Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cinderella : Our Top Picture Book App of 2011

We've kissed a lot of toads this year in app-land. Or maybe a more apt metaphor for this post would be along the lines of wedging our feet into a lot of ill-fitting slippers.

And while we've also stumbled across some real gems (see last week's post on the Best Picture Book Apps of 2011), our heart belongs to one big winner for the year. I'd like to devote this space to my No. 1 picture book app for 2011 with a few reasons why. So let's cut to the chase and reveal our winner. Drumroll please. . .

Nosy Crow's Cinderella takes a familiar tale and makes it extraordinary. Young readers can follow along with the text, then take a few moments on each page to interact with the story:

  • Help Cinderella clean up the kitchen by clicking and dragging fruits into the fruitbowl, stacking up the cups and plates, and throwing logs onto the fire. 
  • Get a little silly with the Stepsisters by dressing those soft-headed tyrants in ridiculous outfits for the ball.
  • Work with Fairy Godmother in the garden to turn the mice into footmen, the pumpkin into a carriage, and all the familiar ball-preparations. These tasks require real skills and include some fun surprises, which keep my young readers completely engaged.

But best of all is the ball itself, where Cinderella gets a few minutes alone with her prince. Nosy Crow does a great job making their books fun and a little unpredictable, and their Cinderella is no exception. Readers can have the happy couple dance a traditional waltz, break out their disco moves, or even go Bollywood. My first-grader comes down with a serious case of the giggles every time we get to the dance scene.

What appeals to me about Nosy Crow's apps is the emphasis on building literacy skills. These are, after all, books. And the audience is beginning readers. Nosy Crow's app hits the mark at many age levels and abilities, as more savvy readers can explore some of the nuanced humor throughout the story and early readers can tap on the characters to generate more speech bubbles that give clues about surprises on the page.

So what makes Nosy Crow's Cinderella No. 1? It's the perfect balance of a variety of factors:

  1. Top-notch illustrations
  2. Lively writing that puts a fresh spin on a familiar story
  3. Original interactive features 
  4. A commitment to early literacy
  5. Strong sense of fun
This sets the bar high for other app producers breaking into this new medium of children's literature, where the lines between book, movie, and game are often blurred in the push to attract kids. Hats off to Nosy Crow for getting it right, and having so much fun in the process.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Best Picture Book Apps of 2011

DotMomming apologizes for the November hiatus, but we were working on a bit of longer writing that required all our brainpower. But we're back in business, just in time for the holidays.

Both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal are great resources for finding helpful reviews not only of apps for kids but for all kinds of reading, like those things with paper. Their "Best Of" lists are rolling out for 2011, and we're hoping to see some of our favorite apps on there.

Here is dotMomming's rundown of our favorite picture book apps of the year:

For the youngest iPadders, Chronicle's Animal Show is adorable. With a festive, circus vibe in the visuals and audio, little swipers can learn to identify 31 animals -- tap on the sheep and hear it bah-bah-bah -- play matching games, test their memory, and work on counting skills. A definite keeper that they'll want to go back to again and again. ($1.99)

We also love the bedtime app Nighty Night! HD ($1.99) from Shape Minds and Moving Images and created by Oscar-nominated animator Heidi Wittlinger. In this beautifully rendered app, young readers get to put the animals to sleep all around the farm by turning out the lights. This is a perfect example of the magic apps can conjure -- the child is the actor and gets to decide when to make the bedtime call on every page. And though I missed the merging of text with narration, my first-grader did not. Parents who want their kids reading or at least having literacy awareness might find the lack of words on the page disappointing as well. But still, the visuals and interactivity more than make up for it.

For parents who want their wee ones interacting with words, check out Sandra Boynton's The Going to Bed Book ($3.99), which allows for a great deal of fun but keeps wee readers focused on the task at hand -- getting under those covers and calling it a day. Created by the wizards over at Loud Crow, the Boynton apps are not to be missed. Every one is a gem, offering kids the choice to have the story read to them or letting them read it themselves. Boynton books are for the youngest readers who are developing literacy skills, so the highlighting of words to flow with the narration and the subtle cues to move us along through the books go a long way in teaching kids the basic mechanics of reading. Loud Crow is a name you can trust.

And while there are plenty of big names in the App Store now -- from Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App to the Fancy Nancy franchise -- we like what's coming from the smaller producers, too. Teddy's Night ($0.99) from Auryn is an adorable app about what a teddy bear is up to at bedtime. The soft, pastel illustrations set just the right tone, the child's narration is charming, and the interactive elements are surprising and entertaining without taking away from the story.

We've written before about Crab Hill Press, and their My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car ($1.99) is still one of our all-time favorite apps. Two words: rollicking hilarity! Forget about minivans, the little boy in this story has a family that drives wild ride rides from the amusement park, like a merry-go-round horse and a spinning teacup and a roller coaster car. With a beach-blanket-bingo party soundtrack, this app is a gas, and the type of story they'll return to again and again. Here's hoping Crab Hill has more great things to come in 2012.

Next up: A review of our No. 1 pick for 2011. Stay tuned. . .

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Children's Picture Book Apps Are Not a Part of the Public Library's Story -- Yet


As more e-readers are getting into the hands (and under the tapping fingers) of young readers, picture book apps are gaining a wider audience. But not at the public libraries. To understand a bit more about why, dotMomming reached out to Chicago Public Library Youth Materials Specialist Andrew Medlar. This is the last in a series of posts in our conversation about digital books.

"Apps of all types are a significant consideration in our latest Strategic Plan," Medlar says, "and for the book/media industry at large. We can only offer our communities that which is available in the first place, and many of the great sessions and discussions at this summer’s BookExpo America and American Library Association conferences focused on apps and the fact that while they are exciting, and many are fabulous, no one has yet figured out how to make them able to be checked out through libraries."

Among the library's hurdles is that some of the major publishing houses are resistant to making their titles available to public libraries for e-book lending.

"Several major American houses still won’t even allow libraries to buy their e-book titles even though that technology is readily available—and so the logistics of app circulation simply haven’t been satisfactorily developed," Medlar says.

And while it's the publishing houses dragging their feet, some perceive public libraries to be the staid institutions clinging to the paper era. But that's certainly not the case in Chicago, where the Chicago Public Library's flagship Harold Washington Library is leading the way with its teen-centric YOUmedia space. Through YOUmedia, teens turn to the library to check out tools ranging from digital cameras to laptops, and to collaborate and create with new media.

"The Library is always evolving in how we support Chicagoans in new ways of reading, learning and discovering," Medlar says, "and this is a key area of strength in our past, present and future Strategic Plans.

"The expansion of YOUmedia from its internationally renowned success at the Harold Washington Library Center into more neighborhoods across the City is a prime example. The role of the public library has always been to provide access to information – the ways in which patrons now demand that information has changed (and is constantly changing), so it libraries are adapting to those new formats."

It's an exciting time for libraries as they make the changes necessary to stay relevant in a digital age. And I imagine that doing so under anemic budgets is all the more challenging. So whether it's a book in paper form or electronic, the library is working hard to satisfy the demands of a changing audience.

"Content trumps format, and reading, in any way, shape or form, is a positive, educational, fun, and lifelong activity," Medlar says. "As far as the physical form of the text, for young people it’s not an either/or proposition; they move back and forth between e-books and p-books without a problem."

