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The Future Of Children's Books


So here's a conundrum for parents. If you have kids, you get told over and over limit their screen time. And you're also told, instead of screen time, get them reading more, which is all well and good, except that these days, many children do their reading on a screen, which raises some interesting questions about how children read today and what direction things are headed in children's book publishing.

To help us out, we've called Dan Poynter. He's the author of "The Self-Publishing Manual" and 126 other books. He says kids are still reading traditional printed books. But 13 percent of children's book sales are now e-books, and that number is rising.

DAN POYNTER: And by the way, 11 million parents have purchased an e-book and 19.6 million parents plan to buy an e-book. So the numbers are huge.

KELLY: Which makes sense, kids like to look at screens. But that's not the only reason e-books are flooding the market. They're also way cheaper to produce.

POYNTER: Printing and transporting paper is very expensive, and e-books eliminate the expensive four-color printing, the higher quality paper, the ocean shipping, the customs clearance, the inventory, answering the telephone, writing up the orders, picking, packing and shipping and managing all of these functions. So we eliminate a huge number of costs and the chance that those books won't sell.

KELLY: All of that means Dan is not optimistic about the future of printed books.

POYNTER: Run a test. Give a 5-year-old a printed book and an iPad and see what happens. That 5-year-old is going to go right for the iPad. They're not intimidated by it. They know what to do with it. They'll start searching around. And in a children's e-book, you can have links to kid-safe encyclopedia. So if they click on the lion, it takes them to Africa and tells them all about lions. So now, the e-book is educational.

KELLY: Not all authors are embracing the new technology. One who is, wholeheartedly, is Roxie Munro. She had written traditional children's books for years, mostly search-and-find books, maze books, that type thing. And then...

ROXIE MUNRO: About five years ago, I got an email fan letter from a guy in the Netherlands who had a 5-year-old son, and he loved the app book - I mean, the maze books. And about 18 months ago, I got an email from the fellow again, who owns a graphics company, and he wanted to dip his toes into apps, and thought that my books would be perfect.

KELLY: When you first saw, you know, your book that you were used to seeing as a printed book, when you first saw the electronic version, what did you think? What was your reaction?

MUNRO: I just loved it. I mean, I just thought that that's what it should have been all along.

KELLY: I want to ask you - we were taking a look here at one of the apps you have out. This is called Doors. It was originally a printed book that you created. And the printed book, I assume, it was a kind of a lift-the-flap type book. You could open the door that way. Is that right?

MUNRO: Yes, paper engineered.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Lift the flaps and step through doors into wonderful worlds that you can explore.

MUNRO: That sizzling sound is the space shuttle door opening up. And then the door there opens up to the fire station.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Think of sirens, think of red, call the station, someone said. Find a flashlight and a glove, a first-aid kit that's stored above.

MUNRO: You see a guy coming down a pole, a dog barks.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) And look for a hat and an apple too.

KELLY: And the child's able to actually - they're moving their finger across the screen and picking where they want to go next...


KELLY: ...and finding objects.

MUNRO: They can make the horn blow or the lights come out.

KELLY: Now, Roxie admits not all children's books lend themselves to e-versions.

MUNRO: For example, studies have been done where if it's just a story and you're reading it but some things are animated that aren't pertinent to the story and the child gets distracted just touching everything, they have found that they actually retain less of the story and read it less well.

KELLY: Oh, really?

MUNRO: So - yeah. So it really depends upon the content and what the book is all about.

KELLY: So might there be a future, even a bleak one, for old-fashioned printed kids' books?

MUNRO: Well, I don't think they're dead. But frankly, I think within one generation - maybe 30 years - very few houses will have bookshelves and few people will have libraries just like they collect art or stamps or fine prints. So there'll be libraries, private libraries, and there'll be public libraries, but I don't think, sadly, that the average house will have a bookshelf in 30 years.

KELLY: Which is sad, isn't it? I put the question to our publishing expert Dan Poynter. Do you think anything is lost in this transition?

POYNTER: Well, sure, if you're a printer or a trucker.


KELLY: If you're a kid or a parent. I mean, I would miss - for example, I have little kids, and I would miss some of the - I think some of the big colorful illustrations are hard to capture on a small screen, or some of the tactile things. You know, you touch Pat the Bunny and he feels furry. You can't do that on a screen.

POYNTER: You'll get over it.


POYNTER: No. The - so the kids...

KELLY: So says my 5-year-old.

POYNTER: The kids love the iPad and the other large screen things. They're a pretty good size.

KELLY: Which brings us back around to the question I raised at the very beginning. I can't let you go without asking you to respond directly to this conundrum I raised. Parents are supposed to be limiting their kids' screen time. They're also supposed to be encouraging them to read. When those two are one and the same, what are you supposed to do?

POYNTER: There's good screen time and bad screen time. What if your 5-year-old, 6-year-old is just motivated and excited to read the encyclopedia? What's wrong with that?

KELLY: Dan Poynter and author Roxie Munro talking about the future of children's books. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.