This past weekend I travelled to San Francisco to speak with a group of workshop participants attending Karen Robertson’s training on “How to Create & Market a Children’s Book App“. Karen is the author of several great resources on making and marketing book apps for kids, including an online course called “book app academy“.
Karen created the Treasure Kai picture book apps and was very inspirational by sharing wisdom from her own sharp learning curve as well as a nice roadmap for new content creators in this very young industry. I highly recommend her two ebooks for anyone considering self-publishing a children’s book app: Author’s Guide to Book Apps and How to Market a Book App.
The presentations and panel were exceptional, but the participants attending the workshop were equally interesting and talented. There were people from different media backgrounds in music, art and film as well as previously published children’s book authors, educators and even a few people who had already published apps.
Meeting so many creative folks in one room (in real physical space) was energizing in a way online interaction still cannot match. There really is no ‘app for that’. The workshop was a testament to Karen’s collaborative energy; simply spending the day with such an inspiring group of people would have been well worth the drive. And on top of that feat, Karen also provided an exceptional step-by-step analysis of how to enter this emerging market. If she does another training in the US, it would be very hard for me not to spend my frequent flier miles just to get the chance to be with the kind of people she has a knack for bringing together.
Overall I was deeply impressed by the level of commitment to good stories for kids by the people attending the workshop. They had great questions that were thoughtful and focused on the needs of young readers … plus the author panel gave me lots of new insights into this marketplace from so many different angles. It was like spending a day in book app heaven for me. I was also relieved to hear that most new content creators are both willing and able to do their homework before jumping into app projects, a level of caution I consider wise. It’s an exciting time, but app projects require passion, patience and persistence, something I saw in abundance among the attendees this weekend.
I began my talk with a brief background about how my website, Digital-Storytime began, but won’t bore you with that part.
For a deeper background about me (if anyone is truly interested), I would recommend reading interviews I have done with author/illustrator Brooks Jones in her blog “Sparks” last year, or a more recent interview I did this year, for author/illustrator Will Terry’s blog.
Brooks Jones, was also the brainchild of #storyappchat, a wonderful collaboration of author/illustrators, educators, librarians, reviewers and developers that meets up every Sunday night at 6pm PT/9pm ET. I co-host this chat every week with Brooks and developer David B. Fox, who has produced his wife Annie Fox‘s graphic novel apps from the Middle School Confidential series, as well as digital books in multiple epub formats, including iBooks, Kindle & Nook. Watch for a new topic posted each week on the #storyappchat blog. There is also a list of over a dozen story app creation tools listed on the side-bar.
So, here are my notes … For anyone reading, who attended the workshop, I did go ‘off script’ a bit but also missed some of what I had planned to share, which is included here:
The Book App Market, Industry & Audience Insights
This is a REALLY exciting & challenging time to be involved in children’s digital publishing. And ALL children’s publishing is at least considering digital as part of the natural lifespan for new storybooks. Essentially everything about the business of publishing is in flux. This means there can be a lot of ‘uncharted’ territory for anyone new to the market. This sometimes means there are no answers to your questions … not until you answer them yourself with experience. Taking this level of change in stride takes time and practice, but for people willing to enter the market early, it can bring great rewards.
Trends in the market are fast and furious. I recommend thinking in 30, 60, and 90 day increments, along with typical 3/6/9 month plans for development projects. Book app developers need to take the marketplace’s temperature on a regular basis, long before launching an app. Try to start projects with several possible options for expansion, giving you room to ‘pivot’ if there is a major change in format, technology, consumer adoption, etc. The quality of the apps on the market has improved a lot in the past two years, as well as the quantity of available titles. Consumer interest and adoption of tablets is growing, but along with this is a more sophisticated and price-conscious shopper. The number of players in the market has also grown exponentially, especially with so many new DIY (Do-It-Yourself) software tools available now.
All of this growth has made the market more complicated. Profits, however, are not going up but may even be down for the average app, so there are challenges that mean staying within your budget is not only wise but essential to continue to be around in this market long-term. I describe this need to ‘pivot’ as being like a tree … the roots are your passion and desire to create digital stories, the trunk the actual story you want to make into an app and the branches are the many different directions you may need to reach the sun (your readers), but be prepared to prune some of them. Don’t get too attached to every branch and leaf in your budding app plan.
Standards are still in flux but maturing for picture book apps. Basic settings are becoming expected in every book app, so most need on/off settings for features, especially for audio. There are enough quality book apps on the digital bookshelf now that disregarding basic settings when creating a new book app is truly unwise, even if you just want people to read your story (let alone pay for it). My thoughts on basic features:
- Narration is essential. A book app without narration is unlikely to do very well in the current marketplace. Audio voice-over for all the text in a children’s digital picture book, in particular, is simply expected at this point from most book app consumers.
