McKellar & Martin, a small Canadian children’s book publisher, converted their first titles from print to ebook in August 2013. They approached the conversion as a pilot project to develop their own digital publishing strategy. This report analyzes the development of McKellar & Martin’s strategy from the initial goal-setting to the point at which the ebooks were ready to go to market. The report reviews the publisher’s unique context, the audiences they aimed to reach, and the two titles selected for conversion. It provides a detailed account of the conversion process and tactics used, and discusses how McKellar & Martin overcame some unique challenges. The report concludes with recommendations for McKellar & Martin as they begin their ebook distribution and marketing. The aim of the report is to provide small publishers with a blueprint for developing their own digital publishing strategy that will stand the test of time. Read more
“I want apps that help develop thinking skills. I want app developers to think like innovative teachers.”1
— Angie Harrison, teacher and literacy coach
The debate is out there: Are children’s apps and ebooks educational, or not? Can they improve literacy, or are they just distracting games, filled with needless bells and whistles?
It is a polarizing question, and studies have shown both sides to be true. Apps and ebooks for kids can be educational, but they can also prove to be distracting. What I take out of the debate is that there is a huge potential for apps and ebooks both as a market for publishers and as a resource for parents and educators. What we’re missing is thorough information – for parents and educators to choose from the ever-growing app list, and for publishers to develop the best possible ebooks.
For context regarding the apps for children debate, I recommend reading two other student papers on the subject of ebooks in early elementary education and apps that promote or hinder literacy. From these and other studies I have concluded that, while many developers have simply added game-like features to excite children, others have put care and thought into developing educational tools that best highlight the strengths of story and imagery. And, of course, ebooks are just another tool in the parents’ and educators’ arsenal, to be used as a compliment to traditional books rather than as a replacement.
I would like to explore what the future of children’s apps has in store.While publishers hold the key to quality ‘book-like’ content, innovative app developers have taken the concept of the book so far that we can no longer define it in familiar terms. Likewise, the line between exploration and distraction has been blurred. A new literacy is emerging, one that will equip the next generation for the media and devices of the future.
Please note that in this context, I’ve used the terms ebook, app and digital book interchangeably.
Children’s Apps: The Ever-Growing Minefield
The market for children’s apps has expanded enormously in the last few years. A recent study by the Digital Book World shows that 54% of kids age 2-13 are reading ebooks – more than double the number of adults. Of those, 85% read digital books at least once a week, and they use tablets more than any other device. These children read a combination of regular and enhanced ebooks.2
Last year, the sales of children’s ebooks rose dramatically in January (475.1% growth) and had steadied at 177% growth over the first three quarters of 2012, with expectations of another rise during the gift-buying season.3 These results show much more rapid growth in the children’s market than in adult ebook purchases.
The number of children who have read at least one ebook is certainly rising. A Scholastic study released in January 2013 shows that the percentage of children who have read an ebook has almost doubled in the last two years, rising to 46 percent.4 The study has raised questions about how many of these readers return and read ebooks with the regularity they read in print. Interestingly, the study shows that more boys have taken to ebooks, while fewer girls reported being consistent readers because they often switch to other online activities. This result points to two things: 1) ebooks are a means to attract boys, who traditionally lag behind girls in reading; and 2) given their internet connectivity, tablet reading leads children to other activities (texting, playing games) that should be closely managed.5
Given this information, how can we help parents and educators navigate the ever-growing list of apps and manage their children’s digital reading experience? And how can publishers develop digital content that attracts and retains new readers?
Tips for Parents and Educators
“To ignore technology is to miss opportunities for delivering new content and better teaching to the children who need it most, inadvertently allowing digital divides to grow wider.”6
It is important to start the digital discussion from the point of view that technology can be a tool to help with literacy and learning, but that it is not the only answer. Our understanding of literacy also has to go beyond simple reading skills and knowledge – literacy includes active discovery and a supportive environment. It is critical that parents and educators be actively engaged in a child’s learning.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a detailed review of digital literacy for parents and educators. Of the apps they studied, most focused on basic skills such as letters and sounds rather than advanced skills like comprehension and grammar. The study provides a list of attributes to look for in educational apps and calls for more support for parents and educators, to help them understand which apps aid in development.7
The study also recommends training for parents to help them mediate their child’s experience with digital reading. For example, when reading ebooks with children, parents should engage and ask questions about the book that relate to the child’s life. One risk came out in a study at Temple University: if parents let the device read to their child, they may focus their conversation on how to use the device rather than on engaging the child with the content of the book.8
Luckily, there is no end of resources for parents and educators available online, if you know where to look. An educational consultant, inov8, has published a detailed survey of apps that support the seven literacy building blocks: print awareness, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.9
In addition, there are a number of communities and forums that review and evaluate children’s apps:
To begin with, publishers do not need to invest in the latest and greatest app development. Traditional children’s book publishers have one distinct advantage: really good stories. A lot of apps on the marketplace “have lots of digital bling, but the story is awful.”10 When considering books for app development, publishers should consider the strengths of the story and whether the images or graphics would translate well to a screen. Any enhancements should be thoughtfully included in order to add to the reading experience.
