Two apps designed specifically for the iPad2. (And a new website.)

Without realizing it, we’ve been spending the last two years building software destined for the iPad2.

The first is the newest version of A Story Before Bed (www.astorybeforebed.com). It’s our children’s books service. Customers subscribe to the service and can record themselves reading their favorite child a kids book. While you could view the finished recordings on an iPad (via our iOS app that’s been downloaded over 300,000 times), recording always had to be done on a PC or Mac with a webcam. Not always optimal.

On Friday Apple approved our latest update to our iOS app. When installed on a shiny new iPad2 (with a front-facing camera) you can now record books right on the iPad2. It’s only 3 books from our growing library of 300+ books, but it’s a start. Soon we’ll add support for recording any of our books right on an Ipad2, and then books can be recorded and played back at bedtime on a true “bedtime computer”. (A Story Before Bed for iPad2.)

The second creation is Thrilled For you (www.thrilledforyou.com) It’s a wedding video guestbook that we originally created for our co-founder Jenny’s wedding. Guests walk up to the software running on an iMac and leave video well wishes for the happy couple. We liked it so much we put it out as a product. We have lots of happy customers but what people really wanted was a touch version. As the iPad had no front-facing camera, it wasn’t really an option… until now.

The iPad2 has given us a platform on which our video guestbook software can really shine. And the version we put out isn’t just for weddings, it can be used for anniversaries, birthdays, corporate events, or parties of any kind. And of course, the videos can be incorporated into the professional videographers final video production. (Thrilled for You for iPad2.)

BTW, we’ve also simultaneously released a version of Thrilled for You for iPhone 4s and the latest generation iPod touches (both with front-facing cameras of course). Check it out. :)

We made a video demonstrating both A Story Before Bed and Thrilled for You running on an iPad2 to show off how they work.

BTW, the music at the beginning and end of the outro was made on an iPad in Garage Band. ;)

For us it’s super exciting. We’ve been investing in each of these experiences for over a year. The iPad2 feels like the first time each of them has really had a chance to sing.

We also have one more announcement to make… a new website that we’re very proud of. As we’ve built a reputation for Thrilled for You we’ve realized that there are lots of cool resources for tech-savvy folks and people like us who are getting married. What doesn’t exist is a place to find all those cool geek wedding ideas… hence the Geek Wedding Guide was born. It’s updated regularly with links and content that could keep a geek couple in Mario themed invitations, and Lego shaped cakes for multiple wedding receptions! Even if you’re not getting married any time soon it’s always fun to see what your fellow nerds have come up with. Definitely check it out and pass the word. :)

OMG. We gave away 100,000 free recordings to military parents in 134 days!

On October 20th, 2010 we announced we were giving away 100,000 free children’s books to parents in the U.S. military using our kids books online service A Story Before Bed. Between then and March 2nd, 2011 we’ve given away an average of 746 children’s book recordings each day to families with a deployed or deploying parent. Children’s recordings have been made from as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan and as close as Fort Lewis, WA. Seeing our strong, tough, and brave soldiers sit down in front of their computer and sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider to their small children is an incredible and moving scene.

free kids books

Sometimes soldiers sit down and record a dozen stories at once before their deployment. In other cases you can see the service member sitting down in their barracks under the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights, in their fatigues, with their close cropped haircuts gently reading one of their child’s favorites stories, wishing them sweet dreams, and asking them to be good for the parent who’s remained at home to take care of them. (And sometimes it’s the spouse or children back at home reading a story to the soldier stationed far away from home.)

So you can get a sense of how cool this is, we’ve gotten permission to share these two recordings with all of you. These soldiers are reading to their far away little ones from somewhere in the world.

Even before we’d written a line of code, or designed a single screen of A Story Before Bed we knew that we would be giving the service away to deployed parents in the military. We understood how useful a service like this could be for families separated for months at a time. But nothing could prepare us for the very real impact these stories have had on the families that use the service.

We get e-mail all the time from families the service has touched. Hannah, a military spouse wrote in:

“I just wanted to say a huge thank you! We were very honored to receive the free books for deployed service members. My husband got to record a few the week before he left. When my two year old asks to see Daddy again, and I am at a loss for words, I am able to put a story on for her. This not only temporarily satisfies her, but also put a dozen smiles in my heart, being able to hear his voice. Thank you!”

Randall, a Captain in the military wrote:

“What a great thing you’re doing!!!! I read about 15 or more books to my son for my deployment to Iraq. He didn’t just watch them at bedtime, he used them to keep a conection with me while I was gone. KEEP IT UP!!!!!”

