By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid
An ambitious new digital reading technology aims to entertain, educate and sell more digital reading content to both kids and parents.
The Ruckus Reader, an e-reading platform launched today by Ruckus Media, provides e-bookshelves within book apps that expose readers to additional book apps before and after engaging in reading. Both books from the same publisher and those from other publishers can be discovered through the Ruckus Reader.
“You’re always a couple of taps away from our library in the ecosystem and that’s where you can check out all the different branded content,” said Jason Root, chief creative officer of Wilton, Conn.-based Ruckus.
What makes the Ruckus technology different is that once the user is inside one of the book apps, they are being exposed to other free and paid content that they can download with just a few taps – even content produced by rival brands. Kids reading Ruckus’s best-selling My Little Pony app can be downloading and reading a Crayola book app in a few moments (even though Crayola and Hasbro, My Little Pony’s parent company, are ostensibly competitors).
How It Works
Ruckus intends on spending advertising dollars on driving readers to its apps in the iTunes store. Ruckus partners Hasbro, Crayola and Sea World will also be promoting the Ruckus apps. Once a user buys one of the apps, they are inside the Ruckus Reader experience and are exposed to other apps from the same publisher on virtual bookshelf.
Readers can also jump out to the Ruckus library and purchase apps and other content from different brands, like e-books from Curious George publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcort, which is the first major children’s book publisher to sign on with Ruckus’s new technology. Several more such partnerships will be announced in the next 30-to-60 days, said Ruckus.
(Though Ruckus would not say which publishers will be announced as partners, one might be inclined to count out Scholastic because of Storia, its own children’s e-reading and discovery platform, which will launch to the public in the Fall and Sesame Workshop, which is rumored also to be working on a reading platform of its own.)
In addition to making a deal that brings top-selling Houghton children’s books to the Ruckus library, Ruckus has engaged children’s book authors who own the digital rights to their books and brought them on board.
There are 40 apps, e-books and videos in the Ruckus library at launch, fifteen of which are highly interactive “iReaders,” as Ruckus calls them. By the end of the year, Ruckus intends there to be 500 pieces of content available in the library, including 50-75 iReaders.
In addition to selling individual books through its reader, Ruckus will sell a subscription to all its content – six-months for $24.99 – directly through its own storefront.
As with all apps purchased through the iTunes store, revenue is split between the publisher and Apple. Ruckus declined to comment on exactly how it split revenue with publishers when apps were discovered and purchased through its technology.
“This is a very competitive marketplace and the terms are a very important part of our ability to attract partners,” said Ruckus CEO Rick Richter.
Focus on Education
Parents worried about a nefarious plot to keep kids swiping, tapping and buying e-book apps need not fret, according to the reader’s creators. Despite its sophisticated sales and marketing engine that allows participating brands to harness each others’ popularity to sell apps, the Ruckus Reader’s true purpose is educational.
In the more enhanced book apps (15 out of the 40 pieces of intellectual property that Ruckus is launching with), all of those taps and swipes are tracked and reports about reading comprehension and other educational metrics are sent to parents and teachers. (Reading activity is tracked in all Ruckus Reader-powered pieces of content, but the most detailed tracking comes in the iReaders.)
Parents and teachers can also access a dashboard that is unique to each child which tracks a number of educational metrics based on the child’s actions within each book app. The metrics are aligned with what is known as “common core standards,” a set of educational standards developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers and accepted by 48 states.
Ruckus developed its education and tracking system in partnership with Play Science, a New York-based research, consulting and design firm focused on play and educational experiences, and University of Michigan School of Education professor Elliot Soloway.
“The Ruckus Reader is an informal learning tool, but with an understanding that kids and parents are living in the educational system we live in today,” said Alison Bryant, the president and founder of Play Science, who has a Ph.D. in communications.
Bryant and her team based much of their educational recommendations on the latest research into how children use electronic devices and how they learn – or, in some cases, do not learn from them. Bryant herself is at the center of this world as associate editor of the quarterly Journal of Children and Media; she was also a professor of communications, specializing in kids and media at Indiana University and, at one time, head of digital research at Nickelodeon.
“We work with Ruckus on educational assessment and helping create activities that are engaging for kids but have educational value,” she said.
The executives at Ruckus are true believers in the reader’s educational mission. Richter, the Ruckus CEO, was unaware of his own child’s inability to read until the fifth grade and wants to prevent the same from happening in other families.
“What’s unique about what we’re doing here is that we’re really building a community around the child,” said Richter. “At any given time, the child’s kindergarten teacher will know and the parents will know and their aunt and uncle will know what the child is reading and how they are progressing.”
Ruckus is confident, too, that teachers and parents won’t be squeamish on handing off some educational responsibilities to for-profit brands like Hasbro’s Transformers, one of the iReaders available at launch.
“Because we have designed our activities and our curriculum around the common core curriculum, we feel we’re speaking the language at this moment that is the right language and helping some of their kids that are reluctant readers become engaged,” said Root, the Ruckus chief content officer.
Scaling the Business
Ruckus plans to scale to media powerhouse from storybook start-up using tried and true methods.
Richter is no stranger to children’s book start-ups or to how big publishing operations run. He was co-founder of children’s book publisher Candlewick Press and served as its president from 1991 to 1996, when he joined Simon & Schuster to become president of its children’s book publishing operation. He served in that capacity until 1999 and then again from 2002 to 2008.
With $2.5 million in series A funding from San Francisco-based Alsop Louie Partners (and some angel funding, including from the principal executives), Ruckus built several book apps and its new reading platform.
Before building its reading platform, Ruckus focused on book apps, including a My Little Pony app, which was the top-selling book app in the book section of the iTunes store for three weeks last Fall.
The company has created its technology with nine employees, including a chief technology officer who runs an outsourced team of developers in India.
Part of the plan is to get the Ruckus technology accepted and adopted by teachers and schools.
“The school market will be very important to us,” said Richter. “There’s a lot of opportunity there because the iPad can be easily tethered to a smart-board or a white-board and it’s in our short-to-medium-term plans to aggressively pursue that marketplace.”
Ruckus also has plans to build a software development kit to publishers that want their e-books and book apps to be featured in the Ruckus library can develop their own content.
“We want others to contribute to our store,” said Jim Young, chief operating officer of Ruckus. “We don’t intend to always create everything ourselves. At the same time, it will always be a curated and a safe place for kids to play.”
Write to Jeremy Greenfield