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The Many Paths to Publication Part 6: An Interview with Tim McCanna

I first met Tim McCanna at an SCBWI conference in 2011. Back then he was an aspiring children's book author and a heck of a nice guy. Now he's still a heck of a nice guy but he's graduated from aspiring to published children's book author. How'd he do it? I was about to say "not in the usual way" but if you've been following these posts, you've probably gathered that there isn't a usual way. What I like about Tim's story is that he took pointers, tips and tidbits he gathered at conferences and combined them with some publicly-available tools and a few personal connections to forge a unique path to publication. It doesn't hurt that he, like Tim Myers from our last Paths to Publication Interview, is a multi-talented guy who writes songs, does voice-overs, and writes stories. Read on to learn about his just-released new book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, and how it developed from an idea to an app and a book.

Dashka: Tell me about Teeny Tiny Trucks! What was the inspiration?
Tim: Well, in late 2010 I attended an event hosted by SCBWI's San Francisco/South chapter. One of the speakers was Christy Ottaviano and she talked about how much her kids loved trucks and how she had unexpectedly ended up publishing a handful of "truck books." I had never really thought about it before, but there are a LOT of truck books out there. It's a whole category of its own. On the way home, I started brainstorming truck book ideas. Of course, most truck books celebrate how big and tough and loud they are. I knew right away I wanted to take it in a different direction and explore a world where trucks were super small. I also tapped into my childhood love of little truck toys, like Micro Machines and Tiny Mighty Mos.

Dashka: It sounds like you did some market research before you even started writing. Were there other things you learned from SCBWI or other sources that helped you hone your strategy?
Tim: As it turned out, the next regional SCBWI event I attended was the 2011 Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar near Monterey. One of the speakers was Rick Richter of Ruckus Media Group. Rick gave a great talk on apps and digital media and where the industry was headed. He assured us that apps and ebooks and printed books could all live together in harmony. But he also really encouraged us to jump on the app bandwagon. I had no idea how to do that, but I was excited to try. While considering ideas, I thought, "Hey, that Teeny Tiny Trucks picture book manuscript I wrote would make a cool app."

TTTrucks Cover

Dashka: How did you go about making an app proposal? How did you even know where to begin?
Tim: It's intimidating, right? For the first couple submissions, I just winged it. Cover letter, the manuscript, and very rough storyboard sketches with little notes on potential interactive elements. Uh, nothing came of those. Then last year, Julie Hedlund, who's a writer and creator of the 12x12 challenge, published an App Proposal Template based on the submission that landed her first story app contract. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to break into story apps. The template helped me create a much more robust and organized proposal with marketing strategies, a detailed app brief, and curriculum tie-ins.

Dashka: As an old-school, words-on-paper person, I sometimes find it hard to embrace the digital side of publishing. Were you pro-technology before you started? Anti-technology? Neutral?
Tim: Ah, well. I love a nice solid printed picture book as much as the next person. My wife and I read tons of traditional picture books with our kids and we have pretty strict "screen time" rules. But I've never shied from technology. If anything, my iPad has made me a reader again. I love the ease of downloading samples from the iBooks store to find new purchases, and being able to quickly look up big words I don't know! I read novels almost exclusively on my iPad. As far as the publishing industry goes, I can only hope that the future will bring lots of quality story apps for people to enjoy and lots of beautiful hardbound books, too.

Dashka: OK, so you've told us how you got the idea for Teeny Tiny Trucks. How did the book get its big break?
Tim: Gosh, everything is intertwined. So, I had my Trucks story and my first shabby proposal sitting in my Dropbox going nowhere. As I was participating in the 2011 Picture Book Idea Month, I heard about Julie Hedlund who was launching her 12x12 writing challenge, which I joined. I wrote this silly song for the mid-year celebration of 12x12 and had also written the opening show theme for Katie Davis' kidlit podcast, Brain Burps About Books. Meanwhile, Julie's publisher at Little Bahalia was considering adding a sing-a-long song version for the app they were developing for her book A Troop is a Group of Monkeys. My name came up and I ended up writing the song and narrating the app! Totally fun. Building that working relationship with Stacey at Little Bahalia gave me the confidence to revive my Trucks app proposal using Julie's template. I submitted it and had a contract in two weeks.

Dashka: Talk to me a bit about how personal relationships helped you along the way. You and I met at a conference for the first time and you've clearly met lots of other, more helpful, people too. Do you think writers need to get out more?
Tim: Oh yeah. Every bit of momentum I've gained since starting out four and a half years ago can be directly attributed to the people I've met by attending SCBWI events and participating in online writing challenges. My number one bit of advice to anyone--especially newcomers to the industry--wanting to make kidlit friends and expand their network is to volunteer at their local SCBWI chapter.

Dashka: Another thing that strikes me about you is that you bring some extra talents to the table. How has being a songwriter helped you as a writer? And now it seems you can add voice actor to your resume.
Tim: Oddly enough, it took me a long time to figure out how to integrate my music and performance backgrounds into children's book publishing. I've recently done some book trailers, and I write goofy little jingles for my kidlit video series. And yes, I've gotten to narrate a handful of story apps, too. All these things I've done in my little home studio with a laptop, a keyboard and a microphone. When I decided to take Trucks in the app direction, I set my stanzas to a tune and added a catchy chorus. And considering the subject matter, I took another cue from my childhood and gave it a 1970's trucker song kind of vibe (i.e. Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again"). I included an mp3 of the Teeny Tiny Trucks song along with my app proposal and I'm told it pushed my submission over the top.