Naturally, our focus here is to build A Story Before Bed into a successful business. We’re essentially creating “Netflix” for children’s books. Of course we’re excited as can be about that mission. And while giving away free recordings doesn’t directly impact our bottom line in a positive fashion, it’s become clear to us that the small role A Story Before Bed is playing in connecting these families is absolutely critical and needs to continue. It gives us essential purpose every day when we come into work. In other words, just because we’ve given away 100,000 recordings doesn’t mean the need has gone away for the service.

So today, we’re super pleased to announce that we are extending our military giveaway program from 100,000 recordings to 250,000 recordings. And we need your help getting the word out.

Deployed and deploying miltary parents can head over to signup for kids books online from A Story Before Bed. Here’s the page to send people to – http://www.astorybeforebed.com/military. If you don’t mind, make sure to “like” the page and “fan” us on Facebook. For those of you recording stories make sure to share the recordings with your Facebook friends. And finally, for those of you who aren’t parents in the U.S. Military, we have very reasonable plans and pricing to use A Story Before Bed for you as well. Record some free kids books today for yourself to see how it works.

Free Children’s eBooks – How we accidentally created a literacy resource for teachers, school librarians, and parents.

Building our children’s ebook service, A Story Before Bed, has been an educational process to say the least. One of the coolest things about it is the role that accidents play in our modest leaps forward. One of my favorite is the creation of our library of free children’s ebooks read by authors and illustrators. We love the work done over at the Children’s Book Council by Robin Adelson and her crack team. Each year they put on the Children’s Choice Book Awards. Last year we agreed to have some of the authors record themselves reading their own books. Everyone was very sweet about it, but it was the first year, and it was a bunch of work. We only managed to get three of the authors to record their stories in our compressed time frame. I knew the result would be good, but I wondered whether it was worth all the work.

Free children's Ebooks

And then we launched the page just in time for the awards themselves. Check it out for yourself. And while it just had a smattering of recordings, the response was fantastic! Teachers, librarians, and parents all converged on the page in droves. While children’s book authors will periodically show up at a local bookstore for a reading, having that reading done virtually, and available on demand using A Story Before Bed was novel and super useful. Especially for the educators. It was like having a director’s commentary of a DVD, but for a children’s book to show the students.

Once we saw the response, we knew we had to expand on the concept. And thus, StoryTime at the Reading Room was born. We have authors and illustrators with books on our site record their own commentary filled version of their creation and post it on the site for free. Have an “in-store reading” with a children’s author wherever and whenever you want. There are so many investments we made, and things we have tried that I was absolutely sure were going to pay off big. I would have bet money. And yet, so many of our successes have been quite… well… surprising. I’m prepare to concede that my instincts are off. But even more importantly, I think we know now that the important thing is just to try as many small bets as you can. You never know what customers will respond to.

A Story Before Bed wins Children’s Publishing Innovation Award at Digital Book World in New York City

New York, NY, January 25, 2011 — Digital Book World announced last night that A Story Before Bed (http://www.astorybeforebed.com) won the first ever Publishing Innovation Award in the Children’s category.

Jenny Lam, Co-Creator of A Story Before Bed (and Co-Founder of its parent company Jackson Fish Market) added: “We couldn’t be more pleased to win the first ever Publishing Innovation Award. Our passion has been to connect families through the experience of reading children’s books and the creative use of technology. Seeing our creation recognized by our colleagues in the publishing industry is a great affirmation that we’re helping consumers and publishers by not only extending the children’s book business, but by growing it creatively in the digital space.”

A Story Before Bed launched in November 2009 as the first and only service where consumers could record a video of themselves reading a children’s book. Children could play back the story as often as they like. Just over a year later A Story Before Bed has grown their catalog of books tenfold with the help of publishing partners including Charlesbridge, Chronicle Books, Orca Book Publishers, Soundprints, Sourcebooks, Parragon, Immedium, and more. The customer base has grown significantly as well with thousands of customers now using A Story Before Bed to record children’s books. Additionally, since mid-2010, customers have been able to view their recorded stories on the iPad and iPhone with the A Story Before Bed app having been downloaded over 270,000 times from Apple’s App Store (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/a-story-before-bed-personalized/id364887654?mt=8). Today, A Story Before Bed remains the only children’s book service in the world providing personalized recordable video read-a-long functionality.

