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.

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E-books in education: One publisher’s perspective

The Association of Educational Publishers sponsors a blog called: Publishing for the Digital Future, which is a collection of essays, articles and opinion pieces that analyze the impact of the digital age on the field of educational publishing. In a recent post, the CEO of Evan Moor Educational Publishers offers up a number of questions that are often asked by publishers thinking about moving into the digital realm. His answers to these questions provide some valuable insight into the thought process of publishing executives. The writer, Bill Evans, takes a decidedly optimistic view of the future of digital publishing, and its effect on the industry. Here are some excerpts  of the questions and answers he addresses:

1. How secure is the e-book format? How can I be sure that my intellectual property isn’t going to be e-mailed to 150 of my customer’s closest friends?

Before answering this question, we first have to ask: How safe is a paper and ink book? The truth is that with better and better scanning techniques and better and better character recognition, any paper and ink book can be made into a digital book in a matter of minutes. Whether it’s a paper and ink book or a digital book, publishers will have to be vigilant about protecting their copyrights.

2. Will digital books cut into my other sales?

That has certainly not been our experience at Evan-Moor. It has been our experience that it actually grows the sales of a book. We believe this is because we are serving a different customer–a customer who has not previously been served. However, if the format did replace the sales of a paper and ink book, it would still mean greater profits for your company. Without any costs of goods sold or the costs of incoming and outgoing shipping, more money drops to the bottom line.

3. How should I price an e-book?

I’ve always taken the position that I’m not selling paper and ink. Rather, I’m selling content. The publisher may be saving on the cost of goods sold, but the customer is also saving the cost of shipping. In addition, the customer gets immediate delivery of the product. At Evan-Moor an e-book and a paper and ink book cost the same.

6. What’s the future of the digital book?

Right now, most publishers (including Evan-Moor) are simply taking the production files we have for our books and transforming them into PDFs for distribution. To a certain extent this is a lot like putting radio shows on television. It really doesn’t take advantage of all the possibilities of this new electronic medium. There are lots of ways we could think about enhancing our e-books, including:

  • Providing a clickable table of contents to immediately get to the part of the book that you want to go to;
  • Giving the ability to annotate the pages with the teacher’s notes;
  • Allowing the teacher to customize the content for his/her class;
  • Adding elements to an activity or deleting them or perhaps even changing the spelling for territories outside the United States;
  • Selling chapters or even a few pages of a book rather than the entire book;
  • Selling compilations and collections of e-books in a bundle; and
  • Making the book whiteboard friendly so that the book is truly interactive. This might also include providing worksheets that now become self-correcting in the digital context.

8. What are the benefits to the ultimate consumer?

There are many reasons that teachers are going to want to buy supplemental materials in this manner:

  • Get the book immediately;
  • Do electronic word searching within the document;
  • Store the book so it doesn’t get lost, and even back it up;
  • Print exactly what you need when you need it;
  • Avoid shipping costs;
  • The teacher may have the ability to customize content for his or her individual classroom; and
  • Use the book on a whiteboard, as well as printing it out.

Now you might be a bit confused if you read the answer to Q 3 (“At Evan-Moor an e-book and a paper and ink book cost the same”) and attempted to reconcile it with the rest of the piece. This statement might be paraphrased as “Let’s not change our pricing one iota, despite taking 30-40% out of our cost base and not adding any value to the content”. It is symptomatic of the antediluvian philosophy of the publishing industry. This assertion is all the more ironic in view of the other promises of e-books that the writer refers to. If they took the extra step and converted to a reflowable text standard such as e-pub, then one might see the justification for charging the same price, because of the value added to the digital content. Clickable ToC, highlighting and annotating text, electronic word searching – now those are features that changing the nature of the book (and education) as we know it.  Simply converting files to PDF misses out on the ability to deliver on the prediction he makes in his conclusion:

E-books and digital content are not just a new way of distribution–this is a whole new way to think about educational publishing.

It may be a new way to think about it but they’re stuck doing things the old way.

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.

Does “Reading First” put reading last?

Several weeks ago the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to eliminate funding for the Reading First program, the groundbreaking but controversial Bush administration program that has given states $1 billion a year since 2002 to teach low-income elementary schoolers to read. A House committee also had voted to eliminate funding; if money is not restored before the federal budget is approved in the fall, the program could end. More about the program and the vote can be found in the July 1 USA Today

Any federally funded program targeting low income families is likely to be the target of criticism and the source of much debate on its effectiveness in addressing the problem. But I believe the comments of one sixth grade language arts teacher in Texas carry more weight than all the studies and reports cited in this legislative quagmire. Donalyn Miller is the author of the blog “The Book Whisperer“, and she makes the following observation:

The children cannot wait. They do not have more time. Students, who entered kindergarten in 2000, the year the National Reading Panel report came out, are in high school now. While Washington policymakers fumble to figure out what is best practice in getting children to read and crafting program after program claiming to have the answers, these children are graduating and breathing a sigh of relief that they never have to read a book again. …The only groups served by current trends to produce more and more programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests. …Meanwhile, the people who have the best ability in actually getting children to read—children’s book authors, parents, librarians, and teachers get the least credit (monetarily or otherwise). No hidden agenda exists with this group; they just want children to read…..When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book….

Her concluding remark:

We don’t need another reading program; we need to go back to the first reading program—connecting children with books. This should always be our bottom line.

Enough said. (But not enough heard; the education industry lobbyists seem to drown people like Mrs. Miller’s voice out).

