Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Writing For The IPad

Will the iPad change the way we read – and who makes a living from writing? In this first of five interviews I spoke to Dan Witters, Kiwa Media's UK Manager, to find out.

Kiwa Media are an award winning media company based in New Zealand, developing iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad Apps, digital content for books, film, TV and the mobile music industry. The company has seen rapid growth since Apple launched the iPad, opening offices in America principally to service the Latin American market, and another in Bristol to deal with the UK market before moving on to the rest of Europe. Things are looking very good indeed for them. But are the opportunities as good for us writers?

What’s so good about the iPad?
Let’s start by finding out more about the iPad. What makes it different from other E readers? Dan  explains:

“The Kindle is essentially an E Reader, which takes a novel and puts it out in a format that isn’t greatly different from reading a hard copy, although it’s more user friendly, particularly when you have three or four hundred pages of text. Apple has allowed the reader a whole range of functions that you wouldn’t normally use. For instance, it’s ideal for illustrated children’s books, allowing children to interact with the book.

A current children’s book often just gives the reader text, though there might be things that pop up from the page, so the experience is little more than just reading the words. Books are read to children by parents or friends, and once children are learning to read, they often just skim a traditional book rather than really coming to grips with it.

The iPad has allowed us to introduce a whole range of activities to children’s books. For instance our QBook application can clear the illustrations of colour and then the children can paint with their fingers, recreating the illustrations. Then children can record themselves reading the book or perhaps their parents can record themselves reading it to them. This means that the child can have the experience of their parents reading them a book at any time they wish. Our wide range of applications can make the whole experience of reading a book so much more enjoyable. For instance we have multiple language functions. We have just mastered Japanese, have Cantonese and Mandarin versions and are working on other major languages like Hindi and Arabic. With this experience the major European languages are relatively straightforward for us.

The advantage we have over other people who are converting children’s books to applications like the iTunes store is that at the moment they are doing literal translations. This means that you get the words and the pictures on the page, and the ability to turn these pages, but not much more. Because of Kiwa’s background in sound production, audio work and synchronisation with text – for 18 years we’ve worked on music videos and dubbing for television over - we’ve been able to introduce that extra level of function, which means that at the moment we have the lead in the market worldwide."

Is it too big?
While the iPad is an attractive piece of equipment with a stunning array of applications it is quite large – compared with a paperback that fits in a pocket. Does Dan think this will change?

“I use two analogies. At the moment it is quite clear that the iPad is cumbersome and that the itouch, which is hand held and about telephone size, too small to fully enjoy what’s available in the application, so two things have to happen. At the moment the iPad is dominating the market but everyone is now looking at this market. So while the Kindle has been concentrating on text, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it move out of black and white into something like the iPad fairly quickly. All the phone companies, particularly Nokia, are moving as fast as they can to get their own versions out on the market. Google have their Android system and won’t be far behind. I would expect that next year, when you come to download an application for children’s books using iPad, Kindle etc, I think you could see five or six different platforms that you could use to download it to, and with that will come a drop in price.

At the moment the iPads cost about USD $500, which is out of the range of most people to put in front of their children. But as the price comes down to say $100 it becomes more feasible. The development of quick transport such as the car hasn’t made the bike obsolete and we still enjoy riding bikes for the sheer pleasure. So I believe we will continue reading physical books for an awfully long time.

The other analogy is the mobile phone. When these first came out they were huge devices. People thought they would be confined to businesses and never saw the day that ten-year olds would be running around with them as a standard accessory. But this happened fairly quickly, and the time frame where we move to hand held reading devices could be 2 to 3 years. Then it could be quite normal for a five- or six-year old to have a small hand-held device that their books are downloaded onto, in addition to written papers. I think that in future years if you are taking children on holiday you’ll prefer a small hand held device with all their reading downloaded on it rather than a heavy bag full of books."

How does Dan read?
Does Dan read on electronic devices himself, or does he prefer a book?

