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