Dostoevsky, meet Dungeons & Dragons: Can video games promote reading?

In another installment in its series about the future of reading, the New York Times ran a piece this week about the tie ins between video games and books that some publishers and authors are beginning to explore. One author of a science fiction book for teens remarks:

“You can’t just make a book anymore,” said Mr. Haarsma, a former advertising consultant. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, he added, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.”

And another writer/teacher has the following prediction:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 or 20 years, video games are creating fictional universes which are every bit as complex as the world of fiction of Dickens or Dostoevsky,” said Jay Parini, a writer who teaches English at Middlebury College.

Elsewhere in the article, a librarian ponders the following question:

“I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’ ” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library. “Reading is no longer just in the traditional sense of reading words in English or another language on a paper.”

If you ask me, playing a video game is no more likely to make my kid a better reader than becoming proficient at Guitar Hero is going to make him a better guitar player.

One of the most cogent arguments that was posted about the article puts it this way:

Without supporting research, all we have is a group of people trying to sell video games and claiming that those games will make kids want to read books, thus, presumably, making the parents who buy the games for their kids feel less guilty and enriching the people who develop the games. It’s a win-win proposition. But perhaps the “victories” have nothing to do with reading books.

But before we dismiss any digital gadget as anathema to the pursuit of all things literary, keep in mind that the road to media convergence goes two ways. A good example is the popularity of an application from a company called Lexcycle, Stanza, which can be downloaded for free to an iPhone (as well as to any PC or Mac). A recent article in Forbes describes it this way:

Stanza, like Kindle, lets users download new content directly to their device. It has a snappy interface that allows readers to flip through a book simply by tapping the edges of the page and responds far faster than Kindle’s poky E-ink screen, which takes about a second to turn pages. On the downside, the iPhone’s LCD screen can strain eyes after hours of reading and chews through battery power far faster than Kindle or the Sony Reader, both of which can go without recharging for days. Lexcycle currently offers only public domain books–most of which were published more than 50 years ago–and creative commons titles offered up without copyright by the books’ authors. The Kindle, by comparison, costs $360 and offers more than 180,000 titles, including new releases and best sellers at around $10 each.

I recently witnessed this somewhat ironic collision of classic lit and new technology when my own kids discovered they could download the Stanza app to their iTouches. So they took a break from playing Jewel Quest II and started reading “Animal Farm” and “Sherlock Holmes”. Apparently they’re not the only ones doing this. The Forbes article continues:

In the meantime, Stanza’s scarce supply of new content hasn’t stopped users from finding plenty to download. According to Paris-based Feedbooks, Stanza’s largest distributor of content, the application’s users have downloaded more than 2 million books. By comparison, Kindle users who access Feedbooks’ book catalog–directly via multiple methods, including through its preinstalled Web browser–have downloaded less than 40,000 of Feedbooks’ titles, although they also have wireless access to the company’s contents.

Think of what those numbers mean for those doomsayers predicting the demise of the written word. I’ll bet my Kindle that sales of books by Tolstoy, Orwell, and Austen haven’t approached 2 million total in the last fifty years. These statistics merely prove the theory that if you offer hassle-free access to compelling content, it will be consumed. OK, so maybe it’s too much to expect my thirteen year old to read War and Peace on a 3.5 inch screen, but I didn’t have to drag him to the library to get it in his hands either.

Kindles in the Classroom: The Forecast for Education is “Cloudy”

Cloud computing is currently the hot trend in geek- world, if my RSS feeds from Mashable, Ars Technica and Technorati are any indication. The concept of being able to access all your information from anywhere, anytime using any device has a certain appeal, if you can get over the privacy concerns. Much digital ink has been spilled speculating on the benefits and risks of cloud computing, and there’s no need to rehash all that here.  However, one domain where it has the potential to fulfill that trite prediction, “This changes everything!” is in  the field of education. Many critics of the public school system have argued that it is fraught with so many antiquated practices and restrictive union rules that any effort to reform our educational system is doomed to failure. But even in the scorched aftermath of a forest fire, the seeds of a new generation of flora are covertly taking root, and one simply needs to nurture them and be patient while a new ecosystem emerges.

An example of how the Kindle (or another ebook reader) will play an integral role in shaping the future of education appears in an interview with a high school world history teacher conducted by Joe Wikert on his Kindleville blog. The teacher, Chris Edwards, makes some bold and, in my opinion, insightful predictions about the future of learning, as well as the demise of the textbook as we know it:

Practically speaking, there is no way that any district 10 years from now is going to be able to resist buying a $200 Kindle for their students at the beginning of their 7th grade year and then simply buying textbook updates as the student progresses. The money saved and hassle avoided will be tremendous.

