A New Digital Divide? Production Costs vs Consumer Awareness in New Media Publications for Children – Guest Post by Allison Pomenta

| February 18, 2014 | 12 Comments

Several years ago, I met Allison Pomenta when she was still developing her storybook app, Axel’s Chain Reaction. Her app is a terrific indie title and recently shortlisted  as a finalist for the Digital Book Awards. Allison is talented, outspoken and quick to offer her experience with new media in the wild-west of digital publishing. She has a fascinating post to share, based on her unique position in the market. She has experience in children’s media, education and now app development. In this post she identifies a divide she has seen between publishing predictions, sales and pricing issues for children’s digital titles as well the vast distance between consumer perceptions and app store realities. The question remains: Will consumers discover quality digital children’s content and be willing to support it financially in time?

Evening Out The Divide:

Children’s Digital Content Production And Parents’ Buying Behavior

At the Launch Kids event at Digital Book World Conference this January, I found contradictions between what people belonging to research institutions were reporting from surveys, and what the publishing sector was conveying. One of these directly pertains to digital children’s books: PlayCollective was presenting survey results indicating that parents expressed continued willingness to purchase full-price ebooks, and more acceptance of the “all you can eat” subscription model.

But judging by how the sales are moving among the younger ages (that is, excluding Young Adult books) in the US, as reported by Nielsen Books at the conference, I don’t see that being reflected in their actual buying behavior: although 2011 experienced a 5% increase in the juvenile ebook market share, and 2012 marked a 9% increase, in 2013 it actually lost 1% of market share. Additionally, we’d have to actually discount from those ebooks sales roughly a fourth of the purchases, belonging to the young adult genre –since 78% of these buyers were over 18 and had bought the books for themselves.

Nielsen’s stats revealed the ebook market share for picture books and storybooks is barely around 4%, and the same for Beginner/Early readers. Mid -Level Readers are barely 6% of the children’s ebook market. Chapter books and non-fiction both hold around 10% of market share. The main reason for this is because naturally ebooks with a majority of text over illustrations have done better , as in terms of graphic design, where images predominate are still seen as clunky in this digital format (flowable text formats being even harder to figure out for children’s book illustrations than the fixed layout format).

PlayCollective’s Kid’s & eReading Report

Book Apps were supposed to solve this aesthetic problem for children’s books. They are also the ideal digital alternative to the pop-up or novelty print book –which became utterly expensive to produce, especially in light of children’s product safety testing regulations released in the US three years ago. Beyond parental concerns regarding the addition of e-reading to the time already spent by kids on screens, and all pros and cons discussed around this subject in the last three years, the main barrier to the financial viability of children’s digital books seems to be a matter of parents not valuing digital products as a cultural product worth paying for.

That is, consumers have become used to obtaining digital products for free, or at prices so low that the production and marketing costs of these products become financially unfeasible. This impacts the quality of the end result, as companies strive to reduce costs by limiting innovations which are costly to produce. Additionally, book apps in particular suffer from a lack of awareness about their existence –which the Book App Alliance is striving to improve. Adults buying print books for kids bought titles of characters they were familiar with, and this meant old fairytales and animated characters from TV series or movies were the mainstays of publishing houses.

This behavior has continued on the app store, with the added inconvenience that it lacks the chance encounter with unknown titles which the physical store allowed the common book buyer. Apple’s App Store is skewed towards promoting apps that are already bestsellers, and lacks an efficient personal recommendation system based on previous purchases that Amazon affords, and which buyers have become used to. Given the enormous effort that online and social media marketing require nowadays, to get any results, publishers large and small need the new digital retail outlets to be even more efficient than brick-and-mortar stores were in the past, in terms of personalized recommendations and book discovery.

While good distribution was a publisher’s main advantage in the past, reaching the audience amidst the information over-load is today’s main challenge. Publishers, startups, and self-publishers are trying anything they can: from book recommendation sites and social media, to blog tours with giveaways, and everything in between that will get them get a foot in. But time is money, and marketing time spent on these alternative channels means that the cost-per-user acquisition is greater than the expected returns for the majority of digital products, given the low price they’re selling at. Amazon has been one of the main factors driving publishers’ print and digital prices down, but as an app-creator who’s seen how the gaming industry has also suffered this change in consumer behavior, it is not the lone culprit.

Publishers have been scrambling these last three years to implement lessons learned in the music and gaming industry: all-you-can-eat subscriptions models, breaking products into smaller units with chapter-by-chapter sales at low prices, but we are fortunately still weary of introducing advertising into books like the gaming industry has had to do. This is widely rejected in children’s books. As a parent, I’m infuriated by a famous piano-playing app that makes my child watch video ads in order to earn coins that will allow him to download new songs to play. Offering a new song every week is their strategy to keep users coming back, and getting them to pay (either through in-app purchases or through watching ads).

