What happened to children's ebooks?
Preview: I am still working on this article but am posting what I have completed. I will continue to work on it and will post updated versions as I am able to add material.
Way back in 2000, the dot-com craze was still on, and ebooks were one of the things being hyped by dot-com companies. Companies like Adobe and Microsoft had developed ways to sell ebooks that could be downloaded but not easily copied. In this climate, some people were predicting the demise of the book (much as the CD-ROM had been predicted to replace the book.) Publishing companies themselves were slow to jump on any bandwagons, but many did start to experiment, some tentatively, some more aggressively.
Ebooks for children did not receive as much attention, but there was some interest in the field. The most substantial effort to build a functioning company specializing in ebooks for children was launched by ipicturebooks, a venture of long-time packager of Byron Preiss, with some financial support from AOL Time Warner. I joined ipicturebooks at the end of 2000. We worked hard all through 2001, but ran out of funds early in 2002. As I write this today, ipicturebooks and an affiliated effort, childrenselibrary, are still in limbo, dead in the water for lack of money but still not officially closed down: I'll discuss what happened in more detail below. I think ebooks for children will find a niche, but the market has been slower to develop than many, including me, had hoped.
Background: A short history of ebooks
Ebooks boosters are fond of saying that publishing has been electronic for over a decade, and there's some truth to that. Ever since publishers started to use early versions of design programs such as Quark Xpress in the early '90's, the potential has been there for "books" to be published as files rather than as physical objects.
What stood in the way were two technical problems--how to prevent the files being copied, and how to actually sell files to consumers or other users.
What are children's ebooks and why would anyone want one?
Since there are different companies offering their own kinds of ebooks, it can be difficult to understand what an ebook is. Put most simply, it is a kind of computer file. But it is not just a document such as you might produce in Microsoft Word. It is also not software, which is something so complex that is must be installed as a separate program. So far as I am concerned, an ebook is best understood as a book in electronic form. Like a book, it has a title, pages, and possibly other features such as chapters and illustrations. Children's ebooks, in particular, have illustrations, a feature which some kinds of ebooks handle better than others. Unlike a book, of course, an ebook is read on a computer, a personal digital assistant such as a Palm Pilot, or a special reader--some kind of electronic device.
To understand ebooks better, it's useful to understand three important ways in which they differ one from another and from other computer media:
Degree of complexity: Consider the simplest possible ebook, such as the public domain titles available through The Gutenberg Project. These are files that have the complete text of a book, but little else. The text is not formatted, there are no illustrations, and in fact they look more like manuscripts than books. So the Project Gutenberg people call them eTexts, a more accurate description. They don't really count as ebooks. At the other extreme, look at the CD-ROM-based books put out by Broderbund. Based on existing print books, these interactive books added sounds, animations, a read-aloud capability, and more. Some call these ebooks, but I don't. They are just too complex, and should be considered a form of software. Actual ebooks range in complexity from text-only ebooks, nicely laid out with chapter titles and margins, to others with illustrations and perhaps wtih features such as internal hyperlinks that (for example) jump the reader from the table of contents to a particular page.
Open or closed: Some ebooks, such as those made for the Gemstar eBook Reader, can be read only on a special device. At the other extreme are ebook formats that can be opened on personal computers, handhelds, and maybe even the latest cellphones. How open an ebook format is depends on the goals of the company that created the format. Microsoft Reader, for example, does not work on Macintosh computers, because Microsoft wants their Reader to work only on their software. Acrobat Reader works on Windows and Macintosh computers, because Adobe wants their software, which creates the ebooks, to be as widely used as possible.
Secure or not: An unprotected document file, such as one you might create with a word-processing program, can be copied from one computer to another, and even modified at will. At the other extreme, a secure ebook file can be copied--but once it leaves the computer authorized to use it, it can not be opened and read successfully. It also can not be modified, and at its most secure, it is difficult to even copy a few lines of text out of it. This makes a secure ebook less prone to copying than a print book, which can, after all, be photocopied pretty easily.
One of the most confusing aspects of the ebook market is that there are several different kinds of ebooks, each of which requires its own reader software.
Adobe eBook Reader and Acrobat Reader--now being combined into one
Palm and Mobipocket
Ebook formats, so far, have been created by companies seeking to sell something else, meaning that they do not necessarily do all the things you would expect in a book.
An ebook does not replace a book, but like a paperback being used instead of a hardcover, might play a useful role in circumstances where a physical book is not needed or is not available. An ebook is not for cuddling with at bedtime, but it might be a great way to keep many books in print, after a fashion. A library could expand its holdings of books without adding actual shelf space. The role of the ebook is still developing.
Children's ebooks will be a part of that market. I personally feel that children's books work nicely as ebooks. Though the market for ebooks so far is dominated by conversions of novels, this can be tiresome to read on screen. A 32-page picture book, on the other hand, looks great when converted carefully, and can be taken in easily
So what did ipicturebooks do and what comes next?
In a short period of time, ipicturebooks became by far the largest publisher of children's ebooks. By the spring of this year, we had licensed and converted over 1,000 titles, including in-print titles licensed from publishers and out-of-print titles from authors and illustrators.
In 2001, we tried to sell these to the consumer market. For various reasons, this didn't work.
Starting in the fall of 2001, we began to develop a service to allow schools and libraries to subscribe to any or all of the books in our "collection." This was being test-marketed when funds ran low and most staff, including me, were laid off from early to mid-2002. I recently heard from the former marketing director, who confirmed that the company had had no success in raising more funds, and so is, essentially, defunct--though its website still exists. I've thought all along that this was a more natural market for ebooks, and I believe that someone will make a success of something similar.
Problems ipicturebooks had: Some couldn't be helped, such as inadequate funds and being too early to market. Some significant management issues too.
Lack of focus.
Reluctance of some to work with us.
The future of children's ebooks
Sales are steadily increasing
Gemstar bowing out, B&N no longer selling ebooks--not as significant as one might think.
Through the hype boom, and the backlash, there has been actual steady, slow growth. From a very small base, so numbers don't mean much yet. But five years from now, the story will be different.
Where to get children's ebooks
international childrens digital library: http://www.icdlbooks.org/ (a project of great idealism but unlikely prospects...)
Other archives? UVA collection, for example: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ebooks/subjects/subjects-young.html (typical example of conversions of public domain texts. Several like this that I know of.
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