E-Book Apps for Kids: Finally, a Digital Publishing Initiative That Makes Sense

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 7:13 AM EDT

There's promising news on the digital publishing horizon. Random House, HarperCollins and other newly formed ventures have all announced initiatives to produce interactive e-books for children. At long last, an e-book strategy that makes sense.

While adult readers bemoan the death of print -- and make much of e-books availability across different devices (and the functionality of said devices) -- Apple's (APPL) iPad and other touch screen mobile devices are fertile ground for publishers to cultivate a whole new e-reading customer -â€" kids.

Think about it. Touch screens are tailor-made for the tactile exploration of the scooter set. You won't hear them complain that they miss the smell of a book's pages. And show me a smart phone loving teen or tween who doesn't constantly have the device under their thumbs.

Another reason to go the app route lies in the limited functionality of the .epub format. The standard for e-books right now is designed to support traditional narrative text only. Without color and video capabilities, illustrated books suffer not only from lack of pictures, but the potential for interactive engagement.

To that end, HarperCollins burst on the scene with iPhone and iPad apps of board books. Published by Curious Puppy, HarperCollins Children's Books' new e-imprint for kids, both the ABC Song app and 123: Ants Go Marching app feature learning games, word association, and memory games. Each will set parents back $0.99 a piece, a tiny price for big educational impact.

Former CBS Corp.'s Simon & Schuster (CBS) execs are focusing on children's classic storybooks for their new media venture called, Ruckus Media Group LLC. The Velveteen Rabbit and others will use software to enable color, video and touch screen capabilities. The titles are a bit pricier at $3.99 each. They'll debut on Apple's App Store but will be available later this year for a variety of tablet devices.

The (relative) newcomer to this digital party is Bertlesmann AG-owned Random House, the largest U.S. trade-book publisher. However, its collaboration with digital media agency Smashing Ideas to develop book-based children's apps for mobile devices, is already a respected player in the market. Seattle-based Smashing Ideas is responsible for Alice for iPad, which has been touted as one of the best examples of how to bring compelling interactivity to a children's book.

A spokeswoman for Smashing Ideas told me, "We are developing Apps for iOS and they will be available on the iPad so you will likely see those available through iTunes when we do launch." Random House isn't ready to talk prices or titles yet.

It's hard to tell if the apps pricing model will be profitable for publishers yet. The book industry, like many others, works on a cost-benefit basis. Back in the early 90s, Random House and others invested heavily in developing interactive CD-ROM versions of their books -â€" many for kids. The problem was that they threw a ton of money into to things completely out of their domain, such as sound and animation. That forced retail prices way up and higher than the average consumer was willing to spend for what was essentially an interactive book. Think -- a slim Berenstain Bears picture book which retailed for around six bucks compared to its companion CD-ROM costing $60.

It's not surprising that the CD-ROM initiative was abandoned in short order. The good news on the e-book app front is that technology has progressed so much, the cost of development has gone down significantly.

Image via Apple's App Store