"Let’s just give them the freedom to pick from all of the great stories out there in the world, however they’re told."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Young Readers, e-Books, and the Public Library

Like Clifford the Big Red Dog, interest in e-books has grown exponentially over the past year. Figures from June show e-book sales rocketing 167 percent, to $80.2 million, at the 15 houses that reported figures to the Association of American Publishers monthly sales report. And according to Publisher's Weekly, for the first half of 2011, e-book sales were up 161 percent to $473.8 million.

This red-hot streak should continue as new reading devices continue to enter the market and consumers turn on to digital books. So as e-book sales reach the stratosphere, dotMomming was wondering what's happening at the public library. We reached out to Andrew Medlar, Youth Materials Specialist for the Chicago Public Library, to find out.

Numbers for trade paperback sales dropped off in June, down 64 percent, according to Publisher's Weekly, while children’s hardcover sales fell 31 percent. And for the first half of 2011, sales in all the trade segments were off by more than 10 percent. So the trend seems to be clear in bookstores -- digital books are on fire. Is the library seeing the same spike in e-book demand?

"In a word: yes.  In four words: yes, very much so," Medlar says. "Interest, requests, circulation, and budgets for e-books continue to grow exponentially.

"The subsequent challenges then include balancing this with continued strong demand for the many other formats CPL provides, and working with publishers and distributors to make more e-content available to the library market in the first place."

So where are the kids? The adult market seems to be out ahead of children's books, which makes sense as adults have the buying power to make use of reading tablets. But as more schools try out e-reader technology, demand for kids e-books will rise. Are Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and beyond capturing tween and preteen attention?

"Ten percent of e-book requests placed on our website are for teen titles," Medlar says, "and about 1 percent are for materials for kids up through age 13."

So what are the trends Medlar is seeing at the Chicago Public Library?

"Well, in the interest of user privacy, of course, we don’t track who is checking out what," he says. "But it is clear that many whos are checking out a lot of whats.

"Circulation of e-books has been consistently rising, and leading the charge is teen-directed literature, such as series by Meg Cabot, James Patterson, Maggie Stiefvater, Kristin Cast, Suzanne Collins, and more."

And what's ahead?

"Regardless of the age of the reader selecting these titles, this is definitely where the bulk of youth e-publishing and use is," Medlar says.

"This will continue, and the production of e-titles for tweens and younger will certainly grow itself, especially as more schools embrace e-readers. Interestingly, many of the tween titles immensely popular in paper (authors such as R. L. Stine and Erin Hunter, to name just two) are not seeing the same demand in e-formats, so this is likely still to take a while to catch up."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How e-Books Can Save Your Marriage

DotMomming is celebrating a glorious alignment of stars over here, and we want to share the joy. It has to do with a few of our favorite things -- the public library, the iPad, and our Spousal Unit (in no order of preference).

Many readers already know the ins and outs of checking out e-books from the library. But for those who do not, we're going to help you get into gear with OverDrive, the library's e-book vendor. And in the process, perhaps we'll restore harmony to your household just as we did at our own.

  • No more fighting over the bedside lamp being on all night, since you can read books in the dark using your e-reader's black screen and white type! 
  • No more enduring your darling's cranky sighs at the sound of your pages turning, since your e-reader's digital pages turn noiselessly!
  • And need we remind you? These books are free!

What's not to love?

And for Kindle users out there, OverDrive is now available for use for the first time. Until last week, digital lending was limited to iPad, smart phone, Sony Reader, and Nook.

To help explain the process, dotMomming contacted Andrew Medlar, Youth Materials Specialist for the Chicago Public Library, to talk about e-books, the library's digital bookshelf, and where the kids are. We'll devote the next handful of posts to our conversation.

But first, the basic mechanics of how to check out an e-book through the public library.

"Patrons are invited to visit the Library’s downloadable media catalog at OverDrive to search and/or browse through our rich e-book collection," Medlar says. OverDrive offers several e-book formats, such as EPUB, PDF, mobipocket, and now Kindle Book. Before attempting to download a book, however, iPad users need to download the free OverDrive app. If you're using a Nook, you'll need to download the Adobe Digital Editions software.

"Once you find a title in which you’re interested, you’ll either be able to add the title to your cart or put the title on hold if all of CPL’s licensed 'copies' are checked out to other users." This step is intuitive, as a button to the right of the book information sits waiting for your click.

"If you place it on hold, you will be asked to provide an e-mail address where you will be notified when the title becomes available," Medlar continues. "If it’s currently available you’ll be able to add it to your cart and proceed to checkout, at which point you’ll need to enter a library card number in good standing and your ZIP code."


And there's more. Can you handle it?

No late fees. The book just "disappears" from the e-reader when the checkout period expires. While we love this feature, dotMomming does realize that we are single-handedly supporting the CPL system through our endless late fees. Will e-books put a dent in the library's revenue stream?

"While the automatic return of e-books does result in fewer late fees for the Library," Medlar says, "we actually see it as a great marketing point for potential patrons."

He's talking about you. Good luck -- in your reading and your marriage.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

App Review: Trees Are Best FACT

We have not come across too many nonfiction picture books in the App Store. So when we stumbled upon Trees Are Best FACT, we were excited.

Created by Hedgehog Lab, Trees Are Best is a celebration of all things tree. Told from the perspective of an 8-year-old boy whose friend says "diggers" are best, it is an exploration of what our barky friends can do, from giving us air to breathe to telling us their age in concentric rings.

The interactive components are engaging, beginning on the title page where readers have to shake the iPad to clear a pile of leaves and reveal the text. From dragging on branches to make a tree grow to using a tiny magnifying glass to examine a teensy tree, the whistles and bells on Trees Are Best will keep readers' interest.

There is even an art pad to let young fingers draw their own trees and share them with friends via email. The images can be posted to Facebook pages as well, though the audience for this app is a bit too young to have a Facebook account. But posting on Mom or Dad's page might be the modern equivalent of hanging artwork on the refrigerator.

The narration is solid and sound effects entertaining, though my grownup eyes found the type a bit too small here and there. The visual appeal of Trees Are Best is tremendous -- from collage to video to illustration, with humorous touches here and there that are sure to amuse.

A "coming soon" notice from Hedgehog promises a build-your-own treehouse tool and a tree-spotter's guide, among other upgrades. We look forward to seeing those additions to this lovely, original app. $0.99 for iPad, in English and German

Thursday, September 22, 2011

App Review: Let Me See. . . What Will I Be?

It would be easy to sum up Let Me See. . . What Will I Be? in a single word: adorable. But there's much more to the story about Miss Rosie Red than first meets the eye.

Written by Northern Ireland author-illustrator Trisha Deery and produced by Derry media company Dog Ears, What Will I Be? was released simultaneously as an app and a paper book. It features the curious Rosie, age 3-ish, and her delightful two sidekicks, Baby and a cat named Cooper.

The story is simple. Rosie has been invited to a birthday party and must decide what she wants to be for it. An astronaut? A fairy? A dinosaur?

The narration is sweetly performed by a young child, and my three kids could not get enough of it. The book is geared for the youngest appsters, but older readers will get a kick out of this toddler's antics. My six-year-old ate it up, taking joy in what the young whippersnapper Rosie was up to.

Darling illustrations of Rosie and her friends dressed in each possibility offer just the right amount of interactivity without letting little fingers lose track of the story. The emphasis is on Rosie and her excitement about going to a birthday party, and the resolution is spot on.

