IPG Children's Publisher of the Year

Writing children's apps

Posted by Kate on Jul 29, 2012

Moira Butterfield recently wrote a blog post about the “battle” between print and on-screen reading (something to which we are not strangers). She says, “I believe there could be more innovative computer/picture book mixes out there to discover, and I want publishers to call on us authors for ideas, not just on computer whizzes. I think we should get into the mix and offer our creativity.”

I haven’t spoken to Moira before writing this blog post, but, on the basis of this blog she doesn’t seem hugely excited about the apps she’s seen (perhaps she doesn’t know ours!): “We already have apps in which picture books are read out loud and pictures change when children touch the screen.” She seems to be suggesting something beyond/other than apps when she refers to “online”. She says, “I hope publishers will ask authors to help them with creative ideas for stretching their books to make wonderful new material online.”

So let’s deal with that first. A key reason that apps (and ebooks, but that’s a different subject) are attractive to publishers is that people are willing to pay for them. They are not always willing to pay a huge amount, and it’s certainly the case in our experience that you need to deliver more content more cheaply than you would in print. However, there’s evidence that people’s willingness to pay is increasing: Carly Schuler’s report for the Joan Gantz Cooney centre on children’s educational apps suggested that the average price of children’s educational apps had risen by a dollar between 2009 and 2011… and, as that represented a move from $1.13 to $2.14, that’s an 88% price increase.

By contrast, it’s proved hard for publishers to get readers to pay for online content (outside business, educational, scientific, technical and medical publishing – I am talking about “trade publishing”, and specifically children’s publishing, throughout this blog post). It will be interesting to see if initiatives, interestingly not taken by publishers themselves, like Magic Town which are based on reading and books, take off in the way that other kinds of virtual worlds like Moshi Monsters have taken off.

But maybe I am misunderstanding Moira. Maybe she is saying that she wants publishers to reach out to authors to create apps.

We’d love to find authors who are interested in working on apps.

But writing a highly interactive, multimedia children’s app that is a satisfying reading experience is not the same as writing a picture book. Here are some ways in which, in our experience, writing a children’s story app is different:

Creating an app is a highly collaborative process. More, perhaps, like writing a film-script than writing a book. Of course, picture book authors are used to being edited, but writing something truly interactive which accommodates other media does require a different level of flexibility and team-playing. Our apps are highly interactive and include illustration, animation, voice audio and music: the text is, just by virtue of the arthmetic a smaller part of that mix than it is in a picture book… which is not to say that it’s not a hugely important part of the mix.

Creating an app is a technical process. Moira writes about “teccies” and “computer whizzes”, and I think that authors who are interested in working into new media need to get to know “teccies” and “computer whizzes” and understand their kind of creativity, their sensitivities and what they regard as excellent in their fields. That’s not to say that authors need to come to publishers with a finished, coded app (we wouldn’t want that, for example: we have our own technical team, and we want to use code we’ve created), I do think that having some understanding of what does into animation and coding is helpful.

Creating an app is a new process. Authors who write picture books know their genre inside-out, and can draw on a huge experience of reading picture books themselves and, usually, of reading picture books to children. In August 2009 Winged Chariot launched Europe’s first picture book app (you can read about it here and elsewhere), so we’re looking at a genre that is just three years old. We began work on apps that we expected would be used on a screen bigger than the one we had available several months before the launch of the iPad, which turned out to be the name of the device we’d been expecting, in May 2010. So apps are new, and they’re developing fast. I think that authors who are interested in writing in this space need to keep up with developments, immerse themselves in this world and get to know the best of the apps that are out there, and, even better, spend time with children who are reading those apps to see how they use the screen and what they expect from it.

Apps are voracious: in our experience, they need more content than a picture book aimed at the same age-group. Writing a picture-book length text isn’t going to provide enough text for an app. Which is not to say that you can have even as much text on a screen at any one time as you can have on a printed page.

Apps are non-linear, or, at least, not completely linear: in our experience, understanding the balance of narrative story-telling and other non-linear elements is important.

The bottom line is that we get a lot of submissions of picture book texts that are sent into us as something that “would make a good app”. Often this is on the basis of just a couple of suggestions of interactivity: “when you touch the sky, the stars twinkle”, for example.

But, in our view, that’s just not enough.

In fact, we’ve written the texts for all of the apps we’ve published to date.

