A new generation of storytellers is emerging. Storytellers with a lot of creativity and an entrepreneurial attitude no longer need established publishing empires to bring a product to market; they are moving into the realm of digital publishing. Here, a great idea can turn into a published work that can be marketed and sold to millions by a single individual or a small group with very little cost compared to traditional publishing. Digital publishing provides accessibility, availability, and lower pricing than printed literature, which make it an appealing industry for those passionate about books.
Our company, Grids Interactive, is a publisher of interactive storybook apps. Like many of our counterparts, we are a very small company with great ideas and big goals for our future. Digital publishing is growing and evolving and many developers are trying their hand at it. Like all emerging industries, however, the weakest contenders will eventually fall by the wayside, while the best will be left standing.
To be successful, digital publishers need to position themselves as content providers and not just suppliers of multiple media on multiple platforms, despite the fact that they may gain customers who are not frequent book buyers but who find the multimedia content appealing. Developers have such a wide array of features to add to their e-book, things like games, videos, and online chat that may increase their intrinsic value. However, they shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of providing good content to readers.
We asked some fellow digital publishers and authors to weigh in on the change that has come about in storytelling. Our interview was conducted with the professionals in the digital publishing world named below and the interviews follow in their entirety.
Special thanks to the following for their input:
Sam Berman, CEO, Grids Interactive
Michel Kripalani, President, Oceanhouse Media
Annie & David Fox, Co-founders, Electric Eggplant
Melissa Northway, Author, Penelope the Purple Pirate
Despite the opinions of these e-book developers, it will be interesting to see how the evolution of books really does progress. We would love to hear your opinion on this topic. Please visit us on Facebook with your inputs. And be sure to get your copy of Grids Interactive’s first storybook app for the iPad, ‘The Truly Great Noodle’.
What is your opinion on the changing face of storytelling and the capabilities we now have for combining books with new media to make them more exciting?
Sam: The new mobile technologies are allowing storytellers like Grids Interactive to go to levels never before possible. We can now make stories with a depth and richness that we could not before. Readers can now become absorbed in the story by engaging with characters and environments that respond to them. If you ever watch a child reading an interactive book application, you will see a deep level of engagement that a printed storybook generally doesn’t elicit. You get involvement, focus and concentration from the reader, because this medium allows for real involvement that takes it from just the “telling” of a story to what is now an “experience” of the story.
Annie: We’ve been game designers for decades and we know how to make the Player a part of the narrative. So, obviously we’re all about creating an immersive experience. We love how book app technology allows us to combine a narrative with interactivity. That’s what happened when Alice fell down the rabbit hole, isn’t it? She was no longer hearing her sister droning on from some “boring” book… Alice was IN her own story! Interacting with objects and people and changing in all kinds of ways as a result of her choices. Just to be clear though, we’re not fans of piling on a bunch of tech bells and whistles just because the software and hardware support it. For us, first and foremost, the story has to stand strong on its own. While we admire book apps that push the envelope and use built-in physics, great animation, etc., we aren’t thrilled when we see kids ignoring a story because they’re totally distracted by things that move on the screen. Or worse, when the developers don’t even bother to create a great story and only focus on the interactivity.
David: So far, we’ve created one book app (Be Confident in Who You Are: A Middle School Confidential™ Graphic Novel) and one iBook (Are You My Friend?). Neither one has a lot of added interactivity. Our goal was to use sound, voice, and movement to enhance the story, but we don’t want you to notice these enhancements too much. They’re there to serve the story, to help immerse you in it. If you start focusing too much on the capabilities, you’re pulled out of the story.
Melissa: This is a very exciting time for the industry! With the arrival of the iPad, iPhone and iTouch, we are able to bring storytelling to another level. We are seeing such wonderful and interactive stories for children of all ages. An unexpected benefit of the iPad has been seen in the special needs communities. One person I spoke to talked about how his special needs son can get around the iPad like there is no tomorrow, but if he puts a piece of paper and pen in front of him, he doesn’t know what to do with it. Our children are learning music, languages, math and reading at the touch of their fingers. Quite amazing really if you think about the information that is available to them as opposed to what we had as children!
Where do you think publishing is headed given the e-book trend? What do you think is going to happen to authors as a profession given this change?
Sam: Clearly, these new technologies are going to open the floodgates for independent authors to get their work out to a broader audience. Whereas in the past the publishing industry was really controlled by a handful of large companies acting as “gatekeepers”, we are now seeing platforms that allow the smaller players to engage in the marketplace. I think this is a real positive. We are going to see the emergence of stories and other applications that we would have missed out on before. This open platform is a very powerful tool to help spread ideas, information and products that in the past we would not have access to. I often wonder how many great books or stories the world has missed out on because it didn’t pass some publisher’s litmus test. If one believes in their story, they can now publish, and more importantly market and distribute it, themselves. That is fantastic!
