Our first adventure in the app store by James Huggins

There are loads of articles and blogs out there that offer advice, insight and opinion on the app store and children's book apps. To me the most interesting and useful have been those that disclose the first hand experiences of developers and publishers. So in the spirit of give and take I thought we'd do the same and share a few short observations from our first foray in this space.

The iPhone Book App Charts (UK)

In this post we thought it would be useful to examine the book app charts. Books are one of the key areas where the definition between e-book (or enhanced e-book) and app are increasingly blurred. Me Books is a perfect example of this, where the underlying content is treated in a traditional e-book reader format, but the 'draw and record' functionality would not be possible in iBooks. So we knew entering the book category of the app store would be an interesting experiment if nothing else. Based on thoughts and opinions from other developers it was clear there were three factors to bear in mind when planning to take on the app store.

1. Big brands own the charts

Just take a look at the picture above to see what I mean. The charts are important because based on our experience of the book app charts if you're not in the top 20 you're visibility suffers and you're probably not selling very much. What's also very interesting is how much children's media dominates the book app charts, with at least 12 of the top 20 slots occupied by the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon etc. So it's a question of how your app can vie for visibility in this landscape either by just being better and hoping that comes across, or by partnering. With Me Books we were lucky in that our partnership with Penguin meant our first app could take advantage of one of the most iconic logos in children's publsihing history. By stark contrast it will be intersting to see how we fare with a new and relatively unknown brand like The Land of Me, as we launch the first of the apps in the coming weeks.

2. Apple editorial is the best way to boost sales, but not the only way.

Pretty much everyone will tell you that if you get featured by Apple as App of the Day or Week, your sales will soar. Again, much like anywhere on the internet getting the eye balls is the hard part. However, Apple features apps at it's own discretion and figuring exactly how and why they decide to feature certain apps is tricky. If the app is part of a large PR launch that tends to have some sway as they're as interested in shifting units as much as the rest of us. Also, when apps utilise particular software and hardware features they're looking to promote it can make a difference.

But being as an Apple feature is not something you can count on we've been working hard on the PR side of things having success from small independent blogs to large media websites like the Guardian and Wired. As a general rule the blogging community is good for branding and awareness but will make little impact on your sales. The fact is that most of the time the audiences are just too small. Unsurprisingly it's been the larger players that have delivered the biggest uplift in sales. Me Books was featured in a small 'pick of the week' feature on the Guardian website and in print, and was also featured on the BBC radio show, 6 Music. Although these are seen as more traditional media channels they both generated significant sales spikes. What has also been surprising is how seemingly big players like Wired, whilst nice for the brand and the ego, have had almost no impact on traffic or sales.

3. Don't plan on getting rich with one app

I'm not saying it doesn't happen - just ask Rovio, creators of Angry Birds, but it shouldn't be part of the plan. Releasing successive apps on the app store can be frustrating as there are limited ways to reach customers who've already bought something. With Me Books we used an in-app purchasing model, which some people don't like but we thought worked well with the experience, and didn't mean those customers who bought Me Books had to go searching in the app store again to find more. In this way we're wanting to establish a platform rather than a single product. So far it seems to work well, so if you're planning to release apps remember that reaching new and existing customers again and again needs some thought, particularly when a lot of users don't like techniques such as push notifications and registrations etc.

4. Pricing

Ah yes, everyone's favourite app related topic. There's only one piece of advice here. Stick to your guns. It doesn't matter how low you go, there are those in the app store who will always say it should cost less. The Ladybird Classic Me Books app is 69p with one free book, the rest of the books can be bought from within the app for £1.99 each. We had a reviewer that said he felt "short changed" that there was only one free book with the app. I'm not sure I've ever heard of anyone paying 69p for something and feeling short-changed. 69p IS change! Now this isn't news to anyone I know, but it is worth remembering that whilst apps offer an exciting platform and sales channel, it's a volume game. Volume is easier with many apps rather than relying on one or two. So when you invest your money or anyone else's in an app idea, create a set of tools that allow you to iterate, expand or extend a series of apps and increase your chances of reaching the required volumes.

So what's the conclusion then. In short... Plan to create app series at a price that's competitive (at least one reviewer will always say you got it wrong) that manage to appeal to Apple and dodge (or befriend) the big brands.

Easy right?

Are picture books just using the iPad to make pop-up books jealous? by James Huggins

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book - Puffin Books

I love pop-up books. The craftsmanship of those complex paper structures springing from the page. It’s magical. But often the pop-up bits are just novel extras rather than features central to the story.