Miss Rosie has a strong appeal, and her charming companions Baby and Cooper create an irresistible triple-threat. Dog Ears reports the possibility of a TV show in the works, along with more books. What we liked best about Rosie was that her dress-up choices were not stereotypically girlie. Sure, the fairy option was a sparkly pink froth, but it was balanced by Rosie as a dinosaur and as an astronaut.

There is an air about this character -- resplendent in her striped red tights -- that is reminiscent of a certain pig with a big personality. Here's hoping we see more of Miss Rosie Red. With all this potential, who knows what she will be.

$2.99 for iPad and iPhone; paper book available in English and Irish


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

JibJab Brings Its Sense of Fun to Kids Books


JibJab's Starring You holiday and birthday greetings have been cracking us up since 2007, when the first e-cards that allow users to put the heads of loved ones into hilarious videos made their debut. Now brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis -- Jib and Jab themselves -- are dipping their toes in the waters of children's apps with JibJab Jr.

The first title -- The Biggest Pizza Ever -- comes free when you download the JibJab Jr. app. If you like, you can buy the other titles currently offered in the app's home screen, Alphabet Wrangler and Ocean Commotion, each for $7.99. Or go for the monthly JibJab Jr. plan at $3.99 and receive a new book automatically each month.

Personalizing the JibJab line of books is incredibly simple. In a few keystrokes, you can upload a photo of your wee one and type in her name, then sit back and enjoy the rollicking ride. Prepare yourselves for some fun.

Because dotMomming has enjoyed JibJab over the years (spending countless hours creating wacky holiday cards for everyone she could think of), we reached out to Gregg Spiridellis about the new children's book line, what's behind this latest move, and what's ahead for JibJab.

DotMomming: Among the hilarious features to JibJab cards is the audio. My writing group still chuckles over the fabulous JibJab holiday card they received last December, set to Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad. With the JibJab Jr. books for kids, there is no audio, no gentle piano accompaniment, no "read to me" feature as with many apps. Was this a deliberate decision to focus on the story and the printed words?

Gregg Spiridellis: Yes, it was a deliberate decision and, yes, it was a mistake. We were so focused on making this about the parent reading to the child that we missed the opportunity to insert subtle sounds that enhance the experience. We are working on it now, and it will be the first major feature enhancement for us.

DM: Many picture book apps include interactivity where kids tap on puffy clouds to make it rain or swipe a tree to make it grow taller. With The Biggest Pizza Ever, the interactivity is in creating characters. With a few simple steps, kids can import their own picture and feature themselves as the hero of the story. Can you talk about the decisions that went into the book's interactivity?

GS: Our mission is to enhance the time parents spend with their children sharing stories at bedtime. As parents, my brother and I find it frustrating when we are trying to tell the story and all the kids want to do is click the screen. There is nothing wrong with interactivity, especially for learning games, but for bedtime reading, we think it distracts from the storytelling experience. We may do some experimentation with this in the future, but unlike sound, which we are adding as quickly as possible, we are holding off on interactivity beyond the creation of the book itself.

DM: Picture book apps are exciting new creatures, and they are very much in their infancy. Can you talk about why JibJab decided to venture into this world and what you hope to do?

GS: The fact that there is so much room for re-invention of the bedtime storytelling experience with new technology is what excites us! We hope to leverage technology to create products that enhance the time parents spend telling stories to their kids!

DM: JibJab has a very particular sense of humor, and it comes through in the first example of your books, The Biggest Pizza Ever. Where or from whom does this sensibility come? Gregg? Evan? Is one brother funnier than the other? And what can we expect to see from you guys in the coming months?

GS: Everyone at JibJab is funny! That’s our business! While my brother and I decide on what stories get produced, The Biggest Pizza Ever is written by one of our very talented employees, Scott Emmons. In the coming months you will see more books with that JibJab sense of humor, aged-down for the 2- to 6-year-old people in your life!

DM: In a recent USA Today interview, you described the opportunity to "disrupt" children's publishing. What does that mean?

GS: We think new technology creates new opportunities to tell stories that will be far more immersive and engaging than what is possible on printed paper. The traditional publishers have built a business printing things on paper and distributing that paper to wholesalers (Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc.). We think the skills required to be a world-class children’s publisher in the future will be very different than the skills required to be a leader in the past.

DM: As parents yourselves, can you talk about your own kids' reading habits and what you see as the future in book publishing? Do your kids prefer digital over paper, both? What do you prefer as a parent?

GS: Both Evan and I prefer reading iPad books to our kids at night, and they prefer it as well! The reason we prefer it, as parents, is that we can turn off the lights and crawl into bed and read the stories in the dark, which really helps wind the kids down for bedtime.

DM: Tapping, swiping, games, animation. What are your thoughts on a book as a tool for early literacy? Where are the boundaries? When do they become a movie or a game? And does it matter?

GS: There is no doubt that the iPad is an amazing early learning tool (some of the Bob apps are great for early learning). While we are focused on the bedtime reading experience right now, we think there are obvious opportunities to expand into learning apps in the future.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

App Review: Finn's Paper Hat

It's no surprise when wee ones these days look at a VCR tape and wonder what in the world to do with it. Ditto phones attached to walls, CD racks, and the handles that roll car windows up and down.

What breaks the heart of newspaper lovers everywhere is the notion that this same under-40-inches set will not know what you can do with a newspaper. Roll it up and train the dog. Wrap dishes and coffee mugs in it and pack for a move. And best of all, fold it up and make a hat.

That's why Finn's Paper Hat caught our eye. Produced by Tizio Publishing, the same folks who created the enchanting Fierce Grey Mouse, Finn's Paper Hat is the second app from talented author-illustrator Chantal Bourgonje

In this story, Finn creates a newspaper hat and embarks on some exciting adventures. When rain pours down, he doesn't worry about the water drenching his hat. He turns it over and sets sail. With engaging animation, Finn's journey moves from ocean waves to a bumpy encounter with a whale.

Readers can tap the page to add snowflakes at the North Pole and drag their fingers across the page to run the whale aground. More encounters with a seal bring other adventures as Finn makes the best of every situation. And his creative uses for the paper hat celebrate imagination.

While many apps can be heard in a variety of languages from Mandarin to Dutch, Finn's Paper Hat offers options I've not seen before: Readers can choose to have the narration performed in Australian English, American English, U.K. English, and beyond. I chose English narration with an Irish slant, and I felt like Colin Farrell was snuggled in the chair with me. Sigh.

Finn's Paper Hat offers extras that include a how-to guide for making your own paper hat, as well as coloring pages. $1.99 for iPad

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Crab Hill Press Enjoys the Wild App Ride

We're always on the lookout for a good time over here at dotMomming. So when we discovered the fast-paced, downright thrilling picture book apps created by Crab Hill Press, we got a little weak in the knees. Their Nash Smasher! app, about a boy with a certain amount of joie de vivre and a hammer, made our top picks for summer. And My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car still has us reeling.

Of course we had to reach out to Crab Hill and meet the imaginative minds behind such madcap fun. Bill Doyle serves as chief writer and Rachel Ericson is creative director.

DotMomming: I see on one of your pages that you have "30 years combined experience in kids publishing." Can you elaborate? You come from book backgrounds. What made you make the leap into apps and digital books?

