Fear of wearing a suit and other good reasons for saving my job

I was recently introduced to a well-educated, prolific reader who, in discovering that I was taking a divergence into electronic publishing, proceeded to berate the form as a malevolent force sent to devour our literature and steal our children. She insisted that pixilation rendered the words powerless. Love itself, she seemed to suggest, was contained exclusively in the dog-eared pages of paper books. And it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. While the publishing industry is spattered with similar sentiments, pragmatism over the inevitability of electronic publishing and their fear of extinction has brought the subject to a head. Words, in the end won’t change. Their delivery however, is changing. The biggest upheaval to publishing in a hundred years has thrown up a lot more questions than answers.

As a picture book author and illustrator, my form of literature is far safer than text-only books in this digital age. I will attempt to highlight a few of the issues related to the revolution occurring in the book world today.

I won’t talk about Amazon, that’s a whole different subject other than the fact that they have started giving people the chance to publish or animate their own books. None of us should fear that. The cream will still rise to the top and a few gems will come into the world with the dross. What has changed for a publisher is the issue that underpins their survival; the production and sale of quality literature.

The problems in a nutshell.

Quality printing on paper isn’t cheap, but in order to prop up the lower selling titles, big numbers of the top ones can be printed and if everything goes to plan the best-sellers pay for the rest. And somewhere in the rest is your next big seller along with a swathe of less mainstream books that are the fabric of our cultural diversity. It’s been a perpetual cycle since the invention of the printing press. Now, suddenly the printing press is obsolete. Last year, e-book sales outperformed those of paper books for the first time in the U.S. The rise in the popularity of devices able to carry billions of words rather than thousands was frankly, predictable. But that didn’t stop it throwing up some big questions for publishers.

Publishers Identify good writing, sometimes improve it, and in doing so forge styles across generations with their lists. They market their product and their authors and they influence society and hope to survive in business. None of that changes with the arrival of the e-book. What changes significantly however is how much they can charge per unit. It doesn’t cost significantly less to bring the words of an e-book into the world but there is a perception that the price is too high for words on a screen. At the moment, most books are conversions of existing paper books, sometimes a multimillion-selling book from years ago gets a second life. Full value was already made out of it as a paper book so its revival is courtesy of little more than a typesetting exercise and some strategic placement. But if you lower the price accordingly, you have to bring the price of all the others down with it, including the increasing number that are being published straight to screen. All that expertise, nurturing and marketing walks out the door below cost. There has to be a fixed price but if its too low then the publishing houses are going to lose more and more of their talent both in house and out.

Adding further to the pressure is the U.S. government. They are currently taking several big international publishers to court alleging ‘conspiracy’ over price fixing. Accused of colluding in a series of illegal meetings in New York to fix higher prices for e-books, one kept away from the meetings and raised their prices a year later and were spared scrutiny while still banking the benefits. Several settled and the rest have unlocked the war chest and are fighting on. Sounds expensive.

And then there are picture books. There are several reasons why the picture book is going to take far less of a rethink than the other arms of publishing. They are consumed in homes and libraries and come with a whole other level of nostalgia for a start. But it’s a reverie born of a book-filled world and that world is passing. ‘Digital Native’ is a cold term but if you have ever seen a 3 year old operate a device you will be under no illusions that paper books have a struggle ahead to defend their position with the children of the near future. But I believe the picture-book will thrive in this new environment. There has always been a raft of ways to stretch the value of a best-selling picture book. Board books, bath books, anthologies, animated series. Now there are apps. And I’m not talking about the simple copy and digitise, I’m talking about a completely new but faithful-to-the- original remake and animation. An app is an interactive, portable, educational, language convertible, space saving promotion of a book that doesn’t compete with the traditional book, but enhances it. Some resemble games a bit more than is my taste but they are still drawing children to books. You only have to look at the diversity that already exists in picture books to be sure there is room for another kind, particularly in education.

Most of the machinations of the publishing industry occur far from the ears of authors, so the answers I have been looking for about what it will mean to picture books have been even harder to come by. My editor first mentioned the subject of e-books to me about 3 years ago and I had no opinion on it but that changed on my first trip to New York. When I discussed the subject with a respected US publisher, it was as though I had asked him what he thought a snowstorm in Antarctica would mean to picture books. Strange in a city where every second bookshop was closing down and where the Barnes and Noble chain had just announced that for the first time ever, e-book sales had overtaken book sales. Picture Books didn’t seem to be considered endangered. Phew.