I look at the Kindle as a kind of transitional species. Certainly textbook downloading is going to be an important feature for the Kindle, but I actually don’t think that it will be necessary to buy textbooks with them. I really think that humanity is quickly moving toward compiling a kind of Comprehensive Human Memory (CHM) that will exist in binary code form and will, metaphorically, just kind of float above us. This is kind of the case now. We’re simply realizing how to access it. It is very likely that in 20 years we will all be carrying blue-tooth type devices that will access this CHM and bring us whatever facts we need on command.

If I had a class set of Kindles with Internet access I would not, strictly speaking, need a textbook. I could simply access sites that have the historical information I’m looking for and use my state standards as a road map. Textbook companies will, of course, evolve with this. If they are going to compete they are going to have to figure out how to make Kindle books accessible and cheap.

What Mr. Edwards is describing when he talks about “Comprehensive Human Memory” is cloud computing in education: all knowledge is floating out in the ether and it can be accessed on demand, by any device. The device may not be a Kindle, however, given Amazon’s “walled garden” model, which favors content from the Amazon bookstore. The Kindle was developed as a delivery mechanism for Amazon’s content, and for that it achieves its objective. It was not, however, designed to seamlessly access and display a whole array of material that might be considered an integral part of a student’s learning: textbooks (either open source or proprietary), PDFs, Poweprpoints, etc. Two years from now there will likely be a handful of such devices, and while they may not have the Kindle’s national wireless coverage, as more and more campuses and schools offer wi-fi, that may become less of an issue in the education space.

What will almost certainly be widely available will be open source textbooks as start-ups like CK12, Connexions, and Flatworld Knowledge begin to proliferate.  This new, disruptive technology, will at last tilt the economics of  education sharply in favor of the student. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars per year on books with a limited shelf life, they (or the school system) will be able to simply purchase an e-book reader (for less than $200) and put all their semester’s required reading material on it for the price of one college textbook today. Truly a cloudy, but bright, future for today’s students.

NY Times says textbook publishers are like drug companies: (Prozac with your Proust?)

Another article in the continuing odyssey of the nefarious publishing industry appears in today’s New York Times. It contains the usual litany of egregious behavior by the textbook oligarchy: double-digit price increases, crippled digital versions padded with empty caloric content, under-the table-kickbacks to faculty members, etc. But it also charges that the publishers are similar to drug companies in that they both benefit from the so-called “moral hazard” problem, as explained by Cal Tech economist and open source microeconomics textbook author R. Preston McAfee:

that is, the doctor who prescribes medication and the professor who requires a textbook don’t have to bear the cost and thus usually don’t think twice about it. “The person who pays for the book, the parent or the student, doesn’t choose it,” he said. “There is this sort of creep. It’s always O.K. to add $5.”

Hmm… Maybe MacMillan could throw in a free prescription for a semester’s supply of Paxil. Having been back on campus for a few weeks now and having to deal with higher tuition and outrageous textbook prices, the class of 2012 is coming to the painful realization that they can barely afford their case of Heineken, their daily Starbucks double iced frappacino, and their music downloads (oh, I forgot – they get that last one for free.)

Professor McAfee adds one more comment:

“This market is not working very well — except for the shareholders in the textbook publishers,” he said. “We have lots of knowledge, but we are not getting it out.”

This is a true but incomplete statement, at least as quoted in the article. It is accurate to point to the increasing returns to shareholders, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to track this data as the trend towards consolidation and private equity in the publishing field removes the need for public disclosure:

There is no doubt that major textbook publishers are big business. The college textbook market represents between $5 billion and $6 billion and the the last 18 months have seen the sale of two major publishers (Houghton Mifflin College and Thomson Learning) for $750 million and $7.75 billion respectively. The overall consolidation of the college textbook market has left four primary players (listed in order of size and market share): Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, and Wiley.

There is little doubt that the M&A activity has resulted in the remaining publishers adding staggering amounts of debt to their balance sheets. A consequence of this new economic reality is a shift in attention from textbooks to those other books that the company produces: the ones that deal with assets, liabilities and net income. Accountants tend to focus on different assets than editorial directors do.

But another party is apparently complicit in this cozy arrangement of uncontrolled textbook price increases, according to a 2006 study by Dr. James Koch called

An Economic Analysis of Textbook Pricing and Textbook Markets.

Yet another distinctive characteristic of textbook markets is that nearly
every institution of higher education has a financial stake in higher
textbook prices.  With a few exceptions, noted below, institutions of
higher education either own and operate their own bookstores, or they
contract that responsibility to an external vendor such as Follett or Barnes
and Noble, in which case they usually receive a lump-sum payment plus a
percentage of dollar value of sales at contracted on-campus stores.

