Readers of online newspapers are accustomed to finding interactive media interspersed with their daily reading which can now include videos, interactive graphs, social feedback and other enhancements. Publishers of digital books are beginning to experiment with mixing various media into their books as well. A great place to glimpse existing innovations that move toward this digital future is in iOS children’s book apps.
Parents love the guilt-free relief of turning over an entertaining yet educational iPhone book app to a child to keep them quiet while waiting in line at the grocery store or enduring a long road trip. Many apps are specifically suited to be bedtime stories and can be read aloud by the child, the parent, or the device in read-to-me mode. Some apps even have the capability of recording a parent’s voice as the narrator so that when they are absent their child still has the comfort of hearing their parent’s voice read the story. There is a wealth of apps targeted to the preschool and early reader set. Now there is a trend to develop apps for older children, tweens, and teens. Children delight in the interactivity of children’s book apps and as parents purchase more smartphones and tablets the market will grow exponentially.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is an interactive app version of the iTunes short film of the same name. Inspired by hurricane Katrina and a love of books, this fantastical story is a whirlwind of literary references. A fine example of how to merge film, gaming and interactivity in an app.
Since Apple introduced the iPad less than two years ago, children’s book apps have rapidly increased in quantity and quality. For developers, the cost of producing a quality app can be surprisingly high and the prices of the final products in the App Store can be disappointingly low. Seeking ways to stand out from the crowd, developers have realized that getting onto the iTunes featured app lists is one way to foster higher sales. However, this is not an easy task since Apple does not reveal their algorithms or preferences in choosing apps for these lists.
Today, there are 18,140 paid iPad book apps and 4,833 free iPad book apps in the US iTunes App Store. About twice that number are available as iPhone apps. Apple makes an attempt to help consumers discover unknown titles, but their New & Noteworthy, What’s Hot and Staff Picks lists only include about 1% of the titles that are available in the category.
Apple also has over 200,000 ebook titles available on their iBookstore and other e-reader platforms such as the Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony Reader have boasted over 2 million available titles. Developers in general tend to stay away from the less interactive ebook category where getting discovered can be even more difficult.
David and Annie Fox of Electric Eggplant have experimented placing their books Are You My Friend and Be Confident in Who you Are in both the app store and in the iBookstore as an ebook. They report that the time to produce the ebook was perhaps a quarter of the time to produce an app, however, discoverability is more difficult for the ebook. Apple gives developers 50 free promotional codes to help market their apps on the App Store, but there is no such promotion for ebooks so reviews for the ebook version are more difficult to secure.
Mom-and-Pops to Media Moguls
The largest iOS app development companies in the US are Oceanhouse Media, Picpocket Books, and iStorytime based on the number of apps in the iTunes App Store. Ruckus Media releases quality apps as well and recently began a partnership with Scholastic which is sure to increase their output. Nosy Crow has a few truly outstanding apps on the market and are known for their innovation.
Other developers of note are: Callaway Digital Arts, Loud Crow, One Hundred Robots, Auryn, Electric Eggplant, Tizio, Black Dog Books, and Ayars Animation. Most app developers are individuals or mom-and-pop outfits that have a single app released and in these you can find some surprising innovation as well.
Having access to famous children’s properties makes selling apps easier and now the larger publishers and media powerhouses including Disney, Nickelodeon, Sesame Workshop, Scholastic, Penguin and Random House are leveraging their rights to well-known characters to sell apps as well.
Michel Kripalani, President at Oceanhouse Media, states that they do not go too far into gamification of their apps in order to keep true to the reading experience. In simplifying their process, and in partnering with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Harper Collins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and others they have become one of the more prolific developers with over 200 versions of their apps currently in the iTunes App Store.
When I asked Lynette Mattke of Picpocket books if apps with little interaction can survive in the market she answered:
“Yes…the more ’bells and whistles’ and customization an app has, usually the more expensive it is to make – $10,000, $20,000 or $50,000 – and it can be difficult to earn that back out (with) the royalties from $.99 downloads. However, a book app like the kind we produce and publish at PicPocket Books with more basic features can be much less expensive to produce, and therefore more easily recoup production costs.”
David Fox of Electric Eggplant:
“The question is, can you really make your money back? If I put in $50,000 or $100,000 into an app – where most of it goes into animation and sound effects – without major characters, can you make your money back? It’s probably more likely that they are not…”
Michel Kripalani of Oceanhouse Media:
“It’s amazing how with a physical book like Green Eggs and Ham people are happy to pay $8 on Amazon and yet at $3.99 in app form with all the bells and whistles, the educational and literacy components, the sound effects and music and everything that’s built in on the app, oftentimes people think that it’s a high price.”