On returning to Australia, the news of the Borders and A&R books store chains going into liquidation shook me to action. As an author I couldn’t see how losing 30% of an industry’s vendors was worth ignoring. Publishers, it should be said are not ignoring technology, they are simply trying to make books work in a tough market where everything is being sold off one big shelf. Diversifying on such a fundamental as the books physical form appears to be secondary for the moment. So I decided to dip my toe alone and offer them a third-party arrangement. I started a company with a music publisher, an animation studio director and a film producer and licenced my picture books to produce as interactive apps. At the same time, I signed 3 more contracts for ‘normal’ books. We promote the book on the app and the book promotes the app. The books now reach international markets that they never reached before and the cycle is proving rewarding for all parties. Whether or not we survive as a company, we are gathering information that few people have. I will keep this information in my survival kit.

Books have been around for a long time and it would take a bigger shovel to bury prose than the one wielded by this current revolution. Publishers face a serious rethink and an expensive adjustment, but out of all this, more access to literature will be the result and people will still be buying books that publishers are producing whether paper or otherwise. Publishers will continue to compete for the best talent, even more so now that any edge could mean the difference between survival and insolvency. Good books will keep being made and no-one’s going to give up on paper altogether but a library in my pocket seems like a dream come true for me.

Am I passionate about electronic books? No. But I am passionate about books and the craft of their creation and it is a job I intend to keep. We have to know what the future holds for our industry and I, for one, have a fear of suits so I am going to try to work within the new landscape. So, now that I’ve completely overcomplicated one of your favourite pursuits, next time you read a book, think about what it’s worth and how much time and money has gone into bringing it to you and know that publishers are not about to give that up for a mere revolution.

I met Nick Bland earlier this year at the Bologna Book Fair. Nick is an author and illustrator who decided as a child that he wanted to be a cartoonist. Work in a bookshop later on rekindled (excuse the pun) his love of picture books and, inspired by the thriving book industry in Australia then, he spent some years creating his own book before sending it as an unsolicited MS to Scholastic. A Monster Wrote Me A Letter was published in 2005. Since then, Nick has written and illustrated 14 picture books. He has also been a tour guide in Arnhem Land and a house-parent to 100 indigenous teens for six years, among other jobs to keep body and soul together. But in 2012 he was able to stop other work for the first time, and now spends his days in a shed on Wagait Beach, a ferry ride from Darwin city, producing words and pictures.

This has been possible because in 2011, he co-founded the incredibly successful company Wheelbarrow, which converts picture books into e-books. He also still creating traditional picture books with Scholastic.

This made Nick another ideal guest speaker for our forum.

20 Responses

    1. Min Dean says:

      Your mentioning the digital native reminded me of this video, of a 1-year old trying to use a magazine as an iPad.
      I guess with little kids, reading is about new discoveries and engagement, so they don’t mind the form; they care only about the actual content. 

      One of the things you summarised struck a chord in me and now I feel compelled to discuss:
      “…next time you read a book, think about what it’s worth and how much time and money has gone into bringing it to you and know that publishers are not about to give that up for a mere revolution.”

      And I feel compelled to add to this as a producer of digital content – as a web developer – that what we do is constantly underestimated as cold and mechanical, heartless, etc. 
      People often forget that just as much effort and heart goes into producing something for a computer screen – something that will in the end, attempt to communicate with people and evoke emotion and promote discussion. In the end – coding a website for me is like writing a book for an author or creating music for a musician; it’s how I attempt to, in my own way – the only way I know how – (yes, coding is creative, lol) communicate with the world. 

      To have digital content chastised – dismissed and loathed – in the way the person you met in your intro did – hurts. 
      But in every criticism lies an opportunity to fix a problem. I think as producers of digital content we need to at least attempt to fix this. 
      We can’t change the most entrenched person’s opinions, but we clearly aren’t communicating with those types of people, which is the goal – to communicate. If we want to, if we want them on side, I mean, we’ll have to think of a new way to present the content that appeals to them, so they get it. So that they get that digitally presented writing has had lots of people involved, who believed in the project just as a traditional publishing team would, who care about it and bringing it to the wider world in a way that is magical and exciting. 
      Coders are people too! 😛

      *hops off soap box*
      Anyway thanks for the thought-provoking contribution, Nick! 

