Why Children Aren’t Reading Digital Comics (And What Might Make Them Start)


While digital has definitely taken off as a medium for adult comics, with some comics garnering as much as 25% of their sales in digital channels, children’s comics remain largely a print market. Jesse Post, the marketing director for the children’s graphic novel line Papercutz, wrote an interesting blog post recently about children’s comics and comics shops, in which he noted that digital accounts for only 3-10% of children’s book sales. Jesse’s post was addressed to comics retailers, but I thought it would be valuable to hear his thoughts on marketing digital comics to children. Here’s what he had to say.

Good E-Reader: First of all, do you think selling kids’ comics digitally is a viable idea at all? Why or why not?

Jesse Post: It’s absolutely a viable idea! It’s just a viable idea with a lot of challenges ahead, particularly because of the available devices for kids. As more kids become device users rather than momentary device borrowers I think we’ll see the print/digital split in children’s publishing change dramatically, but at the moment we’re still in a print-first world for kids’ books. With that said, even our current industry average 10% share for digital is nothing to sneeze at; I’ll gladly take a 10% sales boost on a million-copy-selling series like LEGO Ninjago! We see nice sales on many of our titles through comiXology, and our just-launched e-book program is selling well beyond our initial expectations right out the gate, with no marketing yet. There is a resource commitment when deciding to publish kids’ comics digitally, and it’s very time-consuming, but from our perspective it’s absolutely worth it and will only become more so as kids increasingly embrace digital reading.

You mentioned on your blog that digital is just a small slice of the kids’ comics market. Why do you think that is?

I think that was actually a stat about children’s’ publishing in general, but it certainly applies to comics. Kids like to show off their books, trade them with friends, bring them to school in their backpacks, draw in the margins, and file them away on a bookshelf. I’ve personally moved almost all of my music and movie library to digital because I’m satisfied with the abstract idea of owning a file stored in the cloud, but kids have a more tactile relationship with the stuff in their bedrooms, including books. When I worked for Disney Adventures, a kids’ entertainment magazine, I was always surprised by how much our readers valued physical aspects of the magazine, like its small trim size and the paper quality.

Device availability also has a big impact, as I mentioned. LeapFrog is making great strides towards a “real”

have. But at the moment, kids are borrowing mom’s tablet or e-reader, and their primary interest once it’s in their hands is either video games or similar things like highly interactive e-books that don’t require much quiet reading.

Parents may be influencing this, as well, as studies and news reports are showing that they still prefer print books for their kids, even if they read e-books themselves. I think this is more a matter of cultural bias that will probably wash itself out in future generations.

When you think about selling kids’ comics via digital media, who do you think is the customer–the parents/gatekeepers or the kids themselves?

At the moment it’s absolutely the parents/gatekeepers, and kids are the main motivating force behind the decision. That’s true for both print and digital; once a parent decides to buy something for their kids to read, they’ll most likely buy the book the kid is requesting. Our marketing efforts usually have those two prongs (well, three, including retail marketing). If kids don’t know it’s there they won’t ask for it, and if parents don’t trust it they might say no.

In the digital space, this becomes a unique challenge in that gatekeepers have an extra gate to keep in the form of device access. We’ve knocked this around with comiXology a few times, trying to wrap our heads around the best way to draw attention to the great things within each app, both the main app and their kids’ app. Do we really try to draw in the parents, or try to make the space a straight-up kid zone? I think there’s value in both approaches.

Do you think that needs to change? Is there a way to change it?

I don’t think you can change a parent’s need to be the customer in their child’s consumer life, but digital does present a chance to give kids a bit more freedom than they would have in a physical bookstore, perhaps a walled garden of pre-approved buying choices and an allowance. Personally, I’d find that really valuable if I had kids.

What sort of media do you see kids using right now—web browsers, smartphones, iPads?

All of the above–I think the Bowker study I referenced in our ComicsPRO presentation listed all of them as being part of a kid’s media life, with print books still their #1 choice (and, I think, DVDs a close second). Anecdotally, I’ve seen five-year-olds playing online games happily and very handily; they know how to navigate to their favorite sites, how to discern between a game and an ad, etc. Kids are even better at using the web than I am! Smartphones are on the rise and I’ve seen kids lovingly, carefully play with their parents’ iPads, but, again, it’s usually not for reading. The kids I know like to play Tap Tap Radiation when someone hands them an iPad. I don’t think media devices are beyond kids at all—I just think we haven’t yet come up with a device that kids can completely own and be responsible for as well as enjoy and use the way they want to.

We are seeing some attempts to market kids’ comics digitally, including the comiXology Comics 4 Kids app, the Archie app, and some stand-alone apps like Pocket God. What do you think of the platforms that are out there and how do they need to change?

These are all great attempts, and the more comics portals for kids there are in the world, print or digital, the happier I am! I think the main problem with all of this is discoverability, and we’ve also batted this around with comiXology. Kids are very brand-focused and less inclined to embrace the “container app” model that comiXology and iVerse and the rest are built on. Those kids I mentioned that love playing online games don’t go to “games.com or whatever it might be; they go right to MarvelKids.com and play the Iron Man game, then over to Nick.com to play the Power Rangers games. Kids don’t care about umbrella brands and such nearly as much as adults do, and I think asking them to find all their favorite-character comics underneath something else can wind up being a “give up and move on” moment if we’re not careful.