The problem with subscription models is they lock users into a single publisher’s catalogue. And that’s not what reading is about, is it? There are missed opportunities to discover non-commercial themes, and authors that are not well-known. We want to believe that librarians and teachers care what their kids read. Evidence has made us doubt whether the vast majority of parents are involved enough to. This applies not only to books, but to TV and online video consumption, and games.

There are creators out there wanting to produce creative and high-quality products, which the market is simply not supporting. Some of them are turning to the publicly-subsidized model of cultural productions like opera or indie films. Others are trying to crowd-fund their ideas. I honestly don’t see this as a widely-applicable solution for books. A few days ago, an owner of a kindergarten told me “from what I’ve seen kids playing on iPads, it’s mostly violent games, isn’t it?” I was shocked at the ignorance. “No, it isn’t. I have more than 350 children’s apps on my devices right now, between books and games. None of them are violent, and most are either educational, or offer innocent and age-appropriate entertainment”, I told her. Awareness, I thought. The main marketing campaign has to be about creating awareness, and that includes promoting awareness about the consequences of only buying very-low-priced cultural products.

 Allison Pomenta is an editor and children’s content creator. She’s the Creator and Executive Producer of Axel’s Chain Reaction, a book app for ages 7 to 9 that was a Finalist for the Digital Book Awards 2014, and an App Circus Online Competition Winner, shortlisted for the Mobile Premier Awards 2014.

You can find Allison on Twitter at: @Allikidzcontent.

Category: Guest Posts, Marketing Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (12)

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  1. Roxie Munro says:

    Wow, Allison. What an excellent succinct analysis of the current climate for marketing children’s apps (and ebooks), and getting them in the hands of kids, parents, schools, libraries…. I wish the folks that really NEED it would read your post. It’s a very frustrating situation for those of us, like you (and me), who are trying to create good creative content. No easy answers, as you point out.

  2. This is so right on and clearly stated. I, too, am creating quality book apps. In four months we have sold fewer than 100 total copies of an app that is on Kirkus Reviews list of top book apps for 2013 (plus a great Digital Storytime review). The awareness just isn’t there among consumers, and the venues don’t make it easy to browse. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Karen Inglis says:

    This is an excellent article, Allison.

    As a relatively new member of the Book App Alliance, and someone who has recently launched my first children’s book app (based on my print picture book of the same name), I have been dismayed at the proliferation of ‘free’ kids’ apps with which I am obliged to compete. Not only is this frustrating for what it is doing for the culture of app acquisition (“it’s all free…”) but also because of the impact on discoverablity of the many quality independently produced children’s book apps out there of high educational value and which (unlike so many of those ‘free’ apps) contain no advertising or in-app purchases. What’s more, most of these quality apps are still priced at less than the price of a cup of coffee (or not much more), which makes it all the more frustrating and disappointing that parents and children are missing out on them in all of the ‘free’ noise. (There’s the bottom line to think of too, naturally!)

    As someone who has published children’s books in print and on Kindle, I can say that the notion of ‘free’ has long had its time amongst indie authors who have woken up to the limited value this has as part of a marketing strategy. I do hope that more app authors – and indeed app promotion sites – will see the light and follow suit.

    Another challenge, as you point out, the promotional airtime given to apps containing branded characters, which, of course, makes it even more difficult for the hidden quality gems to see the light of day.

    I have recently blogged about discoverability from another angle – that being the need for the App Store Kids’ Category to include *all* qualifying apps under their own rules of no in-app purchases or advertising, etc rather than the curated selection that the Kids’ Category currently limits itself to. Making the section ‘all inclusive’ would give hidden gems a chance to rise to the surface on their own mertis through user-generated selection based on all qualifying apps rather than just a few. (A key issue here is that since the introduction of the Kids’ Category it is self-evident that many parents will go there directly without thinking to look elsewhere in the App Store for children’s apps – so if you’re not there, it will be hard to get discovered…) Such an ‘approach would of course still allow for an ‘Editors’ Picks’ section where notable apps could be featured – but would at the same time put all qualifying apps on a level playing field. For anyone interested you’ll find the full blog post on my site above under the BLOG section.

    These are both exciting and challenging times fir kids’ app developers. I hope that I’m not being naive, but I am hopeful that over time the tide will turn and parents will come to understand the app market better – including that you (1) get what you pay for…and (2) for quality children’s book apps you also get way more than you bargained for at the price!

  4. Josh Book says:

    Great article! So many challenges to us indie storybook app developers. We have a Kickstarter running right now – http://kck.st/1ndnZY1 – and a big part of our challenge has been educating parents on what a storybook app is. We’re such big consumers of them that we thought more parents would be, but it still is a fairly small market it seems, or parents don’t understand what they are – it can be hard to grasp if they haven’t used one. We’ll join the Book App Alliance, thanks for mentioning it!

