Bedtime Reading, Written by a Robot...
Bedtime Reading, Written by a Robot Just for You
One of the best presents that Asi Sharabi ever got was a bad book.
It was a customized book for his 3-year old daughter, Thalia, and apart from the initial thrill of seeing her name in the story, there was not much to distinguish it from a mediocre mass-produced picture book.
"It was very underwhelming," Mr. Sharabi said.
But it eventually led to an idea: What if you could use technology to fashion a story for each young reader and create a more sophisticated children's book? Mr. Sharabi consulted two friends, a writer and a technologist, and they decided to try it themselves.
They came up with a story about a child who has forgotten his or her name and goes on a journey to find it, encountering creatures and characters that provide clues. A boy named Sam, for example, will meet a squid, an aardvark and a mermaid, who each present him with a letter of the alphabet.
The technologist, Tal Oron, designed software to generate individual versions of the book based on particular names.
They tested the name Andrew first. It worked. Nearly four years later, their company, Lost My Name, has created illustrated books based on more than 150,000 names. More than a million copies of "The Little Boy/Girl Who Lost His/Her Name" have sold in 160 countries this year, including around 370,000 in the United States. "It's an old-fashioned book, but with a lot of technology behind it," said Mr. Sharabi, a 42-year-old former marketing consultant.
Since the codex format was invented more than 1,900 years ago as an alternative to the scroll, printed books have not evolved much as a creative medium. Most of the technological advances in publishing have been digital, as publishers and app designers experiment with e-books that are enhanced with videos, music and other interactive elements.
But print is starting to get a high-tech makeover, too, as more tech start-ups seek a toehold in publishing and on-demand technology gets faster, cheaper and better.
With its software-generated stories, Lost My Name has carved out an unusual niche within children's publishing. Instead of relying on audio and visual bells and whistles to engage children, like three-dimensional pop-ups or buttons that play music, Lost My Name aims to make the narrative itself more captivating, by using computer codes to weave personal details into the storyline. Despite all the technology driving it, the resulting product looks and feels oddly, and charmingly, traditional.
While the execution is somewhat more sophisticated, the idea behind Lost My Name is hardly new. Personalized books have been around for decades. The early versions were little more than do-it-yourself scrapbooks with blank spaces where children could write in their names and paste pictures on the pages.
Since then, the medium has evolved, as major publishers, authors and children's entertainment companies dabble in personalization in hopes of extending their brands and forging more intimate connections with young readers. Companies like Hallmark, I See Me and Frecklebox have developed hundreds of personalized books, stickers, coloring books and other items. In 2013, the independent publisher Sourcebooks created "Put Me in the Story," a line of personalized children's titles based on beloved brands and characters like Elmo, Hello Kitty, Peanuts, and Lemony Snicket. Its top-selling personalized title, Marianne Richmond's "I Love You So," has sold more than 100,000 copies.
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Apart from the odd breakout hit, customized books remain a tiny part of the booming children's book business. Such titles cannot be mass-produced and stocked in stores, where the majority of children's books are purchased (roughly 60 percent, according to Nielsen).
And while some publishers and educators say personalized books help keep young readers engaged with print in an era of multiplying digital distractions, others are skeptical. Reading is an essential way children learn to empathize with others and adopt someone else's perspective, and some warn that self-referential books could undermine that. Most families will not acquire a whole library of personalized books, lest they encourage narcissistic tendencies among young readers.
"It's a bit of a one-trick pony," said Thad McIlroy, a digital publishing analyst. "Once you've dazzled them by including their name, what's left? I doubt it's addictive."
Still, some see the success of Lost My Name as evidence of a growing market for more creative, technologically advanced personalized books. "One of the things that's setting them apart from the competition is the high-quality visuals and the text," Mr. McIlroy said. "It's imaginative and beautifully executed."
This fall, Lost My Name released its second customized book, "The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home," geared toward children ages 4 to 8. At first glance, it looks like a typical children's book, with colorful images of aliens and faraway galaxies and silly rhymes describing a child's journey through space.
But what initially seems like a breezy, whimsical story required more than 25,000 lines of computer code. In addition to the author and illustrator listed on the cover, a dozen developers worked on the book. The story adds an extra personal element by integrating the child's neighborhood and home into the plot, along with his or her name.
"The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home" centers on a child who is lost in space with a robot sidekick and trying to get home. The child sees his or her name written in stars, and flies through the solar system toward earth. After a few wrong turns in the spaceship, the child will see a familiar local landmark — the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower, for example, drawn from a database of hundreds of landmarks — then an aerial map of his or her own neighborhood, and finally, an image of a door with his or her own home address.
To create the book, customers enter the child's name, gender and home address, which will be kept confidential; choose one of three character types with varying hair and skin tones; and select one of nine available languages. The software generates a preview of the book, and once an order is placed, a unique book is made at one of 10 print-on-demand locations around the world. The company sells its books directly to customers, for $30 each, through its website, making it more like the eyewear retailer Warby Parker or the online razor company Harry's than a typical children's book publisher.
The company, which began with Mr. Sharabi, Mr. Oron, the writer David Cadji-Newby and the illustrator Pedro Serapicos, now has 70 employees, including 30 programmers, in its office in east London. This summer, it raised $9 million from venture capital firms including Google Ventures, the Chernin Group, Allen & Company and Greycroft Partners.
Looking back, Mr. Sharabi said, he realized that none of this would have happened if he had not received that uninspired personalized book for his daughter."I will forever be grateful to my brother-in-law for bringing me this mediocre book," he said.