CliffsNotes goes digital

Cliffsnotes for sale


Kai Ryssdal: John Wiley and Sons reports profits today. The publisher behind the "For Dummies" books and Frommer's travel guides did all right. Sales were up, as were profits.

Back in the day, you may well have used another Wiley publication to get you through a class or two. CliffsNotes, the study guides. CliffsNotes have been around since the 1950s, so Wiley's looking for ways to put a new shine on the old brand.

Marketplace's Jennifer Collins reports.

Jennifer Collins: Joseph Castelo might just have the toughest job in film. He's taking the already shortened CliffsNotes to "Hamlet" and turning it into a one-minute video.

Joseph Castelo: This is like the cliffs of the cliffs of the cliffs.

Castelo's part of team producing one- and five-minute digital shorts based on the CliffsNotes guides to major works of literature, also including "Romeo and Juliet," "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Odyssey." Sales of printed copies of the guides have suffered as more information is available online for free. So Castelo is working with Mark Burnett, the creator of reality shows like "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," to produce the videos. They'll be distributed through AOL. He calls them CliffsNotes 2.0.

Castelo: What's most important is that these things have utility, that the student is able to look at a CliffsNotes video and begin a conversation with that work.

Other study guides and literary sites have experimented with short videos with more or less success. The website Lit Drift asked writers, musicians and actors to summarize classic literature in 60 seconds and produced this re-telling of the tale of certain star-crossed lovers.

Lit Drift video: And then, what happens is he gets banished, as Shakespeare would say, I guess. And they die, which is pretty sad.

That video's viewership was also pretty sad -- less than 1,000. Literary agent Ted Weinstein says even if CliffsNotes videos go viral, they may not drive sales of the Notes themselves.

Ted Weinstein: The jury's still out on that. Depends on the kind of book, depends on the kind of audience.

But media analyst Ken Doctor says the videos could be used to sell other things.

Ken Doctor: If the audience is, for instance students, which would make sense, and you can verify it's students, you're not selling them Shakespeare books or history books. You're selling them pizza.

Doctor says one of AOL's new business models is producing content like these videos with ads targeted to specific groups.

Doctor: When these videos come out, you can bet they're going to be at the top of Google search results.

So is a one-minute video of "Hamlet" more evidence of the dumbing down of America?

Carla Stockton is the author of the CliffsNotes guide to "Hamlet." She's also a former high school English teacher. To all the critics she says -- relax.

Carla Stockton: If a five-minute video on AOL gets one kid to go and get a DVD or better yet to sit down and read that incredible poetry, I'm all for it. I mean that's what this is about. It's not a substitute. It's a carrot.

She says Shakespeare would probably get a kick out of these videos. After all, he wrote his plays for common people.

Stockton: We've made it seem like it's some magical, out-there language that that only a few highly intellectual, preferred people can understand. But it's not. It's just words, words, words.

That last line is from "Hamlet," by the way.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.
Log in to post8 Comments

I think that "recap" has nothing to do with CliffsNotes. cliffsNotes is an in depth guide that does more than synopsize the material - it provides ANALYSIS. And since Cliffs has been around for more than fifty years - who is ripping whom off???

There's no question that 60second Recap was first out-of-the-gate with its eponymous 60-second video study guide format, and that our work's signature sensibility -- fast, focused, and fun -- was something new on the scene as well. So it's not surprising that 60sR inspired others to follow in its footsteps. But, frankly, I'd hoped for nothing less. If others hadn't seen the appeal of 60sR's format and style, and hadn't sought to emulate it, I'd have considered our venture a failure.

Which is why I'm excited about ClubRecap, the world's first global video chat ... about literature. ClubRecap -- launching March 15th at www.60secondrecap.com -- will be an online community dedicated to the efforts of folks like you, JK, to bust the conversation about literature out of the classroom and onto the streets. At ClubRecap, you'll be able to post your own 60second Recap-style videos (that includes you, Mr. Burnett!) and have hand in shaping what in a culture-shaking dialogue about the books we call Great.

Hope to see you there!

Hi PO,

Agreed, not sure why that info was left out. My comment below was directed at the comments left before mine, which implied that Lit Drift was copying 60 Second Recap--which we aren't.


Hi JK --

PO from 60second Recap here. Can't speak for the others, but from what I see here, no one has accused you of ripping off anyone! In fact, insofar as I can tell, you aren't the subject of this article --unless, of course, you're Mark Burnett is disguise. (lol)

My one concern: The reporter, Jennifer Collins, suggests that there's a limited audience for the video literary study guide format that we pioneered at 60second Recap and that Mark Burnett & Co. is appropriating for CliffsNotes/AOL. We couldn't disagree more. 60second Recap has been up and running since September of 2009. The fact of our millions of viewers and copious media coverage (We've been featured on the CBS Evening News, as well as in USAToday, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, etc.) attests, I think, to the success of our approach. Speaking as an ex-reporter myself, I must say I'm curious as to why (and how) this escaped Ms. Collins' attention, but, as they say, "it is what it is."

Hi all,

JK from Lit Drift here. Thanks for taking a look at our videos. For those who aren't familiar with us, Lit Drift is a literary blog targeted to youngish people, with a focus on how the digital age is shaping literature. This video series is not our primary purpose by any means--we just thought it would be a fun project to do in addition to our weekly blog posts.

Sorry to those who feel offended because they think the series is a ripoff of "60 Second Recap." It's not. Or at least, we didn't mean it to be. We didn't even know 60 Second Recap existed until we saw it listed in the "similar videos" section of YouTube. And when we discovered the 60 Second Recap, we thought it was awesome that there were multiple lit videos out there, because in this increasingly digital age, the literary sphere can use all the support it can get.

Nonetheless, 60 Second Recap and Lit Drift are playing in different fields, so fret not! 60 Second Recap, as you can see, is educational. Our series, on the other hand, is silly and ridiculous, which is just how we want it. The goal of the series is not to inform, but to show to doubtful young adults that classic literature can be FUN and AWESOME. And if it inspires them to read the book, all the better. Or if someone thinks our videos are stupid and decides to watch a 60 Second Recap video instead, then we're happy we motivated them in some small way to check out another lit video.

We have a handful more videos to add to the series. We've only just begun, which would explain the two videos and comparatively small number of views. If you liked the videos, [shameless plug] please subscribe to our blog or our YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/litdrift/) to get updates on future videos[/shameless plug].


As an English teacher who has used 60second Recap (http://www.60secondrecap.com) in my classroom since its launch in 2009, I have to say that I was extremely disappointed in this story. For one thing, why no mention of the hundreds of videos that 60second Recap already offers--videos that have inspired my students to dig into difficult works including Shakespeare and Beowulf? For another, you say, "Other study guides and literary sites have experimented with short videos with more or less success"--again, I ask, why no mention of 60second Recap? This site has transformed my students' attitudes toward literature. I consider that great success--and something that more careful research could have uncovered. Would it be too paranoid of me to ask if the producers of CliffsNotes 2.0 are trying to shut 60second Recap's groundbreaking enterprise out of this conversation? I can't speak for them; but I certainly expect more out of public radio.

Also, check out the "litdrift" YouTube channel. It has TWO videos, and two thousand or so views. Contrast to 60second Recap's YouTube channel, with over 400 videos and FIVE MILLION views. What on earth is Marketplace thinking here?

With Generous Support From...