Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oh, The Places You (and Your iPad) Will Go!

Reading an AOL News story today that 13 of the 16 top book applications for the iPad are children's titles, I began getting a little light-headed. That time, "somewhere down the road," when kids will be reading picture books on handheld computers and we'll all be flying jetpacks to work, well, it's here. Mostly.

But I still couldn't wrap my brain around what it all means. So I got in touch with Oceanhouse Media, the publisher of the Dr. Seuss apps that are among the most popular downloads. Surely he could calm me down about the iPad, picture book apps, e-books, and what this all means.

"It's a complete revolution in the way children's books will be published," said Michel Kripalani, president of Oceanhouse.

Okay. Now that we've got that straight.

"A lot of the old skills won't apply anymore in publishing," Michel said. "I won't have to ship from China anymore, I won't have to deal with resellers, or with brick and mortar stores."

That echoes what Stephen Roxburgh said recently when he spoke at 57th Street Books about his new publishing venture, namelos, which prints books in hardback, paperback, and e-formats all on demand. From a publishing standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. No paying to move freight, no gambling on how many books to send out and how many get remaindered, no grinding down unsold books into pulp. The Lorax (another recent Oceanhouse release) would be proud.

I was especially excited to look at Michel's version of Dr. Seuss's ABC since it is the very book that my five-year-old is actually reading to us right now. So for me, after years of reading about Little Lola Lopp and the lazy lion licking a lollipop in the traditional paper and glue format, it was a bit of a rush to hear the narrator's voice in the iPad app. (This is a book that came out in 1960 and probably taught me, my husband, and these app programmers how to read!) Besides hearing the narrator read the text, I could tap on Lola and see her name cross the screen as the narrator read "Little Lola Lopp." I could tap on the lollipop and see that word come up as well, accompanied by the sound of a creature happily licking.

Oceanhouse plans to produce one to two Dr. Seuss books per month until they've gone through the entire Seuss library of 44 books and stories. Michel began to explain that it takes just a couple weeks to produce an app. I missed what he said next because I'd begun choking on my chai and dropped the phone. A couple weeks? Surely I'd misheard the man.

"That's assuming we have the source content -- the original digital art files of Dr. Seuss books," he explained. "We do a recording session for the narration in a professional studio, create a new set of sound effects for each book, pull it all together in our proprietary engine. . ."

Slow down there, Tex. I get what galleys are, F&Gs, and I can tell my ARC from a hole in the ground. But I don't speak this lingo. What's a proprietary engine?

"It's what we call the code, or the technology that everything is sitting on," he explained patiently, clearly aware by this point in our conversation that he was dealing with a 20th century book gal (or is it more like 15th century? How long has this model been around?). "It's the core technology that's under the hood for every book. Because essentially we are a software company more than a book publisher."

And that's a great point. Because for picture books, more so than any other electronically delivered books, the interactive element will require much more equipment under the hood. Michel said Oceanhouse wasn't interested in too many whistles and bells in their books, but there are interactive qualities.

"The fact that we started with Dr. Seuss guided our direction. He was all about teaching kids to read, so we use that as our litmus test. 'Will this feature help a child learn to read better?' If we highlight a word, it will help."

So how long did he say it takes to get the app to market?

"It takes a couple weeks to pull all that together, then we get Seuss approval (from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which handles the licensing of all things Seuss), then we submit to Apple for approval. From the time we get Seuss approval to the Apple store is less than 100 hours."

And as if that weren't enough to make you want to sing like one of the Whos down in Whoville, he added,
"Then we're immediately available for sale in 70-plus countries."
So what does this mean for authors? Looking at Oceanhouse's model, they're going with a proven winner in the traditional format and adapting it to the new market. There's no editing and revising of the text, no working with an illustrator to bring that text to life. But will other houses take a risk on an unknown author? I think the answer is yes. But it will take time.

"It's hard to say what it means for authors," Michel said. "In general, the author's cut could be higher in this model than the old one. Traditional publishers have a lot of overhead; they have to print all those books just to get them into, say, 100 bookstores.

"But with this model, you have hundreds of thousands of people seeing your book. What iTunes did for music it is doing all over again for books, without a doubt."

So what's next for Oceanhouse? Michel and his wife are looking to have a baby any day now. And beyond that, we can look for One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish in June. And just in time for graduation, they'll be releasing Oh, the Places You'll Go!

And with an iPad, that could be just about anywhere.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Boy Scouts as video gamers

The Boy Scouts of America has announced it will offer two awards -- a belt loop and a pin -- for video gaming. While at first blush, this sounds a little sad. When we hear Scouts, we imagine tents and nature and slip knots, not Diddy Kong. The CNN tech blog where I read this announcement was skeptical:
". . . you still have to wonder if this isn’t a misguided attempt by the Cub Scouts to stay relevant by pandering to boys’ interests. Seems to me the Scouts should be getting kids outside and teaching them practical skills beyond the bubble of their everyday lives instead of how to read the back of a video game box."

