By Laura B. Weiss
If you’re a book publisher, would you rather have somebody with an MFA or an MBA creating your digital strategy? At Perseus—the parent of YA and kids’ book imprint Running Press—they have the best of both worlds in Rick Joyce, the publisher’s chief marketing officer. Boasting an MBA from Columbia and an MFA in directing from the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, Joyce has worn two hats for Perseus since 2004—as a digital strategist and a content creator for apps and other digital offerings. Joyce’s creative side also shows up when the father of five and Princeton, NJ, resident directs plays at venues such as the New York International Fringe Festival and Yale University.
SLJ spoke to the publishing exec about the changes that are rocking the world of children’s and teen books—and how libraries, publishers, and authors can navigate them successfully.
Ebook sales seem to be going through the roof.
There were no ebooks three years ago. Illustrated kids book were not available, period, two years ago. Ebooks in general have been growing at triple digits for years but off a small base. The total number of enhanced ebooks is less than 2,000.
Where do things stand right now with kid’s enhanced ebooks?
Children’s ebooks have a challenge. They have fixed format layouts; you need the page to look exactly like the print book. If you have an illustrated children’s book and it has a picture and text, with a Kindle [or other] device, you can’t have repagination happen. You need the text to stay with the picture and the format to stay intact. On ereading devices, there has to be flowable texts. It doesn’t serve highly illustrated kids books well.
The iPad and other devices represent color well and can start to handle complicated layouts, and that is a real exciting thing. A lot of kids’ authors, publishers, and readers have been waiting for the technology to catch up.
OK, we all know that kids love digital devices. What’s the turn-on exactly?
They’re drawn to the interactive devices. If you make something larger with your finger, you get a little jolt of dopamine. In the brain, it’s rewarding to make choices. Interactivity is incredibly rewarding.
Does print ever trump digital in your house?
I think [my kids] are incredibly oriented toward electronic versions, but the content really matters. I could give them enhanced anything, but not if the content doesn’t work. A flat print book of Harry Potter over an enhanced book of Little Women—they’d pick Harry Potter.
You seem less than gung-ho about enhancing ebooks with videos and nifty interactive tricks.
It’s not clear to me that because you can do it, that’s a good enough reason. There has to be a good enough reason that it’s so delightful and so right you wouldn’t be having the same experience at all [without it]. It’s time consuming and the market isn’t paying for it. Things like shooting and editing video or creating complicated navigation or creating playable games are incredibly difficult to do.
How do economics figure in?
The average incremental price over regular ebooks for the enhanced version of the book is $2 on the iPad. You’d better have a brand or author that’s widely known. You have to be able to find these things. If you’re not in the top 100, no one finds you.
What about the current standoff between libraries and publishers over ebook lending?
What you’re seeing among a set of players is a genuine grappling with how to do the right thing for authors, libraries, and publishers. You can imagine a world with one digital copy and everyone can buy it and how does that help authors or readers? It’s not helpful to stoke the fires and talk about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose.
So what’s the solution?
By pricing, by limitation with the number of times it can be lent before it’s rebought by the library—so you can only rent an ebook by taking a trip to the library and getting it. The people who can borrow are the taxpayers of that library.
Is Perseus still selling to libraries?
Yes, we’re still selling. My oldest daughter was on the teen advisory board at our library. They were asking kids and teens about what they’re buying. Librarians are so close to their readers and markets—they are invaluable in that way. That’s why things will be resolved.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Extra Helping. Go here to subscribe.