Alternate Publishing: Book Apps

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Continuing the series about Alternate Publishing. This is 4 of 8.

Alternate Publishing Series TOC

uTales: Digital Picture Book Publishing Goes Global

Guest Post by Jean Helprin Diehl

In December 2010, my good friend Kathryn Freeman received an invite out of the blue to publish digital picture books through a new site, uTales.com. Nils von Heijne, the company’s creator, liked what he’d seen of her paintings and illustrations online. He included a code for logging on to the Beta version of uTales to check it out, plus three additional invites for colleagues. Katie and I are longtime collaborators, so she sent one to me.

Why not, we decided. We resurrected a project we’d always loved, which had garnered interest from publishers but no contract. By November 2011 we’d published this title, Paloma’s Pie, and started work on an interactive book we created just for uTales, What Color is Fred. The start-up venture we’d never heard of before had launched as an Apple app for iPad, iPhone and PC, and a respected editor from the world of traditional children’s book publishing, Emma Dryden, had joined the company to provide editorial oversight and approve books for publication. uTales customers could subscribe or purchase single titles from a library of more than 150 books – a number now nearer 200 – the work of writers and illustrators from around the globe.

See the Books on UTales:
(Note that the following links are to book previews of the first 8 pages – it’s impossible to access entire books without purchasing them:)

There are plenty of apps available for children’s books these days. uTales appears to have distinguished itself in at least three ways, so far.

  • First, its international focus and its plans to publish books in multiple languages; English came first, Swedish is next (Nils is Swedish and the company has offices in Sweden and New York).
  • Second, uTales’ software enables authors and illustrators to collaborate remotely on a manuscript from anywhere on the globe that has an Internet connection.
  • Finally, one of the company’s chief goals is to provide a platform that generates a sustainable income stream for Pencils of Promise, an international charity that builds schools in developing countries. uTales donates a portion of its profits to POP. Individual authors and illustrators can elect to donate a percentage of any income they receive from their books on the site.

Last week, uTales published The Friendship Alphabet, the work of 30 authors and illustrators from 15 countries. Katie and I contributed the letters C and T. Most communication for this project happened through a group page on Facebook. Everybody donated their work, and all profits from the book benefit POP.

We’ve had fun working with uTales, and we like the site’s focus on supporting an international charity. As the months have passed, uTales’ software has grown more sophisticated and easier to use. Programmers have added interactive sound and movement options, although, among literacy experts, opinions vary about whether these elements are a plus or a minus for young readers. It’s also unclear whether or not uTales’ authors and illustrators can expect to make much money from their creative content.

Digital picture book sites like uTales offer opportunities to e-publish work turned down by conventional publishers; some writers have been able to give new life to out-of-print titles, too. Agents and editors might argue about whether this means work of lesser quality is flooding the digital world – a fair question. On the other hand, Linsanity – the recent sports sensation Jeremy Lin – is a reminder that it can pay to give a place and a voice to what might otherwise be overlooked. In any case, I think uTales made a smart move when it added the expertise of Emma Dryden, an established publishing professional from the print world, as head of its digital editorial oversight panel.

If you’ve had an experience with a digital books app, I’d love to hear more about it at jhd@jeanheilprindiehl.com.

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