For years now, publishers have lamented that things aren’t going in the right direction for the industry.
With the decline in new birth rates across many countries, the increase in material prices and distribution costs, publishers are constantly bracing for the next storm that will impact their businesses. Publishers who are committed to the industry and have persevered in the wake of unforeseeable disruptions should be lauded as the creative survivors with an iron will to stay relevant.
With easier access to handheld devices, and with schools and libraries promoting digital reading resources, children are reading fewer books, especially as they progress into their tweens and teens. The digital sphere offers an endless array of content for children to consume, be it to read or to watch, with a lot of which being available for free. With such unlimited access and choices children today have lesser time to read books recreationally, and soon become far less motivated to read long-form text.
Knowing that excessive screen time could potentially be detrimental towards a child’s learning progress and wellbeing, many publishers took comfort in seeing parents proactively control their children’s screen time exposure, usually until they turn six. Prior to the pandemic, a trend began to form in which many children’s book publishers were gradually shifting their publishing focus towards books for early years. This was the sweet spot where parents were more willing to invest in storybooks to help their children build foundational reading skills, good habits, and help children understand the world around them. Coupled with an emphasis on reading-aloud together, the shift encouraged family time and a healthy bonding activity between parent and child.
However, a pandemic with a few lockdowns upended the trajectory of many of the consumer trends, and consequently impacted publishing trends as well.
Going Beyond the Book
School closures during the pandemic left parents with no choice but to expose their young children to screentime. Parents helped children ease into the new way of learning through online classes, while teachers were dispensing all manner of tools such as Quizlet, Kahoot and other apps to support learning. Online learning burst into the scene in full force and three years on, the arguments surrounding digital learning mellowed and the fear of screentime and its detrimental effects no longer seemed as ferocious. In fact, we saw families adapt to this new learning hype while some parents even went the extra mile to find online or digital content that proved beneficial for their children.
There was no turning back, and as publishers, we could either wave our white flags and watch the digital wave take over, or embrace the change, and creatively find new ways to connect with the new expectations of our readers and audiences.
Over the years, publishers have dabbled with the alluring idea of multimedia or transmedia storytelling, and only a few stories have successfully managed to make the crossover. Taking a story across multiple media channels is complicated and costly. It requires substantial resources, commitment and a big dollop of faith. However, the need to make this investment is now more urgent than ever.
At Scholastic, we started exploring different ways for our readers to experience the story. One of our many initiatives include collaborating with up-and-coming media and digital startups who have a finger on the pulse of our audiences’ content consumption behavior. Our recent collaboration with Chungdahm Media, Inc in Korea is a hallmark of innovative content development between our brand’s legacy in the children’s publishing industry and their growing footprint in the digital media space. Tapping on each other’s expertise, we created a new series called Reel Books, a first of its kind immersive, multi-sensory reading experience which pairs engaging stories with music and animated videos. The series is designed to engage, energise, and motivate even the most reluctant of readers as they read, watch, listen and even dance to the story.
Beyond multimedia delivery, there are countless other ways publishers are creatively expanding the way a story is experienced. Adding games and social sharing components – be it online or offline – are some examples of how we, as publishers, need to keep up with not just the changing landscape of the industry, but more importantly, the evolution of our audiences’ reading habits. As we edit the passages of stories and design the covers of books, our ultimate goal should be to encourage our readers to re-experience the story when they come to the last page of the book.
New Crisis, New Trends, New Opportunities
Beyond the noise of the digital space and its limitless possibilities, at the heart of the publishing world, content is key. Over the last few years, especially at the height of a global pandemic, themes like mental health awareness and emotional wellbeing have been brought to the forefront of public consciousness and have influenced book publishing trends.
Children’s mental health and emotional resilience specifically are now major concerns among parents, teachers, and governments. While these issues existed in a pre-pandemic society, it did not receive sufficient public attention until the pandemic put everyone into isolation and in a collective depression. Storybooks are some of the best tools to help children understand emotion resilience and they can use the stories to reflect on what they are feeling or what is happening around them. These stories also provide children with a model or case study for them to learn how to respond to their own life experiences.
Another theme that has received more public attention in recent years is climate change. For many decades, climate change was just another hot button topic treaded lightly among scientists and politicians. However, easy access to information in this digital age and powerful voices of young activists like Greta Thunberg have managed to inspire and mobilise children around the world to put pressure on this cause in the last few years, and we see how children can be a driving force for change.
Everyone is talking about climate change because everyone has been impacted by it in one way or another. Even schools are incorporating lessons of climate change and sustainable development into their programs, to help children and their families understand its goals and how they can respond to it. Schools in Taiwan and Hong Kong have done exceptionally well in this area. In fact, it is no longer just teachers and librarians who are on the lookout for books that can be used to reinforce the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SGD), especially on the importance of equality and diversity, beyond climate change and the environment. There is also a surge in demand from the mass market, from parents and children who are more social conscious and have a greater interest in the state of the environment and its effects on future generations.
As the industry continues to face new and possibly unforeseeable disruptions, publishers are anticipating another tough year ahead. Aside from changing consumer habits, inflationary pressure and supply shortages have driven up raw materials, labor, and logistic costs. Household discretionary spending is, however, going in the other direction. Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. There will always be some glimmers of hope, and pockets of opportunities if we are willing to adapt and try new ways to keep up with their readers.
About Selina Lee
Selina Lee is the Vice President of Scholastic’s business in Asia and has over 20 years of experience in the publishing, marketing and distribution of children books and educational resources all across Asia region, from China to Indonesia, Japan to Myanmar.
Representing Scholastic Asia, Selina embodies the Scholastic mission of being a champion of global literacy by encouraging the intellectual and personal growth of all children.