TTT Spread Weight

Dashka: TTT was originally going to be an app only, but now it's been released as a book too. How did that come about?
Tim: I'm so excited about that. The original plan was: app first, then maybe a book. I'm not a publisher, and I don't know all the numbers, but I think between having such a great looking product thanks to Keith Frawley's illustrations, plus the timing of publishing before the holidays, it just kinda made sense for Little Bahalia, our publisher. And we're making history in the process! A title releasing simultaneously in print and interactive app form. Gives consumers some fun choices.

Dashka: Did you ever think your first book would come via an app?
Tim: Nope. Never. I just followed the opportunities and my instincts. In my case, I wrote the story first, not even thinking of it as an app. I would recommend that process! Teeny Tiny Trucks was just one of many manuscripts in my portfolio, but due to its style and subject, it naturally lent itself to an interactive format.

Dashka: What are the advantages of entering the publishing world via an app?
Tim: Traditional publishing can be a notoriously slow process. My app, on the other hand is coming out roughly eight months after I sold the manuscript. And, in theory, an app will never go out of print! Plus, the interactive elements, when done well, can be amazing. The sky's the limit, really. An app format offers all kinds of special features like puzzles, music, and animation.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?
Tim: Well, if someone doesn't have access to an iPad or an iPhone, then they ain't gettin' the app. That's a bummer. New apps are also at the mercy of "discoverability." Meaning, unless you're Angry Birds, you have to claw your way through the glut of apps flooding the market to reach the top charts. We're all competing against very sophisticated video game apps, many of which are free.

Dashka: What have you learned along the way that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Tim: There is no single path to publication, you have to be the driving force behind your success, and it will all play out quite differently than how you imagined.

Dashka: Yes! That's exactly what I've hoped to communicate with this series of blog posts. Do you have words of advice for somebody interested in following a similar path?
Tim: Anyone who is writing for children strives for strong characters, unique voice, interesting conflicts, and readability. Whether aiming for story apps or printed books, put your writing craft first. Have a great story be the foundation for whatever medium you want to work in. Bells and buttons come later.

Dashka: Last month I did some critique group matchmaking on my blog. Do you think it's important for writers to have critique partners?
Tim: Oh gosh, don't get me started on critique groups. To me, they are as essential as pen and paper. Seriously. I've had two groups and found both by meeting people at regional SCBWI conferences. My current group meets once a month. Writing is such a solitary art. Being in a critique group gives you a community to check in with, get support, and test material. If you can find folks that give quality feedback and not just "This is cute!" or "This isn't working for me." grab on to them and never let go. Being in a crit group can keep you motivated, but it also means you're ready and willing to hear the hard truth about your work and be open to cutting material and rewriting.

Dashka: What else do you have in the works? More apps? More books? More songs?
Tim: Yes, yes, and yes. I'd love an excuse to follow up Teeny Tiny Trucks with some other teeny tiny modes of transportation! We'll see... I switched gears this summer and started writing my first middle grade novel, which has been a fun new challenge.

Dashka: Thanks for coming by the blog, Tim! I hope you'll come back to tell us about it when it's done! In the meantime, Tim has graciously offered to send a signed copy of Teeny Tiny Trucks to one lucky commenter. He'll do the signing. I'll be responsible for picking a lucky winner. To enter the contest, make sure to leave a comment telling us why you need your own teeny tiny truck. I'll pick a winner on November 7. And for all you tiny truck fans, the book is available through Amazon or can be ordered through your local bookstore. The app will be out soon as well. 

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. 

 small marsha

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.

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 1.36.23 PM

 

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.

RCS-Elem-School-March-2013-Newsletter-2

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.”

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 1.38.38 PM

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!

 

Ever since I wrote about the Rainforest Action Network report linking children's books with rainforest destruction, I've been having interesting conversations with children's book writers and children's booksellers about what to make of it. The collective feeling has simply been, "Oh no." 

Children's Book Author and Editor Amy Novesky commented on my Facebook page:

"Oh, this makes me sad, but not surprised. one of the questions I often ask writers of their stories/future books is: Is it worth cutting down trees? Everyone thinks *their* book is worth it of course. But is it ever? Only, perhaps, if printed in a truly sustainable way, which, it sounds like, is far from the norm.

In my environmental blog, I spent some time trying to figure out if e-readers, particularly the I-Pad, might be a more sustainable option. The answer isn't clear, but I was beginning to feel that I should at least allow for the possibility that electronic readers may eventually be a better choice, despite my own preference for the printed page.

Then, today, I read an astonishing article from Bloomberg News about a wave of suicides at a Chinese factory that makes I-Pads. Apparently, there have been sixteen suicide attempts this year at the factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, twelve of them successful. Suicide among the factory's 300,000 workers is so rampant that the parent company, Foxconn Technology Group, has begun covering the outside stairwells with nets to keep people from jumping off. So why is this happening? Because life on the electronics production line is, in the words of one worker, "meaningless."

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said. The company has rejected three requests for a transfer and his monthly salary of 900 yuan ($132) is too meager to send money home to his family, said the 21-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used because he is afraid of his managers.

The factory complex is apparently tree-lined and boasts a swimming pool and a hospital. But, to everyone's astonishment, that's not enough to compensate for having been reduced to a cog in the vast machine that feeds the global appetite for electronic toys.

The workers, 86 percent of whom are under 25 years old, live in white dormitories with eight to ten people sleeping in a room. . . Inside the compound, at a factory devoted to computer motherboards, rows of young men and women stand at assembly lines, their feet shod in blue slippers and white caps on their heads. The smell of solvent hangs in the air. About 80 percent of the front-line production employees work standing up, some for 12 hours a day for six days a week, according to Liu Bin, a 24-year-old employee.

What's particularly creepy about the entire creepy story, is the confusion Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou claims to feel about why his workers are offing themselves.

“From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that. No matter how you force me, I don’t know.”

So are I-Pads and e-readers a more sustainable alternative to books? Not if their production requires people to say, as one worker does, "I've become a machine."

 

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