Multiple platforms also add to the cost and confusion for developers. The Android market is a quickly growing part of the digital book market and developers must make a difficult choice when deciding whether or not to produce an app for the Android as well as the iOS platform. There is no standardization in the Android market and each device may be running a separate version of the Android software. Programming and testing for each device and resolution can be a headache for developers. In addition, once an app is released, the work is not done. For both iOS and Android apps, developers must offer customer support over the lifetime of the app and updates are often needed due to bugs or operating system upgrades.
One way to increase profits is to include in-app advertising or links to further purchases, but most parents, understandably, are against these methods. Many developers too are against the idea. Developer David Fox states, “I don’t feel comfortable with putting ads in apps for kids…it seems evil.” Carisa Kluver Digital-Storytime said that children should be off limits to marketing, but that parents can be open game.
The Magic of Interactivity
Most developers agree that a good story is an important starting point of a quality book app. In addition, interesting illustrations and audio can be used to create an enticing digital setting, but it is the new directions in interactivity that are most exciting today. The possibilities are endless when it comes to fostering interaction.
In the iTunes App Store there are a variety of entertaining and educational book apps that allow children to participate in the magical world of storytelling. Nosy Crow’s Three Little Pigs app allows you to interactively help build the pigs’ houses and then blow them down for the Big Bad Wolf. But perhaps the best example of this convergence of movies, books and games into a spectacular interactive story is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by Moonbot Studios.
Cozmo’s Day Off is one of several apps on the market that allow you to record your own voice. A parent, grandparent or friend can record the narration and it can be played back in their absence. Children particularly enjoy this app because you can change the speed of the recorded narration for added silliness.
The most talked-about book apps feature either superficial interactive frills or game-changing interactive features. Apps such as Bartleby’s Book of Buttons, Cozmo’s Day Off, Nighty Night HD or Goosed Up Rhymes may not have a strong story, but they are interesting and enjoyable apps based on their quality interactivity alone.
Some book apps are just fine without much interactivity, but a great app that truly integrates the interactivity into the story can create a memorable experience. An example is the Monster at The End of This Book, which is a classic printed book. In the story, Sesame Street’s Grover pleads with the reader not to turn each page while he warns that there is a dangerous monster waiting at the end of the book. The app version successfully integrates interactive animations of Grover so that children truly feel that Grover is talking to them personally.
This classic book is about lovable Grover warning readers that there is a monster at the end of the book as he pleads with readers not to turn the page. For decades Sesame Workshop has had a knack for making children feel that they are interacting with their characters. This app takes that interaction and relationship to an even higher level.
Getting the Word Out
Before an app is released, developers start trying to create buzz around it by issuing press releases and notifying app reviewers. Once released, the app description and the reviews on iTunes are important but since discoverability is an issue, the most effective reviews are those coming from review websites and blogs. The review market has expanded, but not as fast as the app market itself. Due to the backlog it can take two months to longer to get an app reviewed. Some reviewers are taking advantage of the shortage by offering paid reviews that will move an app to the front of the line.
There are a slew of mommy and daddy bloggers, app review sites, and tech sites that review children’s books. One of the older sites that specialize in children’s app reviews is the TheiPhoneMom.com started by Heather Leister in 2009 when she couldn’t find online curation of apps for her own use. AppAdvice, PadGadget, and AppTudes all include children’s apps as part of their general app reviews as well.
Carisa Kluver’s Digital-Storytime.com is the most comprehensive site solely dedicated to children’s book app reviews. The site is unique in that it offers search filters and price deals that are updated daily. Aside from the review site, Digital-Storytime also manages an online Scoop.it newspaper that curates the top articles about the children’s book app market.
Before Carisa Kluver started the Digital-Storytime site, she spoke with a librarian to see if she could weigh in on which apps might be best for her child. The librarian attempted to look up the apps in her library database by ISBN numbers. When Ms. Kluver told her that book apps don’t have ISBN numbers, the librarian responded, “Well, then they are not books.”
Since then, the position of book apps in the literary world has improved (although they still do not have ISBN numbers.) The esteemed book review publication Kirkus Reviews of London now reviews children’s book apps. The Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Award (Cybil’s Award) now features a children’s book app category as well and the School Library Journal magazine website hosts a children’s book app blog called Touch and Go.
The Moms With Apps forum and website was started by four mom developers who met on Twitter and connected over their family-friendly approach to children’s book apps. Today their free forum is a valuable resource for over 600 developers. Lynette Mattke from Picpocket books is one of the founders and recently attended the FTC call for comments in Washington DC on the proposed changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Mom’s With Apps keeps track of children’s privacy rules, suggests best practices, and assists their developers with cross marketing.
