Saturday, February 13, 2010

iLearn to Read on the iPhone

Smartphone users a new market for electronic publishers of children's books
Some of you might've heard me talking about my involvement with the Washington Revels, and it was through that community that I came across PicPocket Books, spearheaded by co-founder and Publisher Lynette Mattke. PicPocket Books is an e-publishing venture out of Silver Spring, Maryland that takes children's picture books (aimed at ages 2 to 8) and makes them into apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, available at the Apple App Store for prices ranging from $0.99 to $8.99.* The apps also have the ability to "read" the book to the child and highlight the words as they are read.

Children are naturally curious about electronic gadgets and are really drawn to this sort of media -- why not produce something that will turn that interest into positive exposure to age-appropriate books and stories? As Mattke says, "Whether we're talking print or digital books, reading is an active mental process: something to encourage at every opportunity." She points out that reading, whether on the screen or on paper, can increase vocabulary, improve concentration and focus, and expand a child's horizons.

PicPocket Books' web site is quick to note that they do not intend these books to replace parents' reading to children, but more to make the reading experience more mobile as most iPhone-owning parents have their phone with them on a regular basis, whereas it might be inconvenient to grab the paper copy of Ruth Sanderson's Papa Gatto: An Italian Fairy Tale or Roseanne Thong's Round is a Mooncake on the way out the door.

"Many families are short on time and e-books can be read any time, any place," says Mattke. "We believe that if reading picture books on the iPhone means that more families are reading together and that more kids have more exposure to storybooks, then they are a great option for the tech-savvy families of today."

Transforming a book from paper to pixels "ends up being more of an artistic process than a mechanical one," says Mattke. "Some illustrations are double page spreads; some are conducive to cropping and others aren't so much, some need a border treatment, etc." Often, she says, PicPocket adds interstitial pages to a book when the text and illustrations take up more space than the screen allows.

I asked what the qualities of an ideal book would be for transformation into a PicPocket book app and was somewhat surprised by the reply: "Basically, we can handle any kind of illustrations and any size pictures. Even though the iPhone is small, it has great resolution and a back-lit screen. Even detailed pictures come through very sharp and clear."

She continues, "Our major focus in creating PicPocket Books is on the illustrations, so the whole formatting process centers on showcasing the illustrations, as well as the marriage of the text and images. Much of this work is already done by the authors and illustrators, of course, and our job is to be as faithful as possible to the original work."

While endeavoring to preserve the reading experience, PicPocket Books has added some extensions to their iPhone and iPod Touch apps that simply wouldn't be possible with paper, ink, and binding.

For instance, PicPocket is adding additional animations to some titles currently in production, such as snow falling or stars twinkling. These are subtle animations because PicPocket e-publishes previously published books that were originally designed for paper, rather than books explicitly made for the iPhone. The artwork is already there, and the intent is to remain faithful to the original work while simultaneously "[encouraging] curiosity by adding elements of interactive discovery to each title which the hot spots and subtle animations provide."

The other major feature that PicPocket Books adds to its products is a synced audio narration track that coordinates with a word-by-word "learn-to-read" highlighting feature to aid emergent readers. The audio feature uses voice-over artists and is recorded in a professional recording studio. Some of the titles have more sophisticated soundtracks, complete with background music, sound effects, and other enhancements. (Features such as personal recordings and greater interactivity with the text for early readers are currently in development.)

The images and the audio track are then incorporated into the actual app with their patent-pending custom software platform to form a finished PicPocket e-book.

In addition to adding neat extra features, Mattke is quick to point out another advantage of digital publishing: "There are also some huge benefits in the area of production and distribution of digital books in comparison to the traditional print world. Production cost and production time are DRASTICALLY reduced. Many traditional publishers are facing major problems with the cost of printing, storing, transporting and distributing, and displaying their print books for sale."

PicPocket Books are currently available only for the iPod Touch and the iPhone, but they are looking to offer titles on the iPad and other smartphones in the future.

Personally I think this is a brilliant idea, and one that taps into a new market as most e-books currently are aimed at adult readers. Two-to-eight-year-old children are very likely to have an adult with them, and at least from anecdote most smartphone (and iPhone) owners are likely to carry their phones on a regular -- if not constant -- basis. Though these apps should certainly not be used as a substitute for parental involvement, with some supervision this seems like a brilliant way to entertain and engage kids on the go without parents’ having to remember to take yet another object with them.

Special thanks to Lynette Mattke for letting me interview her and providing the pictures that accompany this post.

* It is also worthy of note that according to their FAQ, "Once you download a book, it is yours to play as long as you want."

One More Thing:

The company's blog, maintained by Mattke and editor Eva Jannotta, is an interesting read as it picks up some of the modern screen-reading issues that we too will have to confront as publishers, especially those of us who work with material aimed at younger audiences. It can be found at

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