In the Middle: How do Middle Grade Novels Fit into the E-Book Revolution?

We may as well face it and accept the inevitable: E-books are here to stay.

Some  (*coughmemyselfandIcough*), have been known to claim that these soulless electronic book-demons are destroying the publishing world, rocking everything traditional literary circles have held dear since the invention of ink and paper, and not in a good way.

*Ahem*

Others go with the more pragmatic — and, I’ll admit, far less doomsday-ish — view, that e-books are good for the environment, more convenient to access and carry, and, for writers, far easier to sell than traditional books.

Meh.

Again, I say MEH. Do you see my complete lack of concern for facts here?

Just in case you don’t: MEH!

Sigh. But… with more and more publishers — big name, “vanity” and self — jumping on the e-bandwagon, it really doesn’t matter what side of the fence you are on. The fact remains that if you are a writer, you have to learn how these things work, and accept the fact that your work of literary art will be turned into electronic nanobytes someday… if you ever want to be published, anyway.

In case it’s not entirely obvious, I’m talking more to myself up there than anyone. To say that I adore books of the paper and ink variety would be like saying the sun is lukewarm. The vast majority of my favorite childhood memories are some derivative of me curling up with a book; preferably an old one that smelled like Happiness and Joy had a baby and named it Imagination. Some girls grow up dreaming of their ideal faerie tale wedding. I grew up dreaming my ideal personal faerie tales typed up on yellowish paper with old-fashioned black ink, lovingly cradled in the arms of a hardback cover that would make even the staunchest math person pause in awe of its beauty.

An e-book… it’s just not the same. It never will be. I don’t care what you say.

Still, my publishing dreams have not faltered in the face of this blasphemic electronic intrusion into my bibliophilic place of worship. I will see my stories light up the minds and hearts of children everywhere before I die.

And so, I give up.

Okay? I’ll accept e-books… as long as I can still have my stories printed on real paper with real ink too. These things still happen, right? I mean, I see new books in the stores…

At least, for now anyway.

Anyway, now that I have finally accepted the inevitable, I find myself suddenly asking a score of new questions. I could go through them all, but they all really boil down to one major query that I’ll focus on instead, for the sake of clarity:

Where does the Middle Grade (MG) novel fit in to this e-book frenzy?

It is easy to see the lure of e-books for Adult (A) and Young Adult (YA) readers. After all, both groups know what they like, tend to stick with certain genres and/or writers, and can easily shop for these books online for their Kindles or iPads or PaperlessDemonCages (sorry… old habits). It’s a no-brainer for writers of A and YA literature to e-publish, and it’s not that difficult to figure out how to market these e-books, either. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and of course one’s own agents and publishers (if you have them), are all great ways to market e-books to those with access to them: older readers with their own computers, their own internet, and their own credit cards.

Picture Books (PB), too, have seen a rise in e-book formats. Parents tend to buy these for their younger children, and the digital format is perfect for creating “moving picture” stories that even I will admit are pretty cool. Let me point out that again, it’s adults who find and buy these books online, not the children themselves.

But MG stands out among the four traditional reader age groups (yes, I know there are really two MG groups — Upper and Lower — but for the sake of this blog, I’m smooshing them together), as the only one not naturally prone to the ultimate embracing of e-books. Hence, MG writers like me are at a loss as to what we can do, or even if we should do anything, about this whole e-book… thing.

Here are a few major issues that MG writers have with e-book promotion and sales:

1) Kids’ Lack of Access to E-Books

Now, you might say “Morgan, kids like Kindles!” or “I see kids read e-books all the time, what’s your damage?” and I’m sure you’re right (except about my damage; I had that taken care of at the shop years ago), but my argument isn’t that they don’t read e-books. It’s that they don’t have open access to them. MG readers like to make their own choices about what they read, and unlike PB readers, don’t usually want their parents to decide their literary tastes. They have similar individual tastes as A and YA, but unlike their older counterparts, they don’t usually go browsing online for new e-books, and the vast majority of them don’t have their own bank accounts, Paypals, or credit cards to buy them, either. Traditionally, MG readers have mostly found their books at their school libraries, through Scholastic book club fliers, and by word of mouth between their peers. With the possible exception of the latter (which only really works between kids lucky enough to own their own e-readers), none of these forms of treasure-hunting are exactly e-book friendly.

