Saturday, 8 May 2010

Going digital - with 26 crows and a bucket

The best bit of work I've done over the last couple of days - as in most enjoyable, it remains to be seen how successful it is - has been changing a part-written picture book from something intended for paper to something intended to be an iPad application. Now, I am no stranger to software development, nor to electronic publishing, nor to picture books, but I have still encountered a few surprises.

First, some background as it shows how I'm approaching the task: writing and software.

I've had a few picture books
published . I write but I don't illustrate. I'm used to giving the briefest of illustrator notes as I want the illustrator to bring something fresh and original to the book.

Many years ago, I ran a software publishing company. It was called Emerald Publishing and the boss was a balloon. An orange balloon. She went through many incarnations. It was my job to blow up a new Emerald when she went saggy or burst. It was also my job to come up with product ideas, employ programmers, write the spec, do the marketing, bla bla bla. We were innovative and successful. We produced the first native, independent e-book in the UK, the first hieroglyphic editor and the first software for pre-school children. The last we made because there was no software available for my daughter when she was 18 months old. (She will be 19 next month.) We created a Chinese text editor with 10,000 characters long before anyone else (the font was shite, but it worked). But I didn't really like running a company and I didn't like marketing and when Emerald 19 burst I called it a day. There's only so much of your life you want to spend blowing up orange balloons (she was always orange).

At some point, I spent a lot of time training old-world printers in how to use digital technology. I can use every publishing technology from a 16th century press to the latest version of Quark, learnt to program in BASIC in 1977 (yes, 33 years ago) and used both Ventura and Pagemaker (remember those?). I can build websites and use Photoshop. And I have spent years writing books for children. I always maintained there was no point developing kids' books for the Sony e-book reader or the Kindle because they are transitional technologies not up to the job. But now there is the iPad and it is exactly what I have been waiting for. Now there is plenty of point in doing digital kids' books, and I am very well placed to do them.

In another world, I would be starting a publishing company again - no, I would have started it late last year. But I have had the most terrible nine months and could not begin to do so. Instead, I'll work with the people who have already started and remind myself of why I gave it up last time. So that gets us to today, and changing this book, working title Crowload!, from a possibly pop-up picture book to an iApp. And the point of this post is...? To tell you how surprising it is, even if you think you know what you're doing.

I don't program in Objective C. I have never created an iPhone app, nor struggled with Apple's tyrannical and megalomaniacal demands for control over the apps it will put in the apps store. This time, those are not part of my job, thank God. Instead I am writing the text and working out how the graphics will work with it and how the interactivity will work.

One thing is immediately very liberating: you don't have to work to 13 double-page spreads as you do in a paper book. My 'book' has 26 pages, so it fitted the 13-spread model anyway, but the potential to vary it struck me immediately.

And one thing is instantly very baffling: the user/reader can decide whether to view your book in landscape or portrait orientation. The length of the text lines is no longer fixed by the page size. The length of the paragraphs will vary if the user/reader turns the iPad round. This will affect the way we write, especially for children, as the appearance of the text block has a huge impact on the child's willingness to tackle it. In this particular book, it doesn't matter. Each page has only one sentence and it's short. The orientation still affects the pictures. Should I design it with square pictures in mind? The wayI think about pages and spreads, though, is closely bound to page size, to a page being portrait but a spread being landscape, to both halves of a spread being visible at once. Not any more. (The greatest impact is on comics, which can be chopped into discontiguous frames on the iPad - or viewed as a strip or page. This will present enormous problems - and possibly opportunities - for comic designers.)

All the usual aspects of picture book design and writing still apply, with the exception that you don't need to make sure surprises are revealed over a recto-verso page turn - now a verso-recto page turn can also hold a surprise as the two pages of the erstwhile-spread are not visible at once. But there are new things to consider. How will the book be interactive? Which gestures will it use? Do you need to vary the gestures page by page? Are the interactive elements intuitive? That is, will people (young readers in particular) automatically try out the very thing you want them to do? Remember, this doesn't come with instructions. You can't tell the child to poke the dog (or whatever) - you have to make the dog so invitingly pokable that the child does it and so starts whatever interactive element you have tied to that.

