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.

A Quick Shout Out for This Year’s ALA Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the ALA awards, especially to my friend Laura Watkinson, who translated Soldier Bear, winner of the Batchelder award, the best work of translation of the year. Wow!! Soldier Bear was originally written in Dutch by Bibi Dumon Tak. It tells the true story of an orphaned bear cub adopted by Polish soldiers in Iran during World War II. Can’t wait to read it.

It’s always exciting to find out the winners, and this year I was totally psyched to see Laura so honored. To find out more about Laura, check out her website here. She lives in Amsterdam, and we met through SCBWI.

I’m also so pleased to see two former Vermont College instructors winning the Newbery and the Caldecott: Jack Gantos for Dead End in Norvelt and Chris Raschka for A Ball for Daisy.

Coming up: a dyeing project and an interview with app developer Sarah Towle.

Amsterdam, the Espresso Book Machine, and Thoughtful Children’s Apps

Last weekend I had the chance to attend a conference in Amsterdam hosted by the Netherlands chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

The event was packed with interesting speakers and attendees from England, France, and Germany as well as the Netherlands. Highlights: writing workshops by Erzsi Deak and by fellow Vermont College alum Sarah Blake Johnson, a demo of the Espresso Book Machine, and news from the Wild West of app development for children and young adults. Here’s a write up of the conference by Mina Witteman, Dutch author and brave conference organizer. Thank you, Mina, for all your hard work!

The Espresso Book Machine is a new concept available in just a few locations, where you can print out high-quality paperback books on demand. The American Book Center in Amsterdam offered a demonstration to us.

As you see above, the machine itself looks like a computer attached to a very fancy printer with clear glass sides. It smells strongly of ink and glue. A video demo of it is viewable on the ABC website here (look down the right column for “ABC’s EBM in action”). In addition to printing the double-sided pages, the machine also trims and binds them and adds a cover. The result is very like what we call a trade paperback (high-quality-not-newsprint pages, with varying trim sizes).

The inside pages are all in black and white, but covers are printed in full color. If I recall correctly, there’s a 15 euro charge to use the machine and the books themselves cost around 15 euros a piece.

I wasn’t able to stick around long enough to hear much about the various applications of the machine. It’s a vehicle for self-published authors as well as traditional publishers and those seeking out-of-print books. It will be interesting to see how it fares in the current market, with all the changes going on in publishing.

What do you think? How would you use the EBM? Can it compete with e-books, or is it trying to? Is its target market the same or different from e-books?

I was also really intrigued by the work of the app developers who attended the conference. Apps for children weren’t something I had given much thought before. I thought apps in general were video games and personal organization tools, with maybe some room for animated children’s books.

Taking a look at the work of Omar Curriere and Sarah Towle gave me a whole new insight into the medium.

Omar’s company, OCG Studios, approached American illustrator Roxie Monroe with the idea of creating an ipad (and later iphone) app based on her intricate maze books. Ms. Monroe spent months creating original, hand-done artwork, and a team of six programmers spent three months developing the app. The result is frankly stunning. It’s part maze, part treasure hunt, part ABC game with a little car you can move with your finger—so cool! Check it out at the address linked above. There you’ll also find one of Roxie Monroe’s books turned into an app, which is a lot more intense a project than it might sound. It will be exciting to see what else OCG comes up with.

The other app developer I met was Sarah Towle, whose company, Time Traveler Tours, specializes in travel apps for students and their families or teachers. Her first offering, Beware Madame La Guillotine really blows my mind. It’s part book, part interactive travel guide, part scavenger hunt. I didn’t know an app could do all that. It definitely offers something that I have to admit the printed book can’t. I can’t wait to see what comes up with next.

And the Winner Is…

Thanks, everyone, who entered the giveaway for a signed copy of Slowpoke. It was really fun to hear about the first books that captured your attention.

The winner of the giveaway, selected using random.org,  is Joyce Moyer Hostetter!

The first book I remember reading alone and understanding is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. I can remember exactly where I was —-sitting on the floor of the hallway next to my dad’s office. I had entered the summer reading program at the public library, and by golly I was going to get those knight/ princess/ dragon stickers to complete my fairy tale poster. I always loved getting prizes for reading. Or, you know, prizes. They’re just fun, right?

Welcome, new subscribers. I’m so glad to have you aboard. I’ve just gotten back from a conference of children’s book writers and illustrators (SCBWI) in the Netherlands, so I’ll share some of the exciting things I heard about with you as soon as possible.

Author on Assignment: Traveling Back in Time to the GDR

Joyce Moyer Hostetter, friend and fellow children’s author, is currently writing a novel taking place in communist-era East Germany. She recently spent time researching on location. I asked her to share with us a little about her process and about how her research shaped her trip.