“I have three children and personally I like to hold a book in my hand. My 14-year-old is spread between digital and the current norm. He still likes to get a hard copy and curl up in a chair to read. At the other end of the family, my five-year old thinks everything should be delivered digitally and once he has the iPad in his hand you have to prise it away from him. I think it’s an age thing. There is a generation coming through now aged between five and ten, whose predominant way of getting entertainment, including children’s books, will be via this media. As they grow older, we will be pushed to one side. People like me have been reading hard copy for far too long to give up now. Whereas up and coming generations will use digital as their prime means of entertainment."

More than children?
Kiwa focus on children’s books at this moment, but are they looking to move into other forms and genres in the future?

“At the moment children’s books are perfect for us. But we have had approaches from several educational organisations who see possibilities in what we offer. One of them deals with children coming to the UK who speak little or no English and who then go into the school system and find it difficult to catch up. This group see a great opportunity in having something like a simple children’s story which we could produce in their native language for children to engage with as part of their education. This allows them to grapple with a language within the confines of a children’s book where they understand and enjoy the story in their own language. There is this little function that can allow them to go back and forth between their native language and English, or whatever language that they are learning. So we are seeing quite a lot of opportunities in that area alone."

London Book Fair
Kiwa had a stand showcasing their products and approach at the 2010 London Book Fair. Was the publishing world interested?

“LBF was tremendously successful for us. We were interested primarily in seeing what our competitors are working on. It confirmed that there are some extremely talented companies out there making applications for studios in America and they are extremely good. We looked at one for Alice In Wonderland, which was very high quality. But none of them were doing audio. So while they could make the Queen Of Hearts move her tarts around the page, and there was a lot of movement visually, the story itself just sat in pixels on the page. In comparison, our texts come alive. You can run your finger over the text, reading at your own speed or even record it in your own voice. You can tap an individual word, have it spelt out or repeated if you wish. To be honest our peers were simply intrigued.

These peers went away quickly, having seen how we did our audio, and we of course went away with an interest in their visual tricks. So it was good to see what was out there and that there isn’t anyone ahead of us in any way. We don’t seem to have an equal in the audio and translation sides.
We found it helpful to talk to publishers with an iPad in front of us, so that they got a visual impression. It’s so hard to contact people by phone or email and to convey to them just how extraordinary this form of media is. It simply has to be done face-to-face and the London Book Fair was a wonderful opportunity to do that. What actually came out of the fair far exceeded our expectations."

Threat or opportunity?
Do some publishers see Kiwa’s product as a threat? And if they are not on board at the moment will they have to be in the near future or face missing out on a huge potential market?

“Publishers have been aware of the digital world for some time and simply hoped it would go away and leave them alone. I don’t believe that many have actively prepared for it. The Apple Pad is the big game changer. It just can’t be ignored now, with its good quality reproduction of books. We’ve found that some large publishers have finally realised that they simply have to engage with the market - and quickly. Those that we are dealing with will be trying very quickly to get books up digitally. Others are pausing and standing on the sideline to see how it works. The last three months has seen enormous change in the activity of publishers moving towards this idea. They realise that they have ignored it as long as they could but have no option now. These guys simply have to get their stuff into digital format and move quickly."

I asked if Kiwa have any success in getting publishers on board at LBF? Dan smiled :

“We’re under a confidentiality agreement, but have signed a deal with two household publishing names. We already work with Penguin. On the strength of those sort of associations we feel we’ll get a lot of independent publishers prepared to try perhaps one, two or more books and see how it goes. This is a new market - even Apple have only been in it for a short while - and none of us knows what sales to expect. A book may have sold hundreds of thousands in paper form, but it’s anyone’s guess how it will perform digitally. We are learning as we go.”

What does an E book cost?
So how much does an average electronic version of a book cost the reader – is it more, or less, expensive than a paperback?

“With children’s books we find that the average price of the application is around 4 or 5 US Dollars, as opposed to 9 or 10 Dollars if you bought it from a bookstore. The digital application is 40 or 50 percent of the price hard copies fetch in the book store. There is a huge saving because you only ever make one copy, which is constantly downloaded. With the printed version one has to keep reprinting it and there’s delivery to stores and so forth. Plus stores return unsold books. Digital should be cheaper and I think digital prices will drop even further.”

