Working with children’s publisher Capstone, Amazon has added bundled children’s book content to the Alexa platform, giving kids a new way to access interactive stories through the voice-activated assistant. Capstone has added 50 You Choose Books—a collection of fiction and nonfiction stories that offer readers choices that steer them down different narrative pathways—to Amazon’s library of literary content accessible through Alexa-enabled devices. Rather than standalone offerings, the Capstone titles are grouped into 12 different themed bundles. All these You Choose Books were previously published as print books, and Alexa serves the books in a new interactive audio format read by voice actors.
Readers can access these interactive stories through Alexa “Skills,” or voice-controlled apps. The bundles work on smartphones with the Alexa app, as well as on Amazon’s entire ecosystem of Alexa-powered devices including the Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, and Echo Dot Kids Edition. The Capstone bundles are aimed at kids ages eight to 12, but Amazon lists Alexa content for kids as young as three.
Each Capstone bundle contains three to five books grouped around popular fictional characters or themes. Fiction bundles include “Justice League Adventures,” “Scooby Doo Mysteries,” and “You Choose Batman Adventures,” while nonfiction bundles feature themes such as “Space Exploration,” “Extreme Sports,” and “Epic History.” The first book in each bundle is free for all Alexa users, but to listen to the rest, parents must pay to subscribe to Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited on Alexa service.
“The voice market is the big thing now. We want to be a part of the home fabric,” said Matt Keller, v-p of business development at Capstone, noting that by the end of 2020, researchers predict half of all internet searches will be made by voice. “Internally, we always say, ‘wherever the kid is, that's where we need to be.’ We know they’re going to be using voice devices in smart homes. What better way to keep books alive than oral storytelling?”
The online retailer has kept the total number of Alexa users secret, but in January, Amazon’s senior v-p of devices and services Dave Limp told a reporter at the Verge that the online retailer has sold 100 million devices that make use of Alexa, and that the platform now counts 70,000 skills.
An Amazon spokesperson who replied to PW via email for this article declined to reveal exactly how many children’s offerings are now available through the FreeTime for Alexa subscription service. According to the spokesperson, the subscription fee for FreeTime for Alexa grants access to 1,000 Audible titles and 200 short stories in the “Amazon Storytime” skill. The spokesperson also mentioned other Alexa skills from children’s publishers: Honest Lee and Matthew Gilbert’s The Unlucky Adventures of Classroom 13 from Hachette (read the PW article), R.L. Stine’s Give Yourself Goosebumps from Scholastic, and educational offerings from National Geographic.
According to Amazon’s Amazon FreeTime Unlimited subscription page, the monthly price for one child is $2.99 for Prime members, and $4.99 for non-Prime members. A family plan costs $6.99 for Prime members and $9.99 for non-Prime members.
To experience the Capstone content, kids tell the voice-activated assistant to open the bundle (“Alexa, open Scooby Doo Mysteries,” for example). The individual stories are dramatized with a cast of actors, sound effects, and music—all content created by Capstone. At certain junctures in the story, the narrator asks the reader to make a choice and each new decision creates a different branch in the narrative. While a single listening experience might only last 15 minutes, there are many other branches with many different outcomes. “If every single ending gets explored in these You Choose Adventure books, it is 90 minutes of content,” Capstone’s Keller said. “That’s a lot of audio work we have to do.”
Capstone created the audio for these books, but the publisher needed a new kind of technological infrastructure to bring the stories to Alexa. Capstone tapped Earplay, a Boston-based company that won the Alexa Developer of the Year award at the Alexa Conference for developers in January. The company has created tools to bring interactive, choose-your-own-adventure style audio narratives to iOS apps, Google Assistant, and Alexa-enabled devices. Capstone is the first book publisher to use Earplay’s technology, but a few media companies have hired Earplay to create audio experiences for Alexa, Google Assistant, and iOS platforms—including an interactive audio Jurassic World feature for Universal Studios Interactive and an audio series for NBCUniversal’s Mr. Robot.
“Earplay was built from the ground up by authors and creators of content,” said Earplay CEO and co-founder Jon Myers, a narrative designer from the video game industry. “We put content first.” Myers launched his company with an interactive spy story called Codename Cygnus in the app store, earning back the company’s “content costs” through app sales. The same technology in that app now powers interactive stories in Capstone’s Alexa bundles.
Neither Amazon nor Capstone commented on how the You Choose titles are monitized on the Alexa platform, now or in the future. At the moment, publishers only have two options for monetizing content on Alexa: put the audio content in Audible so it can be purchased and accessed through Alexa-enabled devices, or strike a deal to be included in Amazon’s FreeTime for Alexa subscription service. The Amazon spokesperson declined to discuss future plans for pay-as-you-go bundles or other ways to sell children’s books through Alexa-enabled devices. Beyond the offerings mentioned in this article, the Amazon spokesperson did not share a list of all current Alexa publishing partnerships and did not offer specifics about future partnerships, but said the company will keep adding more “features and skills” for Alexa users. “Stories are certainly popular among FreeTime Unlimited on Alexa customers, and we’ve found that voice and audio is a great medium that is still in its infancy,” the spokesperson wrote via email. “We’re always looking for ways to improve our products and services for customers while adding more of what they love.”
“It’s going to take some time for people to come to a point of trust about how to make those purchases,” Myers said when asked if customers will ever buy content on voice-activated platforms. The gaming veteran recalled the moment when the mobile games market exploded, and expects another boom in content for the voice-activated market. “Storytelling becomes very valuable very quickly the moment that boom occurs,” he said.