A new invention, iCUE allows users to store and read books on their mobile phones. It can be used on any colour-screen mobile phone and enables users to download and keep up to 400 books on their normal phone memory card. Could iCUE be used to improve reading skills and broaden access to books? Children’s publisher, Cally Poplak, assesses iCUE’s potential.
Let me start by making it clear that I am, like the readers of Books for Keeps, a book lover. I love the look of them, the smell of them, the feel of them. The only possessions I care about are my books, which fill my home and are a constant reminder of the wisdom, wit, comfort and escapism that is always available to me. I am no ‘early adopter’ of new technology: you’ll be lucky if you catch me with my mobile phone on. I enjoy being incommunicado.
However, I am fed up with seeing a limited range of writers and books readily available in shops. I’m fed up with having to let superb backlist titles go out of print when sales dwindle to a paltry few hundred because the majority of retailers don’t keep them on range. I’m fed up with having to turn down sensational teen fiction because it’s such a struggle to secure reasonable sales. And I’m fed up with seeing so many talented writers struggling to make a living from their writing. This frustration has encouraged me to think about our industry in a different way, in particular, to question the role of the publisher and how it should adapt for the 21st century in order to serve authors better.
Delivering the book to the reader
In essence, publishers deliver the writer’s work to the intended reader. So, why are we struggling to do this effectively? Sure, we’re in a buoyant market (which might be a surprise to many), with General Fiction revenues excluding Harry Potter increasing from £267million in 2003, to £282million in 2004 and £325million in 2005 (1). But it’s a bestseller-driven market: the majority of authors and agents I speak to do not feel they benefit from this growth.
It’s also a highly competitive market: over 18,500 children’s books were published in 2005 (2), which is an increase on the year before. Making a book stand out from the crowd is challenging to say the least. And that’s just competition from other books. What about competition from other media?
ChildWise Monitor (3) reports the following trends amongst 9-12 year olds:
* More than 4 out of 5 have their own TV
* Three quarters their own DVD player
* Slightly fewer a video recorder
* More than 9 in 10 have a CD player
* A third have an MP3 player
* Two thirds their own radio
* Almost all have a computer at home and a third have their own PC
* 4 in 5 have internet access and a third use the internet daily
* Three quarters have a mobile phone, often still paid for by parents; most send text messages; a third use it to take photos or videos
And amongst 13-16 year olds:
* 9 in 10 have their own TV
* 4 in 5 their own DVD player
* Two thirds a video recorder
* Almost all have their own CD player
* More than half their own MP3 player
* 9 in 10 have their own radio
* Most have a computer at home and half have their own PC or laptop
*Almost all have internet access and half use it daily; 1 in 5 have their own website
*More than 9 out of 10 have their own mobile phone
The world of the 21st-century child
Believe it or not, I find this world of the 21st-century child exciting. Let me explain why: at the Handheld Learning Conference at Goldsmith’s College last year, David Whyley, ICT consultant for Wolverhampton, talked about ‘Learning2Go’, a project using PDAs* in the classroom and for homework. He described how one boy – let’s call him Luke – was found downloading eBooks one break-time ‘because they’re cool’. Luke had found the website without any encouragement. He went on to find an electronic dictionary to help him decipher difficult words, and even created a ‘juicy words’ folder for his favourite words. He now wants to write his own eBook. Until that moment, Luke was labelled a reluctant reader and was a stranger to bookshops and libraries, yet here he was proactively reading and interacting with the writer’s work.
Whyley’s Learning2Go project also showed that children, especially boys, enjoyed reading eBooks under the bedcovers because it is cool and practical (after all, you don’t need a torch). At the end of the project, both girls’ and boys’ reading levels improved ‘significantly’. PDAs had done this, not printed books.
At that same conference, Martin Ripley, Head of the e-Strategy team at QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), pointed out that the children who went into Reception class last year were born in the 21st century. Imagine what their technological aptitude will be by the time they are doing their GCSEs. He said the fact that children regard handheld technology as ‘subversive and anarchic’ is a good thing. We should harness it.
