Tuesday, February 01, 2011

SCBWI Conference 2011 Part 1: Apps, Apps, Apps!

Last year's SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference was held just a day or two after Steve Jobs had revealed the iPad to the world. Even though the devices weren't even on the market yet, at every panel I attended, worried conference attendees were asking the speakers from the publishing world about what the devices would mean for the future of publishing and in particular what implications they would hold for the future of the picture book. The industry experts answered by unanimously stating that paper books would always be around. As far as pictures books went, they pointed out that the 'page turn' when reading a picture book to a small child was too integral to the experience and could not be duplicated in the same way by an electronic device. Well, one year after its announcement and now on the market, the iPad was still a major topic of conversation and the subject of many questions. The main difference between last year and this year was that many of the conference attendees now actually owned the device and were carrying them around. I can't tell you how many people I saw with iPads or other electronic reading devices. While waiting in line to get my books autographed by Jane Yolen, Lois Lowry, Jules Feiffer and the other authors (more about them in my next post), two women directly ahead of me in line had their iPads out and were showing them off to their friends.

To bring home what an impact the iPad and e-readers have had on the industry, this year two of the panels I attended for illustrators were devoted to developing books for apps to be used on these devices, while a third panel talked not only about apps but about using websites in conjunction with books to further extend the reading experience. As a matter of fact, the topics for all of the panels in the illustrator's intensive had to do with the possibilities of work beyond books, i.e., websites, e-readers, iPads, social media, animated TV shows, and licensing your designs and characters for uses on products besides books. The author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino even entitled his talk "Beyond Books." Several speakers, including Mr. Yaccarino, emphasized that we are at the dawning of a revolutionary era in publishing. Mr. Yaccarino, in his powerpoint presentation, displayed a series of slides depicting the evolution of devices that man has used for telling stories. In the beginning, our earliest, hunched-over ancestors used fire to throw shadows onto a wall. Then came chiseling images on to stone tablets. Next came writing on papyrus scrolls and other forms of paper. Finally the invention of the printing press brought about books more or less the way we know them today. For his final slide, Yaccarino presented an image of a now upright man holding an iPad. In other words, this device is just another stage of evolution in the  growth of our storytelling tools and abilities. One of the key points of his talk was that with these new devices, we now have fewer limitations than ever before for telling a story. But, he added, even all the new bells and whistles like sound and animation that these devices bring with them will not make a bad story any better. His last point was that good stories and compelling characters will always be the most important elements, the elements that will transcend any medium.

One of the most interesting panels on the topic of Apps was the one titled "Development of Original App" hosted by Rubin Pfeffer and John Carlin. They made several interesting points that helped put the iPad, the e-reader and other new devices into perspective. Though they didn't go back as far as torch-wielding cavemen, they too talked about the evolution of storytelling devices and emphasized how we are still in the pre-history period of digital media. As an example, they pointed out that the technology for motion pictures was invented in the late 1800s but it took more than 15 years before anything we might recognize today as a movie was developed. They talked about D.W. Griffith, the pioneering film director who is often credited with developing the language of storytelling in film (the close-up, cross-cutting, etc.) and how we haven't yet had a D.W. Griffith come along to develop the storytelling vocabulary for digital media. Their talk emphasized that we are in a new frontier, nothing has yet been set in stone and encouraged us as illustrators to experiment and to take advantage of being involved in a revolution that is still in its infancy.

To help us take our first steps into this revolutionary new world, they provided a list of building blocks. They said to think of creating apps as you would if you were creating a puppet show rather than a series of illustrations. Think not only about the characters, but the props you would need to tell your story, as well as the backgrounds and settings. Make any interactive elements fundamental to the experience and not just decoration. An interesting thing they pointed out is that devices like the iPad, that utilize these apps, have the technology built into them to know where the reader is while he/she is reading the story, what time it is when the story is being read and even what the weather is like where the reader is located. They talked about thinking of ways to experiment in using the device's knowledge of this information to personalize the experience of the story that is being read. One thing they said to always remember - that even with all of this new technology, the most important interface for getting something meaningful from a story is always going to be in your reader's mind and imagination.

Pfeffer and Carlin also pointed out that as artists we should not worry about having to learn how to program code. What is more important is that we understand how the technology is used and how it can be experienced by the user. Just as illustrators now often collaborate with other authors, editors and art-directors, in the future another collaborator may be added to the mix - the programmer or app developer.

Finally they talked about using Common Sense when developing an idea for an app. First of all you still need a great story. Second, be realistic about what type of illustration style is going to look good on the different types of screens used in this technology. Some of these devices, like the iPod Touch or iPhone, have very small screens so keep this in mind when designing your art. Third, just because something can be done using this new technology, doesn't necessarily mean it should be done. In other words avoid being gratuitous in using interactivity in your story. Remember that this is still a reading experience. Know the limits of interactivity, know when it is being used creatively and when it is being used as just a novelty.

They closed with two final thoughts:  1) On many levels, good old-fashioned books are still more interactive and exercise the reader's imagination more than any of these new technologies, and 2) At this moment in history, there are amazing opportunities to help invent a new medium, to develop a new vocabulary, it would be smart to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In a later panel, Rich Richter from Ruckus Media pointed out how the iPad is the fastest selling electronic device ever.  Like Pfeffer and Carlin, he pointed out that the things that happen in an app should happen for a reason and like them, he also emphasized the need to have a great story. Some other tips and info he shared on apps: 1) aim the app at the right age group, 2) be creative, 3) keep the point of view at eye level, 4) adapt a classic or create a new story from scratch, 5) take things to a new level by integrating an interactive game, 6) make apps that respect kids, 7) be aware that platform wars are most likely on the horizon as competing developers bring out other devices (the example he used is the Android tablet). 8) Things are going to get competitive, so market aggressively.

After listening to all of these speakers over the course of an 8 hour day, the three things that I took away from these talks were: 1) There will always be a need for content. This new technology gives us new opportunities for more work and new ways to share existing work; 2) Don't be intimidated by this technology, instead, explore it and experiment with it. Realize that you don't need to know the technical side of everything. As long as you can grasp its potential, you can work with someone who will develop the app for you. Just as an art director and editor would help guide you in the creation of a picture book, a developer will help in the creation of an app; 3) The most important thing to remember: It doesn't matter if what you are creating is going to be a regular book or an app for an iPad, the story and characters still need to be compelling.

In my next post, I will talk about the wonderful authors that spoke at the conference and I will pass on some of the choice bits of wisdom that I gleaned from their talks. Until then, thanks for reading Light and Shade!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the summary about the talk on ebooks and apps - -I was unable to attend the conference this year!