*The following article was previously published on young adult author Laura Elliott's website, Laura's Magic Day. I met Laura at Wordstock in Portland last fall. She is a super dynamic individual, so you should check her out.
So you are thinking about publishing an eBook? Maybe you have a book in ink and paper already published and want to get in on all this App action. Or maybe you haven’t been published yet, feel empowered by the self-publishing option and think the App rage looks like easy money. Where do you start? How easy or hard is it?
A few years ago my friend, artist and author Carol Bolt, called me up and asked if we at salty snack studios could and would make an App. As a happy coincidence, my partner, Bruce Tribbensee, and I make movies and had just started making iPhone apps. Carol’s books were already on our list of apps we wanted to make. And Carol was on our list of people with whom we wanted to work.
Carol has written and published several books starting with The Book of Answers™. The Answers series began as a large one-of-a-kind hand-bound artist’s book. Many people wanted to buy a copy. She had it published and it snowballed into one playful theme after another (Movie, Love’s, Literary, Mom’s, Dad’s, Soul’s) in multiple languages and countries. The books draw on the ancient wisdom of bibliomancy, the art of fortune telling through using a book. As a divination tool, it provides guidance to any yes-or-no question. You hold the book closed and concentrate on your question. While visualizing or speaking your question, you stroke the edge of the pages. When you sense the time is right, you open to the page where your fingers landed and, “Voila!” There is your answer. It’s simple, endless fun.
Carol is a warm and generous dreamer who makes whimsical drawings and sculptures and clearly enjoys the turn of a phrase. While I describe Carol as a dreamer, she’s also incredibly grounded with a deep reverence for objects and things made by hand. Did I mention? She’s also a fantastic baker! Her connection to books and their meaning could not be stronger. Even so, her adventurous forward-thinking spirit led her (and us) into an exciting collaboration.
And as for salty snack studios, we prefer to work on inventive projects that personally and creatively engage us and we welcome a challenge. Working with artful people to help them manifest an idea is what we do. I’m the Producer, guiding projects from their concept and design through production and onto the market. My training is in art and I’m a compulsive organizer. Bruce is also an artist with many years of experience computer programming. He writes code in multiple languages, including for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. He’s also an imaginative and fearless problem-solver.
What kind of App were we going to make?
The three of us set out to make an app for The Book of Answers™. We knew it would not be a proper eBook like you find on a Kindle or the like. We wanted to make a related but different experience to compliment the physical book. The app would be more than a sequence of virtual pages bound together inside a screen. We spent months working through how the user interface would look and feel. Bruce labored over the foundation, the motion and the function. We shared sketches, early design layouts and notes over the Internet. Between Seattle and Montana, we spoke on the phone often. Frequently outside her technical comfort zone, Carol powered through and was in there with us the whole way open to change and suggesting new ideas.
And we did it. We built a native app with a resemblance to a book, with the look and feel of pages, but a book that you don’t properly read. It has the essence of a book but is not an eBook. We used the mobile device’s ability to detect location so when you tilt the device, you get an illusion of weight and object-ness. Sound effects heighten touch features. The interactive thumbing across a book’s end-pages fabricates a window into the ‘magic’ of the app. We built something unique that we are all proud of and that compliments Carol’s printed works.
What’s the moral of Carol’s app story so far? To make an app, 1) you don’t have to be a geek, and 2) you can think of something new. If you are starting with already published material, like Carol, it might be ideal to have an App that compliments your published material rather than duplicate it. Even if you publish, digitally and/or in analog (ink and paper), you might want an app that expands the world of your book. The sky really is the limit. If you can imagine it, someone can probably make it. I’m not even exaggerating.
First, what kind of app do you want to make?
Do you want an eBook, the digital equivalent of black and white print on paper? Do you want an Enhanced book fitted with motion graphics, hyperlinks and interactivity? Would a mobile-optimized website be enough for you? Or do you want a stand-alone native App that operates separately and differently than a book? Should you go DIY or hire someone?
Can you imagine your story’s ideas in motion, with sound? What about with gestures and interactive qualities? What’s really hot right now are Enhanced Books. Before you imagine the CD-ROMs of old, take a look at Enhanced Books. They have so much artful potential it’s mind-boggling. Like pop-up books, they maximize on the interactivity of their medium. By integrating the power of touch screen with sound, motion and more, these books delight and demand one’s attention. The most compelling and visually stunning that I have seen so far is The Fantastic Flying Books.
Can your story be a game?
Can you take the content of your book in new directions from printed words? Can you imagine the characters on an adventure or in a competition? If so, a game App might appeal to you. The entire mobile app world is still young and a bit like the Wild West. The rules are still being made. The most competitive app category is games but it’s also one of the most exciting and liberating.
Whether you are a novice or an established published author, I would first point you in the direction of iBooks Author. I haven’t used it yet, but I took a peek and it looks super user friendly with enough features to have fun and potentially make something on your own that you would feel good about. I’ve encouraged Carol to poke around in there too. Honestly, once she got a taste for the creative possibilities with mobile technology, she’s become a wannabe geek monster! If you want to get started with the least amount of money to produce a simple eBook and you have plenty of time and energy to DIY, I say, “Go for it!” Let me know how it goes for you, too! Be sure to look at ‘pubit’ and other self-publishing tools, too.
