Can Obama and Big Publishing Save Children’s and YA Ebooks?

With e-book revenues nearly in freefall, especially in the category of Children/Young Adult books, a new partnership between the White House, publishers, libraries, and other institutions seeks to lay the groundwork for growth and educational development. But is it also an attempt to save a collapsing market?

E-book sales fell precipitously in January according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP)’s most recent StatShot report, published Wednesday. Overall, e-book sales declined by 10.2% as compared to the previous year. And this lackluster performance dampened overall sales, which, led by growth in religious presses (+11%), increased slightly (+0.9%) at $543 million.

The Children/Young Adult category was hit particularly hard by the sharp decline in ebook sales. Although the category experienced growth in paperback and board book sales, a steep drop in ebook sales (-37%) meant a modest but noteworthy decline (-1.6%) as compared to the previous year.

The news came on the heels of the White House’s announcement of a new partnership with a coalition of publishers, nonprofits, and libraries, one that will deliver more than $250 million worth of free e-books to low-income children. The project will make use of a free, public app developed by the New York Public library, and its participating partners include Bloomsbury, Candlewick, Cricket Media, Hachette, HarperCollins, Lee & Low, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

The publishers will provide thousands of public domain titles to low-income students aged 4 to 18 over the next three years, and these books will feature new designs by “world-class designers and artists,” according to a White House press release.

The project appears to be one of mutual advantage. The decline in ebook sales may be driven in part by a lack of access for low-income families, as more than half of all families that earn less than $25,000 a year have neither a computer nor an internet connection. For contributing free and newly designed Children / YA ebooks, in other words, the publishers will receive new infrastructure crucial for the growth of an imperiled market.

The White House’s new ebook initiative is part of a ConnectED, a larger project that seeks to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband by 2018. Additionally, as a part of the project announced Thursday, the government will work with mayors, school leaders, and librarians to help provide students with library cards.

If the simultaneous appearance of a report on the sharp decline of Children / YA ebooks and a government-led initiative to provide a new infrastructure for their delivery seems less than coincidental — even if the various partners have not acknowledged a connection — there is also a third factor.

Last week, author Judy Blume and others called for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to increase funding for the New York Public Library, which will develop the app for the White House’s program. In an email with the subject,  “Are you there Mr. Mayor? It’s me, Judy Blume,” the author explained: “[I]f that funding was restored to the City’s three library systems, the total budget for public libraries would be less than half of one percent of the total City budget. Seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Still, the drop in Children / YA ebook sales — indeed, the collapse of all ebook sales — may have more to do with negotiations between Amazon and the major publishers. After many months of protracted battle, Amazon renegotiated its contracts with the largest publishers, conceding its position on ebook pricing and discounts. The new deals allowed publishers to sell ebooks at a higher price and to prevent discounts, two factors that probably led to an industry-wide decline.

Yet the two developments may be connected. Publishers are actively seeking new arrangements for ebook sales and distribution in an attempt to move away from Amazon in the long term. The new public-private partnership may lay the groundwork for that move, while simultaneously encouraging a younger generation into greater literacy. Either way, it’s clear that the market isn’t solving the problem by itself.