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.

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