The next question is arguably the biggest: what can you afford? If I had a nickel for every pitch I’ve heard from people who think an app (or movie, but that’s another story) costs less than a thousand dollars to make. The next part of that fantasy includes lounging on a beach while the dough rolls in. Don’t let those 99¢ price tags fool you. To build an app from code up is not a cheap venture. And know right now that what you consider ‘simple’ might not be so simple to make. A ‘brand quality’ native app costs at least $30,000 to design, code and launch. If that knocks you back into a dusty library in shock, consider why you want the app in the first place. If you are publishing yourself and you want to easily share your work with a young contemporary audience on the most popular platform of our time, 30 grand might be reasonable. Also keep in mind that maybe you don’t need a native app. Perhaps you can have a mobile-optimized website built for a bit less and it will fit your needs. Maybe iBooks Author or pubit software is plenty for you. Explore your options.
Did you read the fine print?
Apple’s take is 30% of sales and so is Kindle’s. Barne and Noble’s ‘pubit’ takes more or less depending on the price of your book. They are all operating somewhere between old school publishers and booksellers. They give you a storefront, but they don’t help with editing, design and marketing. Conventional print publishers take upwards of 90% after an advance, and theoretically they promote your work. It’s up to you to decide if their take is worth it or not. Be sure to carefully read the contract. It might say that you can’t take your material that you just published and put it on another platform. You wouldn’t be able to go from Apple to Android for example. I highly recommend that you have an intellectual property lawyer advise you so you understand your situation.
What is the best platform for my app?
An App on one mobile platform will not work on another. You can’t simply plop the binary of an iPhone App into an Android. They are completely different languages and the screen sizes for images are different dimensions. Within Android devices, there are several screen sizes. I’ll save the raging debate over which is better between Apple and Android for the tech sites. The debate keeps shifting and both platforms are powerful. Personally, I prefer the cleaner aesthetic of the iPhone but I also covet the larger real estate of some Android platforms. If you can afford it, I suggest you do both. If you can’t afford both, you just have to pick and not look back.
There is a sea of apps and eBooks out there. The App stores (for Apple and Android) are behemoth imprecise places. It feels like you need an experienced librarian and a card catalog to guide you. How do you get yours noticed? Marketing Apps and eBooks is unpredictable and changing fast right along with technology. If you can get your app in Apple’s App Store promotions, you’ll have significant results. Success stories come from all angles, not just the top down, so be patient and tenacious. Ideally, you should hire a marketing person. After you’ve invested so much in your work, don’t drop the ball now. Use all of the free marketing tools and social networking that the Internet makes available to you (Facebook, Twitter, Blogger reviews) and use the paid ones, too. Advertise. Pull out all the stops as soon as you can.
1. Do your research. Study eBooks, enhanced books and game apps to understand the differences. Get an idea of how your material could best be represented digitally. You’ll probably discover many ways, which is exciting, so then decide what is the best one to start your App Adventure. Make lots of notes and sketches of what you imagine your app could be.
2. Figure out how much money you can spend. Some people might say this should be the first step, but I recommend one dream first then roll up their sleeves.
3. Build a team. Find an App Developing Firm with people you trust, whom you can talk over ideas and with whom you feel comfortable. Not every studio works as collaboratively as Bruce and I do, either. Maybe you prefer to pass off the material and have someone get it done. When shopping for your ideal App Dev team, the best might not be the biggest hipsters and the worst might not be the cheapest. They just need to make a good match with you.
4. Be open to change. Show the team your sketches and notes but keep an open mind for different ideas. There is no one way to make an App.
5. Consult with an Intellectual Property Lawyer before you sign and submit your material to anyone – iBooks Author, Kindle, pubit! or app developers.
6. Study Internet marketing and pay attention. Spend time on different App review sites, and find reviewers that reflect your content and style.
7. Make friends wherever you go (virtually and in reality.)
Our collaboration with Carol was so satisfying that we went on to make The Love’s Book of Answers™ iPhone App with her and this year we will release an Android version of The Book of Answers™. Look out, cause Carol has jumped head first into animation software and you’ll be seeing many more clever things out of her.
Enjoy this short movie by one of our interns, Cassandra James, featuring The Love’s Book of Answers™ App.
Want a few more details?
For more information on the costs and creativity with apps and eBooks, I recommend these:
Are Reports of the Death of the Book App Premature? by Edward Nawotka, January 31, 2012
This is an excellent detailed article on the cost of app development and more:
“The development of the typical app cost $35,000 and the median paid app earns $682 dollars per year after Apple took its cut.”
Full Analysis of iPhone Economics - it is bad news. And then it gets worse. June 22, 2010
9 Truths About ePublishing, Submitted by Emma Wright on Tue, 02/07/2012
The digitization of the music industry vs. the book world: the ultimate overview (part IV), Submitted by Timo Boezeman on Thu, 11/17/2011 http://futurebook.net/content/digitization-music-industry-vs-book-world-ultimate-overview-part-iv
What’s the difference between native apps and mobile-optimized websites? See:
Is Developing a Mobile App Wirth the Cost? By Aaron Maxwell, Mashable, Feb. 24, 2011 http://mashable.com/2011/02/24/mobile-app-dev-cost/
Self-Publishing Services, Statistics and more links through Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America: http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/pod/
Pricing and Payment Terms, Pubit! By Barnes & Nobles, http://pubit.barnesandnoble.com/pubit_app/bn?t=support