Friday, January 4, 2013

Do Book-Apps Have Authors?

As we welcome the New Year, I've asked a former colleague to shed some light on a new medium. Mary Kay Carson was an editor on Scholastic’s science magazines back in the early 1990s, when I was editorial director. She’s spent much of the time since then as an independent author of more than 30 nonfiction books about science and nature. She’s also written a book-app, which was just named a one of the finalists for the 2012 Cybils. She chronicles the process of writing that app here. Enjoy, and have a great 2013.
In the spring of 2011 a book developer/packager that I’d previously worked for contacted me about writing a book-app. (At that point, we were calling it an m-book, as in “multimedia-book,” as opposed to an e-book.) The book packager was starting up a new all-digital division called Bookerella and wanted a nonfiction kids “title” for its launch. Like so many start-up and new media ventures, payment was a promised slice of future profits. Writing on spec is not something I can afford to do much of, so I agreed to the gig with the stipulation that the subject be familiar, which is how the book-app ended up featuring bats. Houghton Mifflin had recently published my Scientists in the Field book, The Bat Scientists, so I was up on all things batty.

In truth, I had no clear idea of what the final product would be like. I thought it might be an e-book with video, zoom-able images, and maybe a map with pop-out labels—something like Al Gore’s Our Choice. This format seems to me like a natural evolution of nonfiction illustration. If you’ve ever written a book with only black-and-white photos or two-tone illustrations, you know how constraining it can be. And even color photos still sometimes leave me with that same old frustration of wishing that my reader could see what I see—bats swirling up out of a cave, video of geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the squeal of a happy rhino. Aren’t e-books or book-apps just the next step in illustration?

Content Provider, SME, or Author?
I wrote up text for eight spreads of basic bat info for the book-app—what bats are, what they eat, where they live, echolocation, etc.—in a somewhat picture-bookish narrative style. (It’s nearly night. The sky is darkening. Look up! What is flying overhead? ...) I also specked some image samples for each spread and offered some possible multimedia ideas. From then on my hat as a writer pretty much stayed on its hook. My role switched to SME (subject matter expert). The designers would telephone conference and throw out ideas for “experiences” like an interactive of echolocating bats hunting bugs with sounds effects, and I would say science Nazi things, like: “You can’t hear ultrasonic sounds, that’s what ultra sonic means.” This continued through reviews of sketches and sample builds of experiences.

Whatever vague notion I’d originally had of what a book-app can be was greatly underestimated! This one ended up with a spinning wheel that highlighted featured bats and their foods, scenes of different habitats where kids look for roosting bats in caves or under bridges, and other sophisticated interactive features. Bookerella built it on an iPad-native gaming platform so it takes advantage of the tablet’s bells and whistles. For example, the final chapter features a bat flying high above the landscape and you get to steer the bat by tilting the iPad, like driving in a racecar app. Once images and experiences were finalized, I did do some caption and label writing, but my primary role again switched—this time to fact-fixer and bat species checker.

Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night was released in early 2012. It received some nice reviews, garnered a bit of acclaim, and was adapted and installed into the Memphis Zoo’s bat exhibit. But the book-app hasn’t made a profit, and I don’t expect a check anytime soon—if ever. Why not? I’m no expert, but people don’t like to pay for online content and apps. It’s all free, right? Bats! was priced at $4.99 initially, then dropped to $2.99, and is now offered for free at iTunes in a teaser version of two chapters. Sophisticated book-apps aren’t cheap to produce, and software developers and techies are where most of the money goes—not writers. It’s sort of like making a movie. How much of a multi-million dollar blockbuster’s budget goes to the scriptwriter? Content is important, but relatively cheap in the scheme of things. What our role as nonfiction authors, writers, and content providers is in the new media age is evolving as the media evolve. Here’s hoping there’s a place for us! 


Melissa Stewart said...

Thanks for describing your process, Mary Kay. It's interesting to hear how you interacted withthe tech guys, acting as a content expert.

This is a brave new world for us and you are courageous for diving in and leading the way. I hope one of these days a big, fat check shows up in your mail box.

creatingcuriouskids said...

Thanks for this behind-the-scenes look at book apps. I was curious how the process worked. I agree that $2.99 is pricey when so much free content is available. Plus, I wonder how often children would want to explore the same ebook? With games there is motivation and a sense of accomplishment to finish various levels. With nonfiction picture books, the text and images are so rich, children want to read them again and again with or without an adult. I think book apps still have to become an experience that kids will want to repeat often to be worth the price.

Sue Macy said...

Ellen Jacob, the creator of "Bats!" was having trouble posting a comment. HEre's what she has to say.

Thanks, MK. It was and is a pleasure to work with you. It's sad that the economics of book-apps aren't quite working yet. It's partly due to the pricing structure that Apple maintains. Apps are encouraged to be free or sold inexpensively, whereas ebooks are often able to command $9.99. Book-apps have much more interactivity, but the consumer doesn't really know that. Our goal was to create an interactive, engaging reading experience where the reader wouldn't leave the experience the way they do with a video.

Bats! has been used by The American Museum of Natural History and at Invisible Dust, an art show in London! It beat a Coke ad for best use of Unity (the platform its built on) in Amsterdam and has received rave reviews from CNet, Kirkus, The Next Web and others. So, I'm proud of the innovation of Bats! and still working with zoos and museums to try and develop more. But, the publishing industry has turned to eBooks where the economics, if not the end-book, are more favorable.

And, in response to creatingcuriouskids: Bats! has extraordinarily rich content, both text and images, that kids use over and over again. There are seven unique in-depth chapters. Your comment is part of the problem with selling book-apps. Readers assume its the same as free content. That’s the same as assuming nonfiction picture books have the same content as free online info. Maybe, but the engagement and packaging of the comntent is so dramatically different. Take a look at Bats! (there’s a free video) and let us know!
Or, if you want to experience it on an iPad, here’s the link to the App Store.!-furry-fliers-night/id494297887?mt=8