Booksurfers: Tech Pulls Kids Into Classic Stories

In Children's, Frankfurt 2011 by Roger Tagholm

By Roger Tagholm


Using new technology to spark interest in some of the oldest of books -– in part that’s the philosophy of one of the new companies that presented at the Publishers Launch Children’s Book Conference on October 10 in Frankfurt. Based in London’s Soho, intellectual property development company 1454 is currently working with Amazon to develop an innovative range of titles for the Kindle that is introducing children’s classics to the PlayStation generation.

Its series Booksurfers allows readers to “leap” into children’s classics and discover them afresh. The initiative is another example of how new companies — and Amazon itself –- are increasingly entering the publishing space as the traditional models of the industry evolve in the digital world.

The first two Booksurfers titles are Treasure Island and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with Robin Hood due shortly and A Christmas Carol before the end of the year. All the books feature four children who are kidnapped by an archetypal evil madman who has the delightfully insane plan of forcing them to “jump” into classic adventure stories to steal famous fictional artifacts, such as the map from Treasure Island, by using an ingenious device called the Nautilus (spot the reference).

Here’s how it works. Once they are in the location of Treasure Island, a number of hyperlinks appear in the text which allow readers to jump to the original Robert Louis Stevenson story. “The hyperlinks begin after the children have just come to the Admiral Benbow Inn and see this man coming down the road singing,” explains Zoe Watkins, the former bookseller who is 1454’s Creative Director. “If they click the link it will take them to this part in the original story where the man is singing “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s chest / yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” and they can read as much or as little as they like. Then they click back to return to the Booksurfers story.

“I had the idea because I’d been thinking about those classics which probably weren’t getting read as much as they used to be.  Booksurfers allows children who might be familiar with the stories, or their settings, through other media -– such as Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from Treasure Island -– to discover the original books, which they might not know. And they’re such great stories. So many classic stories involve children going on an adventure. That’s party what gave me the idea, and I used love the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books when I was growing up. We’ve all enjoyed reading the classics again as we look for new Booksurfers ideas.”

The books are written by children’s author David Gatward who is something of a star in schools, asking pupils which story they would like to jump into if they had the Nautilus.

Watkins believes there is still a lot of fear among publishers that e-books and digital means the end of printed books. “But it doesn’t. It just provides lots of opportunities to present stories to people in different ways”. Somewhat ironically, she also says that they are looking at print as the next stage with Booksurfers. “It’s case of finding a print partner who can match the interactivity of the digital editions. The functionality of the Kindle was such a natural fit, and it works so well.”

Although it may already seem as if the market is teeming with new entrants trying new things, Watkins believes even more will appear.  “There will certainly be a lot of people experimenting, but no one is quite sure what will take off.” But she detects one way in which digital really has taken hold. “In the past, there was a feeling among publishers that they had to have digital rights to protect their print rights.  But now they are starting to see what they can do with digital rights, in their own right, as it were. So they’re looking at digital exclusives, additional material. However, I do think there is a danger that you can become caught up in the technology, rather than the narrative. It’s important to remember that you have to keep going back to the basics of a strong story told in the best way.”

Born in Plymouth, Watkins, who is 38, read Politics and Philosophy at Leeds University and spent a number of years with Waterstone’s before moving to Ian Fleming Publications Limited (IFPL), the small body that represents the Bond creator’s estate. It was out of IFPL that 1454 grew, established in 2008 by IFPL’s MD Corinne Turner and Watkins herself.

Its name comes from the date of Gutenberg’s press, and among its other properties is the estate of prolific children’s author Willard Price. Watkins, who is also a judge for the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Awards, says she loves the creative mix -– part print, part digital -– and the fact that as a small company they can react very quickly. The offices are in London’s Soho, in Hammer House, the original home of the famous Hammer horror films.

While much of publishing is adapting to digital, she believes parts of the media are being very slow. “There is a huge resistance to reviewing e-books,” she maintains. “You will have crammed technology pages, but so many books pages have a policy of not reviewing e-books. That can make getting coverage harder, so we spend a lot of time talking to bloggers and people in the online space.”

Watkins herself is a very typical publishing mixture of print and digital. For her recent holiday she took her Kindle –- but also a sizable pile of paperbacks and one hefty hardback. She observes: “There are some books I prefer to read on the Kindle, and some not. But I haven’t quite worked out which is which yet.”

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).