Bill: Rachel and I both come out of the print world. We became friends at Sesame Workshop in the '90s. I was editor of a magazine called Kid City, based on The Electric Company, and Rachel was art director of Contact Kids Magazine, based on the show 3-2-1 Contact. After Sesame, we had a blast freelancing on different projects together and had always talked about working on our own thing. We’re both gadget geeks—so when apps first appeared on the radar, we knew we wanted in.

It helped, too, that I’d been writing for different websites and different interactive publishers like LeapFrog. I was itching to apply some of what I was learning to our own projects.

DM: The joys of running your own app development business likely are many, including having complete control of the content and look of the books you're creating. Can you explain the appeal of Crab Hill Press and what you enjoy most about it?

Bill: I love working with big publishers. You can’t beat the editors I’ve worked with, the illustrators I’ve been paired with, or the support and distribution the big companies can offer.

It’s exciting, though, for us to go out on the tightrope on our own…either we do some cool acrobatics that gets the crowd going…or we might fall. Either way, it’s a rush just knowing that it’s all up to us.

At Crab Hill Press, we have a rule: we only do something if we’re having fun. It sounds like a cliché or something you might say during an interview, but it’s absolutely true. If a project starts meandering out of the realm of “wow, we’re having a good time,” we’ll pull back and take a breather until it’s fun again. Everyone has enough going on in their lives that they don’t need something that might feel like more work.

Rachel: We seriously only do what we enjoy. Bill is super enthusiastic, which makes it more fun, and the chain of command is pretty short. There's me, and there's Bill. And usually we agree. Of course, we hope that it will translate into being rich and famous one day, but mostly we're making apps we really believe in. And we focus on quality, originality, and content. There is no one in the process disputing our gut feelings or diluting an idea.

I also love being able to work with great people. Troy Cummings and Daniel Guidera are both illustrators I've worked with extensively in the past. Together with Mark Arenz, the fantastic programmer of our apps, we not only have a really talented and creative team, but also one that's really FUNNY. It's definitely my policy to only work with people I like, and these guys crack me up all the time.

DM: The flip side of the coin is that you assume all the risk and all the expense: developing the platform your apps run on is costly, you have to sell a lot of books to see a profit. Can you talk about the stresses and nail-biting moments of running Crab Hill?

Bill: I think the two days after we released our first app, Nash Smasher!, were a little harrowing and when I chewed up the most nails. That second after we were approved for the App Store and went on sale, I thought, “Oh, we’ve put out an app and there are millions and millions of people with devices…we’re going to be HUGE immediately.” That wasn’t the case. While Apple has always been amazing to us and featured us in New & Noteworthy and What’s Hot, at first we kind of sank unnoticed into the huge pile of apps. We tried running ads on Google and Facebook...those didn’t work out. Lucky for us, Apps4Kids.net was the first site to notice us. And, a couple months later, when The New York Times named Nash Smasher one of the Top 10 Kids Books for the iPad, things really started to move.

Rachel: I think the approval process for each app has been the only moment where I bite my nails. That's when you send your baby out in the world and it's out of your hands. It was also a bit of a cold shower to see that we didn't automatically sell thousands or even hundreds in a day. But I've adjusted my expectations, and we're exploring new ways in order to better the sales figures for our current and upcoming projects.

DM: For authors and illustrators considering going this way, I think it's important for them to understand profit margins in the two publishing realms (app vs. traditional). Can you give a sense of what's in it for authors and artists once a platform is set up -- from what I can see, there is real money to be made despite the low price of apps.

So let's talk profit margins and sales. Both of your picture book apps sell for $1.99 in the App Store. Can you break down (in general terms) the costs involved in bringing a picture book app to life -- from idea (and you have had fabulous book ideas!) to finished product? What percentage are you taking home for each app downloaded? In the traditional book market, a picture book needs to sell about 10,000 copies to be deemed a success. How many sales do you need to "make it" as an app? And to "make it BIG"?

Bill: Print is a big part of both of our lives, and individually we have great relationships with big companies. For example, I’ve got a book with Scholastic that sold about 450,000 copies in a year. Those kinds of numbers are extremely hard to beat—and so is the support and talent you can access.

Because we’re small, we don’t have the overhead of big publishers. So we can charge a little less for our apps. And when it comes to margin, the 70/30 split that Apple has established is incredibly fair.

Speaking of fair, that’s something I’ve learned from publishers and book packagers I’ve worked with: Be fair to the people you’re working with. Give illustrators the credit and percentage they deserve.

Rachel: I'm not really sure what that number would be to consider your app a success. We're doing our best to make sure that the people involved in our app production get compensated fairly. But we're not Angry Birds…yet.

DM: Production time is one of the major differences between picture book apps vs. picture books with paper pages. For an author, it might take more than a year to see your book make it through the editorial process and onto a bookstore shelf. For a picture book app, the process can be just a matter of months. Can you talk about Nash Smasher! and My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car and how long the creative process took for those apps?

Bill: One of my favorite print books out now is Attack of the Shark-Headed Zombie which took about two years to go from idea to shelf. I thought our apps would be much, much faster. But time gets eaten up in different ways, and both Nash Smasher! and My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car took about half a year. It helps that we work with one of the best and most creative programmers, Mark Arenz—he keeps us moving at just the right pace.

Rachel: I’d agree. I think it took about six months from concept to launch. It might have been faster if Crab Hill Press was my day job, but luckily we didn't have the stress of a hard and fast deadline hanging over our heads.

DM: There is a sort of gold rush happening in app-land as authors, illustrators, and publishers flock to this new frontier. How do you avoid getting swept up in the frenzy to throw as many apps out there as you can and see what sticks? How do you ensure quality -- in story content, illustration and interactive features?

Bill: I think creating apps is a little like dating. You don’t want to rush things, promise too much, come off as desperate, or seem greedy. Because Rachel and I both are still working in the print world with other publishers, we have the luxury of time right now. Plus, as someone who’s wanted to be a writer his whole life, I have a file cabinet full of ideas and it’s fun to sift through them and find just the
right new project.

One quick quality suggestion: Don’t skimp on sound in your apps! I had a teacher at NYU who said if you only have a little money for a film, spend it on a good microphone. The same idea is true for apps. Good sound will take you a long way. Oh! And respect your reader. Don’t oversell in the iTunes description and be very careful not to talk down to kids in the books.


[Check out a clip of Crab Hill's My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car to get a sense of how important audio is to the app experience.]

Rachel: Working with the right people, remaining enthusiastic, and respecting your audience are the best ways to keep your quality high. Busy with all sorts of things in life, we choose our projects carefully, and don't have time to throw out a bunch of apps to see what sticks. So that helps. In addition to that, I have a five-year-old and feel responsible to create things I'm extremely proud of: if it’s not good enough for her, it’s not good enough.

DM: Coming from traditional books and now venturing into apps, how do they compare for you -- creatively speaking? Where does your heart lie? And what do you see for the future of picture books?

Bill: With the more traditional print books I write, I find this wonderful focus…where each and every word is an important brick in the mental picture and character composite you’re building for readers.

The book apps are different kinds of productions. I can bring in a few more of the
things I picked up at NYU, and combine even more of the things I love: design, art, story, lighting, music, and voice talent.

What’s exciting about the future of kids book apps is that no one is completely sure where it’s going. We attended the incredible Dust or Magic App Camp in May and met all sorts of developers from one-person companies to those working with Disney…and it seems we’re all on the same terrific ride: trying to figure out what will be the next big thing!

