Have interactive book apps caught on?

Interactive book apps have been around for a while, with some great successes; but have they caught on as a viable alternative for physical picture books?

At the 2014 Bookseller Children’s Conference, Nicolette Jones, children’s book editor for the Sunday Times, said that she had reservations about apps for picture books: “I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.” However, managing director of Nosy Crow, Kate Wilson, disagreed. She described how, in Nosy Crow’s apps, “interactivity reinforces understanding of character” and adds to the reading experience. Although technology is so prevalent in the modern age, will book apps ever be accepted as a good alternative to traditional print picture books?

The beginnings of the book app

Apps cannot replicate Touch and Feel books, but they can include tactile elements © Dorling Kindersley, 2008
Apps cannot replicate Touch and Feel books, but they can include tactile elements © Dorling Kindersley, 2008

Picture books have become a staple in how many children first experience literature. Whether board books with no words at all or large paged reimaginings of classic stories, the picture book is a staple in any classroom or nursery. The ways that text and images interact give a more accepting space for young readers to start to understand story and narrative.

For many, the physicality of pages and the interactivity within them is something they remember fondly. But then something happened. In the modern world, when technology is advancing so quickly, it was only a matter of time before the most concrete of literature forms made its way on to a digital touchscreen.

“In the space of a week, the iPad transformed digital tablets from a small niche to a mainstream product pursued by all major technology manufacturers.” And so it was that, whilst the Kindle boosted popularity of e-books, the iPad introduced a new product to the market: interactive book apps.

Whilst e-books are, generally, an electronic copy of a printed counterpart, book apps try to do something new. They can contain “written text, imagery, animation, video, music, sound effects, recorded audio narration, hyperlinked material, language or dictionary functions, and levels of interactivity.” This “interactivity”, “games, puzzles and play activities”, encourages more engagement with the story and a deeper exploration of all the elements than would simply go into a print picture book.

Nosy Crow: an exploration

© Nosy Crow, 2016
© Nosy Crow, 2016

Nosy Crow has become a key player in the children’s picture book app market. Since their founding in 2010 they have published 19 book apps, as well as making a significant splash on the printed book scene. They are currently the 13th biggest publisher of children’s books in the UK and they’ve won countless awards across the board.

They had originally planned to be a cross-platform publisher, and in 2011 released their first book apps, retelling popular fairy tales. The Three Little Pigs included animation and original music to give a fresh, interactive take on the much-loved tale. The physicality of the iPad was also taken into account, as tilting the device and blowing into the microphone were essential to the progression of the story. Their Cinderella app, where the user has to make some decisions for the story, won six awards including FutureBook’s Best Children’s App 2011.

The Three Little Pigs app © Nosy Crow, 2011
The Three Little Pigs app © Nosy Crow, 2011

Kate Wilson has been keen to highlight the differences between what Nicolette Jones saw as interfering with story, and what Nosy Crow is trying to achieve, with high commercial and critical success. In a blog post posted after the 2014 Bookseller Children’s Conference, Wilson approached Jones’ “reservations”. She said that apps shouldn’t have to provide additional material around a book in order to be successful; interactions should aid engagement and reinforce ideas with a story. By involving more senses, messages that are taught should be better remembered. She quotes one child who said Nosy Crow’s apps “tell you the story and you get to play the story at the same time.” Wilson also stresses how important book apps are for building a bridge; printed books are still important, but using multimedia is a fantastic way of introducing ideas that children can then pick up in a non-digital book, and not only that but they are more immediate as you don’t have to go to a physical store to buy them.

The uniqueness, craft and physicality of a book are assets in this weightless and intangible world

What is important in a picture book app?

Franklin Frog © Nosy Crow, 2012
Franklin Frog © Nosy Crow, 2012

What attracts a lot of parents to buying physical picture books is their tactility. You can’t feel the texture of something on a screen, or get to know different sensations, like you can with touch-and-feel board books. What is therefore important is different ways of interacting with the device that is being used. For example, instead of just flicking pages children should be able to tap, drag and hold hotspots, as well as doing things like tilting the device or speaking into the microphone. The Cinderella app from Nosy Crow even goes one step further: “a mirror in the stepmother’s living room reflects the image of the app’s reader”, and the team researched frogspawn when making Franklin Frog “to ensure the frogspawn behaves like frogspawn … there’s a level of jelly-like resistance”. The lack of tactility is always going to be a difficult issue to overcome; as Michael Bhaskar points out, “the uniqueness, craft and physicality of a book are assets in this weightless and intangible world.”

