Children’s ebooks 1: The Objections

Muse: I’ve finally pinned down my author with my glittery horn, so here is a series of posts from her about children’s ebooks… not YA obviously, so if you haven’t got any foals yet then go straight to objection 5 and come back later! I’m keeping out of that.

PART 1: The Objections - why ebooks don’t (yet) work for children.
The Midnight Stables from my youngest title "Magical Horses" (Carlton Books)
While adult books appear to be taking off in e-format, it seems younger readers still prefer print. Sadly, most of my backlist is now out of print, so those books are currently only available as ebooks or used paperbacks. Since secondhand book sales do not provide royalty reports to the author, I have no way of comparing my backlist ebook sales with backlist paper sales. The Unicorn says this would be a pointless exercise anyway, since those books are backlist and have already sold tens of thousands of copies in print, combined with the fact I have no publisher to promote them any more so it’s all down to him, and he has to help me write my new books, and he’s only got so much glitter in his horn, etc... he does moan sometimes!

But the first two books of my new Pendragon series, Sword of Light and Lance of Truth, are now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook, have not already sold tens of thousands of copies, and do have a real publisher to promote them, so I'm unable to use the same excuse for those. Having seen my backlist sales figures, I wasn't expecting miracles - but I was a bit shocked to see the ebook sales on my first royalty statement. While the actual figures are obviously confidential to my publisher, I enlisted my unicorn’s help in some math wizardry, and can tell you that in the first three months of the ebook edition of the first title, its e-sales worked out at a mere 1.6% of its UK print sales.

Yet Amazon – who have the lion’s share of the online market, as opposed to my unicorn’s humble share – report e-sales have recently overtaken print sales at their online stores. So, even accounting for all the print copies sold through physical shops that are not included in amazon’s analysis, this percentage would seem rather low. In an attempt to cheer me up, my unicorn did some digging with his horn and found this interview with an agent, claiming that e-sales for one of her best-selling international children’s authors are only 6% of his print sales. And she's in America, where ebooks are more wired into the culture than over here. My 1.6% is looking a bit more believable.

This suggests that print does indeed still rule where children’s books are concerned. In this first post I’ll look at some of the reasons why ebooks don’t (yet) work for younger readers.

Objection 1: Ebooks will never replace picture books and novelty titles.

pop-up Pegasus from my "Magical Horses"
I have to agree picture books in full colour and novelty titles work better as physical books. Even books for slightly older readers, illustrated by black-and-white drawings and designs, are nice objects to hold and keep. My Magical Horses book for younger readers published by Carlton in 2010 (above) has pop ups and flaps, and my current publisher Templar go one better with their "Ology" books, which have jewels inset into the covers. Against these beautiful and creative books, ebooks struggle to hold their own (though I think technology will eventually catch up, making these kind of novelty titles not only a possibility in digital form, but also able to do things that paper books cannot do.)

Objection 2: My child is too young for social media.
The 2013 Tower Hamlets shortlist - promoted in local schools

Readers who are legally too young to have their own Facebook page or Goodreads account (minimum age 13) are less likely to hear about books via social media, which is a powerful selling tool for ebooks as direct links can be made to the online bookstores. Twitter used to have a minimum age restriction of 13, but this no longer applies - although I believe there is an age screening facility to stop younger children following adult tweets. For this age group, word of mouth is much more likely to happen via friends at school, or be spread by teachers and school librarians. Children’s book prizes and shortlists are therefore important for this market, as well as author school visits. This might change in future, though, as more social media becomes available to users under 13 with appropriate gatekeeping.

Objection 3. My child’s too young for a credit card.
image: Petr Kratochvil at
Perhaps more importantly, younger readers do not have credit cards (unless they have a very trusting parent!) So they have no easy way to make their own online purchases, even if they use a parent’s or older sibling’s social media accounts.

