12/08/2012 02:40 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2013

Through the Looking Glass: Alice in the App Store

For centuries, children's literature existed only in the stories and songs passed from adult to child. Until the late Middle Ages, adult stories were adapted for children to encourage religious and economic behavior. Children were raised to be workers and, as a result, literacy suffered. While educational children's books were finally published during the Renaissance, it wasn't until the eighteenth-century that a British bookseller and publisher, John Newbery, made children's literature a profitable part of the literary market. Celebrated as "the father of children's literature," Newbery sparked a trend for publishing stories that were both instructive and amusing. Once the philosophical concept of childhood was universally acknowledged in the late nineteenth century, children's literature became more dynamic. So came Grimm's folktales, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Fin. Today, children's publishers have adapted many of these classics to modern media, attracting a wider audience through various electronic platforms.

Thanks to licensing, children's publishing is growing at a rate that few areas in the industry are experiencing. Because some publishers are owned by powerful media conglomerates, children's books have broken into different media markets. Viacom, Inc., which owns Simon & Schuster and Nickelodeon, might sell rights so that a popular book character can become a TV show, movie, or game. Since there is more opportunity to make money or, conversely, more to lose, publishers carefully consider the viability of both book and author before any contracts are presented. Marketing plans are drafted well before acquisition and the house sales staff will also weigh in on the manuscript.

As the number of bookstores has declined, eReaders, tablets, and smartphones have also entered into these preliminary discussions. Interactive audio and video features are making ebooks particularly attractive to both parents and children -- and profitable for publishers. Children's classics like Alice in Wonderland, The Three Little Pigs, and Goodnight Moon are now bestselling book apps with web extras. While these apps are expensive to produce, even mid-sized publishers entice children to read books by offering companion websites, which host games and extras designed to engage young readers.

Though ebooks are becoming increasingly popular among children and families, the global success of J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series suggests that traditional children's books aren't going anywhere soon. Grossing over 7 billion in lifetime book sales, Harry Potter proved to publishers that a good story, and not a good product, is fundamental. However, children's book publishing is fortunate to capitalize on movies, toys, and, in rare cases, sites like Pottermore.

Children's publishers appreciate today's franchise-dominated marketplace -- but that doesn't mean they've forgotten about midlist books. Librarians and booksellers are as important today as they were in the twentieth century for marketing titles that never become movies or toys. Publishers still depend on librarians to champion a book, to place it in the hands of parents, teachers, and ultimately young readers. Children's publishers also realize the value of handselling at the retail level. Like librarians, booksellers are invaluable marketing tools. They're among the first to realize trends by watching what parents and children pick up in-store. Booksellers can even tell the publisher's sales rep that they should rethink a cover if they want to attract young girls -- and they'll be listened to.

Children's bookstores, however influential, are not immune to the challenges that the rest of the literary world has grappled with since the start of the digital revolution. There were over 750 children's bookstores in the 1990s. Today children's bookstores account for less than a quarter of that number, leading publishers to market more of their books online. Though discouraging, this number fails to explain those stores that continue to exist despite customer turnover to online retailers. In 2008, Kristin McLean, the executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, told The New York Times that "Children's bookstores are one of the few growth areas in an otherwise flat industry." These bookstores have created an "alternative universe" for both adults and young readers -- a highly visual atmosphere that is story-like in itself. Publishers carefully design marketing materials for these stores, creating imaginative posters, displays, and games to help sustain an experience that cannot be bought online.

As the evolution of these bookstores indicates, children's book marketing has changed. There are fewer bookstores and more websites, less readers and more gamers. Children's publishers must compete for the attention of both parent and child while adapting to the technology that threatens their business. Only time will tell if competition with mass media has compromised quality and distracted from true storytelling, or if modern media has simply allowed children's publishers to attract a wider audience. While these publishers should continue to develop educational and entertaining eproducts, they should also remember that children are not simply the tiny operators of mom and dad's iPad. They're also young readers who, historically, have always enjoyed a good story.