Do you like them with a mouse

Dr. Seuss may translate beautifully to the computer screen, but his CD-ROM publisher is still losing ground in the troubled multimedia marketplace.

Published April 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

When the camel does the conga, my daughter and sister wave their arms in the air, wriggle madly and squeal like a pair of Brown Bar-ba-loots. The combination of animated dromedary, smoking Latin rhythms and Dr. Seuss is irresistible. There may be other great moments on the "Dr. Seuss's ABC" CD-ROM, like the bass-playing barber and the 10 tired turtles on the tuttle-tuttle tree -- but for the women in my family, the camel rules.

Even the Lorax would have to agree: Interactive multimedia can be fun for the whole family. One Sunday morning at 7, I winced as I saw my 2-and-a-half-year-old kick open my sister's door, pull the covers off her bed, and moan "camel, camel, I want to play the camel." I feared an outburst of early morning wrath -- but Dr. Seuss can soothe even the savage aunt. My sister leapt out of bed and booted up the computer. Content, said the Cat in the Hat, is king.

But is it really? Living Books, the publisher of "Dr. Seuss's ABC" and multimedia adaptations of many other popular children's books, is losing money. In January, the publishing giant Random House decided enough was enough and sold its half of the joint venture to its onetime partner, Brxderbund Software, a maker of computer games and educational software that is also losing a great deal of money these days. CD-ROM developers everywhere must be asking themselves the same question: If Living Books -- one of the hot companies of the early-'90s electronic publishing boom -- can't make a profit in interactive multimedia, can anyone?

The "Dr. Seuss's ABC" CD is 2 years old, so just to make sure that its superlative quality wasn't a fluke, I bought one of Living Books' most recent releases, "Green Eggs and Ham." As we slid the CD-ROM into the tray, father and daughter shared a nervous moment. "Green Eggs and Ham" is a classic, a masterpiece, the "Ulysses" of children's books, and adapting it for multimedia smacked of hubris. Imagine the aggrieved children around the world if an animated Sam I Am failed to pan out! Enraged sneetches and zeeps would haunt the dreams of Living Books animators for years.

Not to worry. Audrey Geisel, Dr. Theodore "Seuss" Geisel's widow, has final say on all Dr. Seuss products, and she's doing a fine job of quality assurance. "Green Eggs and Ham" passes the 2-year-old taste test. The animation is delightful, the music is catchy and surprises abound. There is even a new character, a pestiferous duck that lays green eggs and pops out of strange places. Dr. Seuss' legacy is safe, for now.

But what about the CD-ROM legacy? The plight of Living Books proves that the current woes of the multimedia biz can't be blamed simply on bad products. Deeper forces are at work.

Jeff Schon, CEO of Living Books, blames the competition.

"An awful lot of publishers, with a lot of titles, are chasing too few shelves and too few consumers," says Schon.

It's not that the market isn't growing. According to Schon, the children's software segment of the interactive multimedia industry grew by 18 percent last year, with total revenues near $500 million. But there are far too many publishers striving to slice up those dollars, and too many products fighting for the very limited shelf space. With seven hump Wump monsters like Disney Interactive flooding retail outlets with "Toy Story" and "101 Dalmations" CD-ROMs, Living Books, along with everyone else, has been forced to slash prices.

That's great for consumers. A brand new release from Living Books can be purchased for as little as $19.95 with coupons. At the same time, a hardcover Seuss title such as "Yertle the Turtle" or "Fox in Socks" costs $15. Yes, the books are absurdly overpriced, but that's another children's story altogether. Creating a CD-ROM, as "Green Eggs and Ham" producer Philo Northrup notes, is "very expensive": The credits to "Dr. Seuss's ABC" list more than 100 names, including musicians and choreographers as well as the expected gangs of animators and programmers.

Finding the right price point for a CD-ROM aimed at the children's market would baffle even the estimable Horton the elephant: Too high, and parents might be persuaded to do something silly like go to a park; too low, and you have to move 100,000 units just to break even.

Schon says he's undismayed. Living Books is reducing the number of titles it releases a year, tightening its belt and depending on its high-quality back-list of classics like "Just Grandma and Me," "Ruff's Bone" and the "Berenstain Bears" series to generate steady income. There will be a shakeout, says Schon, but Living Books will ride it out.

Seuss fans will have to hope that Schon isn't just being complacent. CD-ROM publishers have bigger problems than those that can be solved by finagling price points. They're not just competing with one another; the Web's emergence has sucked investment capital and development talent from the CD-ROM industry and stolen its hold on consumer attention. Why buy a stand-alone product that one will soon exhaust of all surprises in a week or two when for the same price one can get at least a month of access to the endlessly changing and inherently inexhaustible Net?

And then there's the old portability problem. Sure, my daughter is mesmerized by point-and-click Seuss. But she still can't read "Green Eggs and Ham" on a boat or with a goat, in the rain or on a train, here or there or anywhere, without lugging an expensive laptop and spare batteries.

And at bedtime, curled beneath her covers, human-generated tales of Swomee swans and tweetle-beetle battles lull my daughter to sleep. It's much harder to get her to nod off when she's sitting upright in front of a computer, dazzled by quick-stepping camels. As any parent knows, sleeper-friendly software would be the real killer app for kids' multimedia. Give me a CD-ROM that works with the lights down low, among cuddled Pooh bears and baby dolls, and I'll give you the world.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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