      • vauny says:

        I can’t help but completely agree with you Min, as someone who also produces digital content, it’s always little disheartening when you meet this attitude “if it’s digital it has no soul”

        People seemed fixed on this idea that digital is killing print, (books, newspapers, art) but its not. There will always be a place for printed media, it’ll just be a fractionally smaller place than it used to be.

      • I agree–I think that e-books are complementary to p-books: the e-edition simply provides another door for stories to enter the imagination, it doesn’t block off the traditional one at all. In my opinion, printed books are only threatened if non-readers take over at publishing companies; because for non-readers, the format takes precedence over the content, they don’t care about books as such. As that would be a recipe for the quick bankruptcy of publishing companies, I doubt it would ever happen. Readers, however, are delighted to have as many formats as possible to read in, according to different circumstances and for different genres and situations. I love print books myself, and collect very old ones too(there is something deeply touching about finding a 200 year old book with someone’s laundry list from the time in it, as I did recently!) but I’m also enjoying e-books and e-magazines such as the e-only Review of Australian Fiction. And so both as reader and writer, I totally agree with Nick that it’s books that matter, above all.

      • Sophie, I think it’s fast becoming the other way around: p-books are becoming complementary to e-books. Print books are becoming a luxury. Something I buy for someone as a gift, take on a holiday where I want to read on the beach, or as decoration on the bookshelf. eBooks are what I actually read.
        I don’t agree that people who read on digital devices don’t care about books. Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by books?
        To push the envelope a little further… what would happen if traditional print publishers vanished overnight? Would we really be worse off? Yes, we would have the problem of finding great authors to read. But those readers who engage with digital books are already doing a pretty good job of overcoming that problem.
        And as for bankruptcy of publishing companies… haven’t we already seen some significant cutbacks in Australia recently?
        Don’t get me wrong… I have a good collection of old printed books. I love them. But I love a good read even more. It doesn’t really matter how it’s delivered to me. I’m still mostly just reading the words.

      • Heather Giles says:

        I came across this article recently and the findings don’t surprise me as most people I know now have some form of ereader.
        Bowker Research Shows Australia is a Global Leader in e-Book Adoption
        http://www.thorpe.com.au/en-AU/aboutus/press_room/2012/pr_05222012.shtml

    2. Nick, thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading a bit about your story. Love your books and am stoked you have embarked on the app adventure!

      I’ve never really understood the print vs. digital or authors vs. transmedia storytellers debate. There are just new possibilities to communicate and connect with people. I think there is too much focus on the container and not enough on the experience. I think the negative debate about eBooks is largely driven by the established print industry who have a vested interest in maintaining an outdated business model. How is it any different to what happened to the music industry?

      I have enjoyed printed books in the past, but I rarely read on paper now. I understand there are people that prefer printed books (and I can see a special case for printed children’s books), it’s just never really been about the packaging for me. Yes, it is harder to focus on electronic media (so many other potential distractions), but I read a lot more than I ever did before now that I have that ‘library in my pocket’.

      It frustrates me that traditional print publishers in Australia aren’t interested in supporting authors more to explore avenues beyond print or ‘traditional’ ePub. eBooks are an after thought for a lot of them… a dumbed down version of the book – ‘We want it to have the same dimensions as the printed book’ – Why? No narration, just a cheap digital imitation. Do they want their digital books to be crap so they can show how printed versions are better. Just look at how some of the big publishers are flouting Apple’s iBookstore guidelines and packaging scanned JPEGs into eBooks (not searchable, and in some cases not very readable) rather than selectable HTML text. Whenever I see one of these books I feel like the publisher is doing a disservice to the author and treating the digital reader with contempt.

      The new Apple iBooks allow you to create fixed-layout and interactive eBooks via iBooks Author or as ePub3 files (albeit somewhat proprietary). There are also some new features coming soon to Apple’s iBooks that open up some great new possibilities (currently under NDA to developers). Amazon’s KF8 format is getting better (as is B&N Nook), but it’s still difficult to work with and not widely available to Australians yet. Australian developers can sell Kindle Fire books but can’t buy them… I’d love to go on a rant about how American’s can buy digital books by Australian Authors but we can’t.. but I won’t.

