An Interview with App Author Sarah Towle

I had the honor of meeting Sarah Towle when I went to Amsterdam in November for the SCBWI Netherlands conference.

Besides being a mother and inveterate traveler, Sarah is also an historian, linguist, language teacher, and writer of creative non-fiction. With Time Traveler Tours mobile StoryApp iTineraries, she has found a way to combine all these passions. The goal of these interactive story-based tours is to put the past in the palm of your hand and allow you to discovery history with those who made it!

The bilingual version of Sarah’s Beware Madame la Guillotine hit the App Store last week and is on sale for the rest of January.

I was really intrigued by Sarah’s work and asked her to share a bit about her process with us.  In between I’ve included screen shots of Beware Madame la Guillotine so you can get a feel for what it looks like and how it works.

What inspired your app project?

 

 Two things happened to plant the seed. Then a chance meeting at the Bologna Book Fair caused the idea to sprout and grow.

 The first incident took place in April 2009 when 48 eager and very honest teens informed me that my project did not work as a book. (More on this below.)

A few months later, I was traveling through in the wilds of northern Canada with dear friends, bird and Apple enthusiasts both. I knew nothing about ornithology and marveled at their ability to identify birds in flight from long distances. One of them pulled out an iPhone and launched a birder app. The app included detailed illustrations of each bird species alongside descriptions of physical characteristics and habitat, just as a bird book would. But it also offered two things its cousin the book could not: the sound of each bird song, and all in a pocket-sized, mobile package. As I held that iPhone in my hand, looking at high-resolution images of birds and listening to their calls, I knew I had found the right format for my interactive story tours.

It turns out my pilot group had been right: Not only had they told me that the project would never work as a book, they had also suggested it would make a pretty good app. There was only one problem. I knew nothing about apps. In fact, at that time I was still using a pretty dumb phone.

So I went to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March 2010 to seek out a publisher to produce my Time Traveler Tours StoryApp iTineraries. Unfortunately, children’s book publishers were not producing book apps at that time. I approached Stephen Roxburgh, the only editor at the Fair then talking “digital.” He read the MS for my French Revolution story, Beware Madame la Guillotine, and said it was the most exciting thing at the Fair. He offered me the editorial services of his company, namelos, but he was not in a position to produce the app. I had to make a decision: I could wait for the publishing industry to catch up or ride the momentum and publish a first app, at least, myself.

 

Why an app instead of a book?

Each Time Traveler Tours StoryApp iTinerary is a journey back in time to a particular historical era narrated by a colorful character who lived at that time. As the storytellers/tour guides spin their personal yarns, they reveal the history of the ages and give meaning to sites of relevance visited along the way. Peppered throughout each tour are hunts for historical artifacts, trivia and map challenges, and other game-like activities. It is precisely these interactive elements that were cumbersome to play with, and to produce, in print form. But in digital app format, educational activities can be easily added to enhance the story and deepen historical understanding. Furthermore, because of the sound capability of mobile devices, the stories can be told aloud. Therefore, as an app you can chose to simply listen to the story or read along with the storyteller, or you can turn the narration off and read the story to yourself.

With the latest French-English bilingual update, released 21 January 2012, you can now read the story in one language while listening in the other. Likewise, you can do the app in English, say, and then return to it later to study the story in French. So while the story remains linear, the reader/user can consume it in numerous ways. This would not have been possible as a book.

How did you go about creating it? Did you work with a developer?

To produce a book you need the partnership of a writer, an editor, an art designer and, in some cases, an illustrator. Producing an app requires a similar collaboration. You need someone to create the content, someone to create the graphical user interface, and someone to create the program.

Once I’d determined to take the do-it-yourself (DIY) route, I had to create a production team.

First, I needed to be certain that my story content was as good as it could possibly be. There is still a negative stigma attached to self-publishing and with reason. Much of it isn’t that good. That’s precisely why we have agents and editors. But I would be bypassing these traditional gatekeepers by creating StoryApps myself. Yet, my primary goal was to provide great content for mobile device. So I was delighted to obtain the aid, and the blessing, of the namelos editorial team, specifically Karen Klockner, to help me craft the story content.

