CliffsNotes goes digital

Jennifer Collins Mar 10, 2011

CliffsNotes goes digital

Jennifer Collins Mar 10, 2011


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.

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