Rachel: I love paper, I’m always going to be creating things for print… but an app is just wide open as far as what you can do with it. It’s a very exciting time for designers, and it makes my brain hurt trying to think of ways to be more creative!

There will always be a future for picture books though; the market may change, but it won't go away. If anything it will make the market for quality books stronger. Think of movie theaters… everyone thought they would die once we were able to watch films at home, but in actuality it's motivated the industry to make better movies and made going to the movie theater something special. Holding a book in your hands will always remain something special.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Another Card-Carrying Member of the CPL

I stopped by the Blackstone Branch of the Chicago Public Library the other day with the kids in tow. It was one of many stops on a hot day full of errands to the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the pet store, and the coffee shop.

"Why are we sitting down?" asked my six-year-old, resting his head on the wooden table.

"Because we need to fill out this form," I explained. "You're getting a library card today."

He wasn't going for it. He was hungry, he was tired, and he was desperate to get home and back to playing with the dog or staging battles with his knights. Anything but having to sit quietly at a table and perform some writing task.

And as with many young boys, reading and writing are not his default settings. Neither activity comes easy to him. Despite a summer spent immersed in books, he's not a confident reader. And as for his writing ability, fine-motor skills are not his strong suit.

"Why can't we go to the library where you bought me Bad Kitty?" he argued.

"Because that's a bookstore, and we have to buy the books there," I said with a peppy voice, though he was not so swayed by my enthusiasm. "A library is where you get to read the books for free."

Clearly I need to work on money management with my kids. Because "free" doesn't seem to have the same motivating effect on them as it does on me.

We got in line and waited for our turn at the desk. Big sister and brother joined us, heaving their own deep sighs and obviously wishing they were somewhere else, too.

Until Elbert.

Elbert Patterson is the head clerk at the Blackstone Branch. He has been the friendly face of the Chicago Public Library system for me over the years -- always pleasant and never once scolding me for my shameful accumulation of fines. But on this day, Elbert Patterson was bigger than that. On this particular day, Elbert Patterson was the embodiment of all that is wonderful about public libraries.

"Gabriel," he said in a deep and somber voice. Then he paused for a few beats, reading over the application form my almost-first-grader had placed on the counter. "Gabriel, you did a wonderful job writing your name."

Suddenly, Mr. Cranky Pants stopped slouching. He stood a little taller in his sneakers. His brother and sister quit their fidgeting and gazed up at Elbert, too. Both seemed keenly aware that Gabriel was having A Moment.

"Sometimes, people fill out the forms, and they are messy," Elbert continued. "Your G is perfect, and both your Ss are facing the right way. Not everybody gets that right."

Gabriel nodded with a gravity I'd never witnessed in him before.

As Elbert explained the borrowing privileges Gabriel was now granted, I looked around at the cathedral-like setting that is the Blackstone Library -- the first branch in the city's library system. Unlike the contemporary design of many suburban libraries, patrons stepping through the doors here are met with a stunning rotunda flanked by four murals depicting labor, literature, the arts, and agriculture.

And like a cathedral, it inspires a sense of reverence.

The line behind us began to stack up, but Elbert didn't rush us along. He printed Gabriel's name out in bold block letters and had him check it for mistakes. Then when it was ready, Elbert presented the green and white plastic rectangle to Gabriel with all dignity and respect it deserved.

There are few cards as powerful as a library card. Not only because libraries play such a crucial role in maintaining a democracy and supporting an educated populace -- all highfalutin notions. But for a child, it instills their first sense of community and belonging.

"Congratulations, Gabriel," Elbert said. "You are free to use the Chicago Public Library."

Now, the reverence I feel isn't just for our beautiful library building. It's for the Elbert Pattersons of the world.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

App Review: Winken, Blinken, and Nod

One of my earliest recollections is of trying to memorize the Winken, Blinken, and Nod nursery rhyme from my beloved Bumper Book when I was 3 or 4 years old. So when I spotted Larva Labs' take on this adorable classic, I was all over it.

Their version of Winken, Blinken, and Nod for the iPad is beautifully presented in paper cutouts. Made from real, used-to-be-a-tree paper, every aspect of the visuals is breathtaking. Little Nod wears a folded newspaper hat, and his pals Winken and Blinken are no less charming. With a bright red sail in their textured wooden shoe, they are a gorgeous team.

What makes this Winken, Blinken, and Nod stand out from the app pack is the voice-recognition feature. Read the story aloud, and the words become illuminated and trigger more action. I found the sound effects perfect -- the gentle splashing of our wee boat as it sailed through the twinkling foam was soothing for a nighttime read. And the distinct sounds that identify our three characters -- a babyish giggle for Nod, a froggy croak for Blinken, and a saxophone blast for Winken -- added a bit of finger-tapping fun.

But there were a few moments during readings of this bedtime story with my three kids that produced unintentional bouts of laughter. On spots where the voice recognition failed, the kids and I would shout at the iPad as if it were a deaf uncle. One minute we were snuggled on the pillow, wrapped in the lulling rhythm of this timeless rhyme:"All night long their nets they threw. . " And the next we were repeating the text again and again to no avail, ". . . to the stars." "To the STARS!" "TO THE STARS!"

Overall, the voice recognition worked well. What was most successful for me was to read the text slowly and smoothly without a lot of monkeying around with silly inflections. Once I discovered that playing it straight led to a seamless read, I had no problems.

My little guy preferred to tap the words as he read them aloud himself, then watch what animation resulted from his progress. This approach is fine, too. For emerging readers, associating specific text with images reinforces their understanding of the story. In a very tactile way, they are extracting meaning from every word they tap.

Winken, Blinken, and Nod is a beautiful app with an interesting tech twist, that's pretty much perfect for a bedtime reading. $1.99 for the iPad

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Part 4: Glowing Screens As Zombie-Makers, and Other Digital Media Fears

In this fourth and final installment of our conversation with Patrick Cox, who teaches Children's Literacies, a Rutgers University course about learning to read in the digital age, we address attitudes about digital books and their utility. A recent Christian Science Monitor article dismissed narrated picture book apps as an annoying diversion to keep kids occupied at restaurants. While I like to rope off family talking time from screen time, I don't have a problem with a book in whatever form it might take. But there are many, like the Christian Science Monitor writer, who disagree. Giving a child an e-reader "walls them off from the social connections that are part of why we go to restaurants in the first place."

DotMomming: Picture book apps have come under recent criticism as just another toy to divert impatient kids.  I think that is completely overlooking their value: How can picture book apps best be used in early literacy development? I like to see my six-year-old work his way through them on his own, as he deciphers the words solo and experiences the interactive surprises nestled into the book for himself. There is also a school of thought devoted to shared engagement between adult teacher and child learner. What is your take?

Patrick Cox: The author makes one of many assumptions people make about picture book apps and other forms of digital literature: once a child gets their hands on an electronic device, he or she will cease to engage with other human beings. This is another age-old argument. Similar moral panics have erupted in the past around books – that too much reading is bad for children, is somehow unnatural, cuts them off from “real” communication, and makes them lazy or “soft.” 