Wired Magazine’s ‘GeekDad’ column raises an interesting point that I think would be a good rule of thumb for creating simpler apps – would it work as a quiet bedtime read? The app Tales for Great Grandchildren, for example, has beautiful illustrations that each capture a single scene from the story. The illustrations are animated, but in a subtle way. The writing is kept clean and separate, allowing the child to become immersed in the reading.11 The app does not need the usual audio or voice recording, and would work well as a bedtime read.
Parents and educators have started speaking out about what they want app developers and publishers to consider. One obvious request is for apps to have less obnoxious music and a mute button. They also suggest locking away everything that isn’t part of the child’s experience, such as in-app marketing, privacy settings, and the difficulty level of educational apps. Other recommendations include ensuring a natural flow (rather than requiring kids to jump between pages and hit the back button) and promoting the app accurately (i.e., don’t say it’s educational if it’s not).12 Again, publishers can look to the resources available online, including the ever-influential mommy bloggers, to get an understanding of what parents are looking for.
Beyond the Book: A Different Kind of Learning
The above section describes a straightforward book-to-app conversion. Simplicity is key, and it is to the advantage of traditional publishers looking to foray into the app market. But with the prominence of the tablet, there is a whole other realm of children’s apps that have little to do with the book as we know it. To get a sense of the range of digital books for children, consider the following categories identified by GeekDad:
Traditional (books turned digital);
Originals (books written for mobile devices only);
Movie & Cartoon-Inspired Books;
Bookshop Apps (leverage a delivery system); and
Empowering Storytelling (create your own book).13
So what does the future of digital books hold? I believe it will be the ‘active discovery’ recommended above by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. It seems counter-intuitive, but much of what has been vilified as a distraction in the current ebook discourse may actually be part of a child’s active learning and exploration. For example, books don’t need to be contained entities. We can leverage the internet connectivity of new devices to help children search and discover the rich online world of content and media.
“The new wave of digital publishers […] will create hypertextual eBooks that tap into children’s imagination and their desire to explore and play. They will make room for children to develop skills in media literacy, understand networks and how to organize information and create their own new stories.”14
— Daniel Donahoo, GeekDad
Innovative apps allow kids to control the story and to create, they support a new form of digital literacy that is essential in the 21st century, and they encourage exploration. The success of these apps can be measured not by the sales volume but by the level of engagement (how much time does a child spend with the app?).15 This measure can help differentiate between enhancements added for the sake of it or to make a flashy video trailer, and ones that add a meaningful layer of interaction with a story.
Since the educational merits of apps can be murky at best, I’d like to highlight some developers who have done a particularly excellent job. The first example is Peapod Labs. Their Little Explorers series engages children with apps that include links to Creative Commons content in a contained, Google-like landscape. This brings out the joy of discovery and allows children to research a topic and stumble across new content.16 It requires a lot of work on the developer end to keep the contained landscape active and without broken links, but it is a great way to introduce the power of the internet in a controlled setting.
The second star developer is Oceanhouse Media, the powerhouse behind the Dr. Seuss apps. The company’s founder, Michel Kripalani, has said: “I, for one, don’t believe that games should be packed in with children’s eBooks when the core idea is to teach reading. The game only becomes a distraction.”17 The company has studied the market and child development, and they ensure that their app functionality always supports the goal of teaching children how to read. And, they save their game ideas for separate apps.18
Lastly, the Toontastic app by LaunchPad Toys encourages creativity and storytelling by letting kids take the wheel – they can design their own cartoons. The developers have created a tool that teaches children about the art of storytelling and script writing. Kids can start with simple characters and backgrounds, or draw their own. They can then share their creations on ‘ToonTube’ along with a soundtrack of classical music designed to support the development of emotional intelligence.19
The Good News for Publishers
The work and thought required to develop innovative educational apps for children that actually promote a new kind of literacy and learning is certainly daunting. The good news is that traditional children’s book publishers already have the advantage of good quality, thoughtfully crafted narratives and illustrations. As we’ve seen, sometimes the simplest digital books succeed both in the marketplace and in the hearts of children.
