Bedtime stories coming to life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am


When was the last time a story leaped off the page at you? Until now, reading books on the Kindle or iPad has been a change in medium, not message, but new animated and media-rich publications could be about to make story time a lot more interactive.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore isn't a book, but an app designed to be 'read' on the iPad. It's a linear narrative of words across the bottom of the screen, with each page narrated while an animation takes place - and it's all set to music. Some elements of the page can be touched to set off more animated sequences.

Do the presence of music, animation and interactivity stop this being called a 'book'?

'It's not a game, it's not a movie, it's not a book ... it's something else,' says Brandon Oldenburg, co-director of Morris Lessmore at digital publisher Moonbot Studios. 'Books and films will never go away, but the iPad appears to have allowed for a new medium to emerge. We're not quite sure what to call it yet.'

Oldenburg is convinced that this new medium - whether called an 'ebook' or 'iPad interactive book app' - is the most engaging yet for children. 'We've heard of grandparents using our app while their grandchild sits engrossed in their lap,' he says.

Moonbot is working on a Putonghua version of Morris Lessmore as well as a dramatic update. The beauty of this medium is such that material can get a software update; a favourite bedtime story can have a new surprise next time it's opened.

Moonbot's creation suggests a profitable new direction, but the ebook business as a whole is already booming with the total value of digital publications in China already ahead of traditional print titles. According to the China Ebooks Development Tendency Report, 57.5 million ebooks had been published by last year, with the market estimated at US$135.8 million.

In Hong Kong, a recent survey of schoolchildren put the average reading time of ebooks per day at about two hours. Fiction accounted for 32 per cent of that reading, with class-related content at 29.5 per cent.

'Fiction is the leader in the print-to-electronic transition to ebooks, with mysteries, romance and thrillers leading the way,' says Niko Pfund, president at the Oxford University Press in New York.

In most areas of children's fiction, ebook sales are still relatively small. 'There is a great deal of activity and innovation going on at the younger end of the market, with interactive apps being created for the picture book age group,' says Liz Cross, children's publisher for the Oxford University Press in Britain. 'It's a really exciting area, but in terms of sales it is still very much in its infancy.'

For adults and teenagers, this is a market where big marketing campaigns dominate, where Amazon is by far the biggest outlet, and where price determines success.

Other rules in digital publishing are hard to come by. Traditional publishing houses can be sidestepped - in October, J.K. Rowling will publish digital versions of the seven Harry Potter books on her own Pottermore website - and there's a question mark over future profitability (ebooks typically sell for 40 per cent less than paper copies). Growth of any sort depends on the popularity of ebook reader devices.

On the mainland, about a third of all ebooks are read on a mobile device of some kind, but it's the iPad rather than the Kindle or NOOK - neither of which can show colour or animation - that most encourages creativity among authors and publishers. 'The iPad's potential seems limitless,' says Oldenburg. 'Other tablet reading-based devices are limited by comparison.'

Something more than just convenience is also gripping the anime comic book market, where the iPad is making waves via an innovative digital distribution app from comiXology. As well as being able to buy the latest digital releases on the same day that print versions are published, readers can move from page to page using comiXology's Guided View software, which navigates comics by swapping dynamically from panel to panel. Reading comics this way is described as 'like an action movie' by CEO David Steinberger, who thinks comiXology is growing the market. 'We can now get comics into the hands of more readers than ever before, who had never stepped into a comic store in their life.' Some titles, such as Box 13, Valentine and Power Play, were specifically created with Guided View in mind.

For the youngest generation, extra interactivity might not be the wisest idea at bedtime, as even Oldenburg admits: 'The only downside of experiencing stories on an iPad is that when it's time to turn out the lights your child can't sleep because they are reeling in wonder.'

In March, a medical expert quoted by Reuters said that exposure to artificial light before bedtime can increase alertness and suppress the release of sleep-promoting hormone, melatonin.

It's no wonder, then, that Cross thinks that such stimulation and interactivity counts against the iPad at bedtime. 'Toddlers are very attracted to books with things to touch and feel,' she says, 'but the bedtime story is something else. Parents are looking for something calming to help their children settle down for sleep.'

For that reason, the traditional print book is likely to survive. But when books begin to remember what page you were on, and double up as a bedside lamp, it's inevitable that story time will change.