Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Future of Publishing

Sometimes we must embrace the understanding that the only thing certain is change. This seems true as we examine the future of publishing and book sellers.

In October 2010, The New York Times ran an article about the decline of picture books from the perspective of book sellers. In December 2010, Publisher’s Weekly (PW) followed up with a contrary response from the publishing industry. Key points to these discussions included the economy, parent expectations, and technology.

In tight economic times it’s easy to understand that families have less money to spend on anything more than necessities. However, what do we value as necessary, and have those views changed? The PW article tells the story of a man who bought his daughter a $14 picture book. The man made minimum wage, didn’t really have the money to spend at the time, and immediately regretted the purchase. However, he returned to the store later to say, “I read that book every night to my little girl. She laughs. That’s the best $14 I ever spent.”

It appears that the value we place on books may be changing. If a parent decides to spend $14 on a book, then the next question becomes which book? Does he buy the picture book or a more advanced chapter book in an attempt to push little Jane to a “higher” level of thinking? Without realizing it, the picture book may be dismissed as babyish. We are starting to see a shift in thinking as many parents mistakenly classify picture books as those appropriate only for ages zero to three, when in fact picture books are aimed at children ages zero to eight. As parental expectations rise, the simplicity with which complex messages can be conveyed through a picture book may be devalued.

Finally, we cannot ignore the role that technology has played in the changing book world. With ever-increasing electronic book and telephone application markets, we see the toll technology is taking on traditional book publishers and retailers. This week, it was reported that Border Books has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and expects to close more than 200 stores nationwide.

The electronic book industry began with an adult/young adult audience; however, we are seeing that children’s publishing is exploring and developing electronic options for youth. I was attending a meeting for parents at my child’s elementary school recently. In front of me sat a young couple with a preschooler. The young child twisted, turned, and tapped at a electronic tablet for longer than I expected her to sit still while the room full of adults carried on a discussion. I couldn’t see the game she was playing, but it was clear that it held this pre-reader’s attention—without any adult interaction—for at least 20 minutes. Within the next one to two years I suspect she’ll use that tablet to begin learning letters, to begin forming words, and to begin reading.

A bad economy, consumer responses, and technological advances have obviously played a part in the changes taking place within local bookstores. We really are not sure what to expect in the future of publishing. How will it look in five, ten, fifteen years? Will we miss the cool crisp feel of the page turning beneath our fingertips as it’s replaced by the quick flip of a fingerswipe across a screen? I guess we’ll have to embrace change and wait for time to tell.

For more reading pleasure, check out these online articles referenced in my commentary:
Publishers Weekly: "Don't Write the Obit for Picture Books Yet" (December 12, 2010)
Kats and Blogs: "The Decline of Picture Books?" (October 8, 2010)
The New York Times: "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children" (October 7, 2010)

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