The app playing field is growing and it is rife for experimentation. Publishers who want to explore the new wave of digital publishing can team up with some great developers to showcase their content in different ways.
The most important lessons are that apps should be designed first and foremost with the child’s educational development in mind, and that developers should engage with parents and educators who have researched how best to do this. Lastly, don’t let the ‘bells and whistles’ argument derail you from exploring just what the latest device can do – you just may discover a new way to help children learn.
The methods by which we learn to read not only embody the conventions of our particular society regarding literacy . . . they also determine and limit the ways in which our ability to read is put to use.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance to humanity of reading. Books have toppled tyrannical regimes, enriched countless lives, and spread pleasure and edification across the globe. But they are not inherently liberating or democratic; they do not exist in a vaccuum. Their value in a society depends on its economic, social, and political conditions. These can breathe the life of millennia of accumulated wisdom into the people, uplifting and enlightening them – or confine them to a stunted existence as mere objects. As the proliferation of e-books, e-readers, and e-reading applications for tablet computers seems poised to end the 500 year dominance of printed books, it’s worth considering what effects (aside from the obvious commercial implications) might result from a society reliant on e-books.
Shifting the bulk of our reading to online or digital media fundamentally alters the simple and powerful act of reading. Allowing e-reader manufacturers and e-book retailers to mediate our reading experience makes us increasingly susceptible to censorship and surveillance, and the data-gathering capabilities of these devices adds another dimension to reading that benefits only their manufacturers. These effects are abetted and amplified by the internet’s monopolistic tendencies. Regulatory measures – such as enshrining a “right to read” or clawing back some of the internet’s privatization – would ensure the promise of reading is fulfilled.
Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. … I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.
In spite of the heady Utopian rhetoric of the early days of the internet, the hyper-modern creation of e-readers that purchase e-books from internet-based retailers has emphasized the ancient problem of censorship. Of course formal censorship existed in brick-and-mortar bookselling days, but the digital nature of e-books and the vast platform of retailers such as Amazon and Apple creates the potential for much more pervasive de facto censorship.
For example, Apple has changed the title of Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography, to V*****, and refused to sell two mainstream German magazines containing nudity; most recently they’ve been criticized for refusing to sell Hippie 1 and Hippie 2, Danish e-books and iPad apps containing photographs of naked hippies, even after the publisher resubmitted the titles in censored form. This is part of an emerging trend in large internet-based enterprises, whereby things like search results and auto-complete suggestions are censored using algorithms – this occurs generally unbeknownst to the wider public, but nevertheless subtly imposes and shapes social norms and attitudes.
Uffe Elbaek, the Danish culture minister, said that a danger of the global e-commerce marketplace is that companies such as Apple “will decide how freedom of speech will be arbitrated and who is allowed artistic freedoms. It’s important that we have these discussions at regional and national levels.” The publisher of the books, Jens Lauridsen, raised another critical issue, that of self-censorship: Apple’s guidelines for appropriate content will lead to artists censoring their own work in order to gain access to their stores.With companies like Apple and Amazon granting access to hundreds of millions of customers, many artists will decide they can’t afford not to self-censor – thereby depriving the world of potentially beautiful and valuable work. The decision of one retailer to not stock a title – based on subjective moral claims, ambiguous policies, or private religious views – can negatively affect millions of people.
When you buy a physical book, the transaction usually ends the moment you walk out the door. You have your book, they have your money, everyone’s happy – you’re free to read, lend, or deface your book however you see fit. When buying an e-book, however, the initial transaction is only the beginning of a long and intimate relationship. The salient difference is not the screen, e-ink, or even a digital text’s infinite reproducibility, but the construction of devices like the Kindle, Kobo, or iPad (and their equivalent apps for tablet computers) as “tethered appliances:” they are easy to use, difficult to substantively modify, and useless unless connected to the vendor.
This is problematic for a few reasons. The first is that the e-book retailer has the ability to alter or delete an e-book after it’s sold. In 2009 Amazon did exactly that, deleting from Kindle devices every instance of Orwell’s 1984, because the publisher offering it for sale through Amazon did not own the rights (1984 does not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044). Two affected Kindle owners threatened a class-action lawsuit, and Amazon eventually apologized and vowed never to delete books again unless ordered to do so by a court. But as Anton Chekhov and Cory Doctorow well know, if a gun appears in act one it must be fired in the third: just last October, Amazon deleted the entire library of a Kindle owner in Norway and refused to offer an explanation (at least until the story gained media exposure).