This blog is one of the best I have seen addressing the issue of how to instill a love of reading among young people today. Highly recommended reading.

Amazon E-Book Sales to Hit $2.5B in 2012?(Hear that Steve?)

Last month at Book Expo America, I heard Jeff Bezos say that Amazon had been selling e-books for nearly ten years and that they needed an electron microscope to find the sales figures. Well they may not need one much longer, if Pacific Crest analyst Steve Weinstein’s projections are valid. He estimates that global sales of e-book sales at Amazon could reach $2.5 billion by 2012, based on the following analysis:

To figure this, Weinstein starts with the handiest analogue: iPod and MP3 player sales. He notes that between 2003 and 2008, digital music sales grew from 2 percent of the US market to 33 percent, largely on the back of Apple’s (NSDQ: AAPL) twin offerings. He doesn’t expect the Kindle/e-books to track as fast, but he does think the market is off to a strong start already, and that the cycle will pick up steam as the Kindle comes down in price (that’s already started) and the ecosystem matures. He also suspects the consumers will be drawn to the instant gratification aspect of Kindle titles, as well as the lower price per book. Based on an operating margin of 4% to 5% for physical books (comparable to operating margins for brick-and-mortar stores) and 15% to 20% for e-books (comparable to other forms of digital media), we estimate that e-books could add as much as $330 million to operating income.

The key figure in this analysis is not the total sales projection, but the margin ratios. If the e-book business generates an operating margin that’s 4X that of the dead tree type, you need no further evidence that Amazon will over time make this the foundation of their business model. Any innovation that offers you the opportunity to carve out two of your largest cost components – warehousing and shipping – (not to mention improving on the customer’s instant gratification experience), is clearly going to be a key component of the company’s strategy. In fact, one wonders why they aren’t giving Kindles away, in order to “iPod-ize” the market, and begin to reap the benefits of the overall growth of the ecosystem. The most logical explanation is that the capital markets still regard Amazon’s investments in digital media with a high degree of skepticism, which tends to temper the rate of spending on this type of technology. This somewhat cautious approach could end up backfiring however. If Steve Jobs chooses to enter the e-book market (despite his dismissal of the book business last year), Apple could quickly come to dominate the market for e-books, since consumers are becoming more accustomed to using their iPhones for reading along with browsing the web. The infrastructure is already in place (iTunes store), and the platform has the dominant market share, and the lure of 20% margins on $10 price points (compared with the few pennies they currently earn per song download) may just be enough to entice Apple to change course and start selling e-books.

All these developments are good news, of course, for the reading public. The outcome of this creative destruction process will be lower costs for content, as well as for the devices to read it on. I might however, have some concern for my career path if I was an assistant editor in a large publishing company.

More Pleasure Reading Than We Suspected? – P.S. to Scholastic Report

More commentary on Scholastic’s Family Reading Report, released earlier this week, this time from Tim Shanahan, a widely recognized and published academic in the field of youth literacy and learning. Among his observations on the report are the following:

The major reason that they say they don’t read for pleasure is because they have other things to do, like working on computers. Some of that time might be spent on just dumb video games, but at least some of it is spent on other reading and writing activities (two-thirds of the kids said they have looked up authors and other book-related information on line).

The bad news in the report (and this is not new—I’ve found surveys all the way back to World War I with the same pattern) is that older students read less than younger students do. Preschoolers like books more than elementary kids do, and elementary kids like them more than teens. Similarly, boys were somewhat less taken with reading than were girls.

http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/

For insightful and informed commentary on this and a variety of other topics related to literacy and learning, I strongly suggest following this blog.

Scholastic 2008 Kids and Reading Report Results

This week marked the release of the bi-annual study of trends among kids and reading in the U.S. Some of the study’s findings are below:

  • After age eight, more children go online daily than read books for fun daily.
  • Two thirds of kids age 9-17 believe that within the next 10 years, most books which are read for
    fun will be read digitally – either on a computer or on another kind of electronic device. Eighty-
    seven percent of kids think people will be able to tag and share their favorite parts of books with others.
  • 77% of kids age 9-17 believe that in the next ten years, people will have all their favorite books stored electronically on a computer or another electronic device just like a music playlist on an iPod. It will be like a personal electronic library.
  • Two-thirds have read a book on a computer in the past year, and one-third had read one on a hand held device such as an e-book reader, iPhone, PSP, Blackberry, etc.

These findings merely underscore the conventional wisdom that kids born after 1990 expect to spend an increasing amount of time online, and take as a given that the web will be the source for nearly all of their information and entertainment as they enter adulthood. They started out with Gameboys and now they’re on iPhones. They like grazing, snacking and sharing, and this goes for their literary diet as well. Hence their penchant for portability.

Yet they’re not ready to give up on the dead tree format: they prefer books to digital versions by a 60-40 margin. In a few years, when e-books are as readily available as other content that kids are used to consuming on handheld devices, that ratio may well be inverted.

Sifting through the data for some positive trends, the Scholastic folks report the following:

  • Nearly two in three online tweens and teens have extended the reading experience via the
    Internet.
  • 37% of kids use the Internet to look for books in similar series
  • 27% go to book and authors’ websites
  • 18% go to websites with blogs about books or by authors
  • 16% are posting on chatrooms and messageboards about the books they read

The study does not offer any crosstabs based on income level; it merely states that the average family income was $58,000, well above the poverty level. It would be helpful if the data was broken down this way to make some policy recommendations about bridging the digital divide.

http://www.scholastic.com/aboutscholastic/news/readingreport.htm