David: Digital books (both ebooks and book apps) provide an opportunity for some great authors to publish their content without having to get a traditional print publisher to give their manuscript a thumbs up, and without the huge expense of carrying an inventory of self-published books. Now we’re seeing some very easy-to-use ebook and book app creation tools appearing. Some are totally accessible to non-technical authors and illustrators, like the new Book Creator for iPad app that lets you lay out an iBook directly on your iPad. Or the new Demibooks Composer app that lets you create an interactive book app on your iPad. I especially like Kwik which lets you create an interactive book app on your Mac using Photoshop, and then you publish it yourself (you still need to be an iOS developer, and need a license for the Corona SDK). There are a lot more that will do the work for you, or let you assemble your book app via a web interface. We talk a lot about this in our weekly Twitter #storyappchat – more at http://storyappchat.wordpress.com/
Melissa: This is an exciting time for first-time authors! Never before in the history of publishing has it become fairly easy to self-publish with minimal costs. However, people want quality work, so it is important as a writer to provide this quality to your customers.
Why do you think people want to read e-books versus print books?
Sam: There are a number of practical reasons, including the convenience in buying, instantly downloading and storing of your books on a single portable device. You can have an entire library of books on a single device that is easy to manage and organize. I also think there is a strong appeal to the experience itself. You get so much more…
Michel: A digital book app brings a story to life with interactive features that cannot be captured in a traditional print version. Book apps have the advantage of being easily accessible and allow you to take your entire library with you wherever you go. This is perfect if you’re on a roadtrip, in the classroom or simply reading at bedtime with your child. Book apps are also priced far below their print counterparts. A book app can typically sell for $1.99 to $3.99, whereas the print version can be $8.99 and upwards for the same title.
Annie: Ebooks have a lot of obvious pluses: convenience of accessing new content, low cost, convenience of storage and portability. If you’re a parent going on a car trip, you could bring your entire library of book apps and iBooks along on your iPad rather than a big box full of paper books. Those are the obvious answers. For some people, there’s probably still a ‘cool’ factor in reading an e-book. Don’t know how long that will last.
Melissa: With the interactivity of the apps, it can make a reluctant reader that much more engaged. There are many benefits of eBooks and storybook apps such as the animation and interactivity of the stories, but there will always be a desire and need for print books. One article I read recently, wrote about how books will become a novelty if you will. Sort of a thing someone collects as a hobby. I don’t necessarily agree with that – but I can see the convenience of being able to download any book you want at anytime from the convenience of your home or office!
What is the most important factor you consider when creating an e-book?
Sam: When Grids Interactive produces our book apps we consider the entertainment and education value equally. We think about the demographic of the child and try to deliver a product that is compelling for them to want to read and play with over and over. Our first product, The Truly Great Noodle, is an example of a fully interactive book with game elements to engage boys ages 3–7 years old. We thought hard and consulted an educational expert with children’s toys to come up with the right balance for the tone of humor that the book has and the combined educational reading element, along with the interactive embedded game elements to have them coming back multiple times. Our second and third books that are slated to be out by December 1 are positioned to little girls aged 3–7 and 5–11 with their beautiful majestic illustrations and angelical feel. I think both Surf Angel and Flip will be a hit with that demographic – having a beautiful living storybook with a beautiful and inspirational message.
Michel: For us, promoting reading and education is the most important criteria we consider when developing our children’s book apps. Our team continually evaluates the level of interactivity for each app so that the features we do choose to include do not interfere with our overall objective of teaching kids how to read.
Annie & David: A great story that engages a kids imagination and helps them understand themselves and other people better.
Melissa: For me, it is always the illustrations or graphics. I think that some readers prefer the old-feel of an illustrated book vs. computer graphics. Whereas others prefer the more animated computer feel. It is nice that the market is full of both choices! With over 40,000 iTunes books, there are a lot to choose from for readers of all ages. I also enjoy a good story – people want to read a good story to their children. I know the mom sites make recommendations based on what their children enjoy.
Do you think print books will become obsolete in the future? If not, what level of change do you expect we will see and when?
Sam: We think there will be a steady decline in print books over time. One only need look at the closing of traditional bookstores like Borders to see the impact of these new platforms. This is how new technologies work – they displace other older technologies over time. Stories, for example, were initially spread verbally, then on stone tablets, and later it was scrolls and finally bound books. Now we are on the frontier of a new model for books and it is getting rapid adoption. We think that print books will exist for some time into the future, but as more and more people come on board with the mobile platforms the economics of the printed book will start to make them less desirable.
Annie: The “future” is a very long time! And, as Kahlil Gibran said, “… we can’t even visit it in our dreams.” So who knows what will become obsolete and what will be the next innovation? We can say without question that we love stories as do most people (kids and adults). Our brain is wired to suspend disbelief and “lose ourselves” in a story. It doesn’t matter if the tale is read on papyrus or an iPhone. That’s just a platform, a delivery mechanism. The substance of great stories… conflict, character, plot, theme, etc. … that will never be obsolete. You can quote me on that.
David: I don’t think that paper books will go away, at least not in my lifetime. You can read them without electricity, there’s something special about sitting with your child on your lap and both of you turning the pages together. And you can read them on an airplane, even during take off and landing, when you have to turn off your iPad. On the other hand, I gave away my old record collection and replaced them all with CDs years ago (at least the ones I still liked). CDs provided a much better version of the same experience, but now my CDs are sitting in the garage because I’ve already ripped them all and they’re sitting in my pocket on my iPhone. So who knows?
Melissa: No, I don’t think books will become obsolete, but with this new technology I do know it has cut into book sales. Amazon announced this past January that eBooks outsold their printed books. I think we will be seeing more of this as the quality improves in the book category – consumers will demand a quality product and will be willing to pay companies who offer this.
Author: Ande Anderson, Grids Interactive