      While the new interactive features available in iPad eBook reader apps like iBooks and Kindle are ok, sales of these titles are not very good. And the features in enhanced eBooks are always lagging behind what is possible in apps. Which is why some children’s book authors are creating mobile app versions of their books, or iterating on their stories to produce companion games.

      Obviously, not all author’s ‘books’ adapt easily. But for those whose do, the mobile app market – particularly for iOS (less so for Android) – is a great place for authors to explore. It can build your profile or your brand, and it is (at least for now) much more profitable than the eBook market.

      Kim McCosker’s iPhone app version of ‘4 Ingredients’ has consistently ranked highly in the Apple appstore since its release in 2009, and recently went to #1 overall for a short period. Graeme Base’s Animalia app has consistently ranked in the top 10 of the iPad Books category of the appstore for nearly two years.

      There are a number of options available to authors who want to publish their books as apps. Some out of the box solutions allow you to adapt an In Design file and export as an iPad app for as little as $200. There is another solution that allows you to create entire children’s books in Photoshop then export and preview on your iPhone, iPad, Nook or Android tablet. Of course these solutions have limited interactive features, but they can be extended with a little coding.

      When thinking about digital releases, I would encourage self-publishing authors to think about apps as well as eBooks. When it comes to children’s books and cookbooks, (in my experience) app sales are much better than eBook sales. Even highly ranked titles in the Australian iBookstore do not sell many copies compared to low ranked appstore apps.

      And for anyone self-publishing or creating their own eBooks, I recommend two great websites (if you haven’t already discovered them):

      http://jakonrath.blogspot.com.au
      http://authoradventures.blogspot.com

      And if you’re a children’s author thinking about apps… then the international community at the Parents With Apps forum is a great place where small independent authors and app developers meet to support each other.

      http://forum.parentswithapps.com

      p.s. Yes, I am passionate about electronic books!

    3. Catherine Bateson says:

      I have to admit I see little difference in sitting up in bed with children and reading to and with them from an ereader or a dead tree book just as long as you can still create that concentrated reading experience. Looking back on my reading time with my children, what was always a source of pure joy was when we were all caught up in ‘the page-turning drama’ as Barbara Bader defined one of the elements of the picture book.

      What I would hate is for that experience to be diverted by too much diversion from the story – hyperlinks, interactive games and value-added features are all fantastic – in their place. But when you tuck a drowsy child into bed and sit down next to them with a book, you want the magic of that rhythmic language, the mutual pleasure of examining the pictures and the anticipation of what-happens-next when you turn the page.

      Don’t get me wrong, my kids would have adored hyperlinks, animation and everything else that can now become part of the picture book experience. But if that had been their only reading experience would they be able to value the story for nothing but the story? Would my daughter, having seen the t.v. series, be carting around Game of Thrones to read at every opportunity she can throughout the day? (She has my dead tree copy only because she can’t afford to buy the ebook for her erader!) Or my son be able to quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as readily as he can from Red Dwarf?

      I simply don’t know, but I am concerned that without that immersive reading experience, we could be in danger of creating an impatience with pure story. If I were buying digital picture books, I’d want to be able to turn off all the extra features when I turned on the reading lamp. I’d want the memory of being read to be just that – intimately associated with warmth, sleepy light and a familiar voice opening the door to the world of words.

      • Min Dean says:

        “I’d want the memory of being read to be just that – intimately associated with warmth, sleepy light and a familiar voice opening the door to the world of words.”

        And it is a lovely memory. I doubt that the switching of one container for another for a story would effect this type of moment.

        It isn’t the fault of an interactive ebook if this moment is overshadowed or lost; the responsibility lies with the parent to focus their child on what they want to have them take away from that moment.

        The children’s book publisher’s responsibility is to focus on the story but also to engage a child, so they should be able to use as many tools at their disposal to enhance that engagement in the way the author wanted their story to be interacted with. They don’t know when the material will be presented to a child; it could be at school, in a group at a library, before bed, etc. They just want to release the story into the world in it’s full glory. It is not just a story; books were never just stories for me as a child – they were journeys.