2) The Difficulty of Marketing E-Books to Kids

I blog. Duh. But I don’t really blog to my reader-base. Kids don’t tend to read blogs, after all. I have a professional Facebook, but the whole online “liking” thing is kind of creepy between adults and kids, and that’s even just the kids who break the rules by having a Facebook at a younger age than 13 in the first place. I have children of my own, and friends’ children, to run my books by, but as much as I love them, they’re not exactly a large fanbase. The whole idea of a platform for MG writers is, really, pretty silly if you think about it. Sure, kids use the internet, but not the same way as adults and teens. Unless you’re Nickelodeon, Disney, or some other Family-Entertainment Giant, they’re not going to read your blog or visit your website. And if they are, it’s because you’re already well-known enough for them to care… which moots the point of a new writer trying to get into the game in the first place. School visits are great… if you can set them up. But again, you can only market an e-book to a kid who can read it, and …

3)  Most Kids still do not Own Their Own E-Readers.

If you disagree, look at the economic status of the families of kids you know… yeah. That.  I asked my daughter, who is in 5th grade, how many kids in her class have an e-reader. She said one. My son, in 2nd grade, said none. So, how can MG e-books sell nearly as well as A and YA, or even PB?

4) Publishers’ E-Book Visions for MG are Vague at Best

Promotion and sales is always easier when you have a publisher to back you up, and I’m sure e-books are no different that way. Still, if a MG writer doesn’t have an agent or an editor yet, (and they want one), they need to do their homework in regards to current trends. Currently, trends are very set towards e-publishing, even with the big name publishers. And so, a writer would be wise to know how their book would do in e-book format, and mention that knowledge in a query letter. The only issue is… there is no way of knowing this for MG novels.

I mentioned before that PBs have had some pretty cool e-book forms, with sounds and clicks and animations galore. This works perfectly with simple PB storylines (which I could never write and I have utmost respect of writers who can), but MG books, especially Upper-MG, tend to have too detailed plots for such illustrative embellishments. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule, such as with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and highly illustrated concept books like “The Dork Diaries” and “Hugo Cabret”, but the MG spectrum of genre and style is wide and rich, and there are a vast majority of MG novels that simply would not work the way animated PB e-books do.

A and YA books are simple in e-book form, taking the reader into their world just like paper books do — by the sheer awesomeness of their writing style, plot, and such, without need for many, if any, illustrative embellishments. You could argue that MG books can — and do — do this too, and even that they have more illustrations which would be great in an e-book, and I would agree with you. But a publisher knows that an A and/or a YA book will do well as an e-book from experience. They don’t know that about MG (for reasons I have already stated), and they want to know what would make yours especially work in e-book format for young readers. Why would a MG reader care to get your story as an e-book instead of a paperback? Do you know? Do editors? Does anyone?

You may have noticed I have no sources to back up the above statements of MG writer e-book difficulties. That is because, as you may have guessed, up till now I have been working on assumptions. These are my own observations from studying this e-publishing phenomenon over the course of the last year or so. Now, let’s see if my assumptions are correct using reliable sources, and if they are, what can be done and/or has been done, about them…

1) Kids’ Lack of Access to E-Books

First I did an open search for blogs and news stories about children and how they find the books they like to read, specifically geared towards e-books. In my experience, for every hundred blogs/stories about children and e-books, maybe one or two mention MG-age readers at all. The vast majority are about PB-age kids, roughly between ages 2 and 5. So then I did a search just for Middle Grade readers, and found a couple of interesting tidbits on the New York Times website:

“Some younger readers have been exploring the classics, thanks to the availability of older e-books that are in the public domain — and downloadable free… After receiving a light gray Sony Reader from her grandparents for Christmas, Mia Garcia, a 12-year-old from Touchet, Wash., downloaded “Little Women,” a book she had not read before.” (nytimes.com)

“…their mother, said the family used the local library — already stocked with more than 3,000 e-books — to download titles free…” (nytimes.com)

And so from these we can gather that some kids are finding classics online in the public domain, as well as e-books available at the library. What about at school? Are kids now finding new e-books at their school like they have traditionally found so many paper books?

According to Americanlibrariesmagazine.org, the official online magazine of the American Library Association, “A common desire in K–12 buildings is to adopt ebook readers as a replacement for costly and heavy printed texts… [this can be] stymied by the lack of availability of some of the texts on their reading list… [many] English-class standards like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Good Earth remain unavailable in digital formats… this lack of e-texts can put a serious damper on ebook adoption in school libraries.” (Americanlibrariesmagazine.org)

Ouch. That doesn’t sound promising for MGers who might want to find new e-books to read, or for writers who want their young readers to find their e-books. But the article does close on a positive note:

“Individual libraries are trying different programs to see what works, and the publishers and vendors in the K–12 market are working with school libraries in a strong partnership. Their efforts have been most successful in nonfiction and reference resources, but school libraries are hoping to work with public libraries to meet bestseller fiction needs.” (Americanlibrariesmagazine.org)

So while kids aren’t finding a whole lot of e-books to read and love at the school library at the moment, apparently this will not always be the case. My first assumption, that kids can’t easily find new e-books to love like they can paper books, then, proves correct. But with a pretty big “but” tacked on: this won’t always be the case. In fact, with how fast-paced technology can be, chances are kids’ e-books will be available at school libraries very, very soon. MG writers, take note of this. 😉

2) The Difficulty of Marketing E-Books to Kids

For the answer to this conundrum, I went straight to the king of kids’ book marketing: Scholastic. They have a great MG area on their website called The Stacks, where MG readers can find out information on their favorite books, post on message boards to other readers, and play book-related games, to name a few.

