This post was a joint effort with iBook developer David Neal, creator of AliceWinks*, an animated and narrated retelling of Alice in Wonderland. I have enjoyed this title myself (although I do not review iBooks). According to Kirkus Reviews, who gave AliceWinks one of their coveted stars:
This sumptuous iBook presents a straightforward telling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, accompanied by artwork that will send readers down the rabbit hole of delight.
As the developer of an Alice title, David was sensitive to a story about a book app version of Alice to recently make a splash in technology news. Just over two weeks ago, on September 29, 2014, the website VentureBeat covered a ‘story’ about an Alice in Wonderland app that claimed to be making $70,000 a week from iTunes downloads. The journalist, Tom Cheredar, was responsive to the onslaught of developers and other industry insiders who immediately saw this claim as highly suspect. Upon further investigation, VentureBeat issued an ‘update’ at the top of the article that stated:
VentureBeat has learned that the revenue figure ($70,000 for the final week of August 2014) provided by The Alice App’s creator was not accurate, and cannot be independently verified. We apologize, and have added a note to the corresponding paragraph where revenue for The Alice App is first mentioned.
What VentureBeat failed to do in this instance is an affront to journalistic integrity. The real story isn’t about the false claim that made this article interesting. Another app based on public domain content is hardly a story, but making ‘bank’ on it as an app is truly remarkable. BUT … the story was a lie. It wasn’t merely ‘unverified and unverifiable’. So why keep the article up virtually unchanged? The entire premise and buzz of the post was based on something that the developer basically made up, perhaps with confusingly complex statistical manipulation. No one with access to AppAnnie and other app stat sites could possibly believe this app was so successful – even for a single week, let alone many in succession. So why was this story so easy for an otherwise experienced journalist to swallow – hook, line & sinker? AND why is this so easy for readers to believe as part of the app creation story?
The real injury from this type of false hype, something that happens regularly in the app world, is that content creators have no idea how to realistically plan. They have no idea if an app will sell 2 or 200 or 200,000 copies – and these margins make a huge difference in how much a team can invest in an app’s development. Even the most well-meaning and ambitious team will struggle with these stats. We all need a realistic bench-mark to inform our investments of time, money and other resources. But I have no way to temper the enthusiasm of app developers and previously published authors & illustrators. I have had artists accuse me of lying when I predicted that their picture book idea could not break even (let alone make a profit) based on my current analysis of the market. And when I was right (100% of the time, I’m sad to say), I think the creative people behind the app may still think they did something wrong. But they didn’t do ANYTHING wrong – they were just at the mercy of a quixotic marketplace that will likely be “in flux” for a decade if not more. But so many sites are promoting articles like this, that continue to perpetuate the myth of an “app gold rush”. If there ever was one, it’s over. Period. That’s the only story legitimate news outlets should be covering right now. But failure isn’t sexy, so it makes a very small splash in the pool of articles.
So, even if journalists were entirely honest or even brutal in their assessment of the marketplace for apps … would content creators listen? During the process of creating my husband’s first commercial app, an Android kid’s app released in 2009, I found it extremely difficult to explain our app’s mediocre sales to the illustrator who created all of the visual content for Dash & Ditto’s Playground. As the PR manager for the project, I had little experience, but I was a researcher and did my homework. It was very clear to me, immediately, that this was a very difficult space to get discovered. In the end, we transferred the app to the illustrator and abandoned it entirely. As a way to show off the illustrator’s art and talent, it was a potential resource, but as an app that makes a sustainable profit, it was worthless. If that was a ‘sexy’ story for journalists, I’m sure they could find hundreds of subjects to cover, just in the genre of children’s apps alone.
According to David Neal, the intrepid developer of AliceWinks, this is a big concern:
A number of things have been published recently that are cause for concern for creators of rich and interactive digital stories. As discussed on #storyappchat last week (Oct. 12, 2014), Times of London Children’s book editor (and author herself) Nicolette Jones issued a challenge that “I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.”
On Sept. 29, 2014, the online news site Venture Beat posted an article about a story app whose producer claimed to be making $70K/week revenue. Finally, the Sunday New York Times on Oct. 12, 2014 headlined an article on page A-1 “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?” Together, these articles and statements pose a threat to our ability to generate a return on our investment in creating digital media.
They collectively say:
“Rich, interactive digital media is:
- ineffective (paper does better),
- just a time-wasting pastime (simply screen time), and
- a huge (undeserved) windfall to the creators ($70K/week for a middling, mediocre app.)”
Now, a more nuanced reading of both Ms. Jones full statements and the NY Times article by Douglas Quenqua give a more balanced view. Ms. Jones rightly decries the common criticism of interactivity that it is usually a distraction rather than an enhancement of narrative. Mr. Quenqua offers both sides of the story, although I fault him for not consulting Lisa Guernsey, author of “Screen Time” who has been studying this exact question for several years. Had he done so, he would realize that this is a “straw man” question, and that the answer lies with the concept of “Media Mentorship,” not paper vs. pixels.
On the other hand, the Venture Beat article is an outright fraud. The producer lied and/or concocted the story of $70K/week revenues in order to create a “story” for the purpose of publicizing his work. The article reviewed the piece (I could not find another recent example of a review of a digital story product on their site) in addition to the headline about the big money. When challenged by a number of us, the article’s author Tom Cheredar, redacted the $70K/week number but otherwise left the free advertising for the product intact. This continues to promulgate the viewpoint that it is easy to make large amounts of money.
My question for #storyappchat this week (Oct. 19) is:
“How do we overcome the negative publicity being generated suggesting that we are producing garbage at huge profit?”
What do you think about this type of journalism? How can we get the real story about the children’s app and eBook market covered accurately? How can content creators make realistic plans for their publications? Join #storyappchat every week on Twitter to discuss topics like this that matter to authors, illustrators, developers and readers of digital storybooks. We meet on Sundays, year-round, from 6-7pm PT/9-10pm ET. Watch this space for the transcript after the Oct. 19th, 2014 #storyappchat …
About the guest author:
David Neal is a Producer, Director, Animator & Sound Editor, as well as an App developer. After over 15 years at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, David became an independent consultant doing web programming. He has an MS in Computer Science from Kansas State University.
David has been interested in the Alice tales since college, when one of his math instructors introduced him to the logical conundrums. In 1993, he went to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. There he became acquainted with some of the numerous artists who had illustrated Alice’s Adventures. He started researching this a little more and got the idea to bring some of these illustrations to life. He used his Computer Science training and the technology of the time (c. 1995) to try to animate the imagery. Most of the animation was computer generated, using morphing algorithms. (The morphing concept from that original version has survived in the dancing of Alice, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle in chapter 10, for example.) He used his own voice as the sound track, along with some generic music clips. The original production, on CD-ROM (“What’s That”), was not a success, and was put “on the shelf.”
Fast forward 15 years or so, and all of a sudden, the iPad and other tablets started showing up. At the same time William McQueen told Dave that he was interested voice acting. Dave showed him the Alice version that he had done, and described how, what with the images being “portrait” in orientation, that this would be a perfect match for the new tablets. So, naively they formed a partnership to redo Alice, with William doing the sound and Dave doing the animation.
To make a long story short: twenty voices, two more animators, an investor and various other help and ten or so months later, they created Alicewinks: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The 150th Anniversary Animated Edition for Tablet Computers. (or “Alicewinks,” as it is affectionately called “for short.”)
Dave says: “We sincerely hope that you enjoy it!”
*Disclosure: AliceWinks became an advertiser on this site after working on this guest post. The content of this post was in no way influenced by the advertising, which is handled by a third party (BuySellAds).