We just released Little Bahalia Publishing’s latest book app, The Itsy Bitsy Spider on Demibooks Storytime. The classic nursery rhyme is retold and illustrated by Rebecca Emberley and her father, Caldecott award winner Ed Emberley. The print version is published by Two Little Birds Books, a publishing house Rebecca started up in reaction to what she describes as “an industry that is changing a lot”. The Emberleys have collaborated on 10 books together. With over thirty-five years in the industry, Rebecca has worked on dozens of titles including many published with the likes of Little Brown, Hachette, Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press, Holiday House and Scholastic.
I called Rebecca to chat about all things books and apps, here are some excerpts.
Rafiq: Tell us a little about how you started in children’s books.
Rebecca: It’s a family business! My brother and I started working on some of my father’s books. I did my first book when I was 19. I found being alone in a studio too solitary at that time, so I went to work in the restaurant biz for awhile. When my daughter was born I wanted to stay at home with her. That’s when I started working in paper and found object collage. I did that for about 25 years, now I scan larger cut-paper shapes into the computer to create digital files.
Rafiq: How did you start collaborating with your Dad? Who asked whom?
Rebecca: He [Ed Emberley] asked me. We were both kind of drifting and not doing much of anything. I just wanted to make art and he just wanted to make books. It was kind of a challenge , we didn’t know what would happen – I had been resisting the computer – he is the tech guy on our team.
Rafiq: Wait, your Dad is the tech guy? [As an aside, I’m thrilled that we have a follow from @EdEmberley on twitter!]
Rebecca [chuckles]: Yes! He’s dragged me into the tech era. He’s 83 now but he’s still more into the computer than I am.
Rafiq: You’ve published with the top publishing houses, why did you start Two Little Books?
Rebecca: I’ve always made a living writing and illustrating children’s books but it has become more difficult. I was still selling a lot of books, but not reaping the same royalties. The contracts got longer and more exclusive of authors rights. The industry has changed a lot in 35 years – the big guys have too much overhead, and you know the authors and illustrators often get pinched. I thought “there have to other ways”. 15,000 picture books are produced [during a publishing] season or something like that, I’m not positive of this years stats – but perhaps the top 100 get attention. Trade publishers just doesn’t have time to push the other books. There are so many ways to sell in the US, and only so many bookstores.
When I started Two Little Birds, my theory was that we needed to keep overhead low and focus on new distribution channels. I met some of the AMMO Books team and moved to distribution and sales through them and that has made all the difference for me. Now my audience is: 1/3 book market, 1/3 gift market and 1/3 in fashion/retail such as Anthropology, it has been great working with them!
Rafiq: What about retail chains such as Walmart/Target? How does that work for an independent book publisher?
Rebecca: Huge chains are difficult to work with. While they can order big volume, the publisher foots the printing cost and then may have to bear the risk of lots of books being returned. They want shelves to look full and always the newest thing, so we don’t do that at this time.
Rebecca: It [working on the print book] was actually a request from our editor at Scholastic. We had finished it but couldn’t work out the terms with Scholastic, so when the opportunity to explore something new appeared, it was there, ready and waiting . It became the first title for Two Little Birds. [check out the Parents Choice Award]
Rafiq: How did you team up with Stacey Williams at Little Bahalia to do the app ?
Rebecca: We were introduced by a producer from Lynda.com, David White. He had been working on the documentary about my father and Stacey was shooting hers, David thought we should meet. Stacey was beginning to create apps at Little Bahalia, he also thought we kind of spoke the same language, which we do and shared a similar sense of humor which we also do. So I contacted her and it turned out we would both be in NYC for one day so we met for dinner and the collaboration began.
The process has been great, I wasn’t heavily involved in the app production. She does what she does well, and I do what I do well. The app looks and works really nicely. We are going to do another one together – probably will launch in early 2016. The print version will be done by Two Little Birds.
Rafiq: You’ve got some app experience now – how do you see the overall market?
Rebecca: Before Little Bahalia, we had worked with Night and Day Studios before they merged with Scrollmotion. We did 3-4 apps with them (3 are on the App Store). I don’t actually use apps very much! [Rafiq: what??] But I do see the use for apps! It seems as if many parents’ perception of children’s apps are that they are disposable. Often, they don’t have enough space [on their device], so they don’t want to keep apps around. Therefore they they don’t want to pay too much for apps. Cloud storage might help with that, but I don’t even really understand how Cloud storage works….[Rafiq: OK, here’s an example. If someone buys The Itsy Bitsy Spider on Demibooks Storytime and later decides to delete it from their iPad, they can do so safely knowing the purchase can always be downloaded again.]
When you look at the cost of creating great work, whether print or digital, it’s not reflected in the price. I don’t think in general there is a real perception of how much work, by how many people, goes into producing books and apps. It’s all about perceived value. I think we suffer from a malaise when it comes to the arts in the US!
Rafiq: It is all about distribution. What role do librarians have in the recommendation and discovery process?
Rebecca: Librarians have so many books, ebooks and apps to choose from. For a product to stand out now, it’s so much harder. It’s all about the distribution. Being small we can custom promote. The book should advertise the app, you have to have a link that takes you directly to app. Even so, it’s hard to reach busy parents and teachers in the crazy app world…I see developers looking at lots of different distribution models trying to find what works, it’s tough!
Among the problems with the publishing world – everyone is trying to protect their own brands, not wanting to partner. [We reminisce about the early days of apps/digital when lots of people spent lots of time signing up contracts but alas no apps were made.]
We need more “e” librarians – there are so many review sites! You aren’t always sure what the credentials are and what do parents really have time to read? Parents aren’t reading Kirkus [Reviews], that’s for the trade. I still think the paper book drives the app. Or T-shirts – Angry Birds thought they were going to give the app away to sell T-shirts!
Rebecca Emberley can be reached at @twolittlebirdsb on twitter. Please visit Little Bahalia Publishing.