Thank you, Emily, for inviting me to chat about how research affected my visit to Germany. My goal was to learn as much as I could about the history of the Berlin Wall and about life in eastern Germany during the communist era. As you can imagine, this narrowed my options a bit. I love visiting castles, cathedrals, and museums but, if they weren’t directly related to my work-in-progress, I pretty much ignored those things in favor of museums and historical landmarks that were important to my character.

There is the Brandenburg Door, of course! It definitely figures into my story!

And also the remnants of Anhalter Station which I didn’t even know existed until we passed it on the way to our hotel.  I knew immedediately that this place would have significance for my character.  I can’t wait to find out how it plays into the story.

At museums that tied into my story, I had to keep my focus. I couldn’t soak up every little thing – just those items that related to my subject. Time was of the essence so my camera became my note taker. I snapped pictures of everything! Information signs, artifacts, and primary documents.

I visited specific spots where my characters spent time.

Of course the landscape has changed tremendously in the decades since my story takes place but still it was important to me to walk the cobblestone streets, see certain landscapes at sunset or midday,

 and take in the details of buildings, and the environment in general.

Knowing which trees are native to my setting and seeing them in bloom is important to me. I’m fairly certain my character would take note of such things.

So maybe you, or one of your readers, can tell me what this tree is.

 And is it the same as this one with white blossoms?

I chose not to go to some places (big heartbreak). I wanted to visit the oldest carousel in the world near Frankfurt am Main since it is (or could be) connected to my story. But since I wasn’t sure about that, and it would have cut into our time and our money, I reluctantly let it go.

We spent less than a week in Berlin and several weeks in Halle.  I’d expected my character to live in Leipzig and did some important research there as well.  But after only a few days in Halle I realized how perfect it was as a setting for my story. For one thing it’s where we’d made plans to live for the bulk of our trip (in connection with my husband’s sabbatical).

We walked along the River Saale. We explored the various sections of the town.  I discovered where my character would live and visited historic sites nearby.

Of course Halle looked different during the communist era. This city, rich with history and culture, lost much of its beauty during those years. 

But Halle’s beauty is back!

One of my big goals for the trip was to meet people who lived through communism and who remembered Halle during the GDR days. One woman, Diana, met me in a café, armed with memorabilia.

These are Diana’s merit badges from her days as a Young Pioneer, an organization designed to prepare kids for Socialist Party loyalty.

This and other classbooks from Diana’s school showed daily and yearly schedules, grades, class sizes, and also subjects studied.  Woo hoo!  I am going to need this info so I took pics of various pages.

Diana, who teaches English, also connected me with students in an English conversational group. I was a bit startled at first to realize these folks were at my disposal, so to speak – ready to answer any questions I threw at them. They gave me insights and details I would never have imagined otherwise – experiences and emotions I can give to my character and also information about street names that have changed, how the town looked back in the day, etc.

I asked about this flame I’d seen on a walk about town.  They seemed confused at first until someone realized I was referring to the flag!  Yes, that flag, the red flag of communism.  Just one example of how my character and I could see the same place with a totally different look!

I met other people who gladly shared their experiences with me. I feel that I made friends in Germany who I can call on again – to answer questions about their personal experiences, help with research, answer language questions, and maybe even authenticate my manuscript someday.

On our last day in Halle some of our new friends took us to the Halloren Shokoladen Fabrik, Germany’s oldest chocolate factory.  It was the sweetest possible way to end our time there – with a few good friends and bags of German chocolate to go.

Their exhibits included so much more than chocolate. These mannequins dressed as Young Pioneers were one of several communist era displays.  And the following is a glimpse into part of the WWII era on exhibit there.

During the Nazi era, factory changed its name from David to Mignon so it would not sound Jewish.

I don’t know for sure how this information fits into my story but it just might! After all, the history of the chocolate factory or any other part of Halle is in some small way, my character’s history too. I tried to soak up as much as I could of the place, the people, and their backstory in hopes that the essentials ooze their way into my writing.

I learned a lot while I was in Germany. But I wasn’t even back on American soil when I realized I’d missed some spots altogether. I’m pretty sure this means I have to to go back!  Maybe I will even get to see the oldest carousel in the world.

Thanks so much for sharing, Joyce!  And I do hope someone can identify that tree, because we have them here in Hannover, and I’ve been trying to identify them for a long time now.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter is the author of Blue, Comfort, Healing Water, and Best Friends Forever. Find out more about her at www.joycemoyerhostetter.com and www.joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com.