cat nav - guest blog by jos carlyle

Like many lovers of the written word, I became curious about the possibilities of touchscreen devices such as the iPhone and the iPad as they were launched in 2007 and 2010. 

It quickly became clear that the interactive features of these devices would change how readers experience literature in profound and far-reaching ways. The iPad in particular would allow storytellers to meld narrative, music, song and fine art into something that would simply revolutionise the reading experience.

We incorporated Persian Cat Press as a publishing company in October 2010, aiming to create the kind of beautiful, immersive and absorbing stories that can only be fully realised with the help of touchscreen devices. We call them iStories. 

We hit the ground running, simultaneously working on five app projects in our first year of operation:
The Gift, a gently allegorical picture book for children aged four and older.

A bright and busy picture book entitled Owls Don’t Growl that supports a number of development models for pre-school children.

Solarized, a smart, high-energy adult graphic novel set in a sunny, dystopian Manchester, told in 12 installments over three years.

The Tale of Brin & Bent and Minno Marylebone, The Ballet, a powerful and thought-provoking interactive multi-media expansion of a Jonathan Cape graphic (published in summer 2012).

And the stylish, informative and free-to-download Cat-Nav discovery app.

It was a punishing schedule at times, especially given the wildly differing subject matter and style of each project, but we felt we had a unique opportunity to make a big impression. There was no time to waste.

I've been writing picture books and graphic novels for years, and with these kinds of narratives you have to decide which elements of the story will be told via the text, which will be told via the artwork - and how the two combine.

This was an extremely useful insight when I began to write interactively. It was a natural progression to further separate the narrative into interactions, movements and sound too.

We wanted The Gift to have a heartwarming narrative told with lyrical language. We wanted it to look beautiful too – and we wanted to use the iPad and iPhone’s capabilities to reinforce these attributes.  

Dan Mynard’s artwork, for example, was rendered in a series of oil on canvas pieces, but it remains wonderfully warm and vivid because it’s displayed on the high-resolution screens of the iPad and iPhone.

The similarly handcrafted soundtrack put together by CMI Music Group provides a unique emotional counterpoint for the narrative of The Gift, allowing us to quicken and slow the pace as needed.

It took a lot of time and energy to successfully plan and coordinate the teams and individuals who worked on the original artwork, soundtrack, typography and narration for The Gift, as well as production of the app itself.

When you're commissioning this kind of high-level work, you can't always wait until every element is complete before you begin to build the framework into which they’re going to be placed. But delivering the various elements piecemeal can make it hard to stay true to the original vision.

We thought we had a pretty good idea of all the stages there would be in producing a high-level app like The Gift – but we underestimated. We got where we wanted to get to, but it took a little longer than anticipated.

Quality control took up an enormous amount of time. When you're producing a picture book app for children of this age group (4+), getting the details exactly right is crucial. Parents expect the very best – and we aim not to disappoint.

We have a culture of honesty and openness at Persian Cat Press, and we’re happy to share our insights and experiences with other companies.

This is in stark contrast to what often seems like a very insular traditional publishing industry – which is a little puzzling because from our perspective it appears that the publishing industry has as much to learn about book apps as anyone.

Our open approach has more in common with the kind of culture found in more technologically focused concerns, such as game developers. Information sharing is what keeps this culture at the forefront of change, and it makes sense to us to follow that example.

Many of us involved in narrative apps seem to be running into the same kind of difficulties in terms of pricing, visibility and so on, but very few people seem to be talking to each other. Isn’t the evolution of a mature, value-led book app market in everyone’s interest?

Maybe the big fish feel they have nothing to learn from start-ups like Persian Cat Press. We would disagree with them.

UK publishers and developers like Nosy Crow, Us Two, Tabella, Argant, and yes, Persian Cat Press have a lot to teach many of the big publishing houses – maybe even such leading digital lights as Faber and Faber, Random House and Harper Collins. We certainly know how much we can learn from them. 

Happily, The Gift is now in the App Store and selling well. We’ve been delighted at the warmth of the response to our work.

As a result of making The Gift we've worked hard to refine the production process for our second picture book Owls Don't Growl, which will be published this summer. So far it’s working like clockwork.

No matter how smoothly a project may run, though, there is always more to learn. That’s fine with us. We love what we do, and we learn fast.

You can find more information on Persian Cat Press here []


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