You need to know what is possible and why you are using it. I have been reading Apple's iPad Human Interface Guidelines (which is all geeky Americanese and not a scintillating read) and realised that I have not been rigorous enough in distinguishing between gestures. I might get away with what I have done, now I know to look at it again, but if I have swipe turning the page, I probably can't have it doing anything else on the page. I could set a page to have three swipes that work with the graphics and the last turns the page, but then the child user/reader will try swiping other pages, where I don't use swipe, and just turning the page. So can I not use swipe? How am I going to get that pile of poo moved out of the way using a broom, then? You can devise your own gestures, but this isn't a good idea for the very young as how will they know to try them?

There are real terms to use for many of the gestures, but sometimes I've used my own. Pinch-out and pinch-in tell you want to do, but not what happens. I've called them bigify and smallify. That might have to change. But maybe it won't; maybe I'll stick with bigify and smallify. It's pretty obvious what they are. (And getting in at the start means you get to write the language.)

Proposing the type of interactivity on each page means giving more detailed picture notes than I would usually do. Working with programmers is nothing like working with illustrators and designers. They often don't have any visual imagination and they are very unlikely to have any experience of the needs of very young emerging readers. We will have to be much more precise and prescriptive. The role of the art director will obviously change, too.

The first surprise has been that the work that started life as a picture book of only about 150 words is now a detailed proposal of nearly 1500 words. It's not finished yet. There is an extra layer or two to the checking and revising I'd do with a picture book. Are there too many pages in sequence that use the same gesture for their interactivity? Are any of the interactive elements too complex or counter-intuitive for the age range? Is it clear, on every page, what might create an interactive effect? And I'm putting 'easter eggs' in it, too - extra surprise bits of interactivity that you sometimes get if you do the wrong gesture. This will encourage exploration - but it won't always produce a result. Partial reinforcement - that will keep them experimenting and learning.

It's exciting to be combining software and story-telling, to be returning in a way to something I was doing seventeen and a half years ago, but with technology that is vastly superior, resourceful and inspirational. At the same time, I am a little edgy developing something which is accessible only to the privileged few. I am very wary of all the development money for picture books going into products only rich kids will see. We need paper books too, for the kids who don't have access to an iPad. I won't be giving up on paper any time soon, but I do need to play with the new toys, it's in my blood.

Now, excuse me, I just have to work out which is the best gesture to move the bucket under the beak of the vomiting crow....



  1. Wonderful and interesting stuff, Anne!

    But is there a role for writers of conventional picture book texts, like me, who don't have your impressive digital background? In other words, if we have the ideas, will there be someone to d the "tech, tech, tech," as they called it in Star Trek scripts, for us?

    And - just a thought - "embiggen" is already part of children's vocabulary (from The Simpsons - a "perfectly cromulent word") so could you use it and by analogy "ensmallen"?

  2. Mary, you are hardly a techno-novice, but I take your point. Yes, there will remain a role for pure text picture book writers, especially those of your calibre. In due course, there will evolve a set of app developers who understand the needs of young readers - probably some will move across from conventional publishing.

    Thank you for embiggen and ensmallen, but these words aren't for the children, they are for the publisher. They are used only in the proposal. I think bigify and smallify sound better, actually :-) And they sound less German, which helps, as German doesn't like me.

  3. Kate Wilson here from Nosy Crow.

    On one hand, Stroppy Author, it is entirely BRILLIANT to have someone who UNDERSTANDS the potential and issues (though actually I think that you can decide only to go landscape for children's apps - don't have to offer the portrait option) of publishing for the device.

    But, on the other hand, I also think, Mary Hoffman, that there will be a role for pure text picture book writers. I think that picture book writers who are interested in writing for the device will need to start exploring the devices and what they can do, and thinking about how their story-telling skills apply. I am not terribly interested, for example, in squashing a picture book onto a phone: why would you, when the technology of the printed book is great technology? You have to be doing something different. One interesting question is that at least some of the story-telling is going to have to end up being less linear than it is in a paper picture book.

    I think that publishing apps is looking as if it will be a much more collaborative thing - more like a film than a book, perhaps - than we are used to as publishers and as authors. That has implications for the economic model as well as for the way that we work.

  4. Thank you for dropping by, Kate.

    Collaboration is scary for authors - we're used to sitting in our garrets doing whatever we like and hoping someone will like it. And maybew having a little strop when the illustrator gets it wrong (I had an illustrator draw a puffin upside down - eyes underneath! - that was strop-worthy.)

    Exciting times ahead :-)