movements like Creative Commons and Copyleft spreading the belief that creative content should be treated more like open source software: free to distribute and share, but retaining some creative control over the original material. Some believe there should be no such thing as copyright at all.

As the means of creating and distributing books become so varied, the means of promoting them and selling them follow suit. The same things that cause publishers such huge problems can also be turned into opportunities, particularly for the children’s book industry.

There is unprecedented technology available for adding new features to printed books, from special colours to textures, foil stamping and holograms to die cutting. As they move into the electronic medium, the lines between books, games, websites and films will blur more and more. eReaders already offer touch-screen notation, links to reference materials, music (and audio book) player functions, online purchasing and more. It won’t be long before the readability of an eReader will be combined with the game-appeal of a Nintendo DS and the functionality of an iPhone. Booksellers and distributors have not been resting on their laurels either. Lightning Source is a company that is setting itself up as the Western Union of publishing, going one better than Amazon, in being able to print the book you order in the country you order it from, so it can be delivered from a local depot, instead of having to come halfway across the world.

This technology is also being introduced in pilot schemes in shops in Britain and the US, in the form of the Espresso Book Machine. You go in, order any book they have on file and it is printed and bound there and then, in a few minutes, in full published book quality. The bookshop only has to stock the materials and digital files for every book available online.

John McNamee, President of the European Booksellers Federation aspires to a day when someone can come into a shop, ask for a book, and be charged a base fee for the intellectual rights, and then a further fee for whatever form they want that book in. He knows more than anyone that booksellers are facing the kind of upheaval that the music shops are going through even now. They will have to change their business models, and quickly. Young readers are starting to take the initiative in so many ways. Plenty of authors keep in contact with their readers ­– and the readers with each other – through email, blogs and regularly updated websites. News of local author events can be spread quickly and effectively and the organizations that facilitate these events are becoming increasingly wise to the different ways of publicising them. Working with children is becoming an integral part of an author’s job and as a result, we are having to learn performance skills. We are having to go back to the roots of our art, to relearn how to be oral storytellers once more.

But as a result, we are more in touch with our audience than any other branch of literature. Even those in the tech-savvy genre of science fiction, who saw this revolution coming years ago, cannot compete with the dynamism of the children’s books network. And we need to be dynamic, because we have an audience that is changing faster than any other. Educated on interactive whiteboards, researching primary school assignments using the web, walking around playing games consoles and doing most of their reading on mobile phones, they are defining the future of their book industry. Our readers will learn faster than we can, will take these new forms of storytelling and make them their own. Fan fiction involves creating new stories using elements from existing books, much to the annoyance of some writers. But it is done most often out of love of the original work and a desire to be a part of its story, an ally in its success. Fan fiction can be a boon to writers. Books are still sold mostly by word of mouth and word of mouth can now move as fast as light down an optical fibre, the signal diverging and multiplying, scattering across the world.

What, as professionals in the children’s book industry, can we do about all of this – right now? We can make sure that the filters of quality still work, that language skills are not lost in the rush to communicate ideas quickly. We can teach our children to question and judge the sources of information they can find so easily on the web, and show them how to read deeply into a subject, as well as widely across it. But above all, we can encourage initiative, empathy, imagination, and nurture skills of problem-solving, observation and expression, the qualities that make great storytellers. Let us remind them constantly that technology enables us to express what is in our heads and hearts to the outside world. And let’s not forget it ourselves.