        Does that make sense? I’m not intending to suggest that the moment isn’t precious, or even trying to argue anything – I just wanted to bring up that it is not the book, and however it is presented, that is to be blamed for what’s taken out of a moment.

        I think it’s a really good idea you had, to have several ‘modes’ for an interactive story. A fully-interactive mode, vs a sleepy-bedtime mode.

      • Catherine – The idea of having the ability to lock down a children’s app (developers can’t really control the UI in eBooks) into a basic version that has no interaction is an intriguing idea. Thanks for making that point. I’ve been discussing it with other children’s app developers today. I think it’s a great idea! And at least for iPads and iPhones, should be easier to implement on iOS6. However, the original iPad won’t run iOS6, so it remains to be seen when developers will be requiring it as a minimum OS for their apps.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        Delighted, Liam!

    4. Nick Bland says:

      I thought long and hard about converting my picture books into apps and my decision to go forward and produce them myself was for exactly the reasons you point out. I had a chance to see where the world was at with digital picture books in Bologna this year and found thet the people making them were generally game-makers or animators. Both brilliant innovators but not traditionally strong story weavers. The best animation always has a writer at its centre but when a niche like this new medium shows up, the new practitioners are not necessarily from the old school. And the publishers I met who were producing their own conversions tended to shift some distance from the print version into games and activities within the story presumably to clearly identify them as seperate. They are making the e-book a whole new product. But the overwhelming response I had to most conversions i saw was “where is the story”. Those subtleties author/illustrators bring to successful books, all the little page turning tricks, visual pauses and manipulative rhythm are thrown into a new context. So I think the picture book app is really for those who know the story already, have learnt it and loved it as a book and are thrilled to interact with their old friends on a device they are as warmly familiar with as we were with a book. The prize winning apps at bologna were all developed rather than converted and I did wonder why there weren’t seperate categories but it may be because the conversion is just an early stop-off in the artform. The only way to find a market at the moment is to chase a ready-made base of readers so converting beloved picture books is a logical place to start. I think the educational and entertainment benefits of the interactive app are only starting to become evident. As we progress and the market expands to the point where we can actually publish for profit, conversions will probably become superfluous. So I guess we’re learning a trade and practising on renovations before we build a castle. Picture books are safe as houses.

      • Catherine Bateson says:

        Nick – that’s interesting, isn’t it? Yes, it could be wonderful to discover an app that added a new dimension to an already loved story – a little like discovering they’ve made a movie – and, presumably with the same kind of challenges and hesitations. Will the app live up to the story? Will I love my favourite character as much or will it wreck it to find that the creator thinks they are a blonde whereas I’ve always imagined them as having brown hair?

        I think in the world of picture books, a lot of the extra dimensions are largely ephemeral – they can be fabulous teaching tools, engrossing games, the momentary novelty of scratch n’ smell but it’s the story and the pictures that, at the moment, are still passed down.

    5. Nick Bland says:

      Actually, case in point. I am sitting here illustrating page 17 of 23 illustrations in a picture book. Three of them appear above. I’m six months and the rest into making every square inch of paper in this 32 page book serve a purpose and ensuring that every word take up the rest. That’s the job. Even though I am simultaneously a partner in a company that might one day convert this book, I have not given a single consideration to how it might work on a screen. And I never will until I am producing a straight-to-pixel book. This is the artform that sang to me from the day I picked up Hop on Pop and the only craft for which I have an aptitude. Not to mention a lifelong investment in. I can’t wait to see King Pig moving but the book has to have it’s life as a meticulously planned story on paper first. But I can’t wait to come up with an interactive book either. That’s a different job altogether with a bit of crossover. Its a team sport and that in itself is a nice break.

    6. I love paper books above all, and as a writer i am all about the intense engagement of story and reader with no interruption, but as Nick says, this whole e book thing is very new and what I feel excited about is how this new medium might be used to tell a story- I think the moment will come and perhaps for some it is already here, when we try to use this as the prime medium- creating a story that is designed to use this medium. That will be a whole other ball game.

