15 November 2013
If you’d told me this time last year that 12 months on I’d have an interactive iPad App version of my picture book Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep for 3-5 year olds in the App Store, greats reviews from four educational app sites, and almost 1,500 downloads during its free promo launch, I’d have rolled my eyes at the joke. Or, now I think about it, would I? After all, I am an indie author – and I of all people should know that once we get an idea in our head there tends to be no stopping us!
Creating an app wasn’t my original intention I have to confess. In fact I don’t think I really understood what a ‘book app’ was until earlier this year, never mind how to find one! I was simply looking at how to turn the print book of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep into a colour eBook.
It was my friend Bridget who – struck by the vibrant illustrations – said, “Why don’t you see if you can turn it into an app with simple animation?” Once I had the idea in my head it wouldn’t go away – a bit like the beautiful fox I first saw one misty November evening over 15 years ago, which inspired my Ferdinand Fox stories to start with….
So what exactly is a book app?
If you’re not sure, you are not alone! There’s understandable confusion about how a book app differs from an eBook. And with enhanced eBooks now in the mix, the boundaries continue to blur. Below is a quick and basic summary but feel free to comment if I have anything wrong.
eBooks are digital books that tend to be read in a linear fashion and can include limited interaction, such as audio or (in the case of enhanced eBooks) video, word highlighting or automated animation, depending on the device being used. They are formatted as ePub documents (or Mobi/KF8 for Kindle or iPib for Nook) and you read them either on dedicated eReader devices (Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo etc range of eReaders) or using eReading apps, which are produced by all of the eBook retailers and work across their own and their competitors’ mobile, tablet or desktop devices. The exception is Apple, which doesn’t have a dedicated eReader and doesn’t share outside its devices – instead you use their iBooks app to read books from their iBookStore on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch or using iBooks software on your Mac.
A Book App is in essence a software program coded to run like a book. Book apps generally have much more interaction than eBooks. So while both include page turning and (with some eBooks) audio, sound effects and (with some iBooks) word highlighting or automated animation, Books Apps can include touch activated animation or drag and drop movement, touch activated sound effects, reader recording facility, photo taking, games, puzzles and much more. Some book apps run on both Apple and Android devices and so are available in both the App Store and the Google Play store (Android apps are also housed in the Nook App store in the US). From what I can see, however, the vast majority of kids’ book apps are found on Apple’s App Store. Some of these apps run on both iPhone and iPad, while others work on just one or the other. (Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep runs on iPad only.)
Ferdinand in the App Store at launch!
How I planned my book app
I spent a lot of time browsing the App Store and downloading free and paid children’s book apps to see how they worked and what features they offered. Some apps I immediately loved – such as Nosy Crow’s wonderfully sophisticated Cinderella and The Three Little Pigs stories. Others felt more like ‘games’ than storybooks, or even like mini TV movies – though in hindsight I may have been looking in the wrong App Store category. (I shall be blogging separately about how hard it is to find and navigate the App Store!) Nevertheless it was useful to see what interactivity all of these children’s apps offered – and in particular to see how they dealt with page turning, help menus, navigation and social media sharing – everything that I would call ‘customer experience’. I made copious notes and sketches about what I felt worked and what didn’t. (My experience observing website usability testing over the years certainly helped me come at this with a critical eye.)
2. Outline proposition
I knew early on – and more than ever after my research – that I wanted my book app to feel like, well, a book app! Not a game and not a mini interactive film. I wanted it to offer parents and children the shared reading experience of a print book (book style layout with turning pages – and to that extent an eBook) combined with the kind of simple yet fun educational interactivity that I knew was beyond the capability of an eBook. It was also important that my target audience of 3-5 yrs should be able to enjoy the book alone using a ‘Read to me’ option, as well as having a grown-up read it to them. Since the story uses quite sophisticated rhyming text I didn’t intend it to be a book to learn to read with – though I know already that older siblings and parents / grandparents do enjoy reading it to themselves!
I wanted my app to look and feel like a book
3. Getting estimates from app developers
Once I had an idea of the sorts of interactions and menu configuration I wanted my next step was to get some estimates. Figures I had heard bandied around at the 2013 London Book Fair suggested that development costs for children’s book apps typically run into tens of thousands of pounds (or more!). However, I had a hunch there would be indie app developers out there offering reasonable rates in order to make a name for themselves.
So, after contacting a few children’s app developer sites via Google – and being quoted thousands of dollars! – I decided to post the job on Elance.com. I was upfront that I had a budget in the hundreds rather than thousands of pounds and that this may well mean I couldn’t take the project forward. Then something unexpected and extremely welcoming happened: as well receiving a range of quotes from India, Europe and the USA of between $2,000 and $30,000 I was contacted separately by two developers – both in the UK – who offered to do the work for free, or almost free! In each case they felt it worth it in return for the experience and exposure it would give them. I’m sure it helped that I already had my completed print book on sale, with RGB images ready to re-use, and a presence and audience. Budgets aside, the idea of working with someone in the UK – even at a distance – was the icing on the cake with this offer. I had no understanding of how coding worked, and to know I’d be able to pick up the phone for a discussion in the same time zone if things got too complicated was extremely reassuring.
I should add that I insisted on paying a modest (given the time spent) but not unreasonable fee for the finished product – far less than I’d have paid on the open market, but enough to show my genuine appreciation to my developer at EastYorkshireApps.co.uk for his time and effort.