Further reasons to be concerned about the tethering of e-readers stem from their “upstream capabilities:” Kindles automatically upload (to Amazon.com’s servers) data including notes, bookmarks, annotations, highlights, and progress within titles. Marketing material for the Kobo ARC promises that the device “truly gets to know you – the real you and not just your purchase history,” in order to ease that “time-consuming and confusing” process of finding new books to read. In a 2012 survey of 9 popular e-readers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that most of them tracked search data, shared it with law enforcement or “trusted third parties” (in the case of Kobo), provided only limited customer access to and control of personal information (although Kobo provides full access), and shared information outside of the company without a user’s consent.
This upstream data flow amounts to surveillance of what used to be a private, individual activity. E-readers can track not just the books you read but how you read them and what you thought about them. Information that used to exist solely in a person’s mind or the marginalia of a book can now be easily shared within the company, with other companies, and with law enforcement agencies. This is not just a concern in non-democratic nations; according to Ronald Deibert,
Most liberal democratic governments have also pushed for new surveillance powers, downloading responsibilities for collection of data to private sector actors while relaxing judicial oversight of sharing with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
For example, in the United States, a company’s data is subject to the Patriot Act no matter where in the world it is stored, and because this information exists on a server it is considered “stored communication” and is accessible with a subpoena rather than a warrant.
Of course, companies don’t collect this data with the intent of sharing it with the police. In the case of a company like Amazon, which should be seen not as a retailer but as a technology company, the wider strategy is to collect as much data as possible and convert it to a revenue-producing asset. The private activity of reading generates data, which in the aggregate can reveal patterns of behaviour far more profound than just purchasing habits, and is then used in the broader corporate context to more effectively sell things to you and others. This creates a second kind of reading that exists in parallel to the traditional sense, one whose value is wholly economic and benefits only Amazon. By engaging in leisurely or intellectual pursuits, Kindle readers are working in the sense of creating value for others, but have no sense of having worked, and of course receive no pay. Just by buying an e-book and sitting down to read it on their Kindle, they become human resources in Amazon’s computing system.
By objectifying the act of reading, e-readers constrict a fundamental space of individual autonomy, for the financial gain of private enterprises. Readers might be willing to accept some behind-the-scenes data-gathering in exchange for the convenience of e-reading, but the act of reading as expanded and redefined by a Kindle tethered to Amazon.com nevertheless represents “a challenge to a core set of liberal democratic principles.”
As undesireable as a society consisting only of tethered readers may be, this is not meant to vilify companies like Apple or Amazon. “Locking-in” customers via tethered devices and then exploiting the available data is an extraordinarily effective business strategy, and in the absence of compelling reasons not to—legislation, or irate customers—it’s in their best interests to aggressively collect as much personal information as possible in order to further “corral us into walled gardens.”
Unfortunately, the public’s interests don’t always align with the interests of private companies. The global connectivity of the internet, initially seen as an egalitarian, democratic public good, has proven to be even more susceptible than “real-life” markets to the monopolizing tendency of capitalism. The collaborative potential of the internet has enabled public goods such as Wikipedia and open-source software, but it has also enabled the rise of many monopolistic companies with massive economic power. In heavily networked economies, success begets success: as a company gains market share, the “network effect” means its attractiveness to other customers increases disproportionately, and it quickly runs away from the pack. To illustrate, in the US in 2001 the top 10 websites received 31% of all pageviews; by 2010 their share had increased to 71%. This process has repeated many times, and now instead of competitive industries we have oligopolistic markets commanded by behemoths like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, who have the power to derail economies and shape the technological landscape, including the nature of the future of reading.
With each deleted Kindle library, each censored book in the iTunes store, and each expansion of an e-readers ability to surveil its owner, it becomes more readily apparent that there are costs to the benefits of the internet and its associated devices, costs that we are paying without fully appreciating. To counteract this process and protect the unadulterated beauty and power of reading, it is worth considering policy interventions. Enshrining a “right to read” as a necessary corollary to the freedom of expression would ensure that an individual is able to read freely, without fear of surveillance or the abuse of data gathered in relation to their reading, and would therefore have something of substance to express. California has taken steps in this direction – they’ve passed a “reader privacy act” that grants more robust legal protection to the records of e-book consumers.