A Story Before Bed is also giving away 100,000 children’s book recordings for free to deployed and deploying parents in the U.S. Armed Forces connecting families who are separated in service of their country (http://www.astorybeforebed.com/military). To date they’ve given away over 75,000 stories for free towards their goal.

Bill Burnham, Founder and Director of Corporate Development for Soundprints, an imprint of Palm Publishing LLC, said, “As a publisher of quality children’s books, we spent a long time looking for the right partner in the digital space. A Story Before Bed is a fabulous service for consumers that will feature our content in a first class fashion. Additionally, the folks at A Story Before Bed treat their publishing partners with the same care and attention they give their loyal customers. We’re very pleased to be introducing our titles on A Story Before Bed in the coming weeks.”

Hillel Cooperman, Co-Creator of A Story Before Bed and Co-Founder of Jackson Fish Market said, “While A Story Before Bed has grown by leaps and bounds during its first year, we still have an enormous amount of work to do to bring even more high quality children’s books to the millions of customers who would benefit from our service. We believe in a future where there is no such thing as a child reading a book without the ability to watch grandma reading it to her any time she wants on any device she can access. With our loyal community of customers and our forward-thinking publishing partners we working hard to play a leadership role in showing the world what a great children’s book experience can be, and how to bring not just children’s books, but the children’s book business to the modern digital world.”

A Story Before Bed (http://www.astorybeforebed.com) was launched in Novermber of 2009 by Jackson Fish Market (http://www.jacksonfish.com), a small bootstrapped software startup in Seattle, Washington founded in 2006 by Jenny Lam, Walter Smith, and Hillel Cooperman. A Story Before Bed is the leading provider of children’s books with personalized digital video accompaniments in the world now featuring over 250 books in its catalog from over a dozen publishing partners.

Trade publishers need to get way better at selling their eBooks… to resellers.

As part of my job here at Jackson Fish Market when I’m working on our children’s book service, A Story Before Bed, is to license books for our library from children’s book publishers. (BTW, I recently read an article where Netflix has at least 80 people doing this job for them for movies. ;) ) Getting most publishers on the phone or to respond to e-mail is pretty hard in its own right when you’re a small reseller, much less getting an agreement with them. Despite that we have over a dozen publishers whose books we sell, and we have more lining up all the time. That said, it’s super hard.

Where I really should be spending my time is in selling their books by making sure we have the absolute best possible experience on our service. But instead, I’m making phone calls, bugging publishers, and sending contracts back and forth.

Since I come from a software background I keep thinking about the web services I use. What if much like Amazon’s web services, or services like Heroku, iStockPhoto, or even Amazon’s Associates program I could just go to a website, fill out a form, and start selling trade publishers’ books on my service?

I recognize that publishers have traditionally worried about the context in which their books are sold. And that they may still believe that the digital book marketplace will narrow down to just a couple of players that they need to deal with. This seems so fundamentally backwards to me. If Amazon is worried that I’ll host a site they don’t approve of using their back end they put it in their terms of service. And if IP protection is the issue, iStockPhoto also puts the guidelines in their license to the material. I’ve even heard… “you won’t sell enough books for us this year to justify how much it will cost us to assign lawyers to review your agreement.” Maybe the right answer is not for each reseller to sell some larger number of books, but for the publisher to lower their own costs of letting smaller resellers sell their books. After all, how can small resellers become bigger resellers without being able to sell the publisher’s books?

I understand that a publisher could give me a long list of the challenges in doing this.

However, I believe that today’s book publishers should believe that the scenario where they can let a thousand resellers bloom is the one they want to enable in a friction-free fashion. I am convinced that once they focus on that scenario, the problems they need to solve in order to make friction free relationships with resellers will be eliminated.

Today at Digital Book World in New York City, Michael Shatzkin said that he thinks the thing that separates trade publishers from other publishers is that they depend on others to sell their books. He added that it’s a good thing for many publishers as they infrastructure and expertise necessary to sell directly to consumers is non-trivial. So if a trade publisher’s only customers are its resellers, why would their infrastructure be designed to exclude most of their potential salespeople?

Yahoo learned this lesson the hard way with overture. They designed their ad system to focus on the largest part of the market – the advertisers with the biggest budget. Google took the exact same ad placement concepts and opened them up to everyone – even mom and pop dry cleaners. We know what happened here.

I’m happy to say that our publishing partners, all fundamentally understand this to some degree. They work every day to lower the barriers for more resellers to be able to carry their books. They don’t focus on whether their reseller partners will sell 1 or 1000 books for them that year because they know that the more resellers they work with, the more books they’ll sell. And isn’t that the point?