The owner of a hard copy can resell it. Does Dan foresee a medium to facilitate this electronically?
“I hate the thought of bookshops going out of existence. We have recently lost Borders here in Bristol and the rest of the UK. The market does seem to be getting increasingly difficult for booksellers. Whether they will be able to achieve success digitally I don’t know. There are complicated security and rights issues that have to be worked through. Then there’s the question of whether people like Amazon would consider it in their best interest to get rid of the bookstall in the high street. It won’t happen overnight, but the availability of digital books must to some extent go on robbing from the bookstore on the high street. Just think how CDs and DVDs available to be downloaded on the internet affected businesses. This could easily have the same effect.”

How do they sell their products?
Many companies producing software have online links to the companies who make the hardware and get a percentage from linked sales. Is this the case with Apple?

“We put applications up on the Apple iTunes store and customers purchase from there. We are working to having our own electronic store and being able to sell ourselves, but at the moment, like everyone else, we are in the shadow of Apple. We’re essentially a facilitator. We say to a publisher, or someone who writes books, that we will take their book and load it up to the Apple store and no doubt in time Amazon will have their own store for these applications and we might well supply books to that. We aren’t tied to anyone and would like to have our own means of doing this but at the moment it’s a one-way trip to the Apple store.”

Opportunities for writers
One of Kiwa’s prime products is the Milly Molly series of books. Who writes them and how are they doing?

“These books have done particularly well. They are written by Gill Pittar, a New Zealand author, and it all started with a doll she made. She went on to write a series of books about her. I noticed a stand at London Bookfair devoted totally to Milly Molly. She had been franchised to a UK operator who thought the market sufficient to justify a stand at the LBF. They seemed to be busy and generating a lot of interest.

The author comes from a town that’s small even by New Zealand standards. For her to have written a book that has travelled all over the world is amazing, given that in the past she would have been lucky to even get it across New Zealand, let alone Australia or elsewhere. But in an electronic generation, the figures rise daily. There are now 750 million people worldwide with a touch device that can download these applications, and so someone in a small town at the end of the world writing children’s books now has a theoretical market of 750 million people. This is the type of change the digital world brings to writers."

Can we approach you direct?
So as a writer, could I bring an idea to you if I couldn’t get a deal with a publisher? And what would the cost be?

“Yes , any writer could do that. For instance, we can look at getting a children’s book into digital format and up onto the iTunes store and on sale for prices starting at around one thousand pounds. Now, if you were looking at publishing a book and printing several thousand copies which you then have to try to around bookstores you would be looking at a far higher starting figure. So if we have an author with all their drawings done and ready to go to a printer then yes, we can take that material, convert it digitally, add sound and audio text and all the additional features we have available and get it up on the digital world at prices starting around a thousand pounds. This is an easy, low-cost entry, and I do think we will start to see authors saying ‘Well, do I simply sidestep the publishers?’ While we are not dealing with many authors directly at the moment, I believe that in the near future we will be.”

What about publicity?
That’s great, but how are E books publicised? Traditionally, this is handled via the bookstores and publishers. Would Kiwa be able to publicise a book, or is this all left to the writers themselves?

“This is a real concern for publishers. We don’t take on the responsibility of publicity. We put books up in the digital world and writers have to find ways to advertise their books themselves. The traditional way to get the buying public to know about a book is for the author to go on a book tour and sign copies, with in-store publicity, posters, stands, and book reviews in newspapers and monthly periodicals. Unfortunately a lot of those things don’t have an equivalent in the digital world. If we do lose the bookstores how indeed are we going to publicise the books? No-one has an answer to that one yet.”

Just books?
And what about writing in other forms – particularly for magazines – will that work on E readers?

“We were approached by a publisher of a good-quality magazine to see whether we could make it work. The answer is that it’s a question of capacity. Just how much you can download quickly, what storage capacity is your app taking up on a small device and where do you have so much content that you cease to be an app and become more of an EBook? We are looking at ways of increasing the current capacity. One consideration is that they won’t need audio content. When you take that out it allows us to have much larger quantities of material. So yes, I do see that happening. It’s already occurring in the newspaper world. You can buy any English newspaper on a street corner but also go online and read the same newspaper for free. The Times are now charging for access, but yes I can see magazines following that path. Quite quickly as well."

Reproduced with the kind permission of

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