Children’s books: the new value chain is a work-in-progress
It occurred to us about a year ago that the children’s book business was wide open for disruption from new players outside the publishing business. Already, two of the companies we mentioned in a post back then about the new entrants that might be the actual instruments of disruption have linked up with established publishers. That suggests that the legacy publishers and the new ones need some help from each other to deliver profitable children’s book publishing going forward.
Even though I’ve been a skeptic about the commercial viability of “enhanced” ebooks and content-based apps, my reservations are inversely proportional to the age of the intended reader. For the past 18 months or so, it has become clear that tablets and color ereaders would become ubiquitous. Roger McNamee of Elevation Partners, one of the visionary investors in Silicon Valley, has been making the pitch that tablets will be replacing PCs and that the opportunity for content creators is to figure out what will work best in the tablet form factor. (To be fair to Roger, I vastly oversimplify: his analysis, which includes the decline of Microsoft and Google and the rise of HTML5, is much more sophisticated than that.) That’s more or less what the companies cited in the post from last November were already working on a year ago, focused on children’s books.
That focus is totally logical. While enhancement for adult books, particularly for books of immersive reading like novels or narratives of history, has required creators to figure out ways to change established behavior that immersive readers will accept (with a stark lack of success so far, I’d say), we’ve been delivering “enhanced” children’s books for years. Die-cuts, pop-ups, and computer chips to make books talk, sing, squeal, and be responsive to touch commands have been implemented for a long time.
And allowing a book to deliver on another established behavior — reading aloud to a child — is a trivial technical problem in the digital context. Touchy Books has an app that will deliver a wide selection of books that with a “read aloud” option for 99 cents and up. Every household with a digital device with color and touchscreen capabilities can give these to a kid for far less than the cost of books.
The companies we talked about in that post — Oceanhouse Media, Ruckus Media, Smashing Ideas, and Trilogy Studios — were focusing on that opportunity. It struck me at the time that these digital content packages could rapidly overtake the appeal of books for these younger audiences and their gatekeepers. I concluded the piece by saying that publishers who wanted to stay in the kids’ books game in the next few years would have to buy one of these studios or start one.
Regular readers of this blog know I’m comfortable acknowledging that predictions made here can be wrong. This one is already being proven right.
Last May, Random House bought the digital developer Smashing Ideas. Smashing Ideas was actually not a newbie formed around the tablet opportunity; it was a digital developer with a decade of experience working with a variety of big non-publishing brands. But they had the tech chops to pursue the tablet opportunity and had been developing children’s apps for Random House for several months before the acquisition. Random House saw the opportunity to accelerate their own development of digital product creation skills by cross-pollinating the SI team with their own. And their stated intention, at least so far, is to allow SI to sustain its third-party development business, even for competing publishers.
Last week, Ruckus Media formed a new partnership, described by Ruckus CEO and experienced book publishing veteran Rich Richter as like a music business “label deal”, with Scholastic. (In a “label deal”, a small record company develops the content and then turns it over to a large record company for manufacturing and distribution, sort of like an “imprint deal” — rare these days — in publishing. There is the implication there that Scholastic also invests and shares ownership in the product. If it were described as a “distribution deal”, that would not be implied. )
There are some interesting wrinkles here. Ruckus is developing original digital content for Scholastic to sell and market. Projects that are starting from scratch are in the pipeline, but Ruckus is also looking for out-of-print children’s books that deliver some brand recognition and can be built more quickly into interesting digital products to jumpstart the list. They’re paying advances for those and it would seem likely that agents will give them a lot to choose from.
What is made very clear by the Ruckus-Scholastic deal that wasn’t as obvious in the link between Random House and Smashing Ideas is that digital developers can use help from publishers, not just the other way around. Although there have definitely been commercial successes delivered by these non-publishers, most of them appear to be from licensing brands already established elsewhere or leveraging public domain titles. Those are thin reeds for a sustainable business model. The licenses will get harder to obtain as publishers figure out how to make these products themselves and the field could get very crowded with multiple digital versions of public domain classics.
Ruckus is doing a smart thing jumping in to mine the world of “out-of-print”. With their visibility, early start, and willingness to pay advances, they have a good chance to harvest the best low-hanging fruit before others get into the game. But this strategy also has a shelf life; a few years from now there won’t be many opportunities of this kind left to be exploited.
And when you can’t get properties that already give you a branding head start, the ability publishers have to introduce books into the marketplace — knowing the influencers and, at least for a while, having the additional marketing and revenue opportunities delivered by print — can provide crucial help that is necessary no matter how clever the new digital products are.
Scholastic, of course, has a very special marketing platform. They are in direct touch with an enormous number of teachers, probably more than a million, who are the gatekeepers for many times that number of kids. (It should be noted that while Scholastic’s position there is dominant, it is not unique. There’s a division of Readers Digest called Weekly Reader that delivers a similar mindshare opportunity to a smaller number of teachers, probably about 200,000. One must wonder how that marketing capability will become part of this picture. Who will acquire whom?)
But the other big players in children’s publishing, even if they don’t have frequent email exchanges with hundreds of thousands of teachers, also have a great deal to offer. Even the newbies who have started successfully (Oceanhouse Media began with a unique partnership business model for its developers which, combined with its license of Dr. Seuss product, has apparently enabled it to be profitable without needing outside capital) will probably find that what big companies like Random House and Scholastic can deliver will be useful, if not essential, before very long.
And, conversely, the big publishers will find it hard to muster the dedicated focus on original digital products (as Richter said to me last week, “that’s all I think about from the time I get up in the morning”) that these new studios do. Alliances, whether by acquisition or some other means, are natural. We should expect to see more combinations like this developing in the months to come.
Both Ruckus Media and Scholastic are on the program for our half-day Publishers Launch Conference in Frankfurt “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital”. (Thanks to our esteemed Chair for that event, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners, for that!)
That event shouldn’t be confused with our all-day Publishers Launch Conference in Frankfurt “eBooks Around the World”. Follow the links to learn more or register for both.