What this market structure leads to is ever increasing pressure on the producers to raise prices, which works well for as long as there are few supply alternatives for the consumers (students). As thought leaders such as Preston McAfee, enabled by disruptive innovators like Lulu and Flatworld Knowledge, (which I have blogged about frequently this year) begin to offer a viable alternative to the two extremes currently faced by most students – price gouging or illegal file sharing sites – the publishing cartel may soon find itself cozying up to the drug makers, if only to get their own supply of Prozac.

Plastic Logic unveils E-reader that’s everything Kindle isn’t

At the Demofall08 conference that was held this week in San Diego, (“72 companies. Each with six minutes to show their product to the world. It doesn’t get any more straightforward and fast paced than that.”) a company named Plastic Logic introduced a new type of e-reader that looked like it featured nearly everything the Kindle doesn’t, at least in its current incarnation. Take a look at this video:

Demo08 Plastic Logic

Some of the oustanding features of this yet to be named product are:

  • Touch screen
  • 81/2 by 11 inch display
  • as thin as a pad of paper
  • durable, unbreakable plastic (not glass) display screen
  • virtual keyboard
  • Bluetooth and Wi-fi capable
  • allows notes and annotation on a document
  • handles PDFs and other open format content

Some reviewers have commented that it lacks content, when compared to the Kindle’s library of 170,000 or so titles. But the device was presented to the crowd as a “Business reader”, in contrast to the Kindle, which they referred to as a device for “recreational reading”. Elsewhere they  mentioned that their device allows them to work with publishers to create “new business models”. Perhaps they could find an intrepid textbook publisher that would be willing to offer textbooks on the device. Its form factor and durability would appear to make it far more suitable for the high school and college market than the Kindle. Whoever gains the first mover advantage in this market will be able to write their own ticket when Jeff Bezos comes calling.

Perseus Books Announces “Constellation” to Level the Digital Playing Field

Yesterday, Perseus Books, one of the largest independent publishers of general interest books, announced a new service this week which will open the digital universe to smaller book publishers. As reported in yesterday’s New York Times:

The new service, called Constellation, will allow independent publishers to make use of electronic readers, digital book search, print-on-demand and other digital formats at rates negotiated by Perseus on their behalf. Unlike large publishers, small ones typically lack the resources to use digital technology and as a result often bypass it altogether.

The company’s website describes their new offering as follows:

  • Constellation is a set of digital services intended to enable Client publishers to participate widely in the emerging digital landscape at a cost balanced with the revenue potential of those digital opportunities.
  • It currently includes digital print services—both short print run (SPR) and print on demand (POD)—online content sampling services, e-Book sales and distribution, and a number of online marketing tools.

This development is good news for independent publishers, who often find it hard to get decent distribution deals with the large, national booksellers. This is becoming less of a problem as fewer book buyers even shop in stores, but it forces the smaller players to fight for space on virtual bookshelves.  At first glance it seems to fly in the face of the tenet, “Any party that comes between the author and the reader is simply an intermediary that adds unnecessary cost and will eventually be driven out of the value chain.” This argument becomes more compelling in the digital age, when there are seemingly fewer links in that chain. After all, if the author creates the work on a computer then it already exists in a digital format, right? Can’t one just click the send button and then reach millions of eager readers effortlessly? It’s not that simple, if you are to believe the information in the company’s FAQs about the new Constellation service offering:

Logistically, you will need to be able to supply digital files of your titles, order ISBNs for the digital edition(s), establish a Digital List Price for the digital edition, and have a means of disseminating the PDF to the digital marketplace (in this case, Constellation). Each digital partner with which we work has differing metadata requirements (i.e., requisite fields that must be supplied). These include everything from Title, Author, Publisher, etc., to territorial rights.

In addition to providing support for e-book conversion (including to Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s E-Reader), the new service also helps its customers take advantage of POD and SRP (Short-Run Print) technology, as well as conversions to Online Content Sampling programs (such as Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” option).

The emergence of a service like Constellation is an indication of the relative immaturity of the e-book business. Just as the availability of consumer-friendly desktop publishing software eventually drove many specialized graphics shops out of business, as digital publishing formats and standards become more widely adopted and accessible to non-professionals, the need for an intermediary offering such as Constellation will decline over time. This will most likely occur when the term “e-pub” is no longer only familiar to members of the IDPF. But in the meantime, it will most likely contribute to an increase in the selection of digital books.

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When Irish Eyes Are Smiling: Schoolkids Get Free E-Readers

The country that gave the world U2, Guiness beer, and the shamrock also seems to be on the cutting edge of educational technology, according to a story in Thursday’s Irish Times:

A GROUP of 18 secondary school pupils yesterday became the first students worldwide to replace their academic books with electronic devices. The first year students of Caritas College girls’ school in Ballyfermot, Dublin, each received an electronic book, pre-loaded with the required textbooks, as well as 50 classic novels including Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist . The use of the electronic devices will mean a dramatic reduction in the weight of the pupils schoolbags, replacing more than 6kg (13.2lbs) of textbooks, workbooks, an English dictionary and a novel with a 400g (0.9lbs) e-book.  In addition, the students will no longer need copybooks to take notes, as they can write and doodle on the electronic pages, similar to a regular copybook.