But what should the Scouts do? Ignore video gaming entirely?

The Kaiser Family Foundation's recent study on media and children says 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of 7 hours, 38 minutes using entertainment media in a typical day. That's like having a full-time job! And as for gender, the study comes as no surprise: Boys spend more time than girls playing console video games (56 minutes per day for boys, 14 minutes for girls).

It's the Scouts vs. Mario and Luigi!

I applaud the Scouts' effort to try to harness all this frenzied energy for video gaming and contain it. This generation of kids has been called "digital natives," and as parents, we often don't come anywhere close to speaking their language. So if an organization like the Scouts steps in and tries to help translate, I'm all for it.

What do you have to do to earn the Scouts' belt loop? Kids have to explain why a rating system is important for video games. That can prompt some good discussions. What else must they do? Create a daily schedule to see where gaming fits in after chores and homework. What's not to love about teaching kids time management? And when there is a daily planner hanging on the fridge, it makes parenting that much easier. "I'd love to let you play longer, but the chart shows it's time for homework. . ."

And to earn a pin? Among the nine requirements are two that I think every parent should be doing when the Wii or other game system enters the house: Have Junior sit down and teach us how to play a game. The other requirement I wholeheartedly back is having him choose a game that helps with math, spelling, or another skill related to schoolwork. "Can't talk now, Mom. I'm practicing fractions!"

It's all about having the vegetables along with dessert. Kids, especially boys, want to game. There is a place for it, and they should play within reason. There are ways to teach them to use gaming intelligently. And if a venerable organization like the Scouts tries to teach them the healthy ways to incorporate gaming into their lives, all the better.

Take that, Mario!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Have you hugged your screen today?

I’m done apologizing.

My days of hiding my kids’ Wii remotes when unexpected guests knock at the door are all behind me. The era of ushering the little darlings away from the computer screens when the neighbors stop by is history.

I’m now embracing technology, that 2.0-pound gorilla in the room. I’m getting more comfortable with the place it’s found in my home. While I used to cringe at how tech-savvy my five-year-old was (“He should be reading more books!”), now I’m all right (and a little impressed) with the way he can move so fluidly from beating his big brother at basketball on the Wii to downloading a free game on the iTouch to picking up where he left off playing Spore on the laptop.

What’s made me stop apologizing for all this tech play at my house? It might have something to do with a recent job I started, working with an academic whose area of research is digital media and urban schools. Or maybe it's from reading stories about serious institutions like the MacArthur Foundation’s commitment to digital media and young people’s learning.

But most likely it has to do with a talk I heard Thursday night at 57th Street Book Store in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The speaker was Stephen Roxburgh, a former children’s book editor and publisher who is at the forefront of the e-book revolution. Having recently founded a new publishing venture called namelos, which can deliver a children’s novel in the click of a button, Stephen talked to us about the current convulsions in the book publishing industry. He likened it to Gutenberg’s arrival on the scene back in the mid-1400s.

“Screens are the future of content delivery, not ink on paper.”

Stephen (pictured here at 57th Street Books) says this on his blog, but it was also the essence of what he discussed with the bookstore audience, made up mostly of SCBWI-Illinois writers and illustrators who have an enormous stake in the conversation. When I heard Stephen – legendary editor of such distinguished children’s authors as Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, Carolyn Coman, and Uri Shulevitz, to name a few – talk about embracing the book delivered via computer screen as closely as the one bound in leather with gilt pages, I began to question my own thinking.

Technology is changing so rapidly, every day offers tremendous change from the one before. It’s all a bit dizzying. But there is no mistaking that products like Apple’s iPad are revolutionizing the way we live, work, and enjoy our leisure time.

Says Stephen, “. . . a powerful tablet computer with a high-resolution screen and intuitive operating system is the face of the future of reading. . . .”

And when I look at my kids – my five-year-old especially, who has used his daddy’s iTouch like a pacifier, tucking himself into a big chair in the corner of our family room when he needs a little quiet time – I couldn’t agree more.

They are perfectly content to enjoy a picture book delivered by one of the many screens in our house as from the glossy pages of the hardback book they pluck off the shelf. They are equal opportunity consumers of media right now, but I have a feeling that they are going to prefer their books online soon. Because that’s where they have been going for information and entertainment since they could toddle over to a chair, clamber up at a desk, and click the mouse to bring up the Sesame Street website. PBS Kids’ online games have been as crucial to their reading development as the dog-eared copies of Dr. Seuss’s ABCs.

So it’s official. As of Thursday – which was Earth Day, I might note – I am done apologizing for my kids’ screen use. Though we still love paper books in our house (they are everywhere, even wedged beneath the cushion where I am sitting), I am comfortable with my kids reading new ones as well as the classics via a screen.

And if it means we save a few trees in the bargain, all the better. It’s one less thing I have to apologize for.