More broadly speaking, if the internet were seen as a public utility, in keeping with the very early days of its (publicly funded) development, some of the privately-enriching, publicly-impoverishing tendencies of market economies that it amplifies, as personified by tethered, data-gathering e-readers and moralizing e-book retailers, might be kept in check. Private companies should not be the only interests shaping the nature of the internet, especially as it comes to dominate more and more aspects of our lives. If we are to retain our freedom to, for example, read freely to our own ends only, then “the system’s overriding logic—and the starting point for all policy discussions—must be as an institution operated on public interest values.” This is highly unlikely (barring the complete collapse and rebuilding of the global economy), but at the very least we should appreciate that a reading experience controlled and mediated by a private company is, for all its convenience and utility, a fundamentally different experience, one that can lead to abuses of our best ideas of a free and open society.
“Ease of production is where it all started for Gutenberg and it is starting again for us. […] Making books in the browser will have an enormous impact on society as a whole, and just like the printing press, it will not revolutionise the old order, but create a new one.”1
— Adam Hyde, Booktype Project Lead
Publishers today are faced with a challenge. Their traditional print workflows are not efficient for creating ebooks. For the most part, publishers have cobbled together some sort of print-to-ebook conversion, and struggle to make the content work for the many different devices that exist today.
Their challenge echoes a question in the minds of all companies, organizations and individuals who have websites that must now render well on mobile devices, tablets, and any number of screen sizes, resolutions and browsers. One possible answer has emerged: responsive web design, which embraces a flexible, grid-based layout and flexible media.2
Publishers can no longer afford to play catch-up. The tools exist today, in web design and programming, to create responsive content that, following a set of pre-determined rules, will appear as the designer intended in any number of outputs, including print layouts.
Design is not dead – on the contrary, the tools are getting more sophisticated and now offer the same level of detailed control as print design suites. However, there is a gap in knowledge in traditional publishing that will need to be filled. Bring on the designer/programmer.
The Great Divide: E-readers and Tablets
Since the launch of the iPad, there has been a split in ebook formats. One format is the e-reader (Kobo, Nook, Kindle), which uses an e-ink screen and generally displays just text, with minimal images. The second format is the tablet (iPad, Kindle Fire, Nexus 10), which uses a backlit, high definition screen and works well with media-rich content, apps, and fixed-layout content (PDF).
With the current divide, publishers can use a fairly simple workflow to convert long-form content into ebooks for the first type of device. Generally, the text is converted from an InDesign file into EPUB through a combination of mark-up and export. However, book designers have expressed dissatisfaction with the design and typography options of e-readers. For example, since users control the font size and text is justified by default, gaps called rivers form between the words, which can make reading difficult.3
Now that the iPad has gained prominence in the market, tablet devices seem to be the way of the future. In September 2011, Amazon released the Kindle Fire, the first tablet device in a long line of e-ink readers. The Kindle Fire does not have the same legibility as e-ink screens, but the most recent version does have reduced screen glare and improved pixel density.4 If tablet devices can compete with e-readers for easy legibility, their other functionality (media-rich display, internet connectivity, etc.) will secure tablets as the e-readers of the future. It is up to publishers to learn how to make their content work in this new medium.
Behind the Scenes: HTML & CSS
Both e-reader and tablet content are based in the language of the web. EPUB, the international standard for ebooks, is essentially a zipped folder made up of XHTML and CSS.5 Ebooks are really just webpages, and the devices that render them are browsers. For example, Webkit, a fully featured browser similar to Firefox or Chrome, powers the iBook reader that is used in the iPad.6
John Maxwell has said:
“An ebook is a website in an envelope with HTML+CSS inside. At heart, ebook production is web production. Conversely, InDesign is being used for page layout, but building ePub files out of InDesign is hard, because you’re trying to serve two masters: print (page layout orientation) and structure (flow orientation). InDesign has no real separation of content from format, and digital formats are about structure.”7
The MPub cohort of 2010 ran an experiment to produce a book in print and electronic formats using an XML-based workflow. The Book of MPub was written and revised in WordPress, then converted by way of a script from XHTML to IDML. IDML is a simpler XML-based file format that can be read by Adobe InDesign.8 The real achievement was a streamlined workflow that produced well-designed content suitable for both print and electronic outputs.
Thinking of book production from the web first is a real breakthrough. First, it means that publishers can produce content that is easier to tailor to the devices of today. But more importantly, by adopting the principles of responsive web design, publishers can prepare their content to flow into the devices of the future.