Because of privacy concerns, social media within children’s apps is problematic. Several creation apps such as Toontastic and PuppetPals HD successfully allow children to export their self-made cartoons to share with friends via social media. However, social interaction via children’s book apps is limited. Parents are hesitant to let their younger children connect to the Internet via an application when they are unsupervised. There are opportunities, however, for the developer who can create safe ways for children to interact with their friends via apps.
Social Media App Marketing
Facebook and Twitter have become valuable tools for developers to connect with consumers and with other players in the industry. In general developers use social media to connect with consumers and reviewers to announce new releases, post reviews, host contests and try to create buzz around their apps.
Michel Kripalani at Oceanhouse Media:
“The reality is that a large portion of apps purchased are bought because of a word-of-mouth recommendation. To address this, we first have to have apps that parents want to talk about with other parents. Second, we want to spark some social media conversations and have parents start social media conversations on our behalf.”
Developers are receiving valuable direct feedback from educators as well via social media.
Hillary Brumer, Special Education Teacher:
“We don’t always have the luxury of talking with the people that make the curriculum-in-a-box and telling them what they can do to make it better. However, with social networking, we have this opportunity, and I believe that developers listen. That’s powerful.”
Each Sunday evening, author and Illustrator Brooks Jones, along with Carisa Kluver of Digital-Storytime and David Fox of Electric Eggplant host a weekly Twitter industry chat called StoryAppChat to share advice on developing and marketing children’s book apps. The chat was started as a way for illustrators and authors to connect with developers and to foster partnerships. It has proven a successful way to bring industry players together to discuss challenges in the market.
To learn about app social media marketing, the guru to watch is Gary James at Apps for Children with Special Needs (a4cwsn). James is an ex-promoter at Rolling Stone who has roused the industry with a rally cry to help children with special needs. He began by creating app review videos, which he posted on his site. He contacted developers to request promo-codes for children’s apps that he gives away at Facebook parties by listing real codes along with fake codes. His large group of followers (parents of special needs children) rushes in to find the real promo codes for the free apps. They are then encouraged en masse to support the developers’ Facebook pages as thanks for the free apps. These “likes” on Facebook are a commodity in themselves.
James has an honorable end goal of providing free or subsidized iPads to children with special needs. His aggressive marketing and public relations may step on the toes of a few, but his campaign has been successful in moving him quickly towards his goal. Dozens of families are already thanking him for their iPads and stating how interactive apps have changed their children’s lives. Press coverage for the program has been phenomenal.
Gaming as Inspiration
In the children’s app market, the line between the game, education, and book categories in the App Store can be a bit blurry. Straight up gaming like Angry Birds and Cut The Rope fall into the games category. The educational app category includes the World Atlas, Stack the States, Word Wagon, Rocket Math, and learning games for nearly every subject.
Also in the education category is the outstanding BrainPop which features a daily short educational video. Apps that allow children to create their own ebooks like Picturebook from Maplekey Company also fall in the education category. The book apps in the book category often contain these kinds of learning games integrated into the story as well. In the education category of iTunes there is a helpful “Apps for Kids” filter that shows featured educational apps from all categories.
True innovation in children’s technology has often come out of the gaming industry. There is an opportunity to transfer these innovative ideas about creative play, strategy, incentives and motivation into educational and book apps.
Warren Buckleitner, the editor of Children’s Technology Review, technology writer for the New York Times, and host for the annual Dust or Magic children’s tech conferences, brings developers together each year at his App Camp to discuss current trends in children’s software for mobile platforms. Buckleitner teaches the basics of childhood development along with guidelines for app development all the while encouraging creativity and innovation in apps. His workshops are invaluable for developers looking for inspiration from other areas of children’s technology.
Apps in Schools
For elementary schools, ebooks and apps should be an appealing alternative to paper books. Thus far, there have only been a few brave and well-endowed schools that have invested in iPads for students. There is sometimes a backlash as iPads are seen as screen time no better than video games or TVs. Some parents believe that the money could be better spent. Other parents are anticipating a time when their child does not have to lug around heavy paper books and can condense readings to one tablet.
App developers are drawn to properties in the public domain. Many of the apps in the iTunes App Store are adaptations of fairy tales. Although there are several Cinderella apps, for example, each one has it’s special charm.
The cost of the devices and the confusion over how to best implement a digital book system is keeping many schools from diving in to a digital conversion. There are disadvantages to each platform and tablet. The company that discovers how to integrate the hardware, the content, and most importantly, the large-scale management of both, will win the market.
Apple has made an effort with their Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) program to help leaders in education innovate with technology in the classroom and they bring teachers in for training at their Apple Academy. Apple also has programs in place to make it easier for schools to buy apps in bulk, but there are still complaints from teachers that it is cumbersome to set up and maintain the content for 30 or more iPads.
