Toys R Us announced last week that it would begin selling the Amazon Kindle in its stores. It's hardly the only retail chain to do so: you can buy a Kindle at Target, Best Buy or Radio Shack too. Putting an e-reader on the shelves of a children's toy store certainly reinforces the fact that the devices have seen broad, mainstream adoption -- the Barbie aisle, the Tonka truck aisle, and now the consumer electronics aisle.
We know that already, of course. As the major publishers have reported their quarterly earnings recently, they've all touted vastly increased sales for e-books. Penguin says digital books make up 14% of its total sales, for example -- up 128% from last year. And e-books now comprise 15% of Simon & Schuster's revenue.
But does Kindle's move into Toys R Us mark something else other than the ascendancy of the e-book or e-reader? Sure, it's another e-reading/e-reader-shopping trend, perhaps, but is it one occurring among a more specific demographic? And what does all this mean -- if anything -- for children's literature -- or more specifically, for children's reading habits and preferences?
According to a recent story in The Boston Globe, the market for children's and young adult e-books is booming, and e-readers may well be "the next big thing" among a generation that, according to James McQuivey from Forrester Research has learned to communicate, search and purchase on very small devices, like mobile phones." McQuivey predicts that back to school this fall will be "a guinea pig year" for e-readers and kids, but that "next year the move will be en masse.''
Increased interest on the part of young children (and their parents) may indeed a boon for publishers, as well as for the makers of e-readers. There's a lot that e-readers and e-books offer including of course. The convenience of always having your library with you. The convenience of a digital bookstore. (OK, it's not that convenient on the iPad any longer. But you get my point.)
But it's worth pointing out here that despite Kindle's s domination of the e-reader market -- and its placement on the Toys R Us shelves -- it's not clear that it would be the device-of-choice for younger readers. The Kindle remains in black-and-white (for now), unlike its competitor the Nook Color. It's hard to imagine a children's books working without color and without illustrations. Nook, Barnes & Noble's e-reader, has already made the move to boost its children's e-book offerings, including a Nook Kids iPad app. That app offers not just a wide selection of kids' books, but also offers a read-to-me option.
The blend of learning to read and listening to stories is, of course, just one thing that e-books can do to entice early readers in particular. "Innovative e-books" (whatever that means) are a whole other thing, providing more opportunities for interactivity, engagement, literacy, and (we can hope) bibliophilia. A study conducted last year by Scholastic found that kids said they'd read more if they had access to e-books. More importantly, they said they'd read more for fun. That's a win for publishers. That's a win for kids. As a book snob, I'll add too, that's a win for all of us.
Of course, as kids reveal their preference for digital literature, be prepared to hear more arguments along the lines of Telegraph's Head of Technology Shane Richmond, who took a look at these early readers' preferences and pronounced (again) "the printed book is doomed":
"My daughter's generation will probably have ebook textbooks. They will never experience dog-eared, vandalised, outdated school books, shared one-between-two. They will enjoy books that are enhanced with video, interactive graphics and picture galleries. And they will see these things are the norm. Printed books will be strange relics from their parents' generation. They might appreciate their form but they will approach them as fundamentally less useful. And useful always wins in the end."
Of course, "Thanks to X technology, Y is dead" stories are pretty commonplace in technology journalism. We repeatedly (foolishly, often) predict that new tech will render some old tech -- in this case, the printing press -- outmoded, doomed, dead. I don't know if I'm willing to write the obituary for the printed book quite yet. I am willing to predict that Pottermore will be another major tipping point. But hopefully, with the help of e-books, much as with the help of J.K. Rowling, we will be able to raise more readers.