The truth is, and I think most people know it, sometimes kids engage with books in interaction with parents, and sometimes kids engage with books on their own. What seems to be a difficult leap to make is that the same holds true for digital reading. The current “new thing” is digital reading in many different forms (many of which are enjoyed by adults), so the current moral panic is that the dreaded glowing screen is turning our children into zombies who don’t know how to communicate. It’s an easy, breezy topic for a magazine column or discussion board post.

But the question isn’t, “What are we to do in the face of this debilitating technology?” but rather, “How can we use it to enable our children (and us!) to communicate better?” Apps, like books, are merely tools, and we have more control over how we use them than they have power to control us. A recorded narrator’s voice needn’t eliminate parent interaction with a child while reading. Parent and child can enjoy together, can still talk about the text and images, a child can ask questions about the content of the app, a child can later relive the story through imaginative play. . . Indeed, a child can engage with an app alone, and an app can keep a child busy or quiet at a restaurant. . . which is also just like a book.

I think shared engagement is absolutely essential, not only for learning to read but for parent-child bonding! These technologies and formats are as new to me as they are to my four-year-old-son: we both saw a picture book app for the first time together! And we figured it out together – how to use it, what we like about it, what we don’t like about it, what we’ll use again. The new platform hasn’t kept us from engaging with one another while reading. It’s given us something else to utilize as we engage with one another.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Part 3: Fun & Games Since John Newbery's 'Pretty Little Pocketbooks'

This is the third in a series of dotMomming's conversation with Patrick Cox,  who is teaching Children's Literacies, a course at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, about learning to read in the digital age. Patrick is a Ph.D. candidate in Rutger's childhood studies program.

DotMomming: The term "book" has become a loose thing as app developers include games and other whistles and bells with their digital stories. Often a parent wonders, "Is this a book? a game? a movie? all three?" What is your take on these new beasts?

Patrick Cox: I think it’s great to be prompted to such questions, and to hopefully conclude that books, games, and even movies needn’t be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s OK for reading to be fun. . . it always has been. Adding a few bells and whistles to reading is nothing new. John Newbery’s Pretty Little Pocketbooks are often mentioned as a starting point of children’s literature, at least as a marketed product. He published them in 1744, and they were accompanied with balls and pincushions. Children’s books and toys have always gone hand-in-hand.

One can argue that children’s literature has always crossed a line between “reading” and “playing” in such a way and to such a degree that should really force us to always consider fun, play, and even “gaming” as part of it. Digital enhancements are just the next development.

And the questions and concerns about digital reading are age-old as well. Nowadays, people can’t tell if the latest reading device is a toy or a book, but in the past, people have asked, “How can this be serious reading if the rhymes and rhythm are so bouncy? Won’t the colorful pictures distract from the reading? Aren’t these pop-up images just a little ‘too much’? Isn’t it enough to just read?” But the truth is, reading is supposed to be fun.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that there’s very little evidence to suggest that either:
  1. No one is reading any more, or 
  2. No one is reading books anymore. 
The presence of these new types of experiences with reading are not spelling the end of reading – to the contrary, I’d argue they enhance and encourage it! And to those who ask, “What’s wrong with just reading a book?” I’d reply: absolutely nothing, and the sales figures suggest that most people – especially young people – agree! These new creations really ought to be embraced for their ability to bring new people to reading and new experiences to reading, and not feared as some sort of enemy of literacy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Part 2: Digital Literacy and Learning to Read

This is the second in a series of posts in which we'll hear from Patrick Cox, a Ph.D. candidate in the childhood studies program at Rutgers University. Patrick taught a summer course on learning to read in the digital age, and he will repeat it in the fall and spring. In exploring how digital readers are impacting early literacy development, Patrick is engaging his students in better understanding technology and how young children are learning about it and with it.

DotMomming: The digital natives born into the iPad world are experiencing reading and learning in a whole new way. I don't mean this as a plug for Apple, just in the sense that books are a fluid thing now. Kids can toddle over to the bookshelf to sit down with a paper book, or they can tap their fingers on a reading tablet and read a digital one. Is one experience better than the other?

Patrick Cox: Of course not! Certainly the experiences are different from each other, but it gets a bit sticky to ascribe words like “better” or “worse” to one experience over another. Apart from whatever text is being read in each medium, both media also teach valuable skills to young readers. “Book awareness” starts very young, and the book is itself a technology anyone in the United States really needs to learn how to use.

We don’t really think of it, but at some point we had to learn the difference between the cover of a book and the back of a book, or which direction to turn the pages, or that we read from left to right. These are all skills that are developed from a very young age and will serve us throughout our lives . . . unless books completely disappear, which I don’t think is likely at all.

Similarly, reading tablets and other hi-tech manifestations of books teach other useful skills we might call “tech awareness.” As unromantic as it sounds, these days we need to learn a connection between pushing buttons and things happening on a screen, or “swyping” a screen to move an image. In my state of Pennsylvania, naming and having some understanding of how to use computer parts like keyboards, a mouse, a touchpad, and a cell phone is part of the pre-kindergarten education standards. The fact is, like it or not, it behooves us all to learn how to use these new devices.

I’m very interested in this phrase “digital native.” I’ve heard it before and understand what is meant. But there’s an implication about it, it seems, that there’s something natural about kids’ connection to technology that people who aren’t “natives” can’t ever fully learn or become a part of. “Native” means some people are “not native,” so there’s a separation being made in the phrase between children and adults. “You grow up with it or you don’t; you’re a part of it, or you aren’t.” Children and adolescents have been classed as “separate” in different realms before. (There’s actually a book about teenagers called “A Tribe Apart,” another term that both primitivizes children and separates “them” from “us” – the presumably less primitive adults.)

I’ve heard children’s picture book apps on iPads described as perfect for young children because “kids these days are wired differently.” I think there’s a growing belief that children “just know this tech stuff” as if it’s not learned but natural to them, as if children are somehow at one with technology and its accompanying gadgets; “wired differently” as if part of the computer’s circuitry.

What’s troubling in all this is the perception that using reading tablets and other techie gadgets is somehow not reading. And that the gadgets – the digital books and apps and so forth – are cutting us off from “the natives.” We often hear a critique of e-readers along the lines of, “Yes, but it’s just not the same as curling up with a book and turning the pages.” People talk about the feel of paper, the smell of books. Indeed, a Kindle is not the same. But I’m not sure the difference is such as to affect a young reader’s comprehension or engagement with the story being read or their connection with the characters. In other words, reading hasn’t changed; just the device has changed. But that seems to be fraught with a lot of other meanings for people.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rutgers Scholar on Reading in the Digital Age

As we explore the role technology plays in early literacy development, we’re always on the lookout for cool happenings in the realm of kids books. Imagine our surprise when dotMomming stumbled across an undergraduate course being taught this summer at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, about learning to read in the digital age.

Titled simply Children’s Literacies, the coursework examines how literacy has expanded beyond the basics of reading and writing to include technological literacy as well. We reached out to Patrick Cox, who taught the summer course, is a Ph.D. candidate in the childhood studies program at Rutgers, and is clearly passionate about digital books and their effect on early literacy.

We'll devote the next many posts to exploring digital books and learning with Patrick.

DotMomming: Can you talk about the Rutgers course? Who was your audience? What were your topics? What did you hope to accomplish with the program?

Patrick Cox: The course is taught in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers. Previously, the only children’s literature courses taught on this campus were offered through the English department, a discipline that takes a particular approach to literature. My department wanted some sort of children’s literature course that approached the literature in a Childhood Studies sort of way, which meant, first, it had to be a multi-disciplinary course, and second, it had to keep “the child” at the center of the study in some way.

