Friday, 28 October 2011

Apps and the Single Author

One of the great attractions of writing is that anyone can do it. The only barrier to entry is access to a word processor and an email account - a barrier low enough to encourage penniless students and struggling single parents alike (hello, J.K. Rowling). Another great thing is that you can do a lot of the work on your own. In fact, electronic publishing means that you could go all the way from initial concept to finished e-book without involving a single other person (though I wouldn't recommend it).

But now something even newer has appeared on the writing scene - the app. Depending on who you believe, they are either the saviour of storytelling or a frivolous annoyance; as usual, I suspect the answer is somewhere between the two extremes. Someone who tends to the former view is author and agent Xavier Waterkeyn, who wrote an impassioned article for FutureBook last week, about his plans for an app project he is representing called The Chimera Vector. Xavier is not a man troubled by small ideas, and it's clear that the project is as ambitious as they come – the future of storytelling, no less. But once the brainstorming phase was over, the team's plans for a multi-layered socially-integrated transmedia experience hit a significant problem. Cost.
The problem with apps is they are expensive to make. Unless you're hiring an independent app developer, your app could cost anywhere from $20,000 to over $100,000, with an average of $60,000. Apps - like books themselves - rarely even get as far as breaking even.

We realized early on that we couldn't afford to fund this project ourselves. What started as a $20,000 basic app idea soon evolved into a $93,000 app idea that would redefine storytelling, but only if we have the funds to make it.
Wait a minute there. 93,000 dollars? I know that the business model for author-led fiction isn't great. I know that I will probably never recoup enough money to cover the eight years (and counting) that I have put into my craft. But as I've worked full-time throughout that period, the real cost to me can be counted in stuff like SCBWI membership fees, notepads and Bic biros. Probably a few hundred pounds. But if I had been trying to develop an app? Well, I couldn't have afforded even the entry-level $20,000, and I suspect I'm not the only one.

The problem with apps is that they require a team. Developers, graphic designers, scriptwriters, testers, project managers etc. One person in front of a keyboard is going to have a tough time competing with the high production values of mainstream apps, and I'm sure this “Hollywoodisation" of the market can only get worse. Compare that to the experience of writing a conventional book, where I can open up MS Word right now and write a paragraph better than anything Dan Brown has ever produced. Of course, I can't command his marketing and production budget, but I can dream...

By coincidence, I've just started reading How I Escaped My Certain Fate - The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian by Stewart Lee. It's a fascinating and very funny deconstruction of the art of comedy, as ambitious a project as anything in the iTunes App Store. Lee has the completely opposite view to Xavier Waterkeyn – he believes that a single person on stage with a microphone has the best chance of reinventing the medium. After the high profile but financially unrewarding Jerry Springer – The Opera, Lee decided to focus on smaller gigs with smaller audiences, reasoning that a loyal fanbase would be much more likely to support him long term. This has given him the freedom to build an act around picking comedy apart, to be a niche artiste rather than trying to appeal to the mass market.

I occasionally harbour grandiose ideas to reinvent the nature of storytelling, although I have to remind myself that the story has been around for a while and is doing quite fine on its own, thankyouverymuch. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that someone with very little to lose financially is more likely to take the risks that will result in Narrative 2.0. Xavier Waterkeyn is nothing if not an idealist, and doesn't really seem to grasp that people who invest money generally want to see a return on that. His pitch seems to be based more on goodwill than actual economics:
We'll be honest with you. [The Chimera Vector] probably won't make a profit.
Well, that's convinced me! The cheque for a hundred grand is in the post.



  1. Wow! And people complain about the publishing industry being out of touch!

    Always appreciate your insights into all things techie.

  2. ' idea that would redefine storytelling'

    IT sounds like b*ll*x to me. Surely there's plenty of stuff that sits beyond books in the interactive realm? Computer games being the obvious one, and I'd guess they are more likely to redefine storytelling rather than an app.

    I've had a go at making apps but like you say, if I wanted it to work and look good I'd need to get people in.

    I agree that the best idea seems to be to keep writing, if I actually ever write something good hopefully it'll get picked up by someone who might turn it into a book or a film or a game or an app. But only if they think it'll make money.

    I loved Stewart Lee's book by the way, I'm off to see him in a couple of weeks for my birthday.

    In summary I really liked this post and agree with everything in it.