The Literal app turns books into texts
While Gen X was known for their love of punk rock, and Millennials popularized brunch, what will Gen Z’s legacy be? Some people look at declining reading rates today and wonder if Gen Z will be known for the demise of reading.
Thirty-two percent of teens say they read for pleasure less than once a month. Ed-tech startup company, Literal, hopes to change that by taking the original format of a book and turning it into a series of text messages.
While the language stays true to the original text, the format allows readers to scroll through the novel as if it were a group chat. Whether the user is reading a classic like The Great Gatsby or a contemporary YA novel, each sentence appears on the screen as a chat bubble.
The idea for Literal was born when CEO and founder, Lawton Smith, sat down to read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Smith was formerly an avid reader, but it had been years since he’d had the time.
Smith explained how difficult it was to get through just a few pages of the novel. He said, “I started to read it, but my attention was just shot. I literally couldn’t get past page two. My mind was saying, check your phone, check the headlines, you’re missing this, what about that. I had to stop and ask what was going on in my mind. I used to be able to really just get into a book and stay focused. I think I’ve lost that ability.”
Shortly after Smith’s failed attempt at reading Hemingway, he did some research and found he’s not the only one who struggles to read these days. A 2018 study found the time Americans spend reading for fun has been consistently declining since 2003.
Smith began to think of solutions that could save reading from disappearing entirely. He came up with the idea for a reading app that harnesses the same techniques used by digital media platforms to keep your brain engaged.
Literal uses text chunking, white space, color coding, animations, and visual association to keep the reader’s brain focused and not drawn to other distractions. As readers move through a text, each character has an avatar that appears next to the dialogue. Readers can change these avatars, creating their own cast and choosing the avatars they believe best fit the characters.
After creating a mock-up for the app, Smith introduced the idea of Literal to Michael Romrell, Smith’s co-founder, and long-time friend. Smith brought up the concept while the two were on an overnight bus, driving toward Pamplona to participate in the running of the bulls.
“For the next six hours on the drive, all we did was talk about what this potentially could be, the benefits that it could bring, how we could take it to market, what it would take to build it,” Smith says. ”Then we slept in a park under the open stars, and two hours later, we ran with the bulls in Pamplona. We like to say that we haven’t really stopped running since.”
Smith and Romrell’s momentum has carried the business forward. The app has reached school districts around the country and now has 10,000 paid subscribers. The team has also competed in multiple entrepreneurship and education competitions.
“We took first place in a Google Startup competition in Boulder, Colorado,” Smith says. “And we’ve been a finalist for two of the leading education prizes in the United States–the ASU GSV and the Milken Penn competition.”
Smith described one of his favorite quotes from a teacher using Literal in the classroom with her students. “She told me, I had this one student who sat in the corner and never had any interest in talking in class. We took a vote on which celebrity we should use as a character in the book. And they were the most active in the entire class debate to try and choose the celebrity that would be that character.”
While reading on Literal feels resembles scrolling through a group chat, Smith says the company’s mission is to create a new generation of engaged readers. While Literal helps readers build initial interest in reading, eventually, it’s meant to create an interest in reading traditional books, as well.
“Literal is a scaffold,” Smith says. “A scaffold is designed to build a building, strengthen it, but that scaffold’s never meant to be permanent. You take it down over time. We look at Literal as a gateway drug to curling up with a book and getting lost. But if you don’t build confidence, and you don’t build interest, and you don’t practice, you’re never going to get to that point. ”
Smith and his co-founders believe the benefits of reading are worth saving. While diagnoses of anxiety and depression are steadily rising among children and teens, researchers have found numerous mental health benefits to reading. One study found that reading fiction can improve empathy and build a greater understanding of the social world.
According to Smith: “Bibliotherapy, or reading for as little as six minutes at a time, is one of the best ways to reduce levels of stress and anxiety. So we look at Literal as a great mental health tool. Phones and laptops are here to stay. Social media is here to stay. All we can do at this point is be a healthy replacement for some of those other activities.”
While the primary users of Literal are currently students, the app can help adults also build a reading habit. Nearly a quarter of American adults surveyed in early 2021 reported not having read a book in any format over the past year. Literal can turn non-readers into readers, regardless of age.
Smith described how he uses Literal to enjoy classic novels. “I find some appropriate ambient music for the text that I’m reading,” he says. “Then I put it on play in full-screen mode, and I completely lose myself in the book. I read Pride and Prejudice on Literal and I’ve never been able to make it through it before. It’s got just enough color animation, different imagery, and I can adjust the speed. It keeps my mind engaged. I can finally get through classic literature. ”