So in a very important way this course is a children’s literature course that deliberately includes media other than books: e-readers, toys, CD-ROMs, websites, transmedia texts, cell phone novels, vooks [combination of books and videos] – we even looked into stories told through clues on T-shirts! People are really doing some amazing things with how they tell stories. And children’s and young adult literature is leading the way.

I wanted students to end the course with a greater awareness of and appreciation for some of these other forms. But we also read novels, short stories, picture books, comic books, graphic novels, because none of these things have been replaced; they’re part of children’s literacies too.

On another level, the course is about literacy itself: how it has developed, why it’s been taught, what has the spread of literacy meant for our culture, how has it been used as a “gatekeeper,” and what has it meant for those who have been left out. So my students also read about cognitive development as children learn to read, pedagogical approaches in classrooms, educational theory, ethnographies conducted in schools, scholarly work on incorporating popular culture into literacy instruction, and popular writing from newspapers and magazines to get a feel for the general cultural discourse and controversies around these new forms of literature. We also spent a good deal of time discussing the role of the marketplace in new literacies.

The course is open to any undergraduate student at Rutgers, and I hope those majoring in Childhood Studies find it fits with the rest of their courses: a one-of-a-kind course in a one-of-a-kind department. That to me is very important: it should be a course people can’t find anywhere but here.

I always hope for a certain number of students to come from the Teacher Prep program as well, to bring their expertise to the classroom and, hopefully, think in a different way about their role and approach as literacy instructors. Also, the undergraduate population is not a bunch of 18-year-olds anymore. Most of them are older (some quite a bit older), and half of my students have kids of their own.

I love teaching parents, as a parent myself, exchanging new ideas and materials and hoping they leave the course with an understanding that there are multiple forms of literacy, multiple ways to teach children to read, that literacy instruction these days begins at home and at a very young age, and that it’s OK to have fun while doing it. Also that not having the latest technological device will not doom your child to a life of illiteracy.

I’ll be teaching [Children’s Literacies] again this fall and then again in the spring. Enrollment for the fall session is already at capacity!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Author-Illustrator Elizabeth O. Dulemba Conjures Up Adorable App with "Lula's Brew"

In getting to understand picture book apps, we've heard from app developers about what it takes to bring their ideas to market. But what about the author-artists themselves? What's it like to see your illustrations and stories come to life as a digitally animated book?

DotMomming reached out to Elizabeth O. Dulemba, author-illustrator of the darling picture book app Lula's Brew. Aside from illustrating over a dozen traditional books, she is the Illustrator Coordinator for the Southern region of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, an adjunct professor of illustration at the University of Georgia, and also sits on the board of the Georgia Center for the Book. And we cannot overlook this incredibly cool resume footnote: she created the laser show on the side of Georgia's Stone Mountain one summer (which I think I attended back in 1991 when I worked for a South Carolina newspaper).

DotMomming: You have a strong background in traditional books and art, but you've begun to dip your toes in the land of picture book apps. How's the water?

Elizabeth O. Dulemba: Interesting. I've always been a bit of a geek -- taught myself html, do my own website, illustrate digitally. So when e-books came along, of course I was intrigued. I love that we have this new media in which to share our stories, often in interactive new ways. It opens even more possibilities for storytelling.

DM: Lula's Brew is a gorgeously illustrated book. What is your creative process in making your art? And how does it look to you on the iPad, Nook, and other digital formats?

EOD: Thank you! I usually start with pencil sketches which I scan, arrange, and then color digitally (mostly in Photoshop). I'm thrilled by how Lula looks on these devices -- exactly as I intended, with light from behind. The viewer can see every brush stroke, every nuance of color. Fantastic!

DM: How does this compare to the paper books you've produced? Do you prefer one medium over the other?

EOD: I originally got into this business because I love books. Paper and cardboard and color. I will never lose my love for the turned page. So while I love digital formats, I will first and foremost always want to hold a finished book in my hands.

DM: Can you take a moment to talk about the production process with Lula's Brew? How long did it take you to go from "ah-ha" moment with the story idea to "wow" moment when you could download the app? How does this compare with traditional?

EOD: Lula's Brew had a tumultuous journey. I actually created the story and the dummy years before. One of the illustrations even won me a Grand Prize in the SmartWriters competition. And although it got close, the story was never picked up by a major publishing house. When apps came along, I searched my archives for something that I could adapt, and Lula was the one. It had received great feedback, was short, funny, the sketches were done...

But with a Halloween theme, I had a short window in which to complete it. That was two weeks of late nights, and then I sent my files to my app developer. I did a voice recording in a mock sound studio at his house, he put it all together and submitted to Apple. The app was live two weeks later - just before Halloween.

Traditional publishing is a completely different animal. I usually have months to a year to illustrate a book, and of course, I don't have to record a soundtrack. I'm also working under contract with a publisher. The app was on my own.

DM: As an illustrator of traditional books and now with app experience under your belt, could you speak in general terms about profit margins. For a picture book to be deemed a success, it needs to sell about 10,000 copies. Lula's Brew, which was released in April 2010 and retails for $2.99 in the App Store, has already marked more than 10,000 downloads. Despite the lower price, are your profit margins better than for your traditional paper books? Can you elaborate?

EOD: Lula's Brew has done remarkably well in downloads, however the profit margin is still nowhere near a traditional book contract. It's done better than I thought, but I currently wouldn't look to apps as a true money-making venture. Especially now that the field is growing so crowded. The advantage I had of having one of the first picture book apps out there is no longer, so marketing is yet again the grand beastie challenge.

DM: Could you take a moment to gaze into your crystal ball? What do you see as the future for picture books in five, ten years? Of course digital does not have to wipe out print -- as with movies, there's still room for big-screen film experiences along side video-watching at home. Do you see the market preferring one over the other?

EOD: I do think digital picture books will cut into the paper book market, however I don't see it replacing it. Nowhere close. Picture books are still a child's first foray into reading, into loving books, and I don't think parents will be eager to replace that experience with electronic devices. Yes, iPhones are great on the fly, but not as much at bedtime. And the prices of various devices are still too high to make them accessible to all families.

I see the two media working together over the next few years, giving our young ones so many options, they become bigger readers than ever. Doesn't that sound nice?

DM: A worry I have as the mother of young kids is that picture book apps can sometimes blur the lines between book and movie, or even book and game. What are your thoughts about young readers and their early literacy experiences with apps vs. traditional books?

EOD: I agree with your concern. I think it's important for parents to introduce books not only for reading, but as a concept. The world flies at us these days, and children need to know they can find refuge in a simple book, in a story that uses their mind as the interactive element.

DM: What's next for you? Are you illustrating more picture book apps? Are you writing them as well? What about traditional books? What do you hope to be doing three years from now?

EOD: I don't have any picture book apps in progress right now. In my opinion, it's not efficient from a budget standpoint to spend time on them from scratch. It's just too dicey as to whether or not they'll earn enough revenue. Truly, I think the best use of the media is to bring out-of-print picture books back to life -- giving them a new audience. Although, I am curious to see how Lula's Brew does as a Nook Book through Barnes & Noble. Maybe that will change my mind. It's still too new to tell.