- Highlighting word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase is becoming much more common. This can help emerging readers learn words and make the audio-visual connection that is so remarkable for learning to read fluently. It can also serve as a way to redirect the readers eyes to the text, which is particularly useful in a medium with interactivity and animation. Without this, it is easy to look away from the words in a book app, no matter what your age or reading level. Some especially interactive and animated book apps have a lot going on, so giving the text visual reinforcement is strongly recommended for readers under age 10.
- Navigating a digital book shouldn’t be harder than navigating a book in print. A home button is the absolute minimum standard now, but a full set of thumbnails for a page guide is really ideal. This gives the reader a sense of how long the book might be and allows them to return to a favorite page. This is as close as we can approximate in digital, an experience that is taken for granted in print. We just know how long or short a book is by the physical space it takes up. In app form, a book five pages long can hold as much space on your screen (even if MB sizes vary) as something fifty, five hundred or even five thousand pages long. Your readers have no way to know how much content you have unless you give them a guide.
- Page Turning matters but doesn’t have to be fancy. It is fine to use swipe-style pages (where readers swipe at the right edge of the screen to advance the story), especially for books with little or no interactivity. It is also useful as an option, but having arrows at the bottom corners is becoming more common. It is often more efficient for programming and also prevents any mix-ups with the interactivity at the border of the pages. In the worst cases, a child taps to try to find something interactive at the edges of the screen and instead causes the page to turn accidentally, which is extremely disruptive to the reading experience. I should also add that swiping pages is still the dominant way to read a storybook app, but this feature needs to be well produced for the right effect.
The real crux of any GREAT book app is still a GREAT story. This is critical. The way the text, illustrations and storyline integrate together should be priority number one. Then consider how other ‘enhancements’ might suit the narrative. An obvious, but often missed aspect of ‘integrating’ all the features in a digital book is also rather simple: make sure the things you add to your story app don’t distract from the story itself (or from each other). For instance, if something ‘bounces and wiggles’ when children tap it, but has no other relationship to the story, it may distract young readers from comprehending the plot. Another common issue I see in many otherwise great stories with great narration and interactivity, is audio interference. The narration and audio sprites (interactive tap points triggering sound effects or additional dialogue) can literally play over each other, making both impossible to understand. This is because young fingers are very busy exploring digital pages and unlikely to patiently wait for the narrator to finish before they start tapping on images.
Quality production values are also essential. Just like a bad story or illustrations can ruin an app book, no matter how beautifully it ‘functions’ on a device, a beautifully crafted story can be ruined by poor production values. Every book app needs to be a coherent experience for the reader, that includes every stage of the story, with good pacing and ‘chunking’ of the text on each page and enhancements that are TAILORED to the narrative. I caution people not to start with an animated, interactive ‘app’ and then try to add words. This rarely feels like a polished ‘book’ to readers. If any part of your app is an afterthought in your development process, chances are it will show.
Enhance every storybook carefully with consideration of both your story and your budget. It’s better to do less and add things later if an app sells well than to make the perfect app you have been dreaming about. Apps are more easily updatable than a print title. Even for existing owners of your book, you can fix things, change things, etc., but you can never go back and undo the expense of over-producing your first book. If you can fiance the production up-front, that’s fabulous, but it is very easy to over-develop a book app to the point that you can’t possibly break even. So even if you just want to get your stories ‘out there’, consider production costs carefully. Digital app development costs, unlike printing a children’s book, are not fixed in anyway and can be managed on a small or large budget. But there is a ‘diminishing return’ after a certain level of expense, unless you are a very big media player, have a popular character with a strong following already or at least have a solid first app under your belt.
Timing also matters. Content creators and developers of digital book apps should consider development time carefully and over-estimate before solidifying any launch plans, especially for a first title. Being aware of what is going on in the marketplace is essential, so it’s useful to think about marketing as part of the process the whole time … from researching in the beginning, planning budgets or hiring PR, to actual promotion of the finished app. NONE of this can be done without effort or time. Some authors and illustrators can do it all themselves, but the key is someone has to DO it; you cannot ‘wing’ an app release with good results. Apps simply do not ‘market themselves’.
Some stories will always have higher rankings in the App Store … get over it. Big names from Nick Jr., Disney, Sesame Street, along with Dr. Seuss and other popular character books, have and will continue to have big sway over the US market in particular. Stories about robots, princesses, dinosaurs, etc. will also have a certain ‘topic lift’, as will any story related to familiar fairy tales & fables. If you have a burning passion to re-tell a fairy tale, great, but don’t tell these types of stories just because you think that’s a way to make money in the app world. It’s not a winning financial strategy and a focus on this will show in your finished work.