I sometimes wonder if regular picture books view them as a slightly extravagant cousin who’s always trying to steal the show at parties. Sometimes picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo get lucky and receive the pop-up treatment. In those cases in particular it feels like the picture book is simply wearing slightly more expensive clothes. Actually they’re Parisian couture because making pop-up books is not cheap. With the arrival of the iPad we’ve seen a flurry of picture book apps appear. But they’re no more an interactive picture book than a pop-up book. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them and have enjoyed playing with a few. But like pop up books my enjoyment centres on the pokey, tilty, shaky bits and not the story. The narrative is obscured by this new layer of interaction rather than enriched. So thanks to the iPad, the picture book now has a new way to dress for special occasions... But will it have a better way to tell a story?

In a way there is a connection here with the wider issues regarding technology and the future of publishing but really, picture books are a law unto themselves. This is why despite the e-book gold rush, picture books tend to end up in the app store rather than iBooks. The reasons are pretty clear, picture books are more fundamentally connected with their format and physicality than novels or reference texts. Even with recent additions of a PDF-like functionality in iBooks and the relative success of the Barnes & Noble Nook, picture books remain a less cosy fit for your average e-reader. For starters, no two picture books are the same size or format, I mean not even remotely. So getting them all to work on a fixed format screen is a challenge filed under ‘fiendish’. Trust me.

The fact that the digital translation of a picture book tends to be an app rather than an e-book speaks volumes about their different nature. So as an app a picture book has an enormous toy box of tricks at its disposal. With this new digital upgrade the picture book might even emerge from the shadow of its fancy pants show-off cousin, the pop-up book.

As the picture book takes in its new digital surroundings, full of promise, it realises that it has wound up in the realm of kiddy apps. Like many toys aimed at younger children the apps created for them generally involve brightly coloured things that the child can poke or tilt and shake. Am I snooty about these apps? Certainly not. I’m guilty of having used them to park the kids at times. Hey, even malevolent warlocks need the occasional tea-break right? But when it comes to picture books it’s very different. These are mostly definitely things we enjoy together, throughout the day but most often at bedtime. After all, it is this shared story-telling experience that is at the very heart of what picture books are all about and why, for the child, they are so developmentally important. I have seen a lot of picture books, really good ones, appear on the iPad as apps, which for me, don’t work. The main reason for this is that they have dipped into a mixed bag of interactions that are fun but ultimately distracting. Consequently the power of the story and stillness of the illustration is lost, becoming little more than wallpaper for a series of entertaining buttons. My daughter (5) and I were playing with one recently and having read the first page of the story I had to sit idly by as she set about prodding the screen with her finger like a pneumatic drill. Only once this exercise was exhausted could we turn the page and resume the story, only by now we’d both forgotten what it was about. The natural flow of the narrative, normally in the hands of the story-teller, was now in my view, fatally disrupted and as such the app, as a picture book experience, was a good deal less than its paper counterpart.

So the question is...

Can the picture book experience be enhanced by technology in any way?

Well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that my answer is no. All in all I seem to be fairly negative, but only because I think that most picture book apps are borrowing from the wrong interactive box of tricks. Rather than compete with the story for attention, the technology should empower it. Picture books are a rich vein of creative and imaginative development for young children. Whether you’re following the story or making up your own version, what really matters is the conversation, spoken or otherwise that unfolds between adult and child. Lots of parents I know aren’t all that comfortable with extending or modifying stories when reading from a book. I have a few friends who would start hyperventilating at the thought of being asked to tell a story on the spot. The main thing here is to realise that if you are going to have a go you’re most valuable ally is the child. They are master storytellers and what’s more, they’re fearless. Concocting an alternate version of Where the Wild Things Are or Little Red Riding Hood is a team effort and a wonderfully collaborative activity. This narrative extension or in most cases invention, is one of the main reasons sharing picture books with your kids is such an invaluable and important experience. Enjoying great stories and beautiful artwork with my children is hands down one of my favourite things to do. But this goes to another level when, once inspired, we respond to those illustrations and stories with our own adaptations and re-tellings.

So for my part, this is where the technology can make things really interesting. Not in relation to the original story, but in the creative response from the reader. Great stories are deliberately crafted to express an idea or view of the world. You can’t change the narrative without undermining that, so why bother? An exciting use for technology is not in telling the stories, but creating a playground of invention around them. I think the question that interactive picture books should be asking readers is not “How do you think the story goes?” but instead, “Where do you think the story goes from here?”

So where does that leave the picture book in this new interactive digital land? It’s possibly too early to tell. One thing is for certain, paper picture books aren’t going anywhere. Will they become more novel and, like wooden toys, continue to hold a mystical and nostalgic appeal? I think so. What’s equally certain is that rather than threatening the time we spend enjoying stories with our children, technology has the potential to discover new forms of it. It's possible we might discover a whole new set of trapdoors and secret passages into their creativity and imagination.

So all you interactive picture book apps out there needn't worry. We would still love you, even without your fancy clothes. So tell us your story, and we’ll tell you ours.

This discussion led to the creation of Me Books, our new picture book app platform.