The kids are digitally all right

Whither the children's e-book market? My colleague Sam Missingham highlighted earlier this week Amazon's new advert aimed squarely at children (and their parents).

According to Sam: "The ad aired in the Xfactor break, thus capturing huge numbers of UK families. As you can see, the ad focuses on children. As far as I know the first to do so. And to clarify, it focuses on children reading. And the joy of reading. There is no mention of ebooks, Kindles, digital or the price, just 52 seconds of children describing their relationship with books."

Amazon are taking the children's market seriously, she concludes, suggesting a turning point for children's digital sales.

She may be onto something. Just last week Kobo announced the launch this autumn of a dedicated Kids Store with accounts for children linked to their parents', "allowances", a "safe-search" feature, and awards–the digital equivalent of stickers.

"Children's ebooks are about to go boom," wrote Sam. The same, of course, might have been said last year. And perhaps even the year before that.

The optimism contrasts with the view put out by Nielsen BookScan last week. Its latest report 'Going Digital', based on consumer panel data, suggests that sales of children's e-books and apps are not showing strong growth in the UK, and not expected to show much growth in the near future. Worth just under £20m in 2012, Nielsen expects that they will generate sales of just £27.4m by the end of 2014.

At that rate, the growth will barely cover the price of the ad. But with e-book sales among the first wave of adopters slowing, e-booksellers are now in the hunt for new audiences. Nielsen reports that the rate at which readers are discovering e‐books for the first time continues to slow. A figure of 163,000 new purchasers of e­‐books in May was the lowest for two years.

The Nielsen data suggests that e-book sales in the first 20 weeks of the year rose 20.5%, as opposed to 195% in the same period of 2012. The Bookseller's own e-book rankings tell a similar story: publisher sales data for June and July shows that e-book growth at the top end of the market is running at just over 2% month on month--only slightly ahead, in fact, of print sales. And this during the booming summer months when, according to other Amazon ads, bikini-clad ebookaholics are ten a penny poolside.
Neither data-set provides the complete picture. But even a partial one reveals that ebooksellers have an adoption problem.

And this tells us something about the background to the Amazon ad. It is noticeable that all of the children are reading (or speaking about reading), and using the basic e-ink device that everyone tells me is going out of fashion. There is not an Angry Bird in sight -- no pinching of the screen, or fruit slicing side-swiping here.

It is an ad the celebrates reading, and one for which we can therefore all be pleased (and be pleased about being pleased). But it is also an 'ad'. It wants parents to buy devices for their children (or perhaps hand them over to this next generation of reader, so they in turn can buy tablets); and it wants to sell them e-books. A cynic might say that it wants young readers and young adults to drive e-book sales because older readers are no longer doing that (one might interpret the launch of Amazon's bundling scheme MatchBook in the same way: it wants readers to go back almost 20 years and repurchase digitally books they've already bought).

There is nothing wrong with this of course, but publishers of young adult titles could be excused for raising their eyes in the air: this e-book market for them has already happened. As The Bookseller reported in January the Hunger Games Trilogy sold more than 1m copies in e-book format in 2012, a figure perhaps not emulated by other young adult titles so far this year, but one at least indicative that the kids are already reading digitally all right. As I understand it, e-book sales of many young adult titles are already reaching parity with print sales. The Kindle, it seems, is cool for kids.

Yet, despite that, Amazon and Kobo clearly see more room for growth than Nielsen. And that in itself is interesting. Though short term growth projections may be missing the point. The kids market is a nuanced placed. And what we are really talking about here are young readers, many of whom will be discovering the joys of reading (and authors) for the first time. That they may do so first on a digital device will have implications far beyond the near term sales curve.

* This is a good moment therefore to talk about the children's market and The Bookseller Children's Conference 2013 is a mere three weeks away. Both The Bookseller's charts guru Philip Stone and BML's Jo Henry will analyse where the children's market is now and where it might be going. But the conference also reflects how the children's market is changing, with digital sales growth just an element within that change. Eric Huang, development director, Made in Me, will, for example, chair a high level panel on licensing, looking at what part publishing plays in the life of a licensed brand. For more details on the conference, visit this link.


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