After he's finished his homework and his chores for the day, 8-year-old Skye Vaughn-Perling likes to read Dr. Seuss. He's a particular fan of the hijinks that ensue when the elephant Horton hears strange voices emanating from a dust speck in "Horton Hears a Who."
He doesn't read from a dog-eared copy of the children's classic, though. Skye, who lives in Agoura Hills, often reads on his computer, pressing the arrow button when he wants to turn a page. Sometimes the characters move around on the screen like animated cartoons on TV. If he wants, Skye can have the computer read a book to him while he's curled up in bed.
"It's a whole new level of exploring the books," said his mother, Victoria Vaughn-Perling.
Readers and publishers alike are embracing a digital future. Electronic-book sales increased 73% in October compared with the same month last year, according to the Assn. of American Publishers, while sales of adult paperbacks decreased 23% and children's paperbacks declined 14.8%. Sales of higher-education books, including textbooks, fell 443%.
"There's a new excitement that e-books will become a viable way for consumers to purchase and read books," said David Langevin, vice president and director of electronic markets at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
The jump in digital sales is strongly related to the increased popularity of the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader and even the iPhone. Once readers have bought the hardware, digital books are much cheaper than hardcovers or even paperbacks. You can get a hardcover of Wally Lamb's "The Hour I First Believed" for $17.97 on Amazon.com, for example, but it costs only $9.99 on the Kindle. And "100 Words to Make You Sound Smart" is $5.95 in print but only $2.99 in Apple's App Store.
Digital books could get even cheaper if New York company DailyLit goes through with its plan to place advertising on the e-mails and RSS feeds it sends to subscribers, which contain serialized books. The ads would subsidize the cost of the books.
But the children's book market is especially ripe for the wonders of the digital world.
Today's kids, after all, have grown up around technology and don't think twice about learning from computers and sleeping with their iPods. In some cases, watching a book on a computer might even make them enjoy reading more, publishers say.
Businesses are starting to focus on the children's market. Kidthing, a Los Angeles firm, makes the digital player that lets Skye read "Horton." Speakaboos, a New York company, offers children's classics that are read by actors as pages are displayed on the screen. Now publishers are rushing to put content online and create games, and in some cases, whole virtual worlds, about different books.
For many, it's a way to generate revenue and shift to a format that in the long run isn't as expensive as print to produce. But it's also a recognition that children live in their own wired world, and that digital releases can goose print sales.
"You have to fish where the fish are," said Chip Flaherty, publisher of Walden Media. Over the summer, Walden released teen book "Savvy" free for a week on the Internet before it went on sale in print and encouraged kids to download the book or read it online. More than 30 tween websites and virtual worlds posted a link to the download site, and thanks in part to word of mouth, the book climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list a few weeks later.
Walden Media said last week that it was working with HarperCollins and Woogi World, a virtual world for children, to make some books available online and start a book club that would send kids physical books in the mail. Children will be able to log on to the virtual world, where they can discuss books. Publishers such as Scholastic are also adding websites and games online to go hand in hand with book offerings such as "39 Clues," a multi-volume mystery book project.
"We can't just ignore that kids are spending more time on the Internet -- we want to use the Internet to let them know there is still great content out there," Flaherty said.
Kids are more likely than adults to interact with material on the Web, said Diane Naughton, vice president of marketing at HarperCollins Children's Books.
HarperCollins has made 25,000 titles such as Lemony Snicket's "The Lump of Coal" available digitally. Readers can browse them online or in some cases read them in full free.
There is some evidence that younger children learn less when they're reading books in electronic form. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, studied parents who read digital books with their children and found that young children don't get as much meaning from what they're reading when they're playing with gadgets and distracted by all the bells and whistles of technology.
"We have to be careful that electronic media is not a substitute for hands-on," Hirsh-Pasek said.
Kids who spend too much time staring at screens instead of imagining fanciful stories or playing with friends miss out on hands-on creative play, an essential part of a child's development, said Susan Linn, a psychologist and associate director of the media center at Boston's Judge Baker Children's Center.
"It's a problem because it means they're not exploring the world themselves," she said.
Publishers counter that digital books can attract kids to titles they otherwise might not see.
In any case, with the publishing industry weak, digital books are unlikely to go away because they are starting to generate revenue. With digital books, there are no shipping, printing or return costs -- which eat into profits. The sector is Random House's fastest growing, and the publishing behemoth recently announced that it was nearly doubling the number of digital books available. That will require a big investment, but Matt Shatz, vice president of Random House Digital, said it would pay off in the long run.
"The revenue opportunity that's available for publishers who make the effort is at a point where you can pretty easily justify the cost to convert the files," he said. "That hasn't been true until this year."
Langevin, of Houghton Mifflin, said that though digital books make up just 1% of sales currently, that could easily grow to 10% in five years.
That might grow even faster as teenagers and younger kids become more savvy with mobile devices. In Japan, for instance, fast mobile phone connections have helped feed a craze in which novels are written and read entirely on cellphones.
"There's a huge opportunity for publishers to use the growth of mobile devices to encourage young customers," said Carolyn Pittis, senior vice president of global marketing strategy and operations at HarperCollins Publishers. Already, Random House offers books such as "Curious George" and "The Way We Work" on the iPhone.
The digital format adds something to tactile books, said Mary Ann Sabia, vice president and associate publisher of Charlesbridge Publishing Inc. It's more interactive and gives children different insights into the story and characters, she said. Charlesbridge now has digital books that sing rhymes to kids and books accompanied by digital learning games.
Still, she said, "We don't think that print books are going to disappear."
If Thomas Knights is any indication, she's right. The 5-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., likes to play games on Kidthing but doesn't like reading books on it, even though Dr. Seuss is one of his favorite authors.
"We looked at the Grinch one, but it doesn't do the voices as well as Mommy does," said Laura Knights, his mother. "He likes his mommy time."
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73% - Increase in sales of electronic books in October over the same month a year earlier
16% - Decline in sales of adult paperbacks in October from a year earlier
42 million - Sales of digital books in 2008, through October
$2.99 - Price of "100 Words to Make You Sound Smart" at Apple's App Store
Source: Assn. of American Publishers
Child-safe electronic books
So you want your kids to be bookworms, but you can't get them into books. Maybe they'll like the high-tech aspect of digital books. You could just sit them down at the computer and let them read the many children's books available online, but they might click on the wrong link and end up on an adult site. Here are some services that offer children's books away from the Internet, and a rundown on pricing.
Kidthing is a player, much like iTunes, that you download to your computer so that you can access content even when you're not connected to the Internet. The player is free, but you'll have to pay for many of the books and games available on it. Classics such as Don Freeman's "Corduroy" and Jerry Pallotta's "Icky Bug" books cost $5.99.
KINDLE, SONY READER
You're probably not going to want to get your kid his or her own Kindle, considering that the digital readers cost $359 and are currently on back order on Amazon.com. But you could get one for yourself and let your kid use it. You can get titles such as Kalli Dakos' "Don't Read This Book, Whatever You Do!" for $4.99 and "The Railway Children" by E. Nesbit for $2.50. The Reader costs a little less than the Kindle, but Sony charges more for the books: "Far-Flung Adventures: Hugo Pepper" costs $13.49, just 10% off the cover price.
It might feel weird to get your child an iPhone or an iPod Touch, but he or she would definitely be the cool kid in the schoolyard. Many of the books available on the iPhone are interactive, such as the 99-cent Bumblebee Touchbook, which lets your child touch any word to watch it move and hear it spoken, and "Buddy the Bus," a free e-book created for the iPhone that lets you record your voice and add it to the story.
Source: Times research