One thing they can’t do, however, is download e-books.

I clicked through a few of their titles and found excerpts, printables, and of course purchasing information for paper books, but no links for e-books. So I decided to do a search within The Stacks for e-books. Six results came up. Three were articles on e-books in schools (mostly about textbooks), and three were links to books. That looked promising (though hardly a dent in Scholastic’s enormous booklist), so I clicked on one of them: a book titled Monsters and Mischief by Dan Poblocki. A page came up with the cover image, title and author information, and a synopsis of the story. Also, two interesting links labeled “PRINT” and “EMAIL”. Since e-books aren’t traditionally printed, I clicked on “EMAIL”.

Turned out, it was a link to email the page to someone else.

There is a mention of winning a copy of the “free e-book”, but that hardly shows any great interest on Scholastic’s part to take e-books seriously… just giving them away and all.

So after an exhaustive search on Scholastic’s own website for e-books, I found… pretty much nothing. It looked like the King of Kids’ Books wasn’t very interested in e-books at all. Still, I wanted to make sure. So I did a search on Ask.com for “Scholastic e-books”. The first result was a link to Scholastic’s store about how to download e-books, which looked promising, so I clicked it. This is a very detailed page about e-books: downloading, reading them, digital types, and etc. So then I thought maybe Scholastic did care about e-books after all. I clicked to their main page, to see if they were actively marketing e-books to anyone (as opposed to MG in their Stacks area only).

Turns out, Scholastic’s main page is all about paper books.

From looking further into their website, I found that Scholastic does have e-books, but they mainly treat them as a second to paper books, sort of a digital side dish, as it were. There are a very few that stand on their own, but they aren’t easy to find, so they’re certainly not being marketed in any real way. Maybe this will change, but I found no indication of that.

Of course, some of you might, and if you do, please feel free to post your findings in the comments section!

It’s tempting to just end this one here and say that if Scholastic isn’t marketing e-books for MG, a self-published and/or big-published-aspiring writer shouldn’t really worry about it either, but I want to be thorough. So…

I decided to try another big children’s publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Division, to see how they’re marketing e-books for kids.

At first glance, there is no mention of e-books here, either. Most of the main page is devoted to age-group links and paper book covers. Clicking on the link for “Kids”, I came to another page where books are displayed in a scroll and links are available to play games. Again, nothing about e-books. So I clicked on the “purchase” link for one of the titles, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Since HarperCollins doesn’t sell to individual consumers, this page gave a great list of bookstores and bookstites to chose from in buying the book, as well as some pull-down menus for other outlets. One off these is titled “E-Book Retailers”. This is the only e-book option I found for HarperCollins.

So we see the publishers themselves aren’t really pushing e-books at all. But what about bookstores? Amazon is well known for its e-books, sometimes even pushing into infamy status for its price-slashing, among other things. So, maybe finding out how Amazon markets its e-books for kids would help us writers better understand how we should try?

Well, right away we see Kindle ads, but this is on Amazon’s main page, not its children’s books page. What about MG books? Well, looking through the first page of the Upper-MG list, it seems every book on Amazon has a paperback and an e-book option. This is good for kids who want e-books, but not so good for writers looking for ways to market their own MG e-books. After all, I knew to go to Amazon because it’s already known. Amazon isn’t so much marketing e-books as it is selling what it’s already known for… to every reading level. The obvious fix to this dilemma is for a writer to publish their e-book under Amazon and thus get it listed there too. But then, there are how many books on Amazon, and how, exactly, will yours stand out? After all, isn’t that marketing at its core?

So, again, my assumption proves correct. Marketing e-books for kids is still… pffffffft!

3)  Most Kids still do not own Their Own E-Readers.

Squidoo has a page on e-books and readers for kids from which, though very full of information, I gathered a pretty good idea of a major upswing in kids’ e-book consumption in the near future. Apparently more and more kids are getting on the e-book bandwagon. Still, this page is a lot of excited hype and posted commentary. Not exactly a 100% reliable source.

Then I found a perfect site on e-book statistics by Christopher P.N. Maselli. He has sources listed, and after viewing those sources, I am confident that his numbers are correct. According to Mr. Maselli, “50% of kids say they want to read an ebook. 1/3 of children say they would read more with e-books”.