Content Management and Rules with Foresight
The first principle to embrace in responsive design is that content (text or media) is not fixed in any way. Instead, the goal is to have a set of relational rules that will respond in a fluid way to any device. Mark Boulton argues, “We need to start talking about content in terms of bits, not pages. And we need systems that help us think that way.”9
From the Book of MPub example, we know that a web content management system (CMS) can be used to develop book-length content. These systems allow writers to mark up content with metadata so that it can be pulled and displayed in a number of ways. Also, they now allow designers to style content in terms of proportions and relationships, rather than fixed sizes and locations. For example, using the measurement ‘em’ rather than pixels allows fonts to be resized proportionally. Likewise, images and other media can be sized by percentage rather than pixels, and controlled by a rule that will not allow the image to exceed the size of its container. Lastly, designers can create fluid grids, using the same principles, that will ensure the content displayed matches whatever device the user is accessing it with.10
As Karen McGrane, a user experience consultant, says:
“No one has ever regretted saying I want to plan for the future. I want to plan for flexible reuse. I want to imagine ways that I can use my content again in the future. I want to start now in thinking about what I have to do so that I can make my content free for whatever platform or device it needs to go onto.”11
Leveraging Web Tools for Book Design
The above principles can be applied to book design. Print book designers have full control over the reader’s experience of the printed page – line length, font, spacing, alignment, kerning, etc. That level of control is actually possible, to a certain extent, for electronic content. The key is to use the same set of rules and proportionality as responsive web design.
Two new HTML5 editors stand out. The first, called Mercury, is still in development. The demo shows how you can change the page content directly, by dragging boxes and clicking within text fields to edit.17 The second, called Aloha, is a little more intuitive. Aloha works with WordPress, Drupal and other CMSs. Changes such as resizing images, inserting links and formatting text are done instantly and directly.18 These tools are still in development, but soon they could merge with the sophisticated design tools of Adobe’s Creative Suite, which already features web design tools, CSS, and fluid-grid layout options.
Fine for Ebooks, But What About Print?
The new HTML5 editors can also be used for web-to-print conversions. “We are beginning to turn our attention to the tools for making webpages, to make books, and this, it turns out, is much easier than with Desktop Word Processing and Publishing software.”21 One of the Aloha editor demos shows the possible applications for a multi-column print layout.22 Using such tools, print layout becomes a straightforward output from structured web content. More importantly, this output is not restricted to a set of pre-designed templates. All of the sophisticated, custom design features are there.
Take Control of the Future of Publishing
Tools like Mercury and Aloha are becoming increasingly intuitive, which is good news for staff at publishing houses who may be more comfortable with traditional desktop publishing. However, for web-based book design to work, someone on staff must be able to understand the programming language behind these handy tools.
The design profession has been going through rapid change since the digital age began, with some designers specializing in print and others in web. I think publishing houses would benefit from the expertise of a designer/programmer, someone who knows how to leverage the tools of web design to achieve the same fine craft as print designers. In his treatise on the Future of Publishing, Thad McIlroy argues, “Graphic design is essential to the future of publishing but its role and methods must change. Many graphic designers will require additional training.”23
The lesson is this: Don’t play catch-up to the proliferation of devices on the market. Plan ahead, make your content rich with metadata, and design with rules that will respond to the constraints of the device. We shouldn’t leave the future of publishing in the hands of Apple or Microsoft. Publishers have the greatest asset: beautifully written, thoughtfully edited content. It is up to us to showcase this content in a rich variety of formats, according to the aesthetic we have designed, to make the best possible books for our readers.
“In order to profit – literally – from the new digital markets, publishers must rethink the way they create, manage, publish, and deliver content. They must re-engineer their processes to create more flexibility and guarantee a sustainable and certain future. They must re-imagine a production process that frees their content to be transformed — on-demand — into whatever new formats, devices, and uses consumers require, now and for the future.”24
Meteoric change in publishing occurred over the last decade as e-books became both more widespread and more interactive. Many publishers delight over the ever-evolving abilities of e-books, adding more technological bells and whistles to further distinguish e-books from print books in hopes of increasing value-added from a consumer standpoint. While many adults embrace the convenience and adaptability of e-readers and tablets for their reading needs, the ubiquity of screens has given pause to many educators who are now faced with difficult decisions as to how to best implement screen-based technologies into their classrooms. To many teachers who see busy and exasperated parents frequently passing off their iPhones to their children in order to entertain them, more screen time seems to be the last thing their students need. This excess of screen time begs the question — do e-books belong in early elementary school classrooms?
