The Future of ebooks… and the Middle-Grade Reader

Photo credit: verbeeldingskr8 via Flickr

With Apple’s new iPad sales already exceeding two million and the launch of iBooks, the blogosphere and publishing world is abuzz. What does this portend for the future of books? Is this the end of the publishing world as we know it? What is this so-called agency model? And where did I put my keys, anyway?

The answer to these burning questions (besides the obvious, in your pocket, stupid!), run the gamut from… Cool! Ebooks! So shiny! Paper books are going the way of the Dodo bird and the eight-track! Bwahahahahaha!!!

All the way to … Help, no! Say it isn’t so! Lock the doors and hide the kids – the ebooks are coming!

While I do find this debate endlessly fascinating (and think the truth hopefully lies somewhere in the middle), I have been most intrigued to learn what the evolution of ebooks means to readers – particularly of the middle-grade variety. And what I’ve discovered is that ebooks provide some really exciting opportunities for kids – especially those who may not have the access or inclination to read in the first place.

Reaching The Reluctant Reader
Plenty of hand-wringing goes on about this hard-to-please subspecies of reader. Pegged (rightly or wrongly) as primarily boys, the conventional wisdom says the reluctant reader rapidly loses interest in books as more “exciting” pursuits compete for his time. Want to get a ten-year-old boy to read? Well, you may just have to pry the baseball bat or the Nintendo DS from his hands first.

Or, maybe not.

The popular handheld gaming system is now available in a larger dual-screen format that is also being touted as an ereader. Limited content is available in game cartridge form and consists mainly of classics and fairy tales – probably not the biggest draw for the reluctant reader.

But a new line called FLIPS – which is available via download on DSiWare – most likely will. For example, take the More Bloody Horowitz titles by bestselling author Anthony Horowitz (the man behind the popular Alex Rider series). This ebook’s format could be best described as an interactive graphic novel – featuring text, graphics and the opportunity to make decisions for the main character.

And also in development for the FLIPS line-up – Percy Jackson.

I would think these would be a huge hit among reluctant readers. And, sure – they aren’t “traditional” books. But if they engage kids in the written word, does it really matter?

You also don’t have to look far to find a number of ereader applications and interactive ebooks available for the iPod Touch. And one of the iPhone’s most popular applications is Cathy’s Story, an interactive ebook geared at kids aged 12-14.

And even without all the bells and whistles, there’s this fascinating Kansas State University study that shows reluctant middle-grade readers may became more motivated to read when given a Kindle.

Reaching The Remote Reader
Certainly, not everyone can afford an iPhone, an iPad or a Kindle. And heck, not everyone wants to entrust their expensive electronics to a sticky-fingered kid who might leave it sitting on a playground bench. But what if there was a low-cost, difficult to break tablet computer that was designed with kids in mind?

It may sound like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but that’s just what the folks at One Laptop Per Child aim to do. Already successful distributing their XO laptops around the world, the non-profit organization has now teamed up with Marvell Technologies to create an inexpensive, kid-friendly tablet computer.

The projected price point: $75.

The objective is to get computers into the hands of as many kids worldwide as possible. While the organization has been criticized and questioned at times about their lofty goals, I think what they hope to achieve is quite admirable. After all, information is power – and access to information is a great equalizer.

Not to mention, for kids without easy access to a bookstore or library, an ereader opens a whole new world of possibilities. Just ask agent Nathan Bransford (and the dirt clods that fell victim to his childhood boredom).

As for the rest of us…
The truth is, I don’t see the appeal of ebooks limited just to the readers listed above. While at a Little League game last month, I watched two kindergarten-aged girls happily reading a Dr. Seuss book on an iPad. They were totally engaged – laughing and pointing out their favorite parts – just like they would with a “traditional” book.

Because when it all comes down to it, it’s all about the story, right? I know when I was a kid, I read just about anything I could get my hands on – even cereal boxes and shampoo bottles (hmmm, maybe that’s why my characters always want lustrous locks and a breakfast fortified with 14 vitamins and minerals…).

But all kidding aside, it was always about the words – the way they worked together like pieces of a puzzle, the way I found a kindred spirit in Margaret or went on an adventure with Nancy Drew. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if those words were printed on paper, a box of tissues, post-it notes – or an ereader. And face it, today’s kids are used to technology. Those girls reading Dr. Seuss on an iPad won’t suddenly dislike ereaders when they are eight… or nine… or ten. In fact, they’ll probably seek them out.

Because once again: it’s all about the story.

And hopefully, it always will be.

