By Marie Bilde | @MarieBilde
Complete With a ‘Reading Buddy’
In October 2015, Denmark’s Lasse Nyrup in Århus partnered with the design and software company Redia and with his former employer, the supplier of library services Biblioteksmedier, to build a new platform to support children’s reading.
Last month, the app BookBites was launched for iOS in the Danish app store, and versions for Android, Chromebooks, and Windows are to follow this autumn.
BookBites is a platform on which children can borrow and read ebooks. And as Nyrup describes it, the service also serves as a library and e-reader with functionality for supporting and encouraging children’s leisure reading. BookBites presents a book as a series of consecutive “bites” of content. They’re all labeled with a personalized estimate of the time required to read them, using a book’s readability index value based on the Lasbarhetsindex Swedish Readability Formula, or LIX.
Publishing Perspectives: What was your original motivation in launching BookBites?
Lasse Nyrup: I was puzzled about the fact that everybody seems to think that children today aren’t reading as well as they should and could be, while the most digital generation still has trouble getting its hands on digital literature.
Schools are full of [physical] books, but they are locked down behind the closed door to the school’s library. We know that when it comes to reading, practice makes perfect. That doesn’t go well with a closed door.
Furthermore, all major ebook suppliers were focusing on retail customers and they were busy integrating all-you-can-eat ebook deals into mobile subscription packages. I just didn’t get it, and at the time something had to be done.
We wanted to create a tool that was more than just another e-reader. What is it that makes the book format so outstandingly unique and why hasn’t it yet seen a digital catch-up effect as have other comparable media forms like movies or music?
PP: There’s a gamification element to this, isn’t there? Your phrase is, “I’ll run to the next streetlight before slowing down,” right?
“The knowledge we gather permits us to show the reader his or her reading ability. It also permits a teacher to follow students’ progress.”Lasse Nyrup
LN: With a physical book, the number of pages—and thus the thickness of the tome—is a central parameter for estimating how long it will take you to read it. But when a book becomes digital, the number of pages becomes an abstraction.
In BookBites, we carefully track the reader’s reading speed. We also know how many words there are in every book, so we can make a good estimate of how long it will take this reader to read the rest of the chapter, or the next chapter, or the rest of the book. This is essential information when you must decide whether you want to continue reading or not.
The knowledge we gather permits us to show the reader his or her reading ability. It also permits a teacher to follow students’ progress and to detect who might need a little extra attention, even with very young children. I’m convinced that this will support students in obtaining the reading skills they need to thrive later on in their lives.
The knowledge we collect can also be used to qualify recommendations on the next book to read. And we provide detailed statistics based on actual reader’s behavior to authors and publishers.
PP: What about claims that readers retain more when they read in a print format?
The physical library “is already as good as closed. Its door remains locked except for a few hours per week.”Lasse Nyrup
LN: I hear this all the time. Sensory input is essential to both the experience and to the brain’s ability to absorb new knowledge. The important thing is that your brain gets a chance to prepare itself for the amount of text it must consume.
In BookBites, we create an overview of the book with which the brain is stimulated in the same way as when you take a physical book off the shelf, scroll through its pages, and feel and measure its thickness and weight. This is exactly where I think we’ve integrated one very significant affordance of physical books to a new digital context.
Another cognitive process triggered when using BookBites is the release of dopamine that takes place when your brain rewards you for reaching a goal. We stimulate that by visualizing the progress in the book with pages read and not yet read. That’s much easier to perceive than the meaning of a progress bar simply stating “50 percent.”
PP: How do you see BookBites’ relationship to libraries? Is there a chance for a system like yours to take over the role of a traditional school library?
“The teacher or the school librarian will be able to influence [but] the student decides for himself or herself which book to read next.”Lasse Nyrup
LN: I’m sure it can take over that role. We firmly believe that young readers prefer to read digitally. Nevertheless, they also have high demands for visual experience. This is a key point for us, and we believe that with a quality ebook offering, the book will reclaim its power and again be a competitor to YouTube and Facebook. Once students read digital books, they won’t go to a school’s physical library anymore.
But, as I’ve said, in practice that library is already as good as closed. Its door remains locked except for a few hours per week. As I see it, BookBites offers a digital solution that will justify schools’ expenditures on books for eager readers. If not, I fear that the budgets will just be cut.
In contrast, a school librarian will continue to play a very important role. He or she is the one who can guide, communicate, and support the kids’ reading activities. He or she knows how to challenge students’ reading habits and when push them a step further.
Nevertheless, we also know that when an adult—librarian, teacher, or parent—recommends a book to a child, the child will in general perceive the recommendation as a duty, no matter how well intended it was. Therefore, we’ve introduced “the bookworm,” a personal “reading buddy,” who knows everything about your reading and who can therefore encourage and recommend your next book. The teacher or the school librarian will be able to influence the bookworm, but they’ll never be in charge: the student decides for himself or herself which book to read next.
PP: With books from all the major publishing houses in Denmark, your customers are the municipalities, which traditionally buy licenses for all schools in their territories. What’s the business model for BookBites? And do publishers see you as a threat to commercial sales of children’s and YA books?
“People are just not interested in owning digital content. Digital books cannot be showcased on your bookshelf.”Lasse Nyrup
LN: They don’t fear us as a threat at all. Children and young adults aren’t even customers today, nor are their parents, to any degree. If children today own any books, they haven’t bought them, themselves. And if my assumption is correct about young readers’ preference for digital reading, then physical children’s books will see declining sales, anyway.
Of course, there will still be hard-core readers who discover the pleasure of physical books from early age. It’s my guess, though, that there will be fewer of them. So I think services like BookBites will become important new sales channels.
As for the business model, people are just not interested in owning digital content. Digital books cannot be showcased on your bookshelf. Many fear that their content will be tied-in on a specific platform. People will pay for access and for actual consumption. In BookBites, schools pay per-reading of books.
Today, schools spend significant amounts of their budgets on purchasing physical books for their libraries. On top of that, they also have to pay for binding, labels, handling, and so on. Furthermore, nobody knows for sure whether anybody will actually read the selected books.
Our customers are schools and municipalities. We consider ourselves the publishers’ partner, who provides them with a new sales channel.
PP: Could BookBites also be useful in the adult reading market?
LN: I can’t tell you anything at this point, but we’re working on it.
PP: And how international is your idea of where this can go?
LN: You might have noticed? We chose the .com domain over the .dk domain for our site.