The Everlasting Book: Writing In The Digital World
When I decided to dip my toe in the world of digital publishing with The 9/11 Memorial: Past, Present, and Future, I knew I’d be in for some surprises. I expected the tech to be puzzling, the marketing to be untested, and the devices to be shiny but confusing. What I didn’t count on was the formerly predictable crowd of people that we used to call “readers” to turn into a chorus of critics demanding to be engaged. The journey to creating this app involved a whole new way of thinking and creating a unique workflow.
The Creative Voice
When I began to conceive the project, I had two editorial missions in mind. I’d been fortunate to have extrordinary access to the site of the National 9/11 Memorial, and what I’d learned about the project and the people behind it had inspired me. I wanted to share what I’d seen and what I’d learned. I knew that for visitors, the story behind the design and construction would make the visit all the more memorable, and for people around the world who couldn’t come to the site. I hoped my book would give them a unique view of the Memorial.
At first, it was a book. Ink on paper. Then, as I took inventory of what I had at my fingertips, it became a photo book. In fall 2010, I made the rounds of New York publishers and shared with them the idea of a book of images and stories. I also remember suggesting that an iPad version, or even a Kindle version with video, might be part of the package. Back then, publishers didn’t seem all that excited about multimedia. So the idea of an AppBook was born.
That changed everything. Immediately I knew I could create a robust, immersive experience. I could bring readers onto the site, back in time and into the future. I could share photos, text, video, and more–the idea of an app was creatively exciting. Oh, and I could publish it myself. I was hooked.
The Technical Implementation
I reached out to my network of developer friends, and downloaded a variety of apps that seemed to fit my sense of how a book should feel. Finding the right developer turned out to be a longer journey than I imagined, as some of the folks I approached at first either tried to price editorial work like an app for Coke or Pepsi, or I think, were concerned that an editorial project could be an endless set of adjustments and costly changes. Finally I got good advice, to make some wireframes and lay out how you want the AppBook to look. One weekend later, using Photoshop for pages and Powerpoint for a wireframe, I had the 30 pages designed, with Greek text, but all the photos and videos in place. Here’s an important tip: You have to be able to refer back to every item, so make sure every page, and every media item (photo or video) has a unique number. And as I pulled pictures into folders, I made sure to carefully number each asset to match the wireframe. At this point I had a project with a beginning, middle, and end. It was clearly defined.
Then, with a clear roadmap for how the AppBook would look, and how much work it would take to build it, I went back to developers and started getting bids that made sense.
My biggest advice here: Don’t make the navigation or the layout too fancy. That’s not what your readers have come for. They want the content, clearly laid out, coherent in presentation, and with logical ways to get from one section to another. This gut instinct that I didn’t have the time or budget to make it too snazzy turned out to be pretty critical.
One other big revelation: This isn’t going to be a linear experience. Readers are going to jump in, move around, explore, and return for more. So think of it more like a video game, with multiple ways to navigate, and different endings. Trying to control the reader so that they start in the front, and move to the end simply doesn’t work in the app world. That’s not how people explore content.
Because the content of my app was emotional, and different readers were going to come to it with their own point of view, needs, and fears, I made sure to label it clearly.
The Past, The Present, The Future, The Media Gallery, The Timeline. I was pretty sure that some readers would want to explore the 9/11 Memorial site, but would want to steer clear of the videos of the day of September 11th. I made sure they could do that.
Beyond the iOS software, I used three other software packages. I used Flurry to embed analytics in the app. This turned out to be important because the iTunes reporting isn’t great. But Flurry is very helpful in tracking downloads and user behavior. I used TikiToki, as a web-based timeline was embedded in the app. I could update the content in the timeline, giving the app fresh content without requiring an update or a new download by users. And finally, for video I used Magnify.net to power both the delivered videos that I’d created, and the curated videos of the past that I’d gathered. I am the CEO of Magnify.net, so I may be biased, but I have to say, the Magnify.net video players really shine on the app, making the app itself light (as the videos don’t reside in the app) and giving me the ability to update both the video and the metadata around it.