Wait. What? FIFTY PERCENT? One THIRD? That can’t be right!

Now, this doesn’t say how many kids have e-book readers, but it’s not too far a stretch to say that if that much of the MG population is interested in e-books right now, it won’t be long before they have asked their parents for e-readers and, for most in America, gotten them. American parents will get their kids what they want, by hook or crook, by Jove! And once this percentage of kids has e-readers, how many more will join in the wanting game?

Add that to the information I have already found on school libraries and Amazon’s enormous e-book list, and you don’t have to be a seer to see what’s ahead for MG…

Yeah… I was wrong about this one. Whoo-boy, was I wrong!

4) Publishers’ E-Book Visions for MG are Vague at Best

And so we come to the last of my assumptions. For this, I decided to go to the best source I know for children’s publishing insider information: the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If you write MG and don’t know about these guys, get your butt over there right now and join. My blog will still be here when you get back.

Done? Okay, then!

I scoured SCBWI and was disappointed to find nothing directly relating to what a publisher wants when it comes to a MG e-book. This does not surprise me, though, after everything I have now researched for this blog. From what I have already shown, it’s easy to see that publishers aren’t looking for an e-book. They are looking for a work of art. What form that art takes does not matter, in the end.

Yes, e-books are here to stay, and obviously they are here for MG the same as anyone else. But that doesn’t mean we, as writers, have to sacrifice our craft for them. As long as we stay true to our passion and our talent, editors and agents will love our stories whether they’re written on parchment or a digital screen… and so will our readers.

9 Responses to “In the Middle: How do Middle Grade Novels Fit into the E-Book Revolution?”

  1. This is a terrific post! I’m a bit passionate about this subject, so I hope you’ll forgive me if this comment is long.

    I really got into reading (like, voracious reading) when I was about eight years old. At this point, I did not want my parents or teachers telling me what I could and couldn’t read. I had passed the Picture Book stage (those were the books my mom and dad would have suggested, because of their innocence), and I was ready for novels. Judy Blume novels. L.M. Montgomery novels. Francis Hodgson Burnett novels. So I got these novels at the library, and I took them to my secret places in order to read them in peace (I have four siblings). I simply can’t imagine children at this age taking their e-reader to their hut-in-the-woods (if they even are allowed to own an e-reader) in order to “read” an e-book.

    • I so appreciate your comment on this! That was also my concern. I think in the future more and more kids will have e-readers, but I don’t think paper books will ever die. Or, if they do, it will be FAR into the future. With these two facts understood, then, every MG writer will need to be prepared for both formats. I, myself, will always adore paper books until the end of my days, amen. I might even be buried with one or two of my favorites. 🙂

  2. Thanks a lot…

    Hi, Thanks for your post, it was really informative. I’ll be looking forward to coming again….

  3. Wow. What a lot of research you did for this! I’m an author who writes adult novel and books for kids, and have been waffling about self-publishing a MG novel based on an award-winning play I wrote in e-book format. Thing is, like you said, there doesn’t seem to be a huge influx of the MG e-books out there. I’ve been worried about the same issues you brought up–mostly, do kids that age actually have access to e-readers?

    I have noticed that there are more and more of the books for reluctant readers being released for e-books, so that gives me hope. I still haven’t decided what exactly to do with my novel. Of course, I’d love for it to be available in paper (which I still love love) and e-book format.

    Definitely lots to think about! Thanks!

    Happy trails! bobbi c.

    • I’m glad I could help! It’s certainly not an easy choice, like it was in days past. Research and seriously consideration needs to be made by each individual writer for each individual manuscript. Good luck! 🙂

  4. Dear Morgan, thank you for solidifying my thoughts. I am going to indie publish a sci fi elf story for 9-12’s soon and I was originally thinking an ebook would be easier and cheaper, then I asked my network of mum’s and they all said, paper back as their kids are not using e readers. So I have changed my tac and will be doing a createspace paperback. I figure if you cant get your nearest and dearest to purchase your book because its in the wrong format then its a bit pointless. I have also been compiling an extensive list of book bloggers who list they will take middle grade books and they nearly all specify paperback only. I have found one ebook reviewer but she refuses to read anything over 40 000 words and my manuscript is upper middel grade 55 000 words. I think you are right in saying one day it will be the way to go but at the moment, we will have to sit back and wait for the tidal wave…..My other thought is the mummy bloggers, they are the stakeholders I guess for middle graders, so maybe that is another pathway. Cheers Julie jujuberry37 on twitter

    • Thank you for your reply, and the backup facts! I’m currently in talks with someone about my manuscript, but if that falls through, I’ll be going through Createspace myself. Paperback and e-book, just to be sure for the future. 🙂

  5. I really needed this blog today as I contemplate my possibilities. Thanks.

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