Today Disney Publishing is announcing the launch of Disney Digital Books (, an online subscription service that will offer parents and kids Web access to Disney's library of children's books. A subscription costs $8.95/month or $79.95/year; subscriptions can be bought online or via gift cards that will be sold in retail locations. Initially, the site will launch with 500 books, and more content will be added on a weekly basis. (I asked whether Marvel Comics content, which will be available on the Sony PSP, would be available through the site and Disney said not at first, and it was too early to comment further.)

  • So are these really eBooks?  I've been struggling with whether to use the term "eBooks" for what Disney's doing, and I've decided that no, they are aren't quite eBooks. They aren't portable, and they don't come in a transferable format like ePub. In some ways, these digital books are more than eBooks: They're interactive, illustrated, and in color. Maybe some day eBooks will function more like Disney's "digital books," but for now the two products seem distinct enough to warrant different language.
  • Will they be accessible on eReaders? No. This is an online-only service, which makes sense given that E Ink-based readers can't support the color and interactivity Disney's books offer, and devices that might be able to like the Apple and Microsoft tablets are only rumor at this point.
  • What's cool about it? The books appeal to three targets: Young kids, who can have the books read to them (and play them ad infinitum, much to the joy of parents who are sick of reading Nemo for the millionth time); older kids, who can read the books themselves and use interactive features like the dictionary and trivia quizzes; and parents, who can recommend their own favorite books to their kids and track what their kids have been reading. During testing, I ran into some usability glitches and found some parts of the site hard to navigate (switching between the read-to-me mode and the read-myself mode didn't seem intuitive), but overall found the experience engaging (even though I'm somewhat older than the target demographic :-). One feature I thought was really smart is the character-based visual browse function–kids can choose a book by browsing through images of their favorite characters, rather than having to type in a title or author.
  • Why does this product matter? This product matters because every publisher I work with is dying to launch direct-to-consumer services, where they reap the revenue and manage the customer relationship directly rather than going through a retailer middleman. But this is a huge challenge for most publishers. Disney's in a unique position to do this because: a) they own their own content, which most publishers don't; and b) Disney has a recognizable brand for consumers, which most publishers don't. As the New York Times notes, HarperCollins has more than 1,000 children's eBooks available, and Scholastic has BookFlix, an online service that pairs videos with related nonfiction books. Still, what Disney's doing will have impact, and will serve as a model other publishers can look to as they figure out their own play.
  • What do we think Disney will do next? We wouldn't be surprised to see Disney launch its own eReader for kids to compete with LeapFrog products. It probably won't use E Ink, would definitely have color, and would likely have a touchscreen. In fact, the Disney Digital Books site seemed to scream for touch–the way you turn a page, for example, would be very intuitive with a finger-operated touchscreen. Just in time for Windows 7 and the flurry of haptic interfaces it will spawn…

If your kids try out the site (you can do a free trial with 8 books) and have something to say about it, leave a comment, I'd love to hear it.