Conference Boost

I went to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators fall conference this weekend. As always they put on a fabulous weekend with top notch speakers. However, like a lot of writing conferences, the talks tend to be for first time writers anxious to find out about the industry because they always make up the majority of the audience. Nowadays I go mainly to connect with friends and possibly do some networking. Maybe I’ll pick up some industry information, but generally it’s more social than anything else. I do get an adrenaline boost from being around so many creative people and that can help me through the dark winter months of rejection letters and looking for illustration/design work in this economy.

But this past weekend I went with high expectations because Will Terry was one of the speakers. I’ve enjoyed his blog and I admire his work so I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say about digital illustration, and the ebook and app market. My expectations were met and then some. Will Terry is a really funny guy, and a wonderful teacher. I wish I lived in Utah so I could take his classes—and believe me, that’s the only reason I would want to live in Utah for I’m at home in Colorado—it feeds my spirit with its crystal blue sky and snow-capped mountaintops. But back to Will. Like all good teachers he makes you look at your world and work in a different, more exciting way. He also reminded me of some basic things that I’ve become too lazy and burnt out to pay attention to. Like making thumbnails. I always used to do them but for the past couple of years I only make one or two, if any, before plunging right into a piece. I should take the time to think about it more. I always spend the time when I’m starting a new book to work out the plot and think about the structure, subplots, etc. I should do the same with my art. For too long I’ve been focused on churning out work so I could get to the next freelance job and check. I needed a wake up call and a good head slap. (The slap was self inflicted.)

What got me really excited, though, was the market potential for apps. For once I’m in a position to be at the beginning of the trend rather than at the back of the pack. Being first to market has untold advantages and while there are a number of children’s apps out there, it’s still early in the game. The competition hasn’t overwhelmed the market. It’s possible to get noticed and build an audience. One of the most attractive features of the app market is that I don’t have to try and sell the idea to an editor, or an agent, or an art director. I can just do what I want and put it out there for people to buy. Will equated it to a baseball field. The publishing world always wants their product to hit a home run. However, their odds are actually closer to 1 in 7 that it will be a success. Because of that their focus is specific. But there’s all the foul ball territory they don’t cover for reasons like: it’s a niche market, or it’s too outrageous, or controversial, or it’s a topic that’s never been done and they don’t want to take a chance. There are all sorts of reasons why they reject work and “it not being good enough” is often not the case. To illustrate his point he mentioned “Go the F@ to Sleep.” The idea grew from a YouTube post complaining about a child who wouldn’t go to sleep and how sometimes you just want to tell them to go the @3$# to sleep. People commented on how true that was and the idea of a picture book for adults quickly grew from that. You can imagine how traditional picture book publishers would have reacted to that idea. It’s important to remember that rejection doesn’t mean your work sucks. It more likely means it didn’t fit the publisher’s specific needs. That’s very freeing, though hard to remember when you first get the rejection. How much nicer to not go through the rejection phase and just do your own app, or picture book. The people behind the “go to sleep” book approached Akashic books, an indie publisher dedicated to the reverse-gentrification of the literary world. The book ranks #130 on Amazon. It’s also important to do your research and know your market if you want to make money. One statistic to keep in mind concerns the iPhone. Since 2008 when the first iPhone came out, Apple has sold 350 million units. They expect to sell over 200 million iphones in 2013 alone. You can see the potential for the children’s app market.

This past summer I plunged headlong into making apps and it feels good to hear that it’s a smart move for illustrators. Will is investigating several programs and sites for building apps. He intends to move into that direction himself. He said that as far as children’s books go, people expect ebooks to do more. That simply having a read-along text isn’t enough. People expect animation, so he thinks storybook apps are the coming thing. They aren’t just games to entertain kids. The animation is necessary to move the story along. The interactive features won’t take you out of the story to play a game. That caught my attention. I’ve been doing fairly simple, concept apps so they are more game oriented. It’s kind of cool, though, to think about using animation as a story component. Apps aren’t just a moving picture book. They are more like a movie and you have to think in terms of action. The illustrations aren’t static. It opens up your mind to all sorts of possibilities. 

Another interesting tidbit is that Will does all his sketching on his iPad. He hasn’t used paper for the past year. The drawing program he uses  isn’t available anymore but he said his students like Sketchbook Pro. The desktop version costs around $60, but the scaled-down iPad app is only a couple of dollars. Will does all his thumbnails and sketching on the iPad with his fingertip. He doesn’t bother with a stylus. Then he emails himself the refined sketch and does the finish in Photoshop on his desktop. What a time saver.

Will’s final advice was not to play it safe. Be bold, be innovative, be provocative. And if you do quality work, people will find you. I’m going to be bold, I’m going to be provocative, and I’m going to do quality work. Come find me people.

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