I currently have a new picture book dummy being shopped by my agent to traditional publishing houses, as well as a middle-grade novel. In three years, I hope to have them published and be creating more!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dublin's Ideal Binary Living the Fairy Tale

Among the many interesting things about app-land is that businesses can pop up anywhere you can imagine: a loft in downtown Chicago, a yurt in outer Mongolia. When we read about Dublin-based Ideal Binary and their award-winning adaptations of Grimm's fairytales for the iPad and iPhone, we wanted to find out more about this Irish business (not to mention we have fantasies about moving to the old sod someday). So we contacted Aidan Doolan, who started Ideal Binary with his twin brother, Kevin Doolan. 

DotMomming: Who is Ideal Binary and why did you decide to enter the app business? Do you produce books for kids exclusively? Or are you game developers as well? Why Dublin?

Aidan Doolan: Ideal Binary was founded by my twin brother and me in 2008. We were born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and that's where we live with our wives and families. Location isn't so much of a barrier to doing business globally any more.

We have a long background in the games industry, and have worked on many games titles for companies like Sony, Disney, Konami, and others in the past, and our chairman, Barry O'Neill, also brings extensive commercial experience to the business from companies like Bandai Namco.

We decided to enter the app business because we could see an opportunity to create something no one else had created before - and we set about building the technology platform PopIris to allow us to realise this goal. Our experience in the games industry building high-performance 3D graphics engines and 3D physics engines, along with our experience as artists and animators, has given us a technological advantage over others in this space.

We are currently focused on family-friendly book apps, and we see this as continuing to be the focus of the business - but as we grow we'll expand our products, targeting into different family interest areas aimed at a wider age base.

DM: The picture book app market has changed dramatically since you entered the scene in 2010 with Grimm's Rumpelstiltskin. While there were just a handful of app producers then, it's a very different ballgame now. More and even bigger publishing houses are putting books out there now (Scholastic and other heavyweights). How can a small house like Ideal Binary compete?

AD: It's true, there seems to be an ever growing gold rush with numerous small and large book app producers entering the market every day. Survival rates are very low, however, with many of these (even some of the large ones) under-performing or even generating losses for their publishers. All of our apps so far have been highly profitable. One of the reasons for this is that we focus on producing unique, high-quality book apps that provide a significant wow factor. It's the wow factor that gets people talking about our apps. This helps us tackle the problem of app discovery to a large degree, and it means we have a competitive advantage. Our technology allows us deliver the "wow factor" at a reasonable production cost.

DM: How do you reach parents about your books? When I slog through the App Store, I have a hard time deciding on what books to consider for my kids. Do you have suggestions for weary parents trying to connect their kids to quality picture book apps?

AD: Thankfully, we have built a very large satisfied customer base for our interactive book apps. When we release a new product, we are able to get the word our very quickly to an audience that knows and trusts our work.

The problem of app discovery for parents is a difficult one. First and foremost, I would recommend that parents talk to their friends about what book apps have impressed them. There are also numerous review sites and blogs, such as this one, that offer good information. This will help provide parents with all the information they need to make good, informed decisions about which kids book apps to purchase and which ones to avoid.

DM: When I was reading your apps with my kids, I was pleased to see my 6-year-old taking his time with the text pages in between the pop-up activity pages. I thought it was a great balance and was pleased that I didn't have to compete with his little fingers tap-tap-tapping on clouds and stars, etc., when he was supposed to be reading. Can you talk about what goes into your decision-making in producing books. How do you strike a balance between whistles and bells vs. literary content?

AD: Above all, the most important component of any kids book app is the story, and the entertainment and educational value that can be drawn from it. We only add interactivity at key points in the story where there is an opportunity to weave the reader into the story itself. We avoid adding bells and whistles interactivity to the text pages because it simply distracts the reader from the story. There are exceptions to this, of course. You may see some examples of this in our upcoming book apps. Again, the interactivity is only added where it can enhance and not distract from the story. We see a lot of apps that try to achieve too much onscreen and overwhelm the user. Design of these aspects is key.

The interactivity we add to the pop-up scenes is largely drawn from experience with my own kids. For example, my youngest daughter initially had problems carrying out lists of instructions in the correct order. To help her with this, my wife and I would walk her through simple tasks and get her to repeat them. One task was to first plant some flower seeds and only then water them to help them grow. This of course became the first pop-up scene in Grimm's Rapunzel. After she completed a task correctly, we praised her to help positively reinforce what she had learned. She no longer has any problems with sequencing. This is how we try to present all of the interactivity in our kids book apps.

DM: The lines between "book" apps and games and movies are blurring. What is your take on picture book apps and early literacy? What do you see as the impact these new beasts will have on kids who are born into an iPad world?

AD: While we see a degree of crossover between the different mediums, in reality there's less blurring of the boundaries than some might believe. In the mid-1990s when CD-ROMs started to take off, the media started talking about exactly the same thing. It was forecast that games and movies in particular would merge. Actors like Mark Hammel started lending their talent to game/movie hybrids like the Wing Commander series. Yet here we are almost two decades later, and movies are still movies and games are still games.

We do believe there is a revolution taking place right now with book apps, and that's what we're trying to take the lead on. People (and kids in particular) learn most when they are immersed in engaging experiences they can enjoy. You've heard the Confucius quote, "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life." The same is true of learning. If you can find a learning experience that isn't a chore for your child, they stand to learn so much more from it without feeling like it's a boring process. It's these kinds of experiences that we try to embody in our interactive children's books. These experiences can enhance skills like literacy (for more than one language), sequencing, understanding the benefits of a healthy diet, obedience, and kindness.

The impact of this type of learning on children will ultimately mean they can acquire these skills sooner. That means they have the potential for a richer, healthier life. As a parent, that means a lot to me, as I'm sure it does to most parents.

DM: You've made a splash with your pop-up Grimm books, which also include Red Riding Hood. What's ahead? Will you continue to put your own spin on classic fairy tales? Or do you plan to take on new authors and original stories? Do you feel that there is money to be made off new talent -- there is risk involved there in taking on unknowns -- is it worth your time and money?

AD: We're delighted with the success of our book apps so far, and we'll be accelerating our development and publishing outputs. We plan on continuing the Grimm's series. We have the next book app well under way, and we're very excited about this one. We also have a second line of book apps under way which focus more on early learning. We plan to continue innovating with new approaches to engaging our growing audience. We'll also be enhancing our technology with new interactive features with each new book release.

We will likely be partnering with established brand holders at some point in the future. We're not opposed to working with new authors, but as you say, the risks are higher with unproven brands and stories.

DM: What's the biggest lesson learned so far in the past year of this rapidly changing business?

AD: The biggest lesson we've learned so far is the realisation that to succeed in this market, a fine balance needs to be struck between features and production efforts and costs. Too many people have entered the book app market dreaming of Angry Birds style success and have over invested in products that have underperformed. There are 58,000 apps in the Books category vs. 73,000 in Games. But Games represents more than 60 percent of app downloads, whereas Books is probably less than 5 percent. That's a massively competitive environment, and you need to scale your efforts and expectations accordingly. We're happy that the approach we're taking to interactive kid's books works and is proving highly profitable even with that huge amount of growing competition in this space.

DM: What's your biggest goal for the next year?

AD: Our biggest goal for the next year is to scale our business while continuing to innovate. We've had a wonderful time making our interactive kids books, and we're very excited about the road ahead. We hope our customers are too.