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The Many Paths to Publication Part 4: An Interview with Marsha Diane Arnold

Like many in the picture book world, I’ve been watching the children’s book app market with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I’m a book person at heart – I love the smell and feel of paper and the sensation of curling up with a book in my hands and a kid on my lap. When people talk about apps supplanting traditional books, I can feel my Luddite dander rising. Yet I can also see the creative possibilities embodied in this interactive medium. I’m thus delighted to have had a chance to discuss app publishing with my friend and critique partner Marsha Diane Arnold, who has just published her first one, Prancing Dancing Lily with a publisher called FatRedCouch.

Marsha published her first picture book, Heart of a Tiger, in 1995; it was a Junior Library Guild Selection and an IRA Distinguished Book. Her books have been racking up awards ever since, including a Smithsonian Notable Book for The Pumpkin Runner and a Family Choice Award for Hugs on the Wind. Her picture book Roar of a Snore has been selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library three times and her early reader Quick, Quack, Quick has sold over half a million copies. 

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Dashka: Lots of children's book writers have expressed interest in doing apps, but you're one of the first I know who has actually done it. Tell me about how that came about.

Marsha: I was lucky. Nicole Lundeen, the CEO of FatRedCouch lives in the neighboring county. She happens to get all car-related issues handled at my husband’s Firestone store; my husband often displays my books there. Nicole saw them, read them, and fell in love with them. When Prancing Dancing Lily went out-of-print, the time was right to let Lily dance into the digital world.

Dashka: Tell me about Prancing Dancing Lily the book and Prancing Dancing Lily the App.

MarshaPrancing Dancing Lily was originally published as a picture book by Dial Books for Young Readers and illustrated by the brilliant John Manders. The text and illustrations are the same for picture book and storybook app, but the interactivity, voices, and sounds make digital Lily “ a whole new story.”

Prancing Dancing Lily tells the tale of a cow who doesn’t fit in with the herd. Lily would rather kick up her heels than walk sedately from pasture to barn.  So she travels the world in search of her perfect dance.  It’s a dancing adventure where readers can learn some geography, make new friends, and do the conga at the end. 

What made the picture book perfect for a digital app were all the possibilities for movement, dancing, and music. What’s different in the app are fun sound and movement surprises, the read to me option, four puzzles, and lots more. When readers touch the screen, they watch Lily twirl, whirl, slurp her drink, and beat the conga drum. They hear her moo and tap her hooves. It’s been fun to see Lily come to life this way. You can get a preview here.

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Dashka: How did you learn about the app world? I know you're as much an old-school book person as I am -- was it a steep learning curve? Did you have to play with a lot of children's book apps to get the feel of it?

Marsha: I try to keep up with changes in the publishing world, so even though I didn’t know a lot about apps or how to make one, I was aware of them and I felt they were becoming an important element in publishing. Many people are exploring apps as a different art form and discovering the different ways to use them to tell stories and allow children to interact more with story characters. I wanted to be part of that exploration.

It’s not a steep learning curve to understand a kids’ app. I downloaded some and watched and played. 

Dashka: What did you discover about the differences between a book and an app?

Marsha: A picture book can take 2 to 3 years or more from manuscript purchase to book publication. A digital app takes much less time, but it still took longer than I thought it would.

FatRedCouch is the expert when it comes to knowing how to make a book or app interactive. I am not a tech wizard. I did enjoy going into the FatRedCouch offices and working with the team, giving input as to what I’d like to see as an interaction. There’s so much you can do with touch screens. Discovering all the surprises that a touch of the finger can bring is not only fun, it helps children learn and to look for the details.

Dashka: How do you feel about apps now that you've made one? Do you want to do another?

Marsha: I absolutely want to create another digital app. I have a number of manuscripts that haven’t been picked up by a traditional publisher, but I can see they would work very well as a digital app. And yes, also, to writing new material for an app. There are a few ideas swirling in my head right now.

Dashka: Once your app is out on the market, how do you get it noticed among all the apps that are out there for children?

Marsha: That's the question to beat all questions, Dashka. Everyone in the app business, the publishing business and really, any business, is struggling with discoverability. How do we get readers’ attention when there are thousands of apps to choose from?

First, I think it’s good to have a team.  FatRedCouch is doing a lot of promoting. Frank Colin does the marketing and so much more. He has “held my hand” as I learned Mailchimp to send out my first newsletter, taped interviews for me, and introduced me to dairy farmers across the nation. He’s helped Lily get wonderful reviews from diverse groups: dairy farmers, moms who love apps, educators. Right now we’re celebrating that Prancing Dancing Lily was named CoronaLabs March app of the month.

Personally, I’ve blogged about Lily, tweeted about her, shared about her on Facebook, posted pictures related to her on Pinterest, and told all my friends and family. It’s easy to do because when you meet Lily, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Some of the best help spreading the word has come from educators. Tina Riley at Walton Elementary/Middle School arranged for the viewing of Lily’s app with fourth graders, then guided small groups to present their ideas. They wrote a short review, a long review, and learned a lot along the way. They gave Lily five stars, of course.

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Dashka: What was the process of getting the rights to be able to do this?

Marsha: I always ask for rights to be reverted when one of my books goes out of print.

Dashka: Is this the future of children's publishing? Do we all need to learn how to write apps?

Marsha: Storybook apps and games are a big part of the future of children’s publishing. Apps allow kids to interact directly with the characters in a story and can engage the imagination, in a slightly different way than a traditional book does.

Some have suggested that it’s helpful for anyone in business to have an app. I think that’s true because it shows you’re open to new ideas and new technologies.  However, there are far too few kids’ apps that are well-crafted and have an engaging story and wonderful artwork. So if you want to write an app, make it a good one, and find a publisher like FatRedCouch to bring your characters to “life.”

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Dashka: What words of advice would you give somebody interested in following a similar path?

Marsha: As with all creative endeavors you must do your homework and work at your craft and art. But there’s lots of help out there for you. Last October FatRedCouch hosted a workshop in San Francisco, “How to Create and Market a Children’s Book App,” presented by Karen Robertson. Watch for opportunities like this in your area. Karen has several eBooks on writing apps and finding the right developer on her site.

Remember to check out some apps as you think about this path. There are lots of sites with suggestions. Two to try are here and here. Prancing Dancing Lily is a great app to start with. All links to download Lily are here.

And if you’re writing a story, know that kids’ favorites are character-driven. Prancing Dancing Lily definitely fits in this category. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my e-course, Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books, which works for digital apps as well as picture books.

Don’t be afraid to dance into the digital realm, right alongside Lily. Have fun!

Dashka: Great advice, and I know your e-course has lots more wisdom to offer. Thanks so much for stopping by!