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!