The iTunes Store
I’m told it can take up to three weeks to get an app approved, but in our case, the process was smooth as silk. My developer, Jeff Soto, had worked at Apple and knew the ins and outs of iPad development. The version 1.0 was clean as a whistle and it was approved in days. Then, we had the coveted pre-release discount codes. This meant we could start reaching out to reviewers and media and offering them the ability to see the app two weeks before the official September 1st release date.
I had a plan. It made sense to me. Price the app as a quality “book” would be priced–$9.99. But I’d also offer it for free during the time when the topic was most emotional. It wouldn’t be free forever, just until 9/12/11, the week leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
I reached out to app reviewers, tech reviewers, media writers, book reviewers, bloggers, and mainstream media. Another important tip that Jeff shared with me: You only get 50 preview codes with each update so make sure you keep a spreadsheet of who you send each one to, and make sure you don’t waste them if folks aren’t going to use them. You can run out pretty quick. I put together an email with a few screen grabs of how to use the preview codes; it’s not very intuitive and folks give up easily if they can’t find out how to download the app.
I put together a website for the App, made sure I had the URL, and built a page of marketing resources, high-quality photos to download, and screen grabs from the app as well as a video demonstration. The app got coverage on MSNBC, CBS, CNN, BBC, CNET, Gizmodo, Wired, SFChronicle, What’s Trending, and more.
From the day the app was available, it began to grow in popularity. The reviews were strong. Word of mouth was positive. Reviews were detailed, and thoughtful, and the content was unique. I was proud of what we’d built, and I hoped that the folks at Apple would like it and feature it. I didn’t lobby (I’d been advised that didn’t work, that Apple would notice it if it got good notices and positive reader reviews). That turned out to be good advice. It was listed as #1 on iTunes new and notable on September 8th and that fueled more and more downloads. 350,000 downloads later, the AppBook had exceeded my highest expectations. And I was really pleased that I’d been able to share my story with more than a quarter of a million readers.
On September 12th, I was ready to switch the App to the published price of $9.99. But somehow, that plan just didn’t seem right anymore.
The End is the Beginning
At 5 a.m. on 9/11 I’d taken my camera, and gone down to the World Trade Center site to witness the reading of the names and the opening of the memorial. The images I’d captured that day were very emotional. I knew they had to be shared. They completed the story. The AppBook wasn’t done, there was a chapter yet to write.
And a the same time, a small but vocal number of users had express their disappointment in the AppBook. At first I was able to ignore them. After all, the AppBook was free, and they were complaining that the app didn’t have content that they wanted. But what they wanted were topics I hadn’t ever contemplated offering.
The critics said things like this:
“A comprehensive 911 Memorial should include events at the Pentagon & Shanksville, PA.” TT’s Apps, September 5th, 2011
“Nothing in here about the other two attacked sites? Hardly a 9/11 Memorial in that case.” Vadd111, September 11th, 2011
Writers aren’t short order cooks. We don’t pound out pages to order. At the same time, the reason that I had created this app was because I want to share the story with people. And the critics that wanted me to add coverage about Shanksville and The Pentagon continued to post their disappointment that the AppBook wasn’t comprehensive.
What To Do?
So, the questions I was faced with were how to price it, how to respond to readers, and was I ready to actually jump in and do more writing.
Here’s what I learned. A book isn’t a product, it’s a journey. And the journey doesn’t end when the first edition is published. For some writers, they’ll move on and call it a day. But the story of 9/11 is far too important to me, and too unfinished. And I knew I had to update the AppBook to add the story of the day of 9/11/11 and add those photographs. So, as long as I was going back in, I decided that I had to listen to the critics and make changes to try and respond to their editorial requests.
In the end, I added four new sections, almost 70 new images, and a section about both Shanksville and the attacks on the Pentagon.
And pricing? I wrote the AppBook because I wanted to share what I’d seen and learned. And an App expert with some inside knowledge told me that the difference between $0.99 and $1.99 was pretty steep. It seems since people can’t “sample” apps, things that cost more than a dollar can feel risky. Yes, I have 350,000 downloads and great reviews, but those get re-set when you publish a new version. Reviews start over (ouch).
So, the update will be free for all the people who already own the App. And it will be $0.99 for any new reader who wants to download it. Was that the right decision? It’s hard to say. But overall the addition of the new material, and the price, just feel right.