Friday, March 11, 2011

Ruckus Media's Rick Richter on Apps for Kids

Ruckus Media Group just announced it has secured $3.5 million in funding to expand its presence in app-land and across multiple online stores and platforms. Ruckus is already on the scene with tried-and-true story classics told by powerhouse actor-musician teams like Robin Williams and Ry Cooder doing Pecos Bill, Denzel Washington and B.B. King doing John Henry. We interviewed Ruckus president, CEO, and chairman Rick Richter about the company's plans for readers and buyers of digital media.

With so many app developers hailing from the land of computer programming, it's exciting to hear from Richter, who is former president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Division (1996-2008) as well as co-founder of the beloved publishing house Candlewick Press, which has a long tradition of producing quality books. (The paper kind.)

DotMomming: A lot has happened to Ruckus in recent weeks, especially with the funding boost in early March. What can we expect to see in coming months?

Rick Richter: Right now we’re focusing on our future plans and really drilling down on the apps we have in development, which I think will take us to the next level. We expect that customers want more and more from us on a technology standpoint, and right now, we’re laying the track that we can deliver on customer expectations -- not just satisfying moms and kids, but delighting them.

DM: What’s in store for the year?

RR: For the year, ultimately, you’ll see us expand our range of apps. Over time, it will become apparent what’s developmentally appropriate for your child. We will begin to express real points of view on that, taking counsel from leaders in mobile education thinking and from parents themselves. It’s important to know we’re not doing this alone.

DM: A recent Ruckus announcement said the $3.5 million in funding will help “enrich our products, expand our offerings, and expedite the development of original content with marquee titles.” With superstars like Meryl Streep doing narration and Elvis Costello providing music, Ruckus apps feature celebrity adaptations of well-loved classics.

Does Ruckus plan to open the doors to more original stories and illustrations?

RR: That is the most exciting part of what we do. Of course, originality comes in all forms, and we’re seeking out the brightest and the best storytellers from around the world.

DM: One of the biggest “ifs” with this new era of children’s publishing is quality. Many app producers have no schooling in children’s literature and no editorial staffing on their team. Ruckus is unique in that its team is made up of industry heavy hitters from traditional publishing, media, and entertainment. You, yourself, are unusual in publishing for having been a leader in both sales and editorial.

Does Ruckus plan to set the standard for quality content? And if so, how?

RR: Absolutely, if you look at the background of not only me but the people who are associated with us, including some very prestigious editors, we think that we are reacting to what we observed as a real hole in the market as far as quality. The reason why apps are as expensive as they are, and why people like free apps, is that you can’t count on the quality. So we intend to raise that standard and raise the bar, and there are two or three other companies like us, who will emerge like us. There will be a few brands that pop out, creating products of outstanding quality. That’s where we want to be.

DM: For many authors and artists of traditional picture books, the app world presents a whole new publishing frontier. Could you talk about author/illustrator Mike Austin and his picture book app, A Present for Milo? The Milo app morphed into a few traditional books for Austin. How did this happen?

RR: One of the most interesting reviews we received on our app is that one reviewer hoped the books would be as good as the app is. It really does fall back to "a great story is a great story," regardless of how it is presented. You have to ask yourself, Is a book its body or its soul? We maintain that it’s its soul. Print books very much have their place, and app books do too. For us, it was never either/or, it was always either/and. And we want kids to enjoy great storytelling wherever they are.

DM: One of your mantras has been “books you can play with and games you can read.” For this digital generation that doesn’t feel an affinity to paper books, apps are a natural extension of their screen experiences. What does Ruckus see as the future of reading?

RR: I think for us, we see today’s on-the-go culture as wanting to enjoy media wherever they are. It’s historically how media has evolved. Typically, one form of media has not eclipsed another. People still read books, they go to movies. Video was predicted to crush movie theaters, which never happened. It’s really about where people are when they enjoy the media. Statistically, it isn’t that one kind of media is replacing another; it’s about multi-tasking. One thing that does stand is the ability to find print books, which is becoming more difficult with the closing of Borders and independent booksellers. We hope to provide that kind of curation service for parents, so we give guidance on what is not only a great app but a great story.

DM: It’s a cluttered market for iPad apps right now. Competition is stiff and – as an Oklahoma gal, forgive me – it’s like a land grab. How should parents make their way to quality apps for their kids?

RR: What you will find is that there will be curators that step forward and offer their insight. Awards are evolving. Reviews will become more and more solid, and people with real review experience will step in. People forget that we’re in the early days of apps; the first digital reading device was created in 1970, but it’s only been three to four years that e-books have really exploded and hit a tipping point. We’re really in the early days. There are 70,000 developers and 350,000 apps. What you’re going to see is people stepping in and helping you decide where to go and what constitutes a great app.

DM: Apple’s iTunes is the main player for app distribution. But Ruckus plans to expand distribution to include Google’s Android Market, Research In Motion’s Blackberry App World, Amazon’s App Store, and the Barnes & Noble Nook.

What does this mean for Ruckus as far as establishing a beachhead in the highly competitive app market?

RR: For us, we want to be able to be available on every device possible. You’ll see us developing apps on multi-platforms. You can also add that to our goals for the year. It’s very exciting, but it’s also very expensive. It’s probably going to be what weeds out the smaller developers from the larger developers.  Interesting enough, you have to recode an app from the ground up to be played on an Android device, so you’re incurring twice the cost. If you’re talking about four to five platforms, you’re talking $200,000 in development costs. So two things have to happen: the company has to be funded to do that, and the market has to be evolving.


  1. This is pretty exciting stuff, Kate.
    I'm curious how a picture book author could get their stories transformed into apps. When Ruckus says they're seeking out the best storytellers, are they doing that via author's agents? How can authors prepare themselves to step into this exciting opportunity. (This land-grab, if you will?) :-)

  2. The best thing to do is to look at the apps that have been created and to start thinking about your own work in terms of interactivity. We do work with agents and with authors directly – although we prefer to see work already in story board.

  3. Thoughts here from an author/producer of one children's book app, "Maid Marian Muffins" ...

    I agree with much of what Rick has to say here about quality (or lack thereof) in the children's book app marketplace. I also agree that the "soul" of a book, notwithstanding its app-ness, resides in its story.

    The unexamined question, I think, is what, by way of app-ness, actually enhances a book's quality -- and what, on the other hand, may detract from it. If we agree that the purpose of a book, whatever its form, is to stimulate the child's imagination, then we ought to judge a book app's interactive elements by whether they serve that purpose.

    -- Jamie

  4. Hi!

    Kate, thanks for this interesting interview. I can see lots of possibilities for authors and illustrators with this new world of apps. Jamie makes a good point about interactive elements.
    I'm interested in how "Maid Marion Muffins" came about.

    Sheila Welch