Friday, March 19, 2010

Crossroads: Children's Picture Books in a Digital Age

I downloaded the free Kindle app for PC this morning, mostly to see what free content I could find (yes, I'm cheap). I don't own an ebook reader, nor do I plan to buy one in the near future. I like my analogue versions just fine. It's not that I'm against the technology, it's just that I don't think it's finished maturing just yet. I made a point a while back that with mobile devices incorporating more and more functionality, dedicated devices such as ebook readers will become obsolete. Apple's iPad is a shift in that direction. I like the idea of the iPad, but I'll wait until the competition catches up.

In searching Amazon's classics catalogue for free books, I was disappointed by the lack of children's picture books. There are none (or none that I could find). Understandably so, I guess, since most of the free content is from over eighty years ago, but even the Beatrix Potter stories were all text. But when I checked out some of the pay products - and there are a few dozens of picture books you can buy for the Kindle - I was disappointed, both by the selection as well as the experience.

Which raises a question. Are children's picture books immune to digitization? It got me thinking about why paper picture books work and how it may or may not translate to the screen.

First, let me just say that I think a shift of picture books to the screen is inevitable. Second, neither is it a bad thing. Okay, so maybe the Kindle and other ereaders aren't the right format for such books, but that doesn't mean the technology or the promise of a technology capable of bringing a picture book alive doesn't exist. Heck, if you think about it in broad terms, picture books have been on screen for decades. I mean, aren't Saturday morning cartoons just picture books on TV? Remember "Fractured Fairy Tales" on the Bullwinkle Show? How long did "Reading Rainbow" run?

I know, that's not exactly the same as taking a picture book and digitizing it. Why? Interactivity.

The joy of reading a picture book is in the fusion of image and word, the bond formed between parent and child and between child and book. Can a screen do the same as a printed page? What if that screen is large and in high resolution color? Well, for standard PBs, probably, but certainly not for pop-up and touch-and-feel books. That's why the technology can't stop at a point where the screen acts simply as a proxy for the printed page. Picture books are intended to be interactive, and picture book stories conveyed digitally will never replace the tactile experience, not alone at least. Minimally, picture book digitization will require a device that can allow a child to manipulate the text and image.

I'll make some predictions, and we'll see whether or nor they play out in the coming years.

1. Television will become the first digital device of choice for picture book stories, not ereaders. That's because,

2. Portable devices capable of delivering the quality of experience a paper picture book provides are a long ways off from being affordable.

3. First-to-market technologies that enable a child to navigate the story on-screen with a simple inexpensive hand-held device (controller) will set the standard.

4. Adaptation of, or development of apps for, current gaming systems, such as Wii and PlayStation, for picture books will likely be the first generation products.

5. Illustrators and publishers will need to rethink how they go about designing and publishing picture books to be more amenable to the new formats.

6. This will open up a whole new world of possibilities for how authors conceive and write their stories, not restrict them. Writers receptive to these changes will be more successful.

So, anyone interested in starting a joint venture?


  1. DVD picture books are already available. I think the next wave will be a portable reader for kids like the Kindle only color, more sturdy, and easy to download like wireless app in Kindles. E-book pb's have been around for years. In fact, one of my books is available in electronic format, but only on the pc. Here's the link:

    But it needs to have a reader for it to really be a significant change.

    I do believe the 32 page pb will not be standard as well because there's no restriction on format from printers. This will free everyone up, but unfortunately, I hope this doesn't make pb's into portable cartoons. Who needs that?

  2. Thanks, Pam. I'd be interested in hearing more authors of digitally pubbed PBs talk about their experiences, both WRT to sales and the storytelling experience. You're right about losing the 32/48/ restriction. I think the whole idea of the page turn will also evolve as images will be replaced with video.

    One area where picture books will benefit from the digital revolution is in printing costs. Right now it's very expensive to print a hard-copy of a PB. With digital ink, that goes away. One thing is clear, in order for digital to outcompete analog (and I'm not saying it should or will), it has to more than make up for what'll be lost in the tactile/olfactory/visual experience of holding a real live paper p;icture book in one's hands.