∞ Disney pushes into e-books with Web-based interactive books

Disney on Tuesday introduced Disney Digital Books, a new effort to capture the attention of tech-savvy early readers and their parents. The e-books are viewable on a Mac or PC running a Web browser with Flash, and the service operates on a subscription model. A free trial is also available.

Disney Digital BooksDisney Digital Books launches with 500 titles already available, including dozens of Disney classics. Kids can read along or click on any word to hear it pronounced, and a built-in dictionary helps readers learn words they don’t already know. Kids gain points with the more books they read, displaying badges and awards in a personalized area on the site. The service also lets kids make their own story books using clip-art and interactive elements. And parents can monitor their kids’ progress using built-in diagnostic tools, sending them encouragement and messages.

In a webcast introducing the service, Disney Publishing Worldwide president Russell Hampton explained the effort is an attempt by Disney to keep bookreading relevant to kids who might otherwise be more inclined to play video games or watch TV. “We have to compete for their time,” he said.

Disney Publishing Worldwide’s main business is still squarely in print. Hampton didn’t discount the possibility that Disney will make further inroads to e-publishing in the future, on mobile devices, e-book readers like the Kindle and so on. But he emphasized that the computer is where his company is making its debut with e-books, since computers provide the closest experience to reading a real book — especially a children’s book, since children’s books tend to emphasize rich artwork as much, if not more, than the story.

The service is available today in English, though Disney has plans to internationalize it, and users can sign up for a trial with access to eight free books.

Disney Digital Books run on Mac OS X 10.4 or later, on G5 or better-equipped Macs running Safari 3 or Firefox 3 or later with Adobe Flash 9 or better installed.