There are many books that start life as apps, such as Nosy Crow’s Rounds series (which became a series of printed books later) but more often it is the case that traditional and popular stories are adapted to the digital form. This, as Vicky Smith of Kirkus Reviews explores, “helps readers see an old book in an entirely new way”; familiar material attracts a wider audience and encourages creative content. Smith uses Alice for the iPad as an example of how the digital medium has given a new lease of life to a classic tale (which even includes original illustrations from John Tenniel). However, not everyone agrees that this transformation is positive; Julia Donaldson, author of many much loved children’s books including The Gruffalo, says “if the child’s doing that [interacting with animations], they are not going to be listening or reading”.

Book apps don't mean you won't be reading your parents © Alexander Dummer, 2015
Book apps don’t mean you won’t be reading your parents © Alexander Dummer, 2015

What print cannot do is read to you without supervision, keep you engaged with animations, magnify areas of the page, provide a dictionary function, or translate words into different languages. Apps can “help the developing reader understand the content in a way that a static print picture book cannot”, either with guidance from an adult or without.

Many reports have been written about how book apps can be used to advance education. It is important to have “graphic features to support education”, and writing, images, narration and interactive functions should all come together to work as a whole. This way, trans-literacy is developed, “the cognitive load is reduced and learning capacity improved”. Other studies, such as one undertaken by UKLA, found that “children were also asking for the apps [Flip Flap Safari and Dino Tales] at home and so really extended the period of time that the children were spending reading (without even realising it)”. However, it is very important that these elements of technology and interactivity do not distract or detract from the act of reading and learning.

Where book apps fail

And this is where we see the failure of a lot of book apps. At its simplest, some apps are not successful because their interactivity does detract from reading. Jones points out that, in a book, “if a child is drawn running, in your head they run over to the next page where something else is happening.” However, a running figure in an app can continue running without the movement of a page being turned.

There are no search results for 'TouchPress' on Faber's website © Faber & Faber, 2016
There are no search results for ‘TouchPress’ on Faber’s website © Faber & Faber, 2016

Another big setback many book apps see, as simple as it may seem, is in marketing. Sam Missingham uses Faber as an example, who have produced many successful apps with their partner TouchPress. In an article in 2012, she pointed out that she could not find an app section of Faber’s website. In 2016, this is still the case. As large a marketing tool as a publisher’s own website is, it seems stupid that they would hide their own content (Missingham notes that Nosy Crow put much more emphasis on their apps on their company website than other publishers).

Possibly the biggest drawback with apps, however, and a deterrent for publishers not to make them, is cost. “There are high production costs associated with making iOS apps,” Betty Sargeant points out. Indeed, as Hayles notes in Electronic Literature, “print literature has developed mechanisms for its preservation and archiving” whereas “electronic literature becomes unplayable (and hence unreadable) after a decade or even less.” Not only do developers need to code for each device and operating system that they want their app to be useable on, but the devices and operating systems themselves are constantly being upgraded, ruling many apps obsolete. It is just too expensive for publishers to take on the digital market when it moves with such great momentum.

85% of publishers think apps make no commercial sense but at the same time 75% of them continue to invest in them

Do book apps have a future?

In conclusion, I believe only a select few companies will continue to produce apps. “85% of publishers think apps make no commercial sense but at the same time 75% of them continue to invest in them”. As the market becomes more and more saturated, and companies like Nosy Crow continue to produce good quality book apps, other publishers must stop producing apps.

Everything is migrating to a more digital medium; just look at the popularity of e-books: “in 2010, Amazon.com reported that sales of e-books for its Kindle reader outstripped sales of all hardcover books for the first time”. However, as there is already a popular and successful digital version of books, are book apps truly necessary? As many publishers that try to produce them, as many apps that are coming out, they have not caught on.

There are plenty of book apps currently on the app store © iTunes 2016
There are plenty of book apps currently on the app store © iTunes 2016