Objection 4: I want to send a book as a gift.
Many younger children’s books are bought as gifts for birthdays and Christmas by parents and other family members. Gifting ebooks can be a problem, however. An adult can buy an ebook and send it to a child’s Kindle registered to their own account, but amazon’s "gifting" feature for sending an ebook to a Kindle registered to a different account has not yet been extended worldwide. You can buy Amazon gift certificates from their website, of course, and Apple itunes vouchers from supermarkets - but these are not book-specific, and an ebook voucher (like a book token), just does not wrap up well as a gift.

Also, there’s a generation gap to close. Some older people (like my parents) have never bought a book online, whether an ebook or a paper book, and those raised on print books are unlikely to see ebooks as a "proper" gift. This might change in a few years, however, as readers raised on ebooks and e-readers become parents and grandparents themselves.

Objection 5: I don’t want my child sampling Fifty Shades of Grey!
Do not be decieved by the cover, children...
At the time of writing, I am not aware of any child-friendly ebook stores that perform the same function as the children’s section of a bookshop or library or – better still – your local specialist children’s bookstore, where young readers can browse in safety. There are children’s categories on amazon, of course, but it’s too easy to stray out of that. Until there are safe online stores for younger children and their parents to browse safely, I think children’s ebooks will struggle for their share of the ebook market… which is actually a shame, since ebooks and ereaders have some special features that might help children who struggle with printed books to become readers.

Next week in Part 2, I’ll take a look at these features and why ebooks might work for children, if the objections listed above can be overcome.

Meanwhile, you can read a school librarian's view of ebooks over at The Bookette.


madwippitt said…
That last comment is definitely a worrier and I feel Amazon ought to try and do something to tighten things up ... while researching currently available horsy children's books, I did searches on horses and also on 'pony' stories - which innocent terms turned up some pretty grim adult stuff ...

As far as being tuned into ereaders is concerned though, I reckon it will steadily increase in the future as parents become more comfortable with it. (And once Amazon sort out problems like the one I just mentioned) My godson was given a tablet for his 8th birthday and reads plenty on that as well as print.
catdownunder said…
We cats find it rather difficult to sit comfortably on a stack of e-books you know!
Agreed, madwippitt - entering "fantasy" as a search tends to pull up some dodgy books too. The Bookette's view as a school librarian is interesting (link added above).

And a special tip for catdownunder... Kindles are quite warm while they are charging. Just be careful where you dangle your tail, and don't try washing yourself until the green light comes on and your human unplugs the lead.
catdownunder said…
Hmmm - but you need to put it up high because book stacks are high and we like to look down on people... :)
Diana Kimpton said…
I think the fact that you can't wrap up an ebook is really important because so many children's books are given as presents. As a result, I think we need to offer a print alternative when we self-publish a children's book. This is quite easy to do through Createspace which is very user friendly.
Yes Diana, these figures do suggest a paperback is a must for children's books if you take the self-publishing route. However, a print-on-demand paperback is usually quite a bit more expensive than a publisher's paperback edition (and a lot more expensive than the ebook), so I guess the percentages in that case are not so skewed?

So far I have not published print-on-demand paperback editions of my backlist ebooks, since there are plenty of secondhand originals still available at a fraction of the cost, many in "new" condition - once these all fall apart or disappear from the marketplace, I might consider it.

(PS Catdownunder, I should think any Kindles plugged in Upover should satisfy the height requirement...?)
A. B. Syed said…
Wonderful post! I came over here from The Bookette's blog.

I too had not thought about the safety factor of letting my kids browse online.

After owning a Kindle for a year and a half, my teenager has only yesterday actually asked me to buy her an ebook. Every other book on it has been bought for her with the hope of getting her reading.

But as yet, both she and myself do still prefer to hold a physical book and read it.
Welcome, A.B.Syed - yes, I know what you mean about holding a physical book. I walked past a box of bargain paperbacks outside a shop today and just had to buy one...

But I find my Kindle brilliant for travelling, since it takes up less space and is lighter than a paperback.