A motivator for learning
Research proves that handheld technology is a motivator for learning. So doesn’t it make you wonder what such devices – using the right software – could do to encourage more children to read the work of our many writers, not just the few who dominate the charts? Doesn’t it make possible the dream that the sharing of stories and the discovery of writers become part of playground chatter because it’s fun and ‘cool’ and interactive?
The printed paper book has served us well for centuries. It will continue to do so for all the reasons we book lovers know: it’s cheap, it’s portable, it doesn’t require a battery and it looks great on the shelf. It’s also a format that those of us born in the 20th century are used to reading. But this is what I’ve come to wonder: will it continue to serve the writer in the 21st century? Is it now the only format that can forge a connection between creators of stories and potential readers? If we set aside our passion for the book as an object and think more about what it does and what it contains, doesn’t that open up all sorts of possibilities? Certainly, it allows me to think about delivering stories to all children, not just to book and bookshop lovers.
The printed book is the format for me. But it’s not one that appeals to children like Luke in the Learning2Go project. My excitement about technology in the context of our industry comes from the simple discovering that children who are not book lovers nevertheless find the content exciting – of course, they do! Who doesn’t like a good story? It strikes me that technology provides a fantastic new opportunity to deliver our writers’ work in completely different formats that reluctant readers find ‘cool’?
We’re just in the process of trialling a range of fiction titles as mobile phone downloads using a brand new technology called iCue. It’s no surprise to me that Marc Lewis came up with the idea for iCue. He is an outsider to the publishing industry and he’s not a book lover. Books aren’t precious to him – but their content is. Through iCue he is not trying to make us book lovers change our reading habits. Instead, he’s trying to make content more accessible to people like him – and children like Luke.
So, I’m fed up with how things are for many talented writers right now and how challenging it is for us publishers to get their work into the hands of the widest possible audience. But I’m optimistic about how things could be. Yes, the clout of the supermarkets might fuel a bestseller market, but the other channel experiencing growth is the internet, which is about breadth of range and access to even the most obscure title. Yes, backlist sales are in decline, but fiction is popular. It’s a vibrant market. Yes, the National Literacy Trust reports a decline in reading for pleasure amongst children, but their research also shows that online activities around books would dramatically increase interest (4). Technology offers a new way to reach children.
There are, of course, a number of problems to resolve in this electronic world – issues around copyright, territorial boundaries, revenue streams and the technologies themselves. But I’m confident these can be resolved. Indeed, we have to resolve them. For the sake of our writers, we have to be more in tune with our consumers.
I’m not suggesting this is the end of the book. My books will still be my favourite possessions waiting patiently until they are needed to soothe or divert, like friends. But I do hope that new technologies mark the beginning of a revolution that will help more authors enrich the lives of more children than ever before.
* PDA is an abbreviation for personal digital assistant, a small computer that you carry with you.
(1) Books and the Consumer survey, BML 2006
(2) Based on Nielsen data: BIC Code Y (children’s and educational). Just over 18,000 titles were published in 2004.
(3) Winter 2005-2006
(4) Reading Connects survey, The National Literacy Trust, 2006
Cally Poplak is the Director of Egmont Press. William Nicholson, Jamila Gavin and a number of rising stars are amongst her authors. This article is based on a speech she delivered at a meeting on new technologies in publishing organised by the Children’s Book Circle.
How iCUE Works
To access the iCUE bookshop you need a phone that is less than four years old with a colour screen. iCUE estimate that the system will work with 70% of mobiles. You text ICUE to 64888 and then wait a few seconds to download the software. You then have access to the iCUE bookstore which offers a free test title. After that, a downloaded book costs about £4.50. Once downloaded books can be read phrase by phrase or ‘scrolled’. Titles available so far include Catherine Forde’s Firestarter, Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush, the ‘Princess Diaries’ series, Tony Bradman’s Tales of Terror and Jenny Nimmo’s Midnight for Charlie Bone. iCUE is in talks with organizations such as Book Trust and the National Literacy Trust about ways in which ICUE might be used to improve reading skills and broaden access to books www.i-cue.co.uk