With roughly two million units sold since 2003, Publications International has had plenty of opportunity to refine the technology and the creative process. Taylor's staff, of about 50 people, creates the Story Reader books. The staff includes writers, sound engineers, and animators -- the latter a large group of creative professionals recruited from the Savannah (Georgia) College of Art and Design.
If your child is taking in a story about Elmo, SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo, or Thomas the Tank Engine, the text has been produced in Lincolnwood, Illinois, through a licensing agreement with the group that owns the rights to that children's character. Each book featuring a licensed character goes though an extensive back-and-forth process with the licensor.
Before a Story Reader title can be created, Publications International
must pitch the idea to the licensor.
"Their responsibility is to make sure that everything we produce is appropriate to that character group and brand. Ours is to make good products for our market. Theirs is to be brand-forward," says Taylor. "It's a true partnership that's not well understood by people outside of the business. [Consumers] see Mickey Mouse and assume [the book] is made by Disney, so it's important for Disney to make sure that licensed products in no way diminish their brand."
Once the idea is approved, a team of an editor, an art director, a sound designer, and a project manager meets to discuss how to make it work. The staff editor develops the script and writing for the book, except in the case of a Disney film, in which the movie's story would be retold. The art director would either create illustrations or choose from the art pool supplied by the licensor.
Next, the creative team auditions actors to voice the narration. For characters such as Elmo, Dora, and Cookie Monster, the original actors record their voices and send the recording into Publications International. The sound designer then composes the music, edits the voices, and adds sound effects, putting it together "like a radio play, if people still remember what that is," says Taylor, jokingly.
The art, copy, and audio are then placed, and the Story Reader goes through a regular book-making process. Film is shot, the cartridge is processed, the book set is manufactured, and then it is sold in stores. The process takes roughly six months.
To make Story Reader Video Plus, the process starts the same way as the Story Reader, but the team adds an animator. They work together on every aspect: the story, the games, the sound, and the animation.
The project animator sketches out a storyboard, using the book's illustration, and going through the action of the narration. This way, the animation on screen complements the illustration on the book's page.
A project animator sketches out a storyboard for a Story Reader Video Plus title.
Concurrently, the team writes up a documentation book that typically measures an inch and a half thick, explaining how everything should work. This includes how the characters interact with objects, how the gaming should make choices, the flow charts, and possibility tables so that the video and the games function as planned. Then everything is sent to a programming house in Taiwan.
When it returns from Taiwan, the company tests. "We bring in professional game testers, to not only play the game, but to also play the game wrong," says Taylor. "For example, if you're supposed to hit left to go left, they'll hit the right button. They play it and play it according to our testing protocols to make sure that the game works."
The game testers make bug reports that go back and forth to Taiwan until all of the problems are fixed. Then the Story Reader Video Plus book is manufactured and shipped to stores.
In the final section, we'll consider the full range of Story Reader products and titles. We'll also look at the future of Story Reader on the next page.