4. Deciding on interactivity
Through my research of other apps I knew I wanted to include the following features as basics:
- Read to me / Read by myself options
- Simple animation activated on touch – enough to engage, delight and complement the story but not so much as to be completely distracting
- Fun, relevant sound effects on touch and in the story flow – church clock chiming, sheep baa’ing etc, again without going overboard
- Simple, intuitive navigation menus
In addition I wanted to add learning opportunities to help with basic word and object recognition. I’d not seen this in the story books apps I’d come across in my research but it felt like an obvious enhancement that parents and children could enjoy (or choose to ignore depending on the moment). So, building on the ‘sleeping and dreaming’ theme of the print book, I came up with:
- Dream ‘word bubbles’ that appear on touch of basic object and animals – ‘fox’, ‘bird’, and ‘tree’ and so on.
- Corresponding voice-over that names the object – activated on touch as the word bubble appears.
- A word/image drag and drop picture game to end – based on the simpler words that the children see and hear during the story.
For each word bubble there is an MP3 voice file that plays as the bubble appears.
For younger children the learning comes with associating the spoken word they hear with an image they (or their parent) touch. In this sense the app offers an extension to the way we interact and talk with our children about what we are seeing when sharing picture books with them. For the pre-reading age (4-5), the word bubbles allow children to start to recognise words and, ultimately, letters and spelling.
Both of these aspects are consolidated in the Drag and Drop Matching Game at the end. See an excerpt below.
Ferdinand Fox’s Matching Drag and Drop Game – YouTube
Finally – and just for fun and again not seen elsewhere – I had wanted to add a ‘This book belongs to’ page to match the print book, where the children (with help from parents) could type in their name. In fact my developer trumped that idea by adding the facility to take your own photo and have it appear on the page inside a bubble along with your name – see the example below where I took a picture at a local school visit last week!
Take a photo and type in your name – change as often as you like!
5. Implementation (Feb – October 2013!)
I shall do a follow-up blog post to give more detail on some of the keys aspects of below, but here’s a shapshot of what we did. (OK – snapshot isn’t quite right word!)
- I worked in parallel with my illustrator in Bosnia and my developer in York (all online) to brief and create the layout of text and illustrations for every page of the app. This involved adapting the print book flow of text and images – and the image sizes – to fit the iPad format. The number of pages inevitably changed too!
- I briefed my illustrator on the design for the opening menu, help menu and information pages. (There was a lot of to’ing nd fro’ing trying to settle on icon designs!)
- I worked out which words were needed for word bubbles and passed this on to the illustrator. One image file needed for each word!
- I used the free Garageband software on the iMac to record the story text and (separately) each of the ‘word bubble’ words that play on touch. (This was a huge learning curve – and one where I came to understand how split-second timing can make all the difference!)
- I then created sound effects using a combination of free files from within Garageband (sheep baa’ing, camera click etc) and recordings I made myself (fox scratching neck, man yawning etc). Some of these are standalone files activated on touch of an image on the page, while others accompany the story text.
- I exported the files into iTunes and provided the MP3s to my developer who worked his magic to weave everything together. (Okay – that’s the snapshot version!)
- My developer had me install a program called TestFlight and sent me test releases as we progressed. There were lots of bugs to fix and reworking to do as we bottomed out design niggles and tweaked sound files for timing with animation.
- With the help of my developer I set up an iTunes Producer Account to register the app then (after considerable research on best practice for effective app marketing) I populated the dashboard with title, promo screenshots, description, categorisation and keywords.
- We then adapted the design at the last minute to take account of new (welcome) rules to make the app COPPA compliant and therefore watertight safe for children’s use alone and eligible for inclusion in the new Kids’ Category in the App Store.
- We then tested the first version with a small group of parents with children aged 3-5 and took on board feedback. (They wanted more interaction!)
- I created more sound effects and interaction – including the drag and drop word/picture Matching Game!
- We then tested and tweaked the app for iOS7 which had just launched.
- The app was finally good to go by late October…. check out the YouTube link below.
Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep iPad App – YouTube clip
- I am in the early stages of my marketing. The launch period and free offer which ended on 10 November went very well with almost 1,500 downloads and 8 great reviews – including 4.5 Stars from BestAppsForKids.com – a respected educational kids’ app review site. I hope this will help get the word out about the app. [Stop press: Oct 2016 – as at this time I have sold over 500 apps… and garnered more reviews. Parents really do expect apps for free and I’m told that over 500 paid sales is actually quite something! I’ve also had bulk downloads from a couple of schools in the USA which was a very nice surprise.]
This blog post is one element of my longer term marketing strategy, of course! I shall be adding two further posts shortly. The first will explain more about how to use GarageBand to make audio files. In the second post I’ll talk about the challenge of marketing children’s book apps (especially when most parents don’t understand what they are or how to find them!), including the problems I have had understanding and navigating the App Store. I’ll also give an update on marketing progress.
7. Please help Ferdinand get noticed in the App Store 🙂
- If you have an iPad please help me spread the word by downloading and sharing the app and leaving a rating and short review if you enjoy it. It’s available worldwide and costs just £1.49 / $1.99 or equivalent. This has been my indulgence and the experience has been fantastic and if nothing else it will be my calling card while making children and parents happy! But if we can get an indie author’s app really noticed that would be quite something. You can download Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep – interactive book app for kids here (If you’re on your PC or Mac or mobile the link will allow you to preview the key features in iTunes. You need to be on your iPad or iPad mini to download it.)
Best wishes and all for now! 🙂 Karen
Are you a parent or grandparent? Do you use kids’ book apps? If so, how have you found using the App Store? Or are you an author or developer with your own app? If so, how have you found creating and marketing kidsapps?