But that’s about to change. Our next app, Rounds: Franklin Frog, from which you can see an illustration at the top of this post, is written by an “outside author”: a husband-and-wife author-illustrator team came up with the concept, wrote the script and did the illustration. Even then, I think that Emma, who wrote the script, would say that there was a fair amount of team-work and back-and-forth involved in hammering out the final text. And, once we’d done that, there were final tweaks to be made in the recording studio: we use children’s voices and there were a couple of things that our narrator, Connie, just couldn’t say with the level of expression and fluency that we needed… so we changed them on the hoof. We kept the sense, and stayed true to the author’s intention, but we changed a word, or word-order, or the rhythm, to create something that sounded right, rather than read right.

We’ve done it once, and you’ll be able to see the results in a couple of weeks. We are more than willing to do it again. So, come on, authors: send us your excellent, thought-through concepts, with your vision of the multimedia and interactive elements that could be added to your brilliant text. We want to keep producing best-in-class apps, and we want to hear from you if you think you can work with us to do that.

Comments (15)

  1. Great thoughtful post Kate – your insights are always appreciated. Given your experiences and this piece, I wonder what your thoughts are about the title of “publisher” and how that is blurring. Do people engaged in children’s story-telling in ways that expand beyond the traditional book – and this may not just be an app, need to think of new ways to describe what they do?

    The way you describe the writing and development of your app makes Nosy Crow appear more like a production company, than a traditional publisher? Are you now a producer for some of Nosy Crow’s work, but a publisher for others?

    I believe that the perspective of traditional publishers, as storytellers, is fundamental to making sure there is quality in this space…but I’m interested how Nosy Crow will look to tackle the emerging “internet of things”…how will stories go from books, to the screen, and then into think air…by which I mean straight to audio told through a device that is linked to the internet through your pillow? Or enhanced by looking on a wall through your Google Glasses?

    So yes – you provoke two questions I guess:

    1. Can publishers hold on to traditional ways of thinking about what they do, if they decided to become more than just books – and what is that?

    2. Have Nosy Crow begun to think what comes after the tablet? Because I assume it is coming…and whatever device or platform it is…we will need stories told there too?

    :)

    Dan

    Daniel Donahoo Sunday July 29, 2012 #

  2. Hi Kate, many thanks for writing this. I think it will be very helpful to all who read it. I didn’t mean to sound negative about children’s apps. I love them! I guess I was trying to encourage the picture book authors on Picture Book Den to get involved in the exciting new opportunities, not to stand back and think it has nothing to do with them. I myself have spent a career working in teams to create books, so I know something about what you mean above. Recently I got involved in an interesting book-based debate about whether picture book authors should offer any illustration ideas at all with their text, and was surprised and taken aback, given my team-writing background, to find a number of people vociferously and angrily insisting ‘No! Stay out of it!’. I disagreed, but didn’t think I had the experience to argue the point. My app blog came out of that because I think authors could have a lot to offer working closely with others, and I was trying to encourage everyone. Thank you for adding to it. I hope you get some good feedback.

    moira butterfield Sunday July 29, 2012 #

  3. Dan, I think that your first question is hard to answer quickly, and needs another blog post! As for your second question – what comes after tablet devices – I think that we are learning things about interactivity and multimedia that I hope will be relevant regardless of platform. I was interested, for example, to meet the creator of Noodlewords (http://www.noodlewords.com/) recently and to learn that he had been involved in creating the first of the Broderbund Living Books (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Books_series), Grandma and Me, almost twenty years before he launched Noodlewords! Things he’d learned about interactivity and multimedia in the land of CD-ROM were relevant to apps. Similarly, I think that what we learn creating apps – about appropriate kinds of illustration, about how to tell stories, about balancing narrative and interactivity, about ensuring that multimedia and interactivity enhance and engage rather than distract – will be relevant whatever our next platform or device challenge/opportunity might be.

    Kate Sunday July 29, 2012 #

  4. Moira, I hope I didn’t misrepresent your views. I was not entirely clear whether you were contrasting “apps” with something else “online”. If you do mean to encourage authors to write apps, I think hope you, and they, will find this blog post relevant.

    As for the question of illustration notes, by the way, I for one am entirely happy to see them, and for some picture book texts, they’re absolutely necessary. Picture book texts work best when the illustration supplements the text – so you can see things that the text does not say. Sometimes these are things that add to what the text says, but sometimes the illustration can show things that are entirely different from what the text says, and that gap can be the source of humour or poignancy.

    Kate Sunday July 29, 2012 #

  5. Thanks Kate.

    Look forward to the blog post.

    I think my second question also needs a blog post…I have been working on a couple of my own projects exploring digital learning and storytelling environments…and I guess I’m interested in the transmedia stuff, but not from a film perspective, or a corporate perspective, but purely as a storytelling perspective.

