I love a lot of the topics for the Children's Literary Salons at The New York Public Library. They always seem to include discussions about cutting-edge topics in technology or children's literature. I was very excited to hear what the children's author/illustrator and employee of One Hundred Robots, an online apps for kids store, had to say about this topic. I don't have an iPad or an iPhone, but I am a little bit familiar with application software and its function. Luckily for me, the presentations, panel discussion, and audience questions elucidated this matter for me to a high degree. I went from having a fuzzy understanding of apps (I have discussed them a little bit with people) to understanding more about how people use them, the incredible amount of work that is behind producing them, and the panoply of professions involved with application production.
Picture Books Turned into Apps
Elizabeth Bird informed the packed Margaret Berger forum audience members that the program would begin with a slide show presentation from Roxie Munro (author/illustrator), Matt Bassett would present a slide show, a panel discussion would take place, and then the panel members would accept questions from the audience members.
Munro's slide show presentation
Munro has done two apps, Roxie's a-MAZE-ing Vacation, an interactive adventure, and Roxie's Doors, which is a book turned app. She stated that apps are designed for specific devices (KindleFire, nook, iPad, etc) and specific platforms.
Roxie's a-MAZE-ing Vacation
Munro showed us slides of the process of creating 16 screens for the application. She actually drew the map on a huge piece of paper. She then inked the map and added colors. It was a landscape with many waterways, roads, trees, and vehicles. The drawing took three months to produce. She worked with OCG Studios, a developer in the Netherlands, who worked on each app for four to six months. Munro visited them in the Netherlands for three days so that they could do the music and testing. She took the finished drawing to a sophisticated scanning company in New York City. The scans were then emailed to the Netherlands. The size of the big drawing was 800 megabites. The producers in the Netherlands added sounds and music. They tested the device on elementary school kids. In the Netherlands, 60% of these students had iPads at home. I do not believe that that is the case in the United States.
One of the most difficult aspects of producing an app is marketing and getting reviews of the application in the professional literature. The maze app is wordless, and it sells in 67 countries. Munro showed us a trailer of the app, which showed a balloon flying over the city and a red car trucking along. The most spectacular feature of the trailer was the colorful objects from the maze streaming out of the black-and-white pages of an open book towards the user.
This is a book turned app: Doors by Roxie Munro. Munro pointed out that additional drawings need to be made to produce an app, since animation requires white space that was previously behind static objects to be drawn in. The app is narrated by Dirk Kennedy. It was produced by a developer. Munro showed a trailer of the app. It included a dalmatian barking and moving his head. It also included the sounds of the red fire engine siren wailing.
Bassett's Slide Show Presentation
Bassett stated that 100 Robots builds apps for kids, so far, 2 from existing print books and 1 from original content. He wanted to present an app that was created from the children's book, Hildegard Sings, which was published in 1991 by author/illustrator Thomas Wharton. The music and sounds can be left on or turned off. He stated that apps are where creativity meets technology. Publisher's Weekly has a review of the app. It is the story of a hippo who dreams of becoming an opera singer. Bassett reiterated the importance of working with high-quality content and art. The developers of the app worked closely with the author/illustrator, who created new work, and tweens (in between frames). 100 Robots wants to avoid too much interactivity, which can detract from the work and be distracting to the user. They want to enhance the work and make it fun. This app was built for a iPad with a touch screen. Not only does 100 Robots want to focus on quality, but they also want to retain and enhance the storytelling process.
Book to app transformation: Unique challenges are presented for the process of turning a picture book into application software. The format of an iPad is not changeable in terms of screen size. There are two options: landscape and portrait. Certain types of artwork (eg spreads) will not translate easily to an iPad format. Large books may not have the same look with a much diminished size for the iPad. Some picture books are too long (36 pages) for effective translation into an app. 24 pages is a better length for the attention span that the typical app user has. People seem to have a diminished attention span for apps. The experience of using applications is very different from reading a print book. You have to ensure that the pages will turn in a seamless, intuitive, easy way for kids to operate. Apps are a cool format in which to bring a story and artwork to life with animation, sound, and interactivity. When creating an app, it is important to contemplate how kids would want the pages to turn and what things kids would want to touch and tap.
In apps, vigilant attention must be paid to proper flow and pacing of the story. Restraint and control of the animations, interactivity and sound must be practiced. Audio, graphics, and animations must be fun, funny, and unexpected. 100 Robots had a brainstorming session to determine how the kids would want pages to turn, what kids would want to touch, and what would be funny, to an extent. They used a platform and gaming engine to create the application. Bassett stated that there is much talk nowadays about "gamification" (in that people expect books to play like games). They do have matching and throwing games (tomatoes at poor Hildegard as she is performing in a dream) at the end of the book.
Developer and author/illustrator working closely together: Luckily, the author/illustrator and the developer of the app had a great relationship. Wharton gave 100 Robots complete creative freedom on the animation. He also educated the developers on opera and music and how it could be used to effectively enhance the story with sounds and animation. He had the original watercolor art that was used to produce the story. It was scanned, retouched with color correction (to make the illustrations appear much more "punchy" on the iPad screen), and sometimes redrawn on the computer. Wharton created the animations and "tweens" (in between frames).
There were voice-overs, voice narration, and voice actors involved with the production of the app. 100 Robots worked on coding to produce the animation and interaction, while retaining a focus on the story. The app for Hildegard Sings took four months to produce from start to finish, not including marketing. Involved professionals included a creative director, animators, sound designers, a marketing director, and voice actors.
