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.

Connect2Books Mission

PIRG claims e-textbooks are due for “Course Correction”

In a stinging critique of its recent foray into the field of digital textbooks, the publishing industry was taken to task in a report released this week  by the Student Public Interest Research Group. The study, entitled, “Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks Are Off Track, and How to Set Them Straight”, outlines the findings of a survey conducted on two different college campuses last spring, and presents the following findings:

1. Digital textbooks must meet three criteria – affordable, printable and accessible:

In order to be a solution to high costs, digital textbooks must cost less than traditional books. That means digital textbooks must be priced lower than the net cost of buying a textbook – the purchase price minus the amount the student can expect to receive for selling it back to the bookstore.

2. Digital textbooks done wrong: e-textbooks fail to meet the criteria:

The first type of digital text we reviewed was e-textbooks, the digital book format offered by the major publishers through CourseSmart.  We found that they fall short on each of the three criteria we found digital textbooks must meet.

E-textbooks are too expensive
* The e-textbooks we surveyed cost on average exactly the same as a new hard copy of the same title bought and sold back to the bookstore.
* The e-textbooks we surveyed cost on average 39% more than a used hard copy of the same title bought and sold back online.

Printing is costly and difficult
* Printing was limited to 10 pages per session for each of the e-textbooks we surveyed.
* Buying and printing half of an e-textbook was three times the cost of buying a used hard copy and selling it back to the bookstore, for the books we surveyed.

E-textbooks are difficult to access
* Students have to choose between using the book online or using it offline – they cannot do both.
* Most (75%) of the e-textbooks we surveyed expired after 180 days, so students do not have the option to access their books in the future.

3. Digital textbooks done right: open textbooks meet all of the criteria

Open textbooks are textbooks distributed free digitally under an open license.  The key feature of an open license is that it permits users to make copies of the textbook and translate it into different formats.  So, open textbooks start as digital textbooks but can be printed in a variety of formats. We found that open textbooks accomplish what e-textbooks do not: low prices, printing options and accessibility.

Open textbooks are affordable. Open textbooks are free digitally, and students can purchase other formats at a low cost.

Open textbooks are easy and inexpensive to print. Students can print digital textbooks anytime, anywhere and in a variety of formats.  They can print individual pages at home, order a print-on-demand bound copy, or anything in between.

Open textbooks are accessible. Students can access open textbooks anytime, from any computer, without the book expiring.

The authors of the study urge faculty and institutions to do everything they can to encourage adoption of open textbooks:

For faculty, this means giving preference to open textbooks whenever pedagogically appropriate.  For institutions, this means providing incentives to faculty authors and pooling resources to develop a viable infrastructure to support open textbooks.

This report seems to be getting noticed, as it’s been quoted by most of the major tech and publishing blogs. If nothing else, it will most likely lead to a spike in hits on a couple of sites: Coursesmart (which PIRG ranks slightly below the IRS in its contribution to society), and on Flatworld Knowledge, which receives high praise for its approach to open textbooks. (Another site Connexions, offers open source educational content as well.) There will also quite possibly be a lot more traffic to file sharing sites like Textbook Torrents, which didn’t let pesky conventions such as copyright laws interfere with its users’ access to every textbook that has been scanned and uploaded by disgruntled students. (Although the site is currently not accepting any more registrations, which suggests that their legal bills may be exceeding their server costs.)

As the report indicates, the textbook publishing industry is overdue for change. But for some insight into some factors that might keep the business from changing as quickly as the technology is, it’s worth reading a column posted by a writer with impressive credentials, as an author, college professor, and a publishing executive. His post is called Why the Kindle Won’t Have a Dramatic Impact on College Course Materials for at least Five Years and although it focuses largely on the barriers to the adoption of the Kindle in the college market, it provides a cogent and laconic account of the economics of the textbook publishing industry. Among his observations:

  • Within this context, e-books are budgeted as a small percentage of the overall budget. From the textbook publisher’s perspective the development costs are identical whether the content is being flowed into a print textbook or an e-book. This is because textbook publishers make most of their revenue of print textbooks and, consequently, most of the content development strategy is formulated around those print textbooks. E-books are simply “add-ons” or extra products that can be viewed as a by product of the core print development process.
  • Within the current content development workflow for textbook publishers, the plant investment remains the same regardless of whether the product is a print textbook or an e-book. And, since publishers sell far more print textbooks than e-books, there is no incentive to change production workflows to favor the creation of minimized or lower-cost e-books from which print textbooks could be created. This means that publishing e-books, without significant changes to current design and production workflow, does not reduce the publishers’ costs significantly. This is important because it means all current e-book solutions for textbook publishers take into consideration the print book production process and derives cost efficiencies from that process. There are neither sales incentive or cost efficiencies in the current workflow that would cause publishers to get excited about the Kindle.

One could surmise that the same might be said for ebooks in general, not only Kindle versions. Until the design and workflow process undergoes a radical transformation, thus reducing the cost curve by an order of magnitude, traditional publishers will not be in a position to offer their content in an open (free or nearly so) model. This is a clear symptom of an industry about to undergo a stage of disintermediation, which is usually accompanied by major sell-offs of assets, restructuring and layoffs of thousands of managers and editors. It may take a decade or so, but eventually the textbook industry may consist of hundreds of small, specialized content producers, and a handful of POD providers. Instead of going to Barnes & Noble to buy their textbooks, the freshmen of 2015 may be stopping by Kinko’s.

