Report – Bringing Books to the Metaverse (or is it the other way around?)
- Children’s publishing is buoyant, with sales up year on year. But more than 400k children do not own a book of their own (National Literacy Trust).
- Immersive, multi-platform storytelling is already here. Digital can be a bridge to reading for those with limited literacy.
- There is an appetite within traditional publishing to embrace storytelling that blends print and digital, but funding is a barrier.
A panel representing both traditional children’s publishing and innovative digital storytellers discussed where printed books sit within the digital ecosystem and whether the metaverse will help or hinder the children’s literacy crisis.
Moderator John Lomas-Bullivant of Kickback Media began by asking Alyx Price, from Macmillan’s Children’s Books, to provide an overview of the children’s book market and the scale of the literacy crisis.
- Nielsen: Children’s book market value = £164m YTD, up 5% on 2021.
- Children’s books are driving a boom in publishing, with a 23% share of the total market. Driven by increased demand during the pandemic + TikTok boosting sales in the YA space.
- National Literacy Trust (NLT): More than 400k children do not own a book of their own.
- Macmillan’s Marcus Rashford Book Club, in partnership with NLT, has delivered 215k books direct to children.
- NLT: Children who are most engaged with reading and writing outside of the classroom have significantly better mental wellbeing.
- Publishers channel their literacy work through partners such as the NLT, the Reading Agency and Booktrust, who have greater community links.
Japhet Asher, director of Polarity Reversal, reiterated the scale of the literacy crisis, reminding the audience that 10% of UK households do not own a book. He and Alyx agreed that digital can be used as a bridge for reluctant readers.
John asked Japhet to define the metaverse for the audience: Right now, it can be whatever we imagine it to be. The metaverse is a state of mind! Ultimately, everything will be ‘painted with data’ – our devices will scan and map objects, people and places to provide us with relevant or helpful information, or even to turn a room into a gaming space. Reality and the virtual world will be layered and we’ll be able to move seamlessly between them.
Sophie Deen, founder and CEO of Bright Little Labs, told the audience about the Children’s Spy Agency – an immersive, multi-platform story she has created and developed. The primary character is Agent Asha, but anyone under the age of 16 can join and become an ‘agent’. They have partnered with Walker to produce books, Kidzania for a live experience and have digital games played by over 100k users. The project was created with digital as an essential part of the storytelling from the outset. User Experience (UX) is vital – both creatively and commercially. They can encourage users to move from one part of the world to another and respond to what they are enjoying.
The Agent Asha books also work as a standalone, without the digital ‘layers’ – children’s brains ‘light up differently’ when reading and they don’t want to lose that. The additional content relies on natural curiosity and imagination, with links hidden as Easter Eggs throughout.
John asked Alyx about the barriers within traditional publishing that might prevent this kind of creative blending of print and digital. Alyx explained how the acquisition process works within publishing and how budgets for new titles can be limited, especially if they require significant digital investment. Japhet said that publishers tend to see digital as a cost, not a revenue source. He warned against gimmicky content designed to cross-promote products, rather than investing in quality, original storytelling.
The panel then discussed whether all children’s authors will need to consider the digital potential of their stories in the future. Some are resistant to doing so. Japhet believes this is where technology that allows Augmented Reality (AR) to be layered over existing print material will come into play, as well as user-generated content. Everyone will ‘take ownership’ of what they consume.
John and Alyx discussed if print publishers can access data that helps them to shape UX in a similar way to digital creators. In addition to traditional sales data via Nielsen, Kindle allows a degree of insight into how readers engage with books. Primarily the feedback remains anecdotal, however – via reader reviews and live events. Japhet believes this will change with improved technology.
All the panellists were united in their belief that quality storytelling and a clear creative vision remain essential – whatever the medium.
Polarity Reversal Ltd
Bright Little Labs
CEO and Founder
Macmillan Children’s Books
Warner Bros. Discovery
Macmillan Children’s Books