Hildegard Sings trailer: Bassett showed the trailer for the app, which began with Hildegard singing with a dark backdrop of thunder and lightning. Hildegard liked singing more than anything. Well, almost. She might have preferred eating. You see animation where you can feed Hildegard a feast, including turkey and cupcakes. You can jump to any page. You see the throwing game at the end of the app, where you can throw tomatoes at Hildegard while she is performing in a dream. At the end, a mouse jumps out of a box, and Hildegard's voice box overflows with a long resonant opera tone, and this is the climax and end of the story, as shown in the trailer.
The app is getting great reviews. Kids go for both books and apps. Both things can work with each other.
At the conclusion of the two presentations, Bird invited the presenters to join a panel discussion.
Bird said that she loved how the presenters had illustrated exactly how much work goes into producing applications. She stated that she sometimes is under the impression that people believe that apps are magically whipped together at the blink of an eye, without much effort, and that some people think that apps are ephemeral. She asked which Bassett and Munro thought was easier: turning books into apps or creating an app from scratch.
Bassett said that neither is easier, that they each present unique challenges. Munro agreed.
Bird stated that she thought it was a good idea to put the games at the end of an app. She stated that she has seen picture books apps that have a big game in the middle. She stated that it somewhat disrupts the story and that one does not want to continue the story after the game. She asked if the panelists could discuss the role of games in picture book apps for kids.
Munro stated that the Roxie's a-MAZE-ing vacation app is a game. She stated that the Roxie's Doors app is not a game, but it is a very interactive book. She stated that she agreed with Bassett that it is important to control the animation. There have been research studies that conclude that with too many bells and whistles, kids stop reading and do not retain the information that they read.
Bassett stated that having games at the end help users focus on the story. However, iPads are blurring the lines; you now see games that tell stories, etc. It depends on what you are trying to accomplish and what the kids and parents like. It is important to have a good balance of elements in an application.
Bird stated that she noticed that 100 Robots worked well with Wharton, the author/illustrator of Hildegard Sings. She asked if there are occasions when developers would choose to not work with the author of a book to be turned into an app.
Bassett stated that 100 Robots was lucky to have such a good working relationship with the author/illustrator Wharton. He said that there are definitely occasions where it is preferable not to work with the author. It depends on the personalities involved and the intent of the work.
Bird asked what makes a successful app.
Munro stated that a good concept and story makes books interactive. For example she stated that the sound in the Hildegard Sings app makes the story beautiful. Not all books make good apps.
Bassett stated that there are different types of successful apps. (Apps are different than books.) It also depends on how success is defined. Some people are interested in awards and recognition. Others are more interested in achieving blockbuster sales levels. 100 Robots is very concerned with producing high-quality work. The customers (parents and kids) also decide what they like. With picture apps for kids, it is preferable to keep functionality simple.
Bird then opened the floor to questions from audience members.
One audience member asked how much apps sell for.
Bassett stated that they can be free to $6.00 or $7.00. 100 Robots changes its prices periodically.
Munro commented that it costs much more to develop apps than ebooks. However, ebooks sell for much more than apps.
Another audience member asked what the budget is to produce an app and what the general revenue share is.
Bassett stated that revenue share can be anything. Apple takes 30% of the profits from an app.
Munro commented that there are programs that help you make your own computer applications easily, but the quality produced by these programs will not match the quality of apps produced by professional developers. Marketing for apps is exceptionally difficult. Unlike amazon that exists to sell books and is easily search-able, no comparable company exists for computer applications. It is difficult to get the information to consumers who would be interested in buying the product. Apps are also made for specific devices, but they do not have to be shipped all over the world. They can simply be downloaded.
Bird made a point about professional reviews for apps. She stated that reviews for apps are not as important, since app producers can change their apps to address concerns raised in reviews, only to make the reviews out-of-date almost as soon as they are written.
An audience member asked how application developers get compensated for apps that they produce for free.
Bassett stated that 100 Robots has a very popular free app that was based on a Cinderella story. It has 16,000 downloads per day. The exposure and discover-ability of producing free apps is priceless because marketing is so difficult. Free apps "gets your customer hooked." When people like an app that a company has produced, they are curious about what else the company has created.
An audience member asked how many apps the developers produce in a year.
Bassett and Munro concurred that it was about 3, since producing them is very time consuming. Bassett commented that it also depends on the size of the company producing the apps.
Bird also mentioned that public libraries are buying apps, and reviews are helpful if they mention which apps are best.
I found this Salon particularly enlightening, since I always strive to improve my understanding of emerging technological trends in the field of information science. It was always extremely helpful to hear about apps from the people who develop them. I hope that you can join us at one of the future Children's Literary Salons to hear first-hand about emerging topics in children's literature. Thanks to Betsy Bird for hosting and organizing this Children's Literary Salon at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building ("the library with the lions") of The New York Public Library.
Future Children's Literary Salons
Click here for a calendar of events.
April 7, 2012 - Join book review editors Trev Jones (School Library Journal), Diane Roback (Publishers' Weekly), and Vicky Smith (Kirkus Reviews) for a conversation about the highs and lows of reviewing materials for youth in an era of digital changes.
Location: Margaret Berger Forum Room 227
Time: 2 p.m. - 3 p.m.
May 5, 2012 - Hear a panel of international authors discuss the worldwide state of children's literature and publishing. Panelists will include Sharon Elswit, the anthologist of The Jewish Story Finder and the East Asian Story Finder, Israeli Pnina Mode Kass, the author of REAL TIME, translated into German and French, winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor, and others.
June 2, 2012 - Formed in 1987 by a group of Brooklyn illustrators to share publishing information and industry experiences, The Children's Book Illustrators Group brings together artists with an interest in producing exceptional artwork and books for children. Join Donna Miskend, President (Exhibition Curator) Vicky Rubin (Webmaster, List serve Manager), Maria Madonna David off (Postcard Designer) and others in a discussion of the group's accomplishments and future goals.