      • Maureen says:

        I think you make a very interesting point here Isobelle! People are still figuring out the best ways to use ebook formats, and debating pros and cons. Ironically, for me, the most exciting part of the E-volution is whether writers can use the new technology to create innovative stories and innovative art. What ways can ebooks compliment ordinary publishing avenues? What ways can they tap into an audience?

    7. Nick Bland says:

      Even on a technical level, the skills developers are learning and the programming they are inventing is in danger of being diverted from the mainstream book industry and into private ventures if it isn’t embraced. As you say, when the skills for using these new tools as a writer become more identifiable, they are best shared with a publisher and an editor. They’re going to find out what the readers want faster than writers are. If it comes down to experimenting in the new medium solo or collaborating with a publisher, I’ll take the publisher every time.
      Jeannette Rowe is a good example. She made her name as a creator for very young readers and still does. But she has a digital business running in sinc and is essentially doing the same job as she was before with a bit more variety and increasing skill. I don’t know if she has a triangular arrangement with a publisher but that would be a really strong cycle to perpetuate. It is in the best interest of the reader right through to the publisher to share ideas and maintain standards rather than create in a vaccuum. Jeanette’s work is as warm on a screen as in her books. Her style and content shine in both.

      A question for writer’s and readers of fiction: Is it possible, that the craft itself is going to become less elusive to its readers? When technology can reveal bits of process along the way, can the book be a tool and an entertainment concurrently? (more than it is already)
      As well as making readers of people, could you be making writers of them too? Thanks Isobelle for this most interesting pinboard, it really gets you thinking.

      • Nick, aren’t developers already way ahead of traditional publishers already when it comes to eBooks and apps? And why do authors need a print publisher to enter the digital market? They can hire an editor and if they don’t like social media they can find someone to work with who can do that, too.
        Aren’t the digital publishers Apple, B&N, Amazon, Google and Kobo? They take their 30% royalty cut. Why would an author want to pay another royalty to another publisher? I think only when that publisher is actually acting as a producer – organising the development of their eBook or app.
        I’m also not convinced that publishers can find out what the readers want faster than the writers can when it comes to the digital space. One of the complaints about Apple’s system is that it locks publishers out of analytics and direct communication with readers/users. Take another example – Facebook – that’s where a lot of readers are already. Where are readers more likely to engage? On a publisher’s Facebook page or on an author’s Facebook page? What about user reviews on Amazon? In these scenarios, the role that traditional publishers play makes less sense.
        Authors more than ever before have the ability to connect with their readers and find out what they want. They can even choose to rewrite story endings based on this interaction to either surprise or confirm readers’ expectations.
        I understand the positive role publishers can play, but when it comes to digital they are now an option not the only choice.

      • Emily Craven says:

        “When technology can reveal bits of the process along the way…”

        My first image when I read that sentance was an e-book app that actually built the pictures on each page. First showing the base sketch, then the final lines, the colouring, then the manipulation/texture/detail. What a lovely app that would be, and what a wonderful way to get children interested not only in stories, but in art and drawing and seeing how it is done from the bottom up.

    8. Judith Ridge says:

      Hi Nick—thanks for the post. I found it very stimulating, but I want to take you up on one comment. It’s this: that picture book apps are “drawing children to books”. Is there really any evidence to support that? I am a great fan of the innovative picture book apps that are out there, but I’m not convinced they are drawing kids to books, but rather the opposite—well-loved books are drawing kids to the apps—via their parents, of course, who surely are the ones seeking out and buying/downloading them? Would anyone really buy Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! if they didn’t know the book? And if they did, I reckon more than half the pleasure would be lost. As you say, apps like this are a joyful extension of the reading experience. I’m just not convinced that at this point in history that apps are driving people—children—to books in any significant numbers.

      I can well imagine that in time some wonderful illustrated books created specifically for ereaders or as apps will emerge, but so far I haven’t seen anything that adequately equates the experience of sharing a book with a very young child that Catherine so eloquently describes.

      • Judith, I agree somewhat that it’s the books that are drawing children (or their parents) to the apps.
        Take Animalia (an app I worked on with Graeme Base) – its sales have everything to do with the picture book. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that the parents of kids today remember the picture book from when they were a child and get to revisit it again.
        On the other hand, I don’t think it will be too long before apps start pointing people to books. Like what happens with movies or television series like Game Of Thrones.