While some recent studies illustrate e-books’ success over print books in their ability to attract young readers and increase their initial interest in reading, other studies reveal e-books result in poorer comprehension, more easily distracted students, and passive reading experiences for emerging readers. Yet other studies demonstrate e-books’ ability increase students’ early reading skills at a faster rate than traditional print books. With such conflicting data, it’s no wonder many schools are hesitant to invest in e-books. This report sifts through these contradicting studies to pinpoint ways in which teachers can use the right e-books to the benefit of their students, and how publishers can use these findings to create better content for e-books for children in early elementary school environments.
In order to clear the air around e-books in early literacy it is imperative to make clear distinctions between the vast varieties of e-books currently on the market. In Lisa Guernsey’s 2011 School Library Journal article “Are Ebooks Any Good?”, Jeremy Bruek, a leading researcher in children’s digital reading research who is developing a rating scale for e-books in regards to their educational value, argues that the name “e-book” is “too broad,” giving little indication to the vast difference between commercially developed enhanced e-books, unenhanced e-books, and enhanced e-books developed for educational purposes. So far in his studies of one hundred children’s e-books, Bruek has found only a few e-books suitable for educational purposes. Later on in this article Ben Bederson, co-director of the International Children’s Digital Library, gives a prime example of the multitudes of unsuitable e-books when he discusses his experience downloading a Toy Story e-book for his five-year-old daughter: “It was 25 percent book and 75 percent movie.”
These types of enhanced (or in this case, over-enhanced) e-books are the focus of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s QuickReport, which found that enhanced e-books were “less effective than the print and basic e-book in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions.” (In this study “co-reading” indicates guided reading with an adult or an adult reading to a child. “Non-content related interactions” include displays of interest in the device, rather than the story). The study also found that children reading enhanced e-books “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.” While this evidence is fairly damning, the study did find that both enhanced e-books and basic e-books were more enticing to emerging readers than their print counterparts.
The QuickReport demonstrates that while many enhanced e-books should be avoided in literacy-building activities, basic e-books were on par with print books for comprehension and content retention, yet they share enhanced e-books ability to excite emerging readers with a new, fresh reading experience; therefore, using basic e-books in teacher-led reading activities has the potential to marry the best that print and digital have to offer to emerging readers.
With the difference between e-books and enhanced e-books clearly illustrated, one more distinction begs to be made: the difference between commercially developed enhanced e-books and educationally developed enhanced e-books. Bruek worries that many companies running enhanced e-book subscriptions are “… putting money into something that isn’t sound from a pedagogical standpoint.” So what, if anything, makes an enhanced e-book suitable for emerging readers?
The answer to this question comes from a 2009 study by Ofra Korat, Adina Shamir, et al. entitled “Reading electronic and printed books with and without adult instruction: effects on emergent reading.” The researchers in this study examined the effects of enhanced e-book and print book reading on children’s emergent reading skills with and without adult instruction. In the study, 128 Israeli kindergarteners from low socio-economic status families were divided into four groups. The groups were assigned to read an e-book independently (EB), read an e-book with adult instruction (EBI), read a print book with instruction (PBI), or were given the traditional kindergarten curriculum as a control for the study. E-book groups read their e-books while working in pairs on desktop computers, rather than on e-readers. The researchers discovered that: “…the EBI group achieved greater progress in word reading and CAP (concepts about print) than all other groups. The EBI group also achieved greater progress in phonological awareness than the EB and the control groups.” These findings seem to completely contradict the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s study; however, in their report, the researchers clearly define the type of enhanced e-book they used for the study:
“Emphasis was made on the size and font of the text (big and clear) and on the optimal amount of text which appears on each page. The text was highlighted congruently with the narrator’s reading (at the word level), in order to help children connect between the written and the spoken text and thus promote reading ability and CAP. Clicking on specific words enables listening to the sound of the words at the syllabic and sub-syllabic levels in order to promote the children’s phonological awareness.” (pg. 914)
The educationally developed enhanced e-book clearly attempts to mimic many of the cues and prompts that an adult would initiate in a co-reading environment. It prompts children to interact digitally with the text, but only to make connections or practice chunking words by their syllables in order to sound out full words. While these enhancements are a massive improvement over commercially developed enhanced e-books’ bells and whistles, the report indicates that educational enhanced e-books alone were not enough. Teacher instruction was the key to unlocking enhanced e-books’ potential to increase early literacy skills in emerging readers.
