Monday, June 6, 2011

The Interactive Children's Apps of Nosy Crow

This is my new piece on visionary publisher Nosy Crow. It was co-authored by blogger Amy Neumann, and it is cross-posted in the Huffingtonpost Book Section.

Two decades ago, Disney re-energized its brand with animated films so visually stunning that they strengthened character development and elevated familiar stories to new and commanding heights. Simply put, they were instant classics. And it is difficult not coming to a similar conclusion when viewing the amazing animated apps of red hot publisher Nosy Crow.

In a relatively short period, Nosy Crow has become a major player in the "interactive apps for children market." It took the familiar tale Three Little Pigs and enhanced the storytelling by making it a visual feast. The combination is awe-inspiring, and makes it nothing short of a masterpiece. Believe this: children and children at heart will see this not simply as an app, but an experience.

This type of innovation was part of the buzz at this year's South By Southwest festival. With ebooks now outselling traditional print, Nosy Crow is poised to make a big splash. We got an exclusive interview with Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow's visionary managing director. A veteran of the publishing industry, she illustrates exactly why her company is ahead of the curve.

Managing Director Kate Wilson.
Courtesy of Nosy Crow


As a veteran of the publishing industry, what was is like starting a new children's publisher?

It's an obvious thing to say, but it's really exciting. Of course, there's dull stuff: standing in line at the post office isn't great, and I do a lot of economy class flying! I've learned a lot that's directly relevant to what I am doing now from my ten years as Managing Director of Macmillan Children's Books and from my five years as Group Managing Director of Scholastic UK, but I am enjoying the freedom of being my own boss and the ability that gives you to act really quickly and decisively. I love being closer than I have been for years to the creative process, from writing texts for a board book, to deciding what's the right level of interactivity on an app. And I'm enjoying forging new relationships, such as the one we've made with Candlewick Press, who'll be publishing many of our books in the US and Canada under a Nosy Crow imprint starting in August.


How does social media figure into the larger promotion of your firm?

One of the privileges of starting something up is that you can decide on the voice of your company. For us, social media is an important part of that voice: I like not having to think about ventriloquising a corporate voice! Social media and blogging opens up a way for publishers to talk to the people who choose and read their books and apps. Parents are our main audience in our case, as we're doing books and apps for children under the age of 12. We've found that we've really enjoyed writing what we hope are fresh and honest blog posts several times a week. We're on Facebook and we tweet as nosycrow. For apps, we tweet as nosycrowapps. I write about everything from great apps for kids, to taking my older child to Buckingham Palace for the royal wedding. Social media is much more than a promotional tool. It's a conversation, and I think that organizations ignore that at their peril: social media isn't a megaphone. I enjoy the two-way (at least two way) nature of it. For example, we've recently used twitter to build a blog post about people's favorite books for spring and Easter. And when people give us and ideas and recommendations to improve our next apps we act on that. People respond to books and apps in a very individual, personal and passionate way, so it's great to be able to amplify our own enthusiasm through other people.


How do you choose your books and apps?

Many of us at Nosy Crow are parents, and we all have a lot of experience of publishing. So we bring personal as well as professional experience to our choices. The big question we always ask is, "Who's it for?" I think that, if we can't define who the core readership of a book or an app is, we don't have the right book synopsis or app concept in front of us. Of course, many books and apps have a readership outside their core audience and that's good (I can spend frightening amounts of time speeding the two little pigs in our The Three Little Pigs App along their 3D road, and that's an app with a core audience of 4- to 6- year-olds). But, for something to feel right as a Nosy Crow book or app, we have to be able to see clearly in our heads the child who will read it.

Sometimes you just know and we all agree quickly. In that case, because we're small and independent, we can make an offer on the spot. That's what happened with our Mega Mash-up books. With their unique combination of doodle book and chapter book, they just struck us as perfect for reluctant readers, particularly boys ages 7 to 9. Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson came in to show us what they were working on. We liked this idea (of course, it's changed a bit since the original pitch, but that's the shaping process of publishing for you), and I looked at my colleague, Camilla, and she looked at me, and we said that we were going into the corridor for a moment (we have a completely open-plan office still, and, at that point, we had a tiny one). She and I decided what we want to offer for -- how many books and how much -- and we went back in and told Nikalas and Tim. They said they'd have to think about it... so I suggested that they go out to the corridor for a moment themselves. We cut the deal in five minutes.

Sometimes, though, a project will require more thought, and we have pretty lively discussions about texts and illustrations and the direction in which an app might go! You can do all the costings and projections that you like, but every new author or illustrator or concept (and we have a lot of those) is a risk. Every book or app needs a champion, and if someone on the team feels really strongly, and keeps coming back with a particular project after they've done some more work on it, sometimes it'll get through second time around.

Logo courtesy of Nosy Crow

Talk about the pressure of developing apps for classic tales like Three Little Pigs and Cinderella.

The key thing is thinking about how the features of a tablet device or smartphone (we publish our apps for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch) can add to the reading experience. I am interested in telling stories. I think that telling stories is a pretty atavistic, round-the-camp-fire-in-the-cave sort of thing. Listening to, understanding and retelling stories is one of the key ways that children make sense of their lives and their world. Printed books lend themselves really well to linear storytelling. Once you know that you read from left to right (in English, at least) and front to back, the line of the story is there. Touch screen devices encourage non-linear exploration. So when we're making an app, we think about how we cut the story down into blocks with a linear sequence, and add in interactivity and non-linear stuff (like extra comments from each of the pigs that form a conversation, but can be read in any order). But we're always careful that the storyline isn't broken.

I've heard today's kids referred to as "The Angry Birds Generation." These kids are are spending more time on screens, and enjoying multimedia and interactive experiences younger. I want to create reading experiences that are compelling to The Angry Birds Generation. We want to give them opportunities to learn to read for both literacy and pleasure, on the devices we know they are using from their earlier years.


What's the general state of children's publishing today?

Well, in the UK at least, print publishing isn't exactly flourishing. Sales last year were down by volume and value compared to 2009, and volume sales have been dropping for a few years. The Twilight Series and Harry Potter have, over the last decade and more, brought children's books into the spotlight. But the audience for both of these phenomenal series is skewed towards adult readers. In the UK, one in every five children's books last year was bought online. But online, prominent books become more prominent, and it's hard to find the new and less well-known books. Meanwhile, the app market is in its infancy, and it's hard to find apps amongst the ever increasing number available on the stores. So it's a tough environment! On the other hand, there are creative people coming up with really great new ideas every day, many of whom want to use new technologies to create them and talk about them. Children's publishing is a business, but I find that many of us who are part of it are motivated by things other than money. The excitement of reading a funny or a moving manuscript doesn't go away. The thrill of finding a new illustrator keeps you looking through portfolios. The "wow" of realizing what you could do to tell a story better on an iPad screen is terrific. And, for many of us, the creation of truly engaging experiences, whether on print or on screen, is part of a mission to get children reading.

For more information on Nosy Crow's books and apps, click on their website and connect with them on their Twitter feed.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! I'm so excited about some of the turns publishing is taking with new media, and it's great to hear such knowledgeable opinions about those endeavors and the industry at large.

    ReplyDelete