    Lots to explain…but look at what super mechanical.com are doing with networks?

    What if a story was something that came to you in the chair you sat, or via the internet to the bed where you sleep? In a future world where all cars drive themselves and talk to each other over the network…what do books and stories look like in this world. Probably like books, but what else?

    Might not even really be an interesting answer (upon reflection as I write)…we still need great stories! No matter what!

    :)

    Daniel Donahoo Sunday July 29, 2012 #

  6. Some thought-provoking ideas, both in the blog and the comments. I don’t think there is a very widespread understanding of exactly what an app can (and should) be.

    Who knows what the future will bring in terms of communicating stories? What matters is that technology is used to its greatest advantage and that the content is high quality. There are good and bad print books – the same is true of apps and will remain true in the future, I suspect.

    I was prompted to blog at teacherturnedwriter.gillrobins.com/?p=334 because I feel so strongly about digital literacy.

    Gill Robins Monday July 30, 2012 #

  7. As a new user of story apps, I am becoming quickly discerning about the type of apps I like/think are useful. Traditionally, written stories have engaged the reader with text and illustration, but now apps have given my intellectually disabled child the opportunity to be a part of the story. She can play with the characters, control the action, and even choose her own adventure. At the end of the day, though, my intention for her engagement with books and story apps is to learn how to read, and to develop a love of reading. To increase her future employment and leisure (and even independent living) opportunities, this is paramount. If she learns to decode text, and therefore be able to create her own text, the world is hers! Thank you for being a part of our journey :~)

    Cas Monday July 30, 2012 #

  8. “…understanding the balance of narrative story-telling and other non-linear elements is important”.

    Kate, by non-linear elements are you referring to app menus?

    Conal McGovern Monday July 30, 2012 #

  9. Stuart Dredge of The Appside and The Guardian wrote this piece about both Moira’s original blog post and the one above: t.co/kqCFdIEF

    Kate Tuesday July 31, 2012 #

  10. Thanks, Conal, for commenting. I mean that print picture books have beginnings, middles and ends and, unless the publisher has made some kind of design mistake, it’s perfectly clear what order you need to read the words in. This isn’t always the case with an app. In the apps we have published so far, we balance a narrative text with additional text that is triggered by the reader touching the screen that enhances the understanding of the story and/or the character and sometimes encourages further exploration of the illustration, but that is not linear in that it can be read in any order. And we’ll take this concept of non-linearity further in one of our next apps.

    Kate Tuesday July 31, 2012 #

  11. Just written a very similar piece on this. Publishers need to take a long hard look at what happened when the games industry saw two clear solutions to the ‘low threshold’ price of apps and the constant battle between publisher, developer and the app-buying public. The two answers were to campaign for higher app prices (which failed pretty miserably in cases where big name game publishers bumped app prices up in line with boxed game products/higher quality digital downloads) or to asset-strip apps, shove them out the door as ‘free’ and then thrash the customer with extensive (and often expensive) in-app purchases.

    Some children’s book publishers are bucking the trend, thankfully (including Nosy Crow). Others really don’t get it, and worse – they’re insulting kid’s intelligence by slapping together poor quality product ‘templates’ that will never win kids away from really good engaging apps and e-books (or for that matter, really good games).

    Phil May Tuesday July 31, 2012 #

  12. Thanks, Phil, for your comment.

    You say, “Others really don’t get it, and worse – they’re insulting kid’s intelligence by slapping together poor quality product ‘templates’ that will never win kids away from really good engaging apps and e-books (or for that matter, really good games),” and I’d add or really good books.

    Kate Tuesday July 31, 2012 #

  13. Dan, I got part-way to answering your question. Here’s what a I think a print publisher does: nosycrow.com/blog/what-s-a-publisher-for

    Kate Wednesday August 1, 2012 #

  14. A very interesting article, I was wondering, why do Nosy Crow publish their books as apps and not e-books? Is there a marketing concern (Ibooks is not universally adopted like the app store on the iPad/iPhone) or a technical advantage to the app? Interactivity and animation are both possible with e-books on the iPad, yet the real successes seem to be in the app market. I have downloaded some of Nosy Crows apps for my kids and they found them to be intuitive, engaging and fun – keep up the great work!

    Steve Tuesday February 5, 2013 #

  15. Thanks for your comments, Steve. You just can’t make ebooks/ibooks with the same level of interactivity as our apps. But we do publish ebooks of our novels and are investigating the creation of electronic versions of our picture books too.

    Kate Wilson Tuesday February 5, 2013 #

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