Chicagoland publisher Publications International Limited has released two new interactive hybrid book products that meld the printed page with electronics.

The company has high expectations for the ActivePAD interactive book and reader system, a portable, stylus-driven, high-tech learning aid for children three and older. ActivePAD features a book that fits into a plastic console containing a computer chip that enables voice, sound, music and a variety of other interactive options that children activate using a stylus. Sixteen books, featuring a variety of standard learning themes—such as counting numbers and spelling words—are featured in three different series: Early Learning (ages 3+), Start to Read (ages 4+), and Reading Adventures (ages 5+). ActivePAD was officially launched on September 21. PIL plans to release 24 new titles in the three series in 2004. The product retails at $24.99.

PIL is also excited about Story Reader, a portable electronic storybook reader for children ages three to eight that was released in August. A 24-page, illustrated book, based on one of 10 Disney stories, is included with each Story Reader unit. The primary Story Reader titles include The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Peter Pan. Books retail for $24.99, and PIL plans to release 24 more titles for Story Reader in 2004, featuring Winnie the Pooh, SpongeBob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, Scooby-Doo and other characters.

PIL was founded in the Chicago area in 1967 by Lou Weber. The company, with approximately 400 employees, is now based in Lincolnwood, Ill., with 75% of its staff in creative and editorial positions and the other 25% in sales, marketing and administrative positions. Although PIL publishes cookbooks as well as general and specialty titles, its focus is on its successful children's book publishing division. PIL publishes more than 200 children's titles a year, ranging in retail price from $4.99 to $24.99. The company reports sales in excess of 20 million books each year. While not revealing company sales, Kerry Cunnion, PIL executive v-p, told PW, "Business has grown solidly over the past three years. We expect the introduction of Story Reader and ActivePAD to add substantially to our revenues."

PIL prides itself on maintaining a close watch on the marketplace from its location in Illinois. According to Cunnion, the company moves in two different directions to "respond to the different needs of young readers." The company continues to publish traditional books, which it calls "quiet" books, including board books, wipe-off books, lift-a-flap books, sticker books and other lines. Its most popular "quiet" book line is the Treasury series — compilations of stories for children ages up to six. PIL sells approximately one million units in its Treasury series each year.

But because it is more profitable and fills a niche, PIL focuses most of its efforts on developing and producing interactive "sound" books— products that use electronics to provide a multimedia experience for the young reader. In addition to the new Story Reader and the ActivePAD lines, PIL has been successful with its Musical Nightlight line of books for children ages up to three. PIL has produced "sound" books for the past decade.

Cunnion attributes much of PIL's growth and success not only to its use of technology in developing new products, but also to its licensing strategy. PIL holds more than 50 licenses in children's book, movie and TV properties, maintaining agreements with such companies as Disney, Mattel, Sesame Workshop, Hanna-Barbera, Viacom, Jim Henson Company and Fisher-Price. According to Cunnion, licensed properties sell books. "More than two-thirds of children's book purchases are licensed properties. We tend to go to market by licensing properties and brands. As a result, we can bring value to market. Consumers know and are comfortable with our products. That's a large part of our success." The newest addition to its stable is Disney's Finding Nemo property. "We think Nemo is going to be an evergreen property, appealing to boys and girls as well as parents. Nemo is going to have legs for a long time," Cunnion said.

Cunnion is satisfied with the direction PIL is headed. He said that the company will continue to use technology to create new products for young readers, who are growing up comfortable with using computers and playing with other high-tech gadgets. PIL will also continue to publish the "quiet" lines of books. "We're moving forward by investing in new product and the creative process," he said.