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…

Getting kids to read: Take them to the movies

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story headlined: “To Reach Children, Publisher Tries Films”. It starts off:

When the children’s book series “The Spiderwick Chronicles” became a popular Hollywood film, its publisher, Simon & Schuster, enjoyed a subsequent lift in book sales — and little else. But under a new deal with the Gotham Group, a Los Angeles-based management firm, the next time Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing owns the film rights to a book — and that book is eventually turned into a movie — the publisher will be promised its own piece of the pie.

The article actually devotes more ink to the increasing number of tie-in deals being struck between publishers and film studios than it does to the effect movies have on kids’ reading habits. Nevertheless, there is a direct relationship between the release of a movie based on a book and subsequent sales of that book. Some books had aleady reached commercial success, such as the Harry Potter series, and the films only boosted their sales further. Other titles, though, had languished in obscurity for years, only to be rejuvinated by the release of a movie based on them. Sales of Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass, first published in 1995, saw a 500% increase even before the film of the same name was released last December. Similarly, when the movie Polar Express was released a few years ago, sales of the original book jumped 50%, even though it was first published two decades earlier (and had received the Caldecott Medal).

This is not a recent phenomenon. Even sales of the best selling book of all time, the Holy Bible, saw an uptick after the release of The Ten Commandments fifty years ago. Publishers nearly always see a jump in sales of their backlist titles if the movie builds any kind of an audience. In the past however, authors and their agents typically negotiated film rights separately from the book deal. With the advent of the alliance such as that between Gotham and Simon & Schuster described in the article, the publisher will share in the revenue generated when its children’s books are turned into video games, comic books, or other properties. This type of tying arrangement is likely to help prevent the oft-foretold demise of literary pursuits by 21st century teens. Studies have shown that given exposure to interesting content, kids will in fact read. If their interest is piqued through exposure to a character or plotline, be it through a movie, video game, or website, chances are they will take a chance on the book of the same title. That has to be good news for both publishers and booksellers.

Blood, Guts and Books: WSJ says boys prefer ghoulish, not girlish, lit

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting Page One article about the lengths publishers are going to in order to interest pre-teen boys in reading. Citing an academic study that:

tracked boys’ reading habits for five years ending in 2005 and found that schools failed to meet their “motivational needs.” Teachers assigned novels about relationships, such as marriage, that appealed to girls but bored boys. His survey of academic research found boys more likely to read nonfiction, especially about sports and other activities they enjoy, as well as funny, edgy fiction. Boys’ literary depth is an abiding concern in educational circles. Boys have persistently lagged behind girls in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an influential federal test for gauging achievement. The gap widens by the time they reach 12th grade.

So to meet this challenge, publishers have started a genre that might be called “Gore for Guys”, with titles such as “Vlad the Impaler”, “Help! What’s Eating My Flesh?” and “Sir Fartsalot”. The article goes on to say that last year, U.S. publishers released 261 new works of juvenile fiction aimed at boys, more than twice the number put out in 2003, according to Bowker’s Books in Print database. There were 20 nonfiction entries for boys, compared with just four in 2003.

This trend is a positive devlopment. It’s disturbing to learn that boys begin to lag girls in reading ability around the age of ten, and the gap continues to widen into adulthood. Anything that generates interest in a subject usually leads a young person to become absorbed (even obsessed) with that topic. So if a movie about Dracula sparks an interest in all things ghoulish then that may well lead to greater consumption of the printed word.

Another site serves the needs of boys searching for books that would interest them. Called GuysRead, it was created by children’s author Jon Scieszka as a web-based literacy program to get boys interested in reading. It could be a great social networking site for teens to post and share reviews of books they like, but at this point it appears to contain a list of books that kids might find interesting, with a link to Amazon if you want to buy the book. (A random check of a few of the books listed resulted in further links to third party sellers, as Amazon did not seem to stock them. And while the books cited in the WSJ article were all available on Amazon, none were offered in the Kindle format. Maybe they’re too graphics intensive to present well as an e-book.)

NY Times asks: “R U Really Reading Online?”

Yesterday The Times ran an article on Page One that was the first of a series that will investigate how the internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. The article features several families with children who prefer to read on the Web rather than with books, in contrast to their parents, who are characterized as old fogies who still read books and newspapers, and reminisce about Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan on TV. There’s the 15 year old Cleveland girl named Nadia who spends six hours a day online, at sites like fanfiction.net and quizilla.com, which are sites that offer users the chance to create their own stories.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors.“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.” Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

Right. And brain surgeons don’t really need to go to medical school.

There’s also the high school senior from Greenwich CT who surfs over 100 technology and political blogs and websites daily. His name is Zachary, and although he loves to be online, he also reads books (he just finished The Fountainhead). Zachary is entering Columbia University this fall. Maybe Nadia should, like send a text message to Zachary, and ask him, “Like Zach, what book did you read before you went to college? And if it’s more than fifty pages(omg!), could you, like put a summary of it on fanfiction or something?”

After a healthy dose of apocalyptic anecdotes heralding the decline of literary standards among the youth of today, the article goes on to cite two notable findings:

  • A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books.
  • One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

While the article makes no mention of e-readers, (like the Kindle) the above reference leads me to believe that if e-books and e-readers were to become standard issue for low income teens, the achievement gap between whites and low income minorities would begin to diminish. Kindles and their ilk are cheaper than (most) computers, and provide unrestricted access to the one component that is the most highly correlated with academic success: books. The ability to read newspapers, magazines and blogs, is an added bonus that provides access to current developments and diverse viewpoints. All this without the cost of broadband access nor the distractions of YouTube. Texting’s not so good on it either. FWIW.