Our feature this week is written by Valerie Mih, co-founder of digital publishing company See Here Studios and an animation professional with over 15 years experience creating media for children. Her book apps include The Wrong Side of the Bed 3D and The Three Pandas, which will be specially priced this App Friday, June 17th. She discusses resources for children’s book writers and illustrators interested in exploring the app field. If you are thinking about making an app out of your book, and you are not sure where to begin, this post can serve as a helpful introduction.
Since starting See Here Studios two years ago, both myself and studio co-founder Wallace E. Keller have often been approached with questions about apps from fellow artists and writers. A few months ago, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) asked if we could put together a presentation on this same topic for their summer workshop. This article is a compilation of our learning over the last two years, and a “test run” for our SCBWI workshop on July 14 in San Rafael, California, at which we’ll discuss these topics in more detail.
If we’ve left out any burning questions that you have as an author/illustrator, please let us know in the comments. And if you have additional resources or perspectives to add, we’d love to hear about them. We certainly don’t have all the answers (nobody does in this new space!), so we view this as an on-going discussion and exploration.
This article is meant to be helpful to a newcomer to the app world, so we’ll start with definitions and then move on to specific resources:
- What are the different formats for digital children’s books?
- What are options and resources if I want to release my own book?
- What are options and resources if I want to work with a publisher?
- Where do I start?
What are the different formats for digital children’s books?
Essentially, there are three different formats for digital books:
- PDF (portable document format; a generic digital format)
- EPUB (used with Apple iBooks, Kindle, Nook and other eReaders)
- Apps (for specific devices, such as Apple or Android)
PDF has been around for a long time, so I’ll assume familiarity with this typical digital format. PDFs are often used for free distribution of booklets and pamphlets, off-line and on-line. It is the simplest form of digital book. There is no copy protection for a PDF. The main reason I mention PDF is to distinguish it from EPUB, the next format.
EPUBis a standardized format for ebooks created by the International Digital Publishing Forum. It is utilized by all the major publishing companies. EPUB utilizes a type of HTML (XHTML) to designate text and image formatting. This allows the text to flow adaptively, automatically adjusting the screen size and orientation, similar to a website. The EPUB format includes support for copy protection (also known as Digital Rights Management).
EPUB is geared towards text-centric books, and it does not allow for pixel-perfect placement of images. Recently, the capabilities of EPUB were expanded to include support for playing audio and video files embedded within the text, as well as text highlighting. However, it still does not support animation at this time.
USES: The EPUB format is used by the Apple iBookstore, Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook Color and other e-readers. (However, the Kindle e-reader does not support color, so it may not be as suitable for most children’s books.)
Children’s books can been published in the EPUB format, but they cannot include animation or advanced interactivity. EPUB children’s books are typically a near-exact duplicate of the print book, converted for viewing on a mobile device, with the possible addition of audio narration. Several publishing houses have released digital book versions of their best-selling children’s book titles in this manner.
If you have a print publishing contract, than most likely it will be the publisher’s responsibility to deal with conversions of the book into EPUB format, and subsequent distribution to eBookstores. Depending on the terms of the contract, the rights to convert your print book to an app may or may not be included in the original publishing contract.Most print book contracts now include digital ebook rights, but the addition of music and interactivity is, in some cases, outside of the definition of “ebook.” So you may be able to pursue a separate development contract for a multimedia app version of your print book.
If you would like to self-publish and are not planning to add interactivity or animation to your children’s book project, then you may wish to consider publishing the book using the EPUB format. Adobe InDesign is one of the leading book design tools, and the newest version now outputs to EPUB. As with any self-publishing effort, a marketing campaign will be key for letting people know your book exists and for driving sales.
In terms of self-publishing, once the book is in EPUB format, it will need to go through an aggregator in order to be distributed through various eBookstores. An aggregator is a company that serves as the middleman between the various eBookstores and the independent self-publisher. A few sample aggregators are:
Each of these aggregators utilizes a different fee and payment structures, so review carefully before proceeding. Book Baby stood out because it does not take a cut of sales; they only charge a one-time upfront fee. None of these aggregators are focused on illustration-heavy children’s books, so there may be some special coordination needed to work with them.
The third category of digital children’s books is the one with which I have the most hands-on experience: apps. Apps are simply software applications, so the definition of a “book app” is wide open. It is essentially a software program pretending to be a book!
Book apps can include as many or as few features as you can imagine (depending on the scope and budget of the project, of course). Some features that book apps can include are:
- Full-page illustrations that turn with the swipe of a finger
- Voiceover narration, sound effects and music
- Animated and interactive book pages that respond to the reader’s touch
- Static or dynamic text
- Highlighting of words as they are read or touched
- Video and animated movies incorporated into the story
- Accelerometer support – utilizing the tilt of the device to influence imagery on the screen
- Recording of the user’s voice to narrate the story
- Interactive mini-games
- Coloring pages, etc.
The list goes on and on…and no doubt more creative uses will be explored with new apps that get released each passing day.
For more on the artistic work involved in creating all these extra features, take a look at these links:
- The making of an animated children’s book: The Three Pandas
- Author & Illustrator Mike Austin Debuts with Digital, Then Shifts to Paper Books
- Interview with Oceanhouse Media
- From Books to Apps: Content and Delivery
What are options and resources if I want to create my own book app?
We’ll first review some resources for creating your own book app. If you are not interested in creating your own app, but would instead like to work with a digital publisher, skip to the next section.
Because book apps are software programs, they inherently involve programming. Depending on your individual background and technical skills, the options listed below will be more or less appealing. The list progresses from less programming-oriented to more programming-oriented.
Resources that involve little or no programming
Moglue is not currently publicly available, but their website promises that it will be launched sometime soon. It aims to provide a web-based portal for creating and publishing interactive picture books. It employs a visual interface for adding images and interactive functions to a book template, which can then be published to either the iOS (iPhone/iPad) or Android platforms. It looks promising, but we’ll have to wait and see when it starts working publicly. All of the programming is done on the “back-end” behind-the-scenes by their system.
AppMakr - This app-making service is not specifically intended for children’s books, but if you already have a website that contains your book project or illustration portfolio, then AppMakr can simply and easily create an iPhone app for viewing your artist web pages. This service creates a “web app” for you – a web app is an app that repurposes web content. Simply type in website pages, and it will pull content from your website pages and format it for viewing on an iPhone. Similar to Moglue, all of the programming is done by their back-end system. Note: any Flash-based websites are not generally viewable on the iPhone/iPad due to restrictions by Apple.
Game Salad - The stated mission of Game Salad is to make it easier for non-programmers to create games for the iPhone and iPad. Since there is quite a bit of overlap between games and interactive books, theoretically their development system could be used for creating a book app as well. Their system utilizes a relatively easy-to-use visual interface, templates, and simple logic interactions for creating games.
Resources that require some programming skill
Flash with Adobe AIR and iPhone Packager - Flash-based games and interactive books can be exported to the iPhone and iPad using the newest version of Flash Professional CS 5.5. Programming in Actionscript 3 is required. If you already know Flash Actionscripting, this route would probably be worth exploring. Note: there have been complaints of performance issues with this approach, so it will likely be necessary to heavily optimize graphics and performance.
Corona SDK - Corona is a fairly new cross-development platform. It does require programming (using the language Lua), but once an app is developed, it can be released to both the iOS and Android devices. The company’s focus is on interactive games, but many of the same software functions can be applied to interactive books as well.
Resources that are programming intensive
Lastly, there are the resources for building “native” apps for the iPhone/iPad or Android devices. A “native” app is an app designed using the Software Development Kit (SDK) provided by the company controlling the operating system for that specific mobile device – Apple for iPhone/iPad and Google for Android.
Apple’s Xcode - Xcode can be downloaded for $4.99 from the Apple Mac Store; or it is free if you join the iOS Developers Program ($99 annual fee). It uses the Objective-C programming language.
Cocos2D for iPhone - Cocos2D is a free community-supported framework for creating games and interactive applications using Objective-C. The Cocos2D classes can be easily added to Xcode. For more info on Cocos 2D, please see this previous Moms With Apps post about using Cocos 2D.
Android Honeycomb SDK - Similar to Xcode, the Android SDK is a free download. It uses the Java programming language instead of Objective-C.
Nook Color Developer Program - Barnes & Noble is specifically promoting children’s book apps through its own Barnes & Noble App Store. The Nook Color has its own software development tools (an offshoot of the Android SDK). The Nook book apps are separate and distinct from the EPUB children’s titles that are also viewable on a Nook. The book apps are individual software applications, typically including more multimedia features, whereas the EPUB children’s books are viewed through the Nook Reader and have limited features.
Generally speaking, unless you already have a programming background, it would be advisable to collaborate with a programmer when creating a native app. If you would like to meet and informally talk to software developers, a good place to start is to join a free Meetup like the Silicon Valley iOS Developers Meetup.
Another option is to take training courses to do your own coding or to feel more comfortable collaborating with a professional programmer. That’s the route I took when I first ventured into iPhone development. I took an O’Reilly crash course called “Build, Compile, and Run Your iPhone App in 2 Days.” It wasn’t quite that simple, but the workshop provided enough hands-on instruction to get started. There are many such intro-level training courses available.
What are options and resources if I wish to work with a publisher?
The major print publishers are expanding into digital book apps. In addition, there are many new digital publishers, both large and small, using a variety of different business models.
Here are some tips for approaching digital publishers:
Do your research - This is the first step. Luckily, it’s very easy to research the top digital publishers. In the iTunes App Store, view the Top 100 rankings for book apps. The book apps are low-cost, and many of them have free lite version. Try out a variety of apps to get a feel for each publisher’s approach. (If you don’t have a device yet, at least consider getting an iPod Touch or Nook Color to start actually test-driving apps.) At the bottom of each app description, there is a link to the developer’s website. All the information is at your fingertips.
Gather contact information and submission guidelines (if available) - Once you’ve found a company’s website, check the “Contact” page and see if the company accepts portfolio or book submissions. If the company accepts submissions and you feel there is a good match with your work, then craft a concise and professional email, along with a link to your portfolio website (or book project website). In my opinion, it’s better not to email large PDF files or full book proposals, to start. It is also helpful to include information on your background, experience, success of prior projects and marketing base, if available. Since there is significant cost involved in creating an app, if you have an established “fan base,” that can make your submission stand out in a big way. If the company does not accept submissions, then you can still send an inquiry email if you wish, but don’t necessarily expect a reply in that case. It can be hit or miss, but it doesn’t hurt to reach out.
Network with app developers to learn more about the field - Another approach is to network with various developer’s organizations, like the Silicon Valley iOS Developers’ Meeting mentioned earlier. You can easily subscribe to the group’s mailing lists, and watch for job postings for artists, designers or writers.
Be aware that there are a wide range of business models - Unlike the traditional publishing field, the app field is still young and has no pre-defined business arrangements. Payment arrangements vary widely among companies. Some arrangements are work-for-hire contracts, while others are royalty-based. Some may include an advance or licensing fee. Others may include an upfront split of the app production costs in exchange for a higher percentage of back-end profits. It all depends on the specifics of the project, as well as the companies and individuals involved.
I’m feeling kind of overwhelmed. Where do I start?
1. The focus of children’s books will always be on high-quality story and art. Beyond that, one question to ask is: what kind of approaches could be used to create a digital version of the book? Take a look at existing book apps and explore the medium.
2. Since so much of the success of an app depends on marketing, build up your own marketing muscle by taking the following steps to promote yourself as an illustrator or writer:
- Start or expand your website or blog.
- If you haven’t already, start a Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn presence.
3. Try some of the free resources listed above (like free versions of Moglue, AppMakr or GameSalad), and go through some tutorials to see how they work. This will help provide some hands-on experience.
4. Research and send inquiries to digital publishers that are of the most interest to you.
5. Join a developer meetup and start meeting others active in the app space. It’s a fun way to learn, and it may lead to a future collaboration!
In conclusion, I hope this article was helpful in providing an overview of the digital illustrated book space. Please feel free to post additional ideas or questions in the comments below, or share your thoughts on our Facebook Page!