We did a Smurfs comics app with comiXology that had blockbuster sales because it allowed kids and parents who like The Smurfs to find it, both in text searches and from Apple’s promotion of it in the App Store. At the moment, there’s no way for a kid who loves LEGO Ninjago to find the digital comics instantly–they need a comics-savvy parent with a comiXology account to find it for them. More in-app promotions for kids’ material always helps, and comiXology in particular has been really generous with promo space, but unless you’ve got that rare kid or parent who pores over the app every Wednesday looking for new things, some of that effort can be lost.

We’ve only recently started working with iVerse, but I can say that both iVerse and comiXology are all over this and seem to me to be genuinely concerned about these challenges. The iVerse library app is going to be a huge boon for digital kids’ comics marketing; they were really smart to hire on Josh Elder and John Shableski. They’ve hit upon one of the main areas of improvement in marketing kids’ digital comics: letting the gatekeepers know. I see this as a joint responsibility between publishers and digital retailers/service providers. Once we start trumpeting our digital offerings in outside-the-Direct-Market marketing I think we’ll start to see an up-tick in parental awareness of these apps. If they see a review or an ad for a new Smurfs comic and learn that it’s available on something called “Comics4Kids,” it stands to reason that they’ll go download Comics4Kids and check out what’s there, and then they’ll in turn show their kids how to use it.

What about parental attitudes–do e-books fall victim to parents’ inclination to limit “screen time”? Are e-books too much like video games?

Yes, yes, and yes! I alluded to it above, but this is a big challenge that will change as post-millennials (is that a thing or did I just make that up?) and later generations start raising kids. But parental queasiness about e-books isn’t entirely unfounded. You know a lot more about the various e-book reading comprehension studies than I do, but anyone who has seen a kid with an interactive e-book can attest to the fact that there’s not much reading going on there. I think Thrillbent is a great counterargument in that it offers up the delight of interactivity without distracting from the reading. Any interactive e-book that similarly makes reading itself the center of the activity is going to win with parents. My gut instinct is that this will work itself out over time and parents will embrace digital more and more; we’re still in the early days.

What are your aims for digital marketing at Papercutz?

To take over the world! No, seriously, our digital business goals have always been blessedly simple: be on as many platforms as we can, for as low a price point as we can afford, as quickly as humanly possible. This simple goal makes my marketing decisions pretty easy; once our e-publishing program is fully operational, we plan to do a full-court-press outreach campaign that includes many partners we haven’t worked with before as a print-focused publisher. Our “Be Everywhere” strategy is a little different from other publishers and I think that should be interesting to the many outlets covering digital publishing news.

But my main goal is to make sure our regular title-by-title marketing raises awareness of our digital offerings. Our company mission is to introduce kids to the joys of comics, and over the years we’ve developed some amazing rewarding relationships with bloggers, magazines, newspapers, libraries, schools, distributors. Really anyone and everyone who shares our goal has been extremely supportive, so it’s the best network to get the word out about digital comics. And I really hope that our marketing efforts will drive more people to the various digital kids’ comics platforms where they’ll find even more great stuff from Top Shelf, Viz, and the rest. Digital gives us a new and entirely accessible marketplace where we can talk directly to our customers; it’s a tremendous opportunity to find a wider audience and I want to make sure Papercutz is as present there as we possibly can.

Brigid Alverson (217 Posts)

A former book editor and newspaper reporter, started MangaBlog to keep track of her daughters¹ reading habits and now covers comics and graphic novels for Comic Book Resources , School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Robot 6, and MTV Geek. She also edits the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. Brigid was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards. Send her an email to wordballoons@gmail.com

  • http://twitter.com/graphicnovelguy John Shableski

    I think there’s an additional opportunity for the publishers here to sell hard copy versions of the comics. Jesse makes a great point about kids wanting to own the physical copy-to share, make notes on, etc. When we get them engaged, and the stories are good then it becomes a very real opportunity to grow the audience of the kids market for comics.

  • Heidi

    Perhaps parents would be interested in sharing a comic reader that is educational and fun? OLLIE & MOON: ALOHA! is an upcoming Step 3 Comic Reader that can be found in the Early Reader section of chain and independent bookstores. There is also ROBOT, GO BOT! Comic Readers. Both books will be available July 2013.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brigid.alverson Brigid Alverson

    Interesting idea—I wonder if children will start sampling comics digitally the way adults do?

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.phelps.125 Michael Phelps

    I have mixed feelings about digital. When I was a kid (old man rant) we kids bought our books and would get together and swap. Keeping up with all the issues and having fun talking about our heroes. Cannot do that with digital. ALSO, digital comics are put into readers owned by the comic publishers. One publisher just went bankrupt and all the comics bought through them vanished. Digital should be able to be placed in any e-reader. I draw a strip, http://www.lifeon66.com, that is offered via Kindle and that version can be placed in any ebook reader you have. All comics should be this was

  • http://www.facebook.com/brigid.alverson Brigid Alverson

    There are a few comics distributors who allow you do download DRM-free PDFs—DriveThruComics comes to mind, and Digital Manga. But for some comics, I wonder if we need to keep them? I subscribe to Marvel Unlimited because I often want to read a story arc, but I don’t want to keep a bunch of floppies around the house (even if I could get all the back issues). If I need to see a new comic the week it comes out, I appreciate the convenience of comiXology, but if I really want to keep a story I’d rather have the collected edition in print form anyway. That’s just my preference, of course, but it seems to me that monthly comics are a disposable medium, something you experience most strongly as they come out, and that the collected editions are the keepers.