The pilot program has apparently been launched by Dublin based educational publishers Gill & Macmillan. Their director of sales is quoted as saying: “Although we believe that the widespread adoption of e-readers is some time off, this project allows us to determine how well they work in the classroom, how the pupils interact with them and to examine their potential.”

The device being used for the pilot program is the Iliad, by iRex Technologies. It list for $599 U.S. and is generally regarded as the Mercedes of e-book readers. In addition to handling e-books (including PDFs), this device incorporates Wacom’s pen writing technology, allowing the user to write directly on the screen with a stylus. The mind boggles when imagining the scenario in which a student can carry all her books and notes in a 15 oz package that fits in her purse.

No doubt some critics will say that at this price, why not buy them all laptops, but you’d be hard pressed to find a laptop with handwriting recognition and touch screen technology incoroporated for $600. Besides, the electronic paper display is unbeatable for reading long passages of text. The iliad comes with built in wi-fi for downloading content wirelessly, as well as an optional ethernet hook-up, in contrast to the built in “Whispernet” feature of Amazon’s Kindle, which is based on Sprint’s high-speed mobile phone network.

This is a bold step for a publisher to take, assuming they are underwriting the full cost of the program. If this assumption is correct, this begs the question, (or several questions): Does Gill & Macmillan plan to migrate all its textbooks to an electronic medium? How is their economic model different from that of North American textbook publishers, who so far have shown little interest in adapting their content to an electronic format? And finally, could they please open a U.S. branch?

We will be following the progress of this experiment in digital publishing closely over the coming months. Stay tuned.

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The new social: reading a book

It has been noted by some observers that Amazon has not really taken advantage of the Social Web in building a community of Kindle lovers and ebook readers. This failing was described in a particularly succinct post, in which the blogger describes a scenario in which she has just finished reading a great book, and feels compelled to share it with her friend on the west coast. She could call or email her friend about it, but since it’s 2 a.m, she just wants to go to sleep. She may or may not remember to tell her friend about the book.

Now imagine it’s 2am and I’ve read this book on my second-generation networked digital reader, maybe the Kindle 2.0.  As soon as I’ve finished the book, the device prompts me to rate it (4 stars!).  It also knows about my social connections.  It asks me if I’d recommend it to my friend, who has enjoyed similar books, and I say yes.
The next morning my friend wakes up and picks up his e-reader.  There’s a recommendation from me — and a 20% discount to purchase this book immediately. This $5 digital book is now just four bucks, and it’s instantly on his device.

This eloquent writer has just described the evolution of the book from a solitary, isolated pastime to the foundation of a social framework. Many voracious readers enjoy the solitude and isolation while lost in a great novel. Many others take an equal amount of pleasure in sharing their thoughts and reactions to a book they’ve just read with other readers. This need to share is what gave rise to book clubs in the 1950s. Fast forward a half century and you have virtual social networks for everything from  Andean beekeepers to computer aided Origami creators. Why not for book lovers too? In fact, you don’t have to look beyond Facebook to find them. Two of the most popular are Visual Bookshelf and Shelfari. They allow members of the network to post recommendations, write reviews, and check out what others in their network are reading. What a perfect marriage of old and new technology!

So why hasn’t Amazon, the king of books on the Internet, embraced this aspect of Web 2.0? What better way to promote the viral nature of a great book than to let avid readers send it to their friends? Well, it probably has something to do with these three letters: AZW, which is Amazon’s proprietary DRM format for e-books. This format can only be read by the Kindle, and that’s what keeps us all shopping at the Kindle store. But it’s not a huge leap to envision the capability of sending a file from one Kindle owner to another, in AZW format, to leverage the instant gratification and impulse purchase trends common among digital consumers.

The blogger quoted above suggests that DRM’d books hinder this adoption process:

And let’s suppose that people did send around free digital books.  If I didn’t have an e-ink reader, what would I do with them?  After I got a few freebies from friends I’d probably go buy a Kindle, and then that seductive “share this book” button would take hold.  The existence of some free books is an incentive to move up to a specialized device.  They create the necessary ecosystem and will ultimately motivate, not destroy, publishing sales.

I think she has a point: Making it easier to share ultimately results in higher sales. This vision may be taking a step closer to reality with the announcement yesterday that Amazon is acquiring Shelfari:
Shelfari joins the Amazon.com family

It’s an exciting day here at Shelfari. The rain has stopped, the birds are chirping and the biggest news of all – we are being acquired by Amazon.com.

So maybe we’ll see Kindle 2.0 with recommendations and sharing capabilities…