Prices are low but stabilizing. Of Digital-Storytime’s over 600 reviewed apps, over 10% are free, 30% are $0.99 of less, nearly 50% are $1.99 or less and over 70% are at or below what I call the book app ‘sweet spot’, $2.99 or less. In fact, getting decent sales of a book app priced over five dollars is truly a miracle for nearly anyone, even big players in this market. 95% of all of the apps I’ve reviewed are priced at $4.99 or less, something that has not changed since the inception of our site.
Consumer interest, on the other hand, is growing exponentially as tablets are adopted more widely. When I talk to caregivers (parents, guardians, grandparents, etc.), teachers and school & children’s public librarians, I hear many similar things:
- Parents often love apps (or the idea of educational apps for their kids) but aren’t entirely sure how to integrate them into children’s daily lives. Educational Software has been around a long time, as have games & other ways to enhance learning. However, when it comes to books, the basic technology has been static for hundreds of years. Confusion over the definition of a book app or ebook still persists among the general public, so expect it to take some time for consumers to adjust. A lot of very well-educated and thoughtful consumers are just barely scraping the surface of the App Store, primarily using their devices to replace handheld gaming systems to occupy kids and give adults time to do other things. When they discover that their children will choose storybooks over games, which happens more and more in households all across the world, it is (pardon the pun) a true game-changer.
- Schools & libraries are beginning to embrace book apps, but they run into a lot of areas of confusion about how to catalogue them. This audience is more concerned about where the line between book, app and games is going … something that isn’t remotely clear yet. It can also be difficult for librarians to differentiate between publishers & developers, determine publication dates (updates make digital a bit slippery in this arena), manage purchasing from a public institution, and to find trusted reviews or other resources (for themselves or to send patrons to) for information. Book apps do not have ISBN numbers and there is no database of titles beyond the App Store. While I try to keep up, my over 600 titles reviewed only represents a tiny sliver of the overall market and the quality of apps is very inconsistent. Librarians are eager for this digital shift (or at least eager to know about it) but it will take a lot of time for the institutions they work in to adjust. Librarians are not especially concerned about prices like the rest of the market, though … they are consistently focused on quality and ease of use. In-app purchases, ads, links that leave to social media, email or the web, all of these things are deal-breakers for use in most library spaces.
- Teachers are big allies for digital literacy and supportive overall when it comes to book apps (and ebooks in general), especially for young readers. They are really looking for deeper ways to integrate these digital books into the classroom setting, though. They are most inspired by book apps that have curriculum tie-ins, lesson plans, extension activities and reading comprehension quizes, rather than games or other fancy extras. Technically-savvy teachers are also trail-blazing with storytelling apps, bringing up a whole new generation that will be very comfortable telling their stories in a digital space. Great story books are used in teaching already and teachers are ready and willing to incorporate digital tales into the mix to help kids ‘fall in love’ with reading. The technology and budgets are not always as ready as the teachers themselves, so these institutions are evolving slowly.
- Parents are an easier market to reach but, like teachers, they are also on very tight budgets. All of your potential consumers are staring at a sea of apps, many of which are high quality and free (if only temporarily). Since parents have the bulk of responsibility for children’s ‘free’ time and are anxious about finding ‘good’ entertainment for their kids, they do make an effort to find quality, low cost options for media, but they are busy and distracted much of the time. Book apps can be very high on the list of the most ‘nutritious’ media for their kids, but parents still have some serious concerns about apps and their children being online in general, like links that leave the app for email, social media, youtube or the web. They also dislike ad links (even for other apps in a series), in-app purchases, lite (sample) versions marketed as a full book, lack of navigation options and express a strong desire for ‘reading level’ information to guide their purchases.
- Discoverability is a big issue, for everyone. Parents, educators and librarians are still very confused about where to find good apps, almost as much as app developers are concerned about being found. Getting your lovely story to the perfect reader, even when they are actively seeking it out, can seem like two star-crossed lovers trying to find each other on a moonless night …
Writing children’s books has changed a lot, but it is still no easier to make money on publishing. Be clear with yourself and, if you have one, your development team about the mission of your project. There are a lot of easier ways to make money than a focus on children’s books and making money is not guaranteed for anyone, especially in apps.
But don’t forget you are writing for precious little ones. We do our best work when we remember that it is an honor and a blessing to follow such a meaningful path. Children’s book authors and illustrators were never the wealthiest or most famous people in town and nothing has changed about that today. The real difference, is that in the digital space, children’s publishing has become more accessible. Many of the challenges new storybook app creators are facing are part of a storytelling revolution, where anyone can take the mic and tell their tale. And because this path is open to a lot more people … that includes you and your story.
That’s the end of my presentation notes … thank you for reading!
What advice would you give new story app developers?
What questions would you want answered before you decided to publish something yourself?