Sales Are Secondary as Scholastic Uses E-Books as Marketing Tool

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Children's books publisher Scholastic Inc. has released its third e-book title in a program that treats digital publishing more as a marketing tool than as a market.


The New York publisher is offering "A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen." Slated for a March print debut, the e-book is available at Scholastic.com and other e-book online retailers. It features content, images and audio.


"We're approaching all our e-book efforts as ways to promote our printed properties, so we're not necessarily going to gauge the success of this e-book project solely on the basis of whether we sell a lot of copies, although we'd like to do that," said Michael Jacobs, senior vice president at Scholastic's trade division.


Part of the 5-year-old Dear America series aimed at children ages 8-15, the e-book version of "A Time for Courage" sells for $1.95 through Thanksgiving and $9.95 thereafter. The story follows a courageous young girl fighting for women's right to vote.


The e-book follows two other titles from Scholastic: "Hate Hurts," an e-book on discrimination, and "The Mayflower Project," the first in a new series called Remnants, by K.A. Applegate.


In all cases, the e-books preceded the print editions' market debut.


"I think that we're releasing it much in advance of its printed version, which gives us a marketing opportunity to drive people to our Web site to download it," Jacobs said.


The e-book shows potential as an online traffic driver for Scholastic. "The Mayflower Project" recorded more than 35,000 downloads.


E-books also will be involved with a new teen imprint. Called Push, the series will include memoirs as well as fiction and poetry titles for homes, schools and libraries. It also will carry titles from the Dear America series, plus children's picture books.


While the paperback editions are set for a February launch, Scholastic debuts two or three Push titles in the e-book format later this month. Talks are on to allow e-books to be downloaded from Gemstar's interactive television program guide.


Jacobs admits that Scholastic has been slow off the bat in its e-book program.


"We stayed back and tried to figure frankly what our strategy was, where our niche in the market might be and whether there was an e-book business," he said. "Sometimes, delaying your efforts is a wise thing to do, so we're actually pretty good about not having thrown a lot of resources and a lot of money into e-publishing, which has up to this point not become a viable business."


Scholastic's competitors such as Random House, Simon & Schuster and Time Warner could not have a more different attitude. They committed serious funds and energy to develop an online publishing business.


But for all the ballyhooed effort, there is no obvious example of an e-book blockbuster. Fiction thriller writer Stephen King's e-books like "The Plant" are possible contenders, but that is due more to the strength of the author.


"Somebody, I think, very succinctly said that the only thing wrong with e-publishing is there's no supply and no demand," Jacobs said.


And while e-books can promote Scholastic books, franchises and properties, readers must also walk up to the plate.


"Well, we saw very little evidence that kids were buying e-books," Jacobs said. "There were very few places within which e-books were sold, which is still the case. The devices that were out there were priced at such a level that we felt they weren't being purchased either by or for children.


"And frankly," he said, "the other thing we felt is that just putting a book in electronic format in and of itself wasn't either appealing or added much value to the reading experience."


Yet Jacobs holds out hope for e-books. Reference books have been successfully transitioned online and in e-book format by scholarly and academic publishers.


"They probably have it right because there is a market there," he said. "I think that people will pay premium prices for that information. A lot of that information is timely."


But that is not to say things will not change for publishers of trade books. It seems only a matter of time before the target audience for e-books grows up. This is the market Scholastic is waiting to ripen.


"I think the great hope with e-publishing is that kids who were 6 or 7 years old always had computers in their houses," Jacobs said, "[and] that their comfort level with technology will be sort of second nature, and as the technology evolves, we should be very well-positioned."


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