Publishers can take three things from these studies: 1) emerging readers are captivated and excited by digitally displayed books, 2) any enhanced content should be considered from a pedagogical standpoint, 3) e-books should be designed with both e-reader and desktop computer use in-mind.
Nearly all studies of emerging readers and e-books highlight the increased interest young readers have in e-books over print books. Unfortunately, many publishers are currently over-delivering interactive content and distracting young readers as a result. These same readers will still be enthusiastic about e-books with much fewer enhancements, and educators and parents will feel better about incorporating those e-books into co-reading activities. At the end of “Are Ebooks Any Good?” Julie Hume, a reading specialist in University City, Missouri, discusses her success with the online reading program TumbleBooks, a Toronto-based company that enhances commercial print books for educational e-book use. While TumbleBooks e-books do contain some music and animation, their main interactive feature is the option to have to story read aloud with corresponding highlighted text, or to read the story independently. To test out TumbleBooks Hume split her students into two groups: one group received her original curriculum of co-reading in small groups with her guidance and one group used the TumbleBooks program. After three months, the TumbleBooks group scored 23% higher than the group that received her regular instruction. Hume contributes their progress to the “strong model of fluency” that the TumbleBooks narrators provide; however, she also cautions that while these e-books are great for building students’ confidence, they shouldn’t replace print books for fear that students will begin to rely on having books read to them, rather than decoding the text on their own. Given this concern, it would make sense for publishers to develop enhanced e-books that have the option of having their enhancements “locked” in order to revert content back to basic e-book format. This would allow emerging readers who are excited by e-books to practice reading independently, without the temptation to revert back to having the text read to them.
It’s easy to say that publishers should consider e-books from a pedagogical standpoint, but in reality not many publishers have first-hand experience in early childhood education. Luckily, in 2009, Kathleen Roskos, Sarah Widman, and the aforementioned Jeremy Bruek published an investigative report of analytical tools for assessing the quality of e-book design that publishers could use as a guide for developing pedagogically sound enhanced e-books. “Investigating Analytic Tools for e-Book Design in Early Literacy Learning” examines three analytic tools and their capabilities to assess the effectiveness of various e-book designs taken from a sampling of books from multiple easily accessible online resources. While the purpose of the study was to observe which tool gave the researchers the best information about the quality of e-books, rather than to explicitly report what kinds of e-books are best for emerging readers, it does highlight the types of designs and calls to actions the researchers were concerned with. Factors studied included book handling, navigation, multimedia, contiguity, redundancy, coherence, personalization, paths of attention (look-read-search-read vs. look-look-click-read-listen to and look-listen), and comprehension over print processing (i.e. understanding the text over reading independently). Publishers should consider these factors when producing e-books while they wait for a definitive tool to be developed for assessing the quality of enhanced educational e-books.
The last recommendation for publishers – to develop e-books for desktop computers rather than touchscreen devices – at first seems counter-intuitive. The reality is that very few schools can afford tablets and e-readers, but 97% of U.S. classrooms in 2009 had at least one computer. Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report, Fourth Edition notes that while e-reading across a variety of devices is on the rise, in 2012 children reported reading e-books on laptops or desktops at roughly the same rate as those who read on tablets or e-readers. Another way to look at the data is that 41% of children polled are reading e-books on non-touchscreen devices; therefore, publishers specializing in children’s e-books who want their product to be accessible to as many readers as possible should develop e-books that can be used with simple point-and-click enhancements rather than swipes, pinches, or graphics that are activated by tilts in device orientation that will only be useful on a tablet. Coincidentally, removing many of the enhancements created for e-book use on touchscreens also removes the same enhancements that result in distractions and decreases in comprehension and text awareness.
Educators and researchers are key partners for helping publishers develop enhanced e-books that will both delight emerging readers and improve their early literacy skills. The recent studies that pinpointed e-book enhancements’ shortcomings should be heeded by publishers who in turn should scale back on superfluous additions to text in favor of enhancements that support comprehension and retention, and encourage emerging readers to decode text and read independently.
Teachers should embrace basic e-books as a way to engage students in new literacy activities, as well as a way to teach them about developing good reading skills for use in a variety of text formats and circumstances. Educationally developed enhanced e-books should be viewed as an exciting new supplement to early literacy curriculums and should be used in conjunction with traditional print book activities to develop strong independent reading skills. With adult instruction and guidance, e-books can be introduced into classrooms to the benefit of early elementary school students.
ADDITIONAL REPORTS ON TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM: