Picture Book Apps and the Case of the Vanishing Author

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

children's publishing digital kids apps picture books authorsMany children’s book authors aren’t huge fans of the so-called “picture book apps” or “story apps” entering the children’s market at ever increasing volumes. One reason why is because they aren’t authoring them.

I recently spent a lot of time with children’s authors while completing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. So I have a pretty good sense of the sources of their frustration.

The problem begins, in many cases, with a misunderstanding about what book apps for children actually are. Plenty of veteran authors consider apps—sometimes without ever having seen one—to be animated cartoons, games or entertaining videos. As a result, too few experienced children’s authors explore how to adapt their talents to take best advantage of the opportunities digital content affords them.

In fact, most picture book apps on the market today are (if to varying degrees) “translations” of printed picture books. But what interests me more are the digitally born stories conceived and developed with app production in mind.

There still aren’t many of these. In my own research on those that are currently on the market, I didn’t have to look at many apps to conclude that, just as children’s authors tend to snub picture book apps, many app developers overlook children’s authors.

Picture book apps often don’t even cite a writer. When they do, the author is likely the animator, designer or developer. I can fully understand the rationale for publishing copyright-free book apps—digital titles based on stories in the public domain: Why invest in original content when what you’re primarily working out is functionality?

But I’m not sure app developers realize what they’re losing by sidestepping experienced children’s authors. Too often, what today’s picture book apps are missing is the story.

Even the best animation or the most seamlessly speedy download can’t save a bad story. Poor picture book apps come from neglecting the narrative or from relying on digital features that detract from it. Unfortunately, that can result from thoroughly capable developers doing what they should be doing—focusing on creating the right code for the right format for the right device—without devoting equal talent toward creating an engaging narrative experience.

This is where children’s book authors can help.

Regardless of format, authors still possess the skills app developers need, whether or not either side quite realizes it yet.

Here are just some of the strengths and abilities an experienced picture book author can bring to digital children’s content:

  • Children’s authors are multimodal writers. We write leaving “gaps” for an illustrator to contribute meaningfully to the story. Our stories have pleasing rhythms and use sensual imagery for movement, sound and touch. We can readily hone those skills for digital media.
  • Picture book authors are experts at user experience and design. In print, we know how to get the most from the covers, end pages, title page and spreads with their gutters and page-turns. We also know how to speed up the pace or slow it down. Picture book apps could likewise benefit from experimentation in the ways readers move through a story, and authors with print experience can ably advise on how to create that forward motion and establish compelling sensory and narrative transitions.
  • The development process for picture books dovetails with the development process for story apps. Here are just three skill-sets authors can bring to the transformation of children’s apps:
    • We know how to nurture the emotional connection that comes from a proficient reader performing and interpreting the story for a preliterate reader.
    • We’re proficient at leaving space for readers to fill with their imaginations.
    • We make our livings by playing with words and the relationship between text and images.

Of course, app developers have their own unique strengths. Picture book apps approach movement and sound and linearity and interactivity in distinctively different ways than printed books do. Even so, writers and developers need to better appreciate what each other brings to the table in order to push digital innovation forward in the children’s space.

This is where I can help.

In the coming posts, I’ll explore what we can learn by examining the best of both worlds. My goal is to help children’s authors and digital content developers become something of mutual admiration society, or at least effective and productive collaborators—a group that understands and values what print alone can do as well as what only apps can do, and enthusiastically explores ways to meld them into a reading experience that is all its own.

Learn more: Get the latest research on the digital children’s market during Digital Book World’s free webcast on April 7, “Keeping Pace with Digital Natives: Trends and Tactics for the Children’s Market.”

17 thoughts on “Picture Book Apps and the Case of the Vanishing Author

  1. Karen Robertson

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. If you look at book apps in the top 200, you’ll see the list is dominated by big brands like Disney, Nickelodeon, etc. These books often don’t cite the author. But there is a large number of independent book app authors who are creating very innovative work. These book app creators include:

    -Published authors who are choosing to self-publish new work as book apps – like Gerry Renert and his \Brave Rooney\ series
    -Published authors whose work is out of print, so they are bringing it back to life as a book app – Marsha Diane Arnold and her \Prancing, Dancing Lily\
    -Indie authors who’ve created award-winning book apps – Isabelle Vien’s \Sneak a Snack,\ Chris Pedersen’s \The Prisoner of Carrot Castle\ and my \Treasure Kai\ series are just a few.

    Two great resources:
    1.Book App Alliance – an independent organization for book app fans looking for high quality book apps created by independent authors. Anyone can sign up for their newsletter. Authors can sign up for author membership (they must have a published book app and there is an approval process) and others can apply for associate membership (teachers, parents, librarians, developers, illustrators, etc.). Visit http://www.bookappalliance.com

    2. Digital Storytime – is a review site for story book apps with 600 apps reviewed. http://www.digital-storytime.com

    1. Chris Pedersen

      Interesting article. Thank you, Karen, for pointing out there are independent authors who have invested much to bring their storybooks to life as an interactive book. And the Book App Alliance is a great resource to discover these gems.

      The big brands have all but overwhelmed iTunes and other app stores such that quality interactive book apps for kids by independent authors are virtually impossible to find. We are hoping the Book App Alliance will help these books rise to the surface for parents, teachers, librarians and fans of kids’ book. Visit http://bookappalliance.com

  2. Bess Goden

    Thank you for saying this Sandy, I could not agree with you more! I think there is a huge potential for storybook apps to bridge the gap between literature and game-obsessed or active readers. Unfortunately you’re right, the stories that are available in storybook app form are either slapdash at best or a direct transliteration of a picture book. What programmers are missing is that story should drive interaction, so that the interactions draw you further into the storytelling process instead of taking you out of it with auxiliary bells and whistles. I’d love to read more of what you have to say on the subject. Is there somewhere you have more writings posted?

  3. moira butterfield

    Couldn’t agree more. Such a wealth of talent on both sides deserves to come together in a positive way. I look forward to more posts. Congratulations on such a well-expressed blog.

  4. Michael W. Perry

    There’s a downside to apps in the place of books that may be turning some authors off.

    1. Greater cost and complexity of creating them.

    2. The need to learn new ways of looking at story telling. You don’t have to be anti-change to be turned off by that. You may simply feel you don’t have enough time for that learning.

    3. Since they’re apps intended for a particular device and version of an operating system, they have a limited useful life.

    4. Apple often turns down apps that it considers too much like ebooks. Making apps different is a worthy goal, but that criteria introduces risks many authors may not want to take.

    In my case, I thought that my Lord of the Rings book-length chronology, Untangling Tolkien, might form a good basis for an app. It’s complex enough to benefit from an app’s features. But when I contacted a software developer about that possibility, he cited #4 above as introducing too much risk. I had to agree.

    Finally, keep in mind that authors are still adjusting to digital. Going app will seem to many to be \a bridge [new technology] too far.\

    In my case, I’m trying to take more advantage of what Epub 3 offers and hoping that there’ll be an Epub 4 that’s less obsessed with multi-media and more practical, adding improvements that make text-and-picture media better rather trying to hype a muddle of different media—video and audio in addition to text—that readers don’t want an that cost too much to create.

    What’s desperately needed are digital publishing standards and readers that are smart enough to present reflowable text in ways that are visually appealing. That means not having pages break half-way down due to and image and not displaying hideously ugly widows and orphans. It is ridiculous that ebooks still don’t do what Gutenberg was doing centuries ago to make the first print books appealing.

    Attractive pages should be built into ebook readers and those laying them out should be able to do additional things to make them attractive. If, for instance, a 3500-word portion of history refers to a map, the person doing layout should be able to say, \display an icon linked to that map on every screen that contains this text.\ That’s digital improving on print.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  5. Karen Robertson

    Thanks for your post.

    If you look at the Top 200 list in the app store under book apps, the big brands dominate and rarely do they reference the author.

    But there are lot of indie authors who have created terrific work including:

    -Published authors who are creating new work as indie book apps (Gerry Renert’s “Brave Rooney” series for example.
    -Published authors who are breathing new life in to out-of-print work (Marsha Diane Arnold’s “Prancing, Dancing, Lily”
    -Indie authors who’ve created award-winning book apps (Isabelle Vien’s “Sneak a Snack,” Chris Pedersen’s “Prisoner of Carrot Castle” and my “Treasure Kai” Series)

    Two resources:

    -The Book App Alliance – industry organization for high quality book apps by indie authors. There is an author membership that requires an application process and an associate membership for parents, educators, librarians, and book app creators who aren’t authors – http://www.bookappalliance.com

    -Digital Storytime – review site for book apps. You’ll find a lot of quality, indie book apps here. http://www.digital-storytime.com

  6. Heather Hughes

    After working for 5 years in evaluation and research of technology interventions in schools, including some video game platforms, I appreciate the direction of your interest and this post. Technology is on fire, but without excellent content, it will fail to meet the deeper goals of engaging children not only with the benefits of an interesting device, but in inviting them to learn more about what it is to be human. Diversion or growth? Thank you and keep on attacking this front. It needs thoughtful people.

  7. Nicole Valentine

    Thrilled to see DBW tackle this subject and happy it’s Sandy McDowell at the helm. I’d love to hear more about the people you think are right at the cusp of collaborating in the right way.

    I’ve been intrigued by the collaborations of movie production houses/app studios/authors I’ve seen (for example Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld) and would like to see more of that kind of collaboration in the future.

    Looking forward to this and I hope it’s a series.

  8. Carolyn Miller

    Thanks for this article, Sandy! It gives an illuminating perspective of why childrens’ authors are not racing to do picture book apps. I have created a picture book app myself, but have been frustrated at not knowing which developer or developers to take it to. I know a great deal about creating interactive projects for children, having worked on a number of video games for young users, but I don’t want to self-publish because of the complexity and expense of doing it right.

  9. Carolyn Miller

    Thanks for this article, Sandy. It gives an illuminating perspective of why childrens’ authors are not racing to do picture book apps. I have created a picture book app myself, but have been greatly frustrated because I don’t know of an appropriate developer to take it to. Even though I have worked on many interactive projects for children, including games and smart toys and interactive websites, I don’t want to self publish because of the expense and complexities of doing it right.

  10. greg perkins

    While she is right, one of the main reason’s authors shy away is the cost to produce. Without some decent money (I know because I’ve produced and written some myself) it’s not the best use of money for an independent or self published writer. My book, “When Santa Got Sick” was made for the interactive book/app market in iTunes. Have yet to recover my investment. And as to why the author’s name usually do not appear – Disney and other big players often use Public Domain works so they don’t have to pay royalties to living authors.

  11. Orel Protopopescu

    I appreciate Sandy’s article and the many pertinent comments. I’d like to address a problem not mentioned here. I am a children’s book author who has written and helped to create an original, bilingual poetry app (A Word’s a Bird/Syntonie/France) which was chosen as one of the best apps of 2013 by School Library Journal. I’ve had two of my out-of-print picture books turned into apps (Auryn, Inc.) and done work-for-hire for an app developer. I love the work, not just the writing of text, but creating the interactive features. But Apple’s search engine and priorities do not favor quality. If a print book is chosen by SLJ as one of the year’s best, librarians and teachers and parents take note. But Apple is in the business of selling technology and collecting fees from app developers. The company pays little attention to the quality of those apps. Many apps it features as \new\ or \notable\ are neither new nor notable. How do apps get on these lists? Many small developers are folding as I write these words. Even big players have disappeared. Carolyn speaks of trying to find an \appropriate developer\ for her work. Alas, too many of them have been burned by the tough children’s book app market. The risk is huge and breaking even is unlikely. Great reviews carry little weight in the App store. I’ve read that using the latest Apple operating system helps, but that is a technical choice, not necessarily a creative one. This is a problem I’d love to see someone… perhaps Sandy?… investigate.

  12. Amy G. Coombs

    I am one of the children’s writers Sandy spent lots of time with during the past few years. It seems to me what she is arguing here is for a new form of collaboration between the word artist and the visual artist akin to the time-honored collaboration between the picture book writer and picture book illustrator. In the latter scenario, the publishing editor and art director are at the helm; can’t the same occur in the app world? Think of the possibilities. Thank you, Sandy, for raising these questions.

  13. Sandhya Nankani

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. As a recent publisher of an interactive kids app , Dentist Bird: A West African Folktale based on a picture book, I agree that many authors and consumers consider apps to be cartoons, games or videos and that the concept of a “literary app” that bridges books and games still feels somewhat Wild Westie. When marketing our app, we struggled with what to call it and settled upon “book app” (using the wonderful definition put out by the Book App Alliance) but having reviewed dozens of such products, I can say that each one approaches the task in different ways. In our case, we wanted to create an interactive adaptation of the story that integrated gameplay to the extent that it would drive the story forward, not just for the sake of it, and we worked closely with the author to make sure that the adaptation retained the spirit of the picture book (that includes even something as simple as the pacing of a story; in this case, a folktale). As we look forward to creating more folktale-based apps, we are eager to collaborate with picture book authors and illustrators and find ways to bring their global and multicultural stories alive on tablets for kids who may not otherwise have access to them. I look forward to more of your posts on this topic.

  14. David Neal

    Interesting article, and true as far as it goes. My experience is similar to Greg Perkins, i.e. my production Alicewinks has come nowhere near to recouping my investment. Also, as Michael W. Perry points out, Apple rejected it for 9 months as a video and an app, before finally accepting it as an iBook. Then they introduced a bug in iOS7 and the hyperlinks were broken for most of 2014. So there are a lot of pitfalls to app/ebook development. And as Karen Robertson points out, mostly the only ones generating any income are the big well known names (Disney, etc.) Personally, I have abandoned the ePub and app spaces and I am concentrating on html5/css/javascript and the open web for ongoing developments.

  15. Roxie Munro

    Excellent post. Children’s authors/illustrators are perfect for creating apps! Why aren’t they being used more? Most developers, creatively techy though they may be, are not necessarily writers, or even good designers. Many of their ideas are cliched and not particularly original. Part of the problem is that children’s book publishers, who do edit and design well, are, for various reasons (ROI, marketing issues), reluctant to make apps; they’d rather do mediocre ebooks that are a direct not-very-good conversion of the original print book. (I’ve done lots of apps – am a traditionally published author/illustrator w/40+ children’s books out. Have created both original work and also adapted OP books.) Here is a blog post on this exact issue: https://roxiemunro.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/wish-list-that-more-childrens-book-authors-and-illustrators-would-make-apps/



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