Next was realizing that good programmers do not make good designers. Design and coding are two discreet skills. I had to secure the commitment of a talented graphic artist if I wanted any hope of achieving a clean, uniform and attractive “look” – or user interface – that would be the visible manifestation of the user experience programmed underneath. After looking at lots of on-line portfolios, I decided to work with Beth Lower, who was then seeking a way to step from print into the digital herself.

That left the biggest challenge of all, finding the right coding partner, because I didn’t know anyone in the world of IT. Through the search and selection process I learned, the hard way, that there are many programmers out there, but not a lot of good ones. It took three attempts, and as many contracts, before I found the talented folks at SmartyShortz LLC.

But you can’t build an app from a manuscript alone. Before we could proceed, I had to provide both the design and programming partners a wireframe and specifications document, detailing how the content and interactive elements would flow in and out of one another. Together these documents comprise the architectural blueprints for the app’s construction.

The process of building the team and creating the spec doc took about a year; this was on top of the time I’d already spent writing the story and defining the itinerary, curating the archival images and obtaining rights to use them. Altogether, our first app, Beware Madame la Guillotine, was several years in the making. But once the team was in place, the content edited and approved, the images and graphic look decided upon, it only took about six weeks to write the first, English-only version of the app.

 

What have you learned about marketing yourself?

 

Mainly that I have to do it, that I still have a lot to learn about how it’s done, and that my apps will never be discovered without it. This is my greatest challenge at present.

The App Store is a noisy place. It isn’t terribly well organized and there’s a lot being added every day, much of which isn’t worth buying. This makes “discoverability” a big issue for publishers of all sizes, but particularly for a low-budget start-up like me. If you want people to find your product, you have to direct them to it by making yourself visible on multiple platforms, through blogging and other means of digital as well as face-to-face networking.

So, I’ve created a website and blog, a facebook page and twitter feed and I keep chipping away at it. Slowly but surely I’m getting the hang of it. I found it daunting at first, but eventually I had no choice but to dive in. I started where I felt most comfortable, with a blog, and I have been growing my platform ever since.

Unfortunately, marketing can take an inordinate amount of time – time that could be spent writing my next story. And it must be done regularly: I have found a direct correlation between frequency of new content vs. numbers of hits; i.e., the more I post the more readers I attract. So it’s important to be disciplined and use your time wisely. Limit your marketing efforts to so much time per day and week, and try not to get sucked in when your mind is fresh for more creative endeavors.

What do you have planned next? –Other countries, locales?

My plan for 2012 is to produce two more apps: another of my Paris stories, Day of the Dead, and at least one London story. In fact, I’m currently running a contest for London story tours. The winner will be published by Time Traveler Tours. Check out my website for more information. I’ll be accepting submissions through 1 April 2012: http://www.timetravelertours.com/announcement/

 

What’s been the most exciting thing that’s happened since you published/ created your app?

The most exciting thing is how well the first app, Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, has been received by teachers and librarians. I originally conceived the Time Traveler Tours StoryApp iTineraries for the travel market. In fact, I refer to them as a new generation of travel guides for a new generation of traveler. But teachers and librarians in the US and UK are buying Beware Madame la Guillotine to complement secondary school history curricula. As a former classroom teacher, I am of course delighted.

Since its initial launch in July 2011, Beware Madame la Guillotine has received honors as a School Library Journal Top 10 2011 App and as a Top Ten Tried and True Classroom App from Teachers With Apps. I’m thrilled to have received these accolades!

and lastly, John, Paul, George, or Ringo?  

I gotta say George. I love his music and his excellent vibes. And I always admired that he was able to bring together in a creative way his many diverse interests and passions. He’s one of my heroes.

 Thank you, Sarah, for sharing about your process. I’m excited to see watch your work grow!

To find out more about Sarah and her StoryApps, check out her website and blog.

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