So You Want to Write an Interactive Book

Ever since I started working on interactive books for kids, I began receiving emails from authors, illustrators, hobbyists, moms, and dads, all excited about creating their own interactive books. They were looking for development partners as well as general pointers, especially thoughts on how to dive into software development on the iOS. So, if you find yourself in the same boat, here are my suggestions on the subject acquired through a lot of trial and error (and I’m sad to admit that it was mostly error).

Point 1: There are tons of interactive books out there

Just like the rest of the App Store, the competition among book apps in sheer numbers is fierce.  It doesn’t really matter if your app is colorful and interactive or if it has actual content to offer.  It doesn’t matter if it fills a niche that appears vacant.  It also doesn’t matter if your creation is really cool or if the rest of the books pale in comparison.  One way or another, your still need to fight through the thousands and thousands of book apps out there.

To give you an example, last year I created a mechanical version of The Three Little Pigs on the iPad.  I released the app two weeks before Christmas in hopes of making the book a great stocking stuffer for the holidays.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that thought.  That week alone, over 100 interactive book apps were released EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Before I noticed, The Three Little Pigs app was buried under an avalanche of a thousand apps deep.  Most of them were simple and not particularly exciting but without much trouble they pushed TLPs right out of the skinny sliver of spotlight.

There are other things that went wrong with the release of TLPs (bad timing, ineffective marketing, many versions of that same story, etc.) but underestimating the sheer volume of book apps was definitely a biggie.

Point 2: Creating an interactive book is technically challenging

As of now, there are no user-friendly tools that I know of that will allow you to create and publish an interactive book on the iPad.  This means you will need to dive into actual coding.  If you are familiar with C, C++, Java, or even ActionScript, picking up Objective-C and writing native code for the iPhone will be mostly straight forward (after pulling your hair a little and asking the heavens “why, oh, why do we need another dialect of C?!?”).  However, if you are using this project to dive into programming for the first time, you should be ready for a steep learning curve.

Writing a book, even a simple one, is very, very technical.  The iPad has only so much memory, so you will need to deal with correctly loading and unloading pages and images as the user navigates through your book.  You will need to come up with a mechanism to position images, wrap text, and manage sound effects and background music.  In other words, you will have your hands full for a long time before you even begin approaching working on the story itself.  If this mountain of tasks doesn’t scare you, though, there are books, websites, and frameworks to help you along.

  • Unity 3D – Unity is a cross-platform 3D development tool with friendly user interface and minimal coding requirements.  Even though it’s a 3D tool, many people have used it to create 2D worlds, including interactive books (check out The Jungle Book).  The idea is that you place textured rectangles in front of an orthogonal camera and you have a layered representation of a 2D world.  Pros: quick and easy to jump in, minimal programming requirements, support for multiple platforms (iOS, web, Android, …).  Cons: costs money ($400 – $3,000), requires experiential know-how to squeeze max performance out of the tool.
  • Cocos2D – Cocos2D is a community-driven framework for 2D game development on iOS and, incidentally, my weapon of choice.  It’s well architected, extensible, and it does a great job abstracting all the OpenGL goo out so you don’t have to worry about the pesky little details (textures, buffers, gl draw calls, …).   It also comes with an excellent development forum for people to ask questions and share their creations.  Pros: excellent support and community backing, extensible to your heart’s desire, free, comes bundled with open source physics engines.  Cons: you need to know how to program in Objective-C.
  • Online tutorials – There are countless online tutorials that walk you through setting up your first iOS app.  In fact, when you sign up with Apple for your developer account (in order to be able to publish apps on the App Store), you will gain access to dozens of videos and code samples that will show you the basics of how iOS works.  I also recommend checking out Ray Wenderlich’s iPhone tutorials which are easy to follow and cover a huge variety of topics.
  • Books – If you pop into your local books store and find the computer section, you are bound to find at least two dozen volumes on iPhone programming.  I haven’t actually used these so I don’t have specific ones to recommend, but I know other people swear by them.  (Do you have a favorite one of your own?  Lemme know!)

If jumping into development is not the right option for you, I would encourage you to find a programmer (maybe half-way across the world) and pair-up with them to create your app together.  The community of programmer out there is large and chances are you will be able to find someone to suite your needs.  The other option is to hire a development studio or an individual, but if you decide to go that route keep the following point in mind:

Point 3: Interactive books don’t make (much) money

It’s true – some interactive book apps do manage to break free and walk away with a nice chunk of change. However, majority of books do not. It’s not necessarily a quality thing, a marketing thing, or a getting featured thing, although all those are definitely factors. Sometimes, however, the stars don’t align just right and your title bombs despite you holding all the right cards.

Going back to The Three Little Pigs, in the end the title pulled in only a couple of thousand dollars.  Even though the project didn’t have any expenses, a couple of thousand bucks didn’t come nearly close to justifying the amount of time spent developing it.  That said, it was a great project to create and it served as a great base for Bobo Explores Light that we published next.

The moral of the story is this:  Dive into creating interactive stories head first.  It’s a ton of fun and you’ll be guaranteed to make kids around the world giggle with glee.  However, expect to make no money and get your satisfaction from the experience alone.  Any money that you generate will come at you as an unexpected bonus.

Point 4: Marketing is a serious time hog

I’m a developer, so this was a new one for me.  Just creating something cool and interesting is, sadly, not enough.  You have to let the world know that it exists.  If you have the budget to hire a professional PR firm, that might be a way to go.   But if you do decide to market yourself, be prepared to spend days writing press releases, creating videos, sending out gobs and gobs of emails and, more often than not, be ignored.  After a while, you will figure out what language works in getting your point across.  There is also some great info on the web if you are new to the field, including Stuart Dredge’s awesome post on What annoys technology journalists about PRs.

However you slice it, marketing takes a lot of time, so budget for it from the beginning.

Point 5: Working on interactive books is super rewarding

When I finished my first book, The Little Mermaid, I was exhausted, excited, and just spent.  I poured my heart out into the code and the content for 6 weeks straight during which I barely had time to breathe.  The book went live on a Friday morning and I couldn’t stop pacing.  Eventually, I realized that I needed to take a break, walk away from the computer, and just turn off for a while.  Before I did just that, I checked my email one more time and I received the following message from a stranger in cyberspace:

We love your apps. Thank you! Zoe age 5, William age 8

I’ve never met Zoe or William, I don’t know where in the world they live, but that email alone was enough to have me work on interactive stories for kids ever since.

So, wanna create your own stories?  Go for it and let me know how it goes.  Just make sure you do it for the right reasons and know that, for an indie, it’s a consuming but rewarding process.