So what do you think? What does the future hold for ebooks and the middle-grade reader? Have any creative ideas of your own?

Tell me in the comments below. And don’t forget to check out our nine-book giveaway here. Today’s the last day to enter, since tomorrow we’ll be picking a winner.

Jan Gangsei writes this post while surrounded by stacks of boxes in preparation for a rather daunting overseas move. Sadly, most of her cherished book collection has to go into storage. But she’s happy to report her extensive ebook library will be coming with her. You can follow Jan’s tweets at twitter.com/JanGangsei.

25 Responses to The Future of ebooks… and the Middle-Grade Reader

  1. I’m a print/paper fan myself and as far as I can tell right now, I’ll always prefer that format over digital. When I traveled a couple of months ago and lugged around 6 books with me, I thought it might have been nice to have an e-reader.

    I just love the feel of a real book, the reading/skimming/scanning method just works better for me there.

    Another part of my problem is I still want the print version of the books and don’t want to have to ‘buy’ them twice just for the convenience of reading them when I travel.

    Interactive books is a cool idea and has some good potential.

    As an added note, I just saw the release of (I think it was called) “100 great books” for the Nintendo DS. It’s a reasonable price point with the reading software built in and provides a ton of great books in a device kids are already using and familiar with. If my kids hadn’t broken my DS recently, I would have my copy ordered already.

    I think e-books can definitely take books to new readers, but in order to really get e-books in the hands of kids, I think a greater shift is still needed.

  2. I am old-fashioned and like real books. Maybe books will come both ways – paper and electronic.

    I do like the idea of interactive books for younger kids though.

  3. What is exciting about ebooks is that they can actually improve a traditional book by creating interactivity. I have seen great interactivity from Dr. Seuss books (Ocean Media Publications) that actually improves literacy by having the reader click on images that then float words from the story to the image.

    Not all the ebook publishers are pursuing interactivity to make the experience more fun or more educational but that is where the opportunity is — both to make the readers more engaged and to give readers a reason to buy both the traditional book and the ebook. They should evolve into two different experiences with neither being worse than the other; just different and useful in different ways.

    Pragmatic Mom
    Type A Parenting for the Modern World

    http://PragmaticMom.com
    I blog on children’s lit, education and parenting

    I have blogged on a small pile of ebooks and iPhone/iPad apps, mostly for preschoolers through elementary school age.

  4. I’m a hold-out, too, on e-readers, Kindle’s etc, mostly because of the price – and even MORE mostly because I love actual books. But I am understanding their place in the world more and more and the convenience when traveling. I hope books and electronics can co-exist! But when e-readers become more advanced technologically and start looking like an actual book with color and high resolution, I am afraid we might see actual books start going the way of the grave. It’s an interesting time to live, that’s for sure! And when it comes to real books dying off I am kicking against it all.

  5. Great information. I haven’t jumped on the ebook band wagon… because I can’t afford the ticket price to get on the danged wagon. But someday I will.

  6. I don’t like the idea of electronic reading but it’s a done deal, so I was happy to read about the little girls reading and enjoying Dr. Seuss on an e-reader. Thanks for all your insights on this issue.

  7. I was skeptical at first, but I think the key will be added functionality, like layers of text (click to get more info, going as deep as you want) and graphics. I blogged about an example here: http://jjhoutman.livejournal.com/38960.html

    I agree with June Morgan about the heavy textbooks. The weight of kids’ backpacks is crazy! Also, if paper textbooks are replaced with electronic versions, there’s no excuse for “I didn’t finish my homework because I lost my textbook.” Although losing the e-reader would be a bad thing. Not that my kids have ever lost anything. . . ;-)

  8. Put me down as another paper and glue person, but…the future is here. I can see buying an e-reader for travel and my tween daughter has already asked for one for Christmas.

  9. I totally agree – as long as kids are reading, does it really matter what format it’s in? Heck, my hubby gave me a Kindle for Christmas, and I’m so enamored with that little gadget that I’m reading more than I was before! And I’m not a reluctant reader – just a hard-working, tired one!

    Also, think of how many more kids can get their hands on the latest books – no more waiting for the bookstore to get it in stock, or waiting for it to get checked in at the local library. Hooray for ebooks!

  10. As much as it hurts my heart a little to take away the paper book experience from a child, I love the idea of the easy access to books through an electronic medium, and not all kids like the feeling of paper on their fingers. I think that convenience will win out in the end, but that paper books will always be available to kids as well. Plus, my kids break everything. So, we’ll stick to paper for a while.