Apps in Libraries
The libraries have not fared much better in deciding how to best implement a tablet program with digital content. Digital provider Overdrive has jumped in to help public libraries weed through the management of their digital collections but it is yet to be seen which tablet will win the market. At this point ebooks are making faster inroads into libraries than book apps.
According to Linda W. Braun at LEOnline, “In some cases, the youth staff of libraries are still not involved in the ecollection materials and this staff will need to be involved for the children’s digital book or app collections to be responsive to the youth population.”
She adds that the library staff has the opportunity to act as curators for the public of the children’s book apps market and suggests that librarians create gift-giving lists that include apps.
A librarian we interviewed in Canada has purchased apps for library iPads but reports that she is having issues with security that have led them to investigate ways to affix the iPads to the library desks. Another library uses digital tracking that notifies the librarian and the user (via a pop-up on their device) if the e-reader leaves the walls of the library.
Nighty Night HD by Shape Minds and Moving Images GmbH is one of the best bedtime stories on the market. Children are quietly invited to turn off the lights in the stalls of farm animals.
Daryl Grabarek of the School Library Journal Touch & Go blog says that some librarians are now projecting apps onto screens from their iPads. This can be a great way to introduce children’s book apps to children with out the high cost of providing a large number of iPads. The library market for children’s book apps is in its infancy but could blossom quickly as soon as the best path is made clear to librarians.
The multiple challenges to the children’s book app industry can be met head on. Developers need to overcome the issues of cost, pricing, and discoverability. Authors, illustrators, and property rights holders must to team up with developers to produce quality content. Hardware companies and digital providers must develop systems for digital media to be standardized and easily integrated into the school curricula and libraries. Social media can help ensure that the conversation takes place among developers, educators, parents, and librarians as they continue to innovate and improve children’s apps. The Children? They can just open an app and enjoy this new world of active imagination.
By Julie Brannon
Additional Comments from developers and reviewers:
When asked about educational content vs. pure entertainment:
Vicky Smith, Children’s & Teen Editor, Kirkus Reviews:
“Oh, come on. When was the last time someone scolded you for reading something for fun instead of something “improving”? It seems to me that kids need fun just as much as adults do, and they have just as much right to find it in books or apps. That said, simple enjoyment of a book leads to a positive attitude about reading, and that’s just as important a pre-literacy skill as knowing the alphabet. So, arguably, pure entertainment = educational content.”
Hillary Brumer, Assistive Technology Specialist:
“There’s a time and a place for everything. If you can draw a student in with something that motivates them, the learning will be all the more powerful. By Simply giving a student an iPad and walking away, we’ve basically done the same thing as putting the child in front of the TV and walking away. The iPad and the apps that are on it are tools for learning. They in no way replace good teaching, a caring supportive environment, and parental involvement. But, I have seen where they do enhance these things.”
On the balance between interactivity and the traditional book experience:
“You have to know your kids. You have to know what their needs are. Interactive books are great for reluctant readers because it draws them in. Some kids just like to read a good book and don’t need extraneous visual distraction. If the app has the ability to “read to myself”, then great!”
Rick Richter, President and CEO, Ruckus Media Group:
“We believe great story telling is great story telling, digital or otherwise. It started around campfires in voice and in song, moved into the printed word, then to cinema, and regardless of the medium it will continue. The need for great story telling is fundamental to the human condition. The delivery device is secondary. And the great thing is that kids know the difference between great story telling and mediocre story telling. The difference perhaps with apps, or the delivery of media on the smart phone or tablet, is (that) for the first time we can blend all kinds of entertainment - story telling via “book”, narration, animation, gaming, music, etc. and put it in a single ubiquitous place where kids can interact with these stories when and where they choose to. They can carry vast libraries in their pocket. So I guess I could argue that if we seize this moment, we are about to enter a golden era of storytelling.”
Miranda West, Children’s Editor, The Literary Platform:
“What is frustrating is that so many people simply don’t know these book apps even exist! Children can get so much out of the multi-sensory experience of a book app that they wouldn’t get from a book. And anything that gets children reading and engaging with stories has to be a good thing.”
Julie Brannon is a marketing specialist who has twenty years of experience. She specializes in children’s book apps, educational technology, publishing, and financial marketing. Find her on Twitter: @Julia_Brannon
Disclosure: Julie Brannon has worked with publishers & developers including One Hundred Robots, Disney, Pearson Education and Cambridge University Press.
This article originally appeared in The Social Media Monthly magazine’s December 2011 issue: www.thesocialmediamonthly.com
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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