  5. David Neal says:

    Allison you nailed it pretty well. The game model with “free leading to in-app payments” is really inappropriate, as is the TV “show them cartoons and sell them on the sugar-puffs” model. The only real way this will work is the old fashioned “pay for the content” one. Hopefully parents will wake up to this before we all go out of business and all that’s left are “sugar puffs cartoon” and “buy some coin” games/apps/ebooks with pathetic content.

    however, i do believe that the artificial distinction being made by some of us between “eBooks” and “story apps” is actually self-defeating. stories can be well or badly told, rich or poor in interaction, and/or media-strong or media-weak in any format. I think that the distinction should be along quality lines, not whether you get your content from the app store or the eBook store.

  6. Sarah Towle says:

    You totally nailed it Allison!

    This is tough biz for the small developer dedicated to providing quality content. My app has been on the App Store for 2 1/2 years, and despite all the recognition it’s earned and awards it’s won and marketing efforts I’ve made, the only time I get a boost in downloads is when I set it to free.

    Now, sadly, it’s beginning to break down and the revenue it has earned, due to the reality of today’s culture in app pricing, does not justify the cost to me upgrade it. So I will likely have to pull it from the store, and soon. As it turns out, digital isn’t really forever.

    And yet I’m still here, still giving it my all, still creating and experimenting. We all are.

    Consumer behavior aside, what does that suggest about us, the small producers, who despite all odds have not yet given up?

  7. Alison this is great and needs to be repeated and repeated until the cows come home. I have state nearly the same thing every time I present. I wrote a blog about this. Here is link to my article http://mobileieducator.com/is-the-app-culture-killing-innovation/
    and a quote:
    App consumers have grown to expect an app price of free, or at the very most $2.99. This pricing structure makes it very hard for a developer to take a risk and do something innovative and new with the technology as it gives them little room to get a return on their investment. As an example, the very creative book, Pedlar Lady, took advantage of the accelerometer built into the iPad greatly increasing its engagement factor. It was released at $7.99 – still way below what the book would be in a print form. Today, it has been reduced to $4.99.

  8. David, it IS important to distinguish for the purposes of this article between ebooks and apps for one main reason you are not considering: apps take a whole lot more money and effort to produce, but their final sale price is much lower than an ebook. So if parents are willing to pay 9$ for an ebook they download via Kindle, why are they not willing to pay at least that same amount for book apps, which offer much more? Also, discoverability for ebooks that sell through Amazon is much better than discoverability on the App Store. Also, you cannot compare an ebook that has technical limitations to the amount of interactivity it offers, to a highly interactive app (such as Axel’s Chain Reaction). From an educational perspective, the games that can be included to date in ebooks are mostly quiz-like, or very simple drag and drop ones. So it would be like comparing pears and apples. The issue here is that there is probably going to be a migration from apps to ebooks in the future, if the App Store market doesn’t improve. If Amazon is still providing a marketplace (albeit at very low sales prices) that allows greater title discoverability, and little by little their format starts to allow more enhancements,this is likely to happen. The other option is that developers will have to develop in HTML5 and hope for more channels to sell in.

  9. Jon Bard says:

    Well said, Allison. One of the exciting things about the current situation is that nothing is set in stone. Each of us has an opportunity to deeply impact the future of publishing, and we need to understand the situation on the ground. Your piece does just that, and tells us that we still have lots of work to do….

  10. Excellent article, Allison, thank you. We all face this situation and have much work to do to change it. Personally, my books have allowed me to do readings and teach workshops in local schools, and the support from children, parents and teachers has been fantastic. I know my work engages children and I know many who have my app, ‘The Tiger Who Wasn’t!’ and rate it highly, particularly parents who see a price tag of $1,99 and find they get a great bang for their buck! (There’s accelerometer games and all sorts!) But the discrepancy between what good apps cost to make and what they sell for is not realistic for us because we don’t have the marketing power to drive volume sales. What Amazon have done to the price of quality books, where we ‘indies’ have to produce, ship, and make profit on about 40% of final retail, is now reflected in the app market where the expected level is FREE or maybe 99c! I am only comforted by posts such as yours, which clearly identify the problem, around which we can gather with new thoughts and ideas. Incidentally, I’ve had an e-book of, ‘The Tiger Who Wasn’t!’ (priced at $1,99)for nearly 2 years. I made it as an experiment to see how many people might just find it – like browsing in a bookstore. Answer: very few! We have much work to do in marketing and innovation…

  11. You speak for so many of us, Allison. Thank you. Those of us who strive to create apps of quality face the huge obstacles outlined.
    I’ll share this post widely.

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