SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-App Creator Interview: Sarah Towle

By Whitney Stewart
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I met Sarah Towle in Paris in 2007 when she was looking for a publisher for her children’s story/travel-guides to Paris. 

Her early concept was fantastic, so when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to take her new company, Time Traveler Tours, digital and interactive, I pledged a donation. 

Now Sarah’s App, Beware Madame La Guillotine: A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, about a French noblewoman who murders a revolutionary leader, is one of School Library Journal’s top ten apps for 2011. Sarah’s transformation from writer to entrepreneur is as exciting as her digital tales.

Sarah, you’ve morphed very quickly from educator and linguist to a cutting-edge app creator and entrepreneur. Is your head spinning? What has been the best and worst part of your transformation? 

Spinning. Yes, that is indeed the appropriate word. Never in my life did I imagine myself as an entrepreneur, or the recipient of such praise from School Library Journal. Perhaps miracles really can happen!

The absolute best part, as for any author, was seeing the dream come to fruition. From my editor’s final sign off, to the designer’s first ideas, to the testing of the final builds, to the earning of a top 10 distinction, it was a bumpy but thrilling ride.

Although the highlight moment was not willing my shaking, sweaty hands to tear off the postal wrappings without damaging the jacket of the just-received virgin hardcover book; it was not gazing down upon my creation while holding it in my hands for the first time.

Rather, it was witnessing, while on “vacation” in Mexico with my family and our dearest friends, Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris go live in the App Store.

Unfortunately, the absolute worst part came just seconds later when I first grasped that I now had to sell the darn thing!

No sooner had I taken that first sip of terrible Mexican bubbly than I burst into floods of tears. Twin thoughts suddenly occurred to me: What if no one likes it? What if no one finds it?

In the ensuing days, I had to force my peeps to go out exploring the Mexican landscape without me so that I could face the Sisyphean task otherwise known as marketing.

It was like giving birth to a first child and spending the entire pregnancy focusing on the birthing plan without putting any thought at all to how you intend to feed and diaper the tike once it pops out!

Another “best part” was the development process. It was uber-creative and forced me to bring to bear many skills, both old and new. Organizing words and phrases to give life to a living, breathing, feeling character that demands her audience to sit up and take notice was only the beginning.

I then had to build a team of talented editorial, technical, and graphical artists; I had to rewrite the manuscript as a storyboard, mapping out where each image and interactive element would go and how they would flow in and around the narrative. I had to record and master the audio narration in English, then translate the entire text – interactive elements and all – and re-record and re-master the narration in French.

All the while, I had to build an online platform, including website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter handle, LinkedIn account, and learn how to use these tools – not an easy task for one prone to introversion. I had to tackle such legal matters as trade marking and incorporation as well as issues of branding, like logo and slogan creation, and make the acquaintance of all kinds of heretofore unknown creatures, such as search engine optimization.

But it was also exhausting having to face a new learning curve every month non-stop for several years straight. Even when I finally thought I saw the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and made plans for a family vacation to Mexico, I found I still had to keep working.

And during the two years spent developing the first app – another “worst part” – I didn’t get a lot of good, new creative writing accomplished.

I’m exhausted just reading about what you had to accomplish and what you put aside. Do you see yourself ever going back to the print medium? Could your apps become books? 

I dream of the day when I see my stories in print!

Unfortunately, Beware Madame la Guillotine and my other StoryApps now in development, don’t lend themselves to the print medium very comfortably due to the high level of interactivity.

That’s why I decided, two years ago now, with the help of the 48 thirteen-to-fourteen-year-olds who piloted the print mock-up, that the project was never meant to be a book but could make a killer series of apps.

However as iOS apps, my stories can only be discovered and enjoyed, at present, by those who own an Apple mobile device. Yes, these are a lot of people, and the numbers are growing everyday. But it’s still a small percentage of the world’s gazillions of readers.

So my agent, Erzsi Deàk of Hen & ink Literary, and I are currently brainstorming ideas for adapting the stories for use in multiple formats. For example, I am working on creative nonfiction treatments of each story to produce as middle grade illustrated histories.

It’s been suggested that Beware Madame la Guillotine would make a great screenplay. And the StoryApps could easily be made into virtual tours for use as desktop apps in home or educational settings, if one had the right technology and budget. Wink.

In fact, I think it’s an imperative of the new paradigm born of the digital revolution that all authors seek to publish on multiple formats. The reason is that audiences can now engage with story in many more ways – print, eReader, film, mobile app – and they are developing preferences.

Therefore, to reach as many people as possible, we have to make our voices heard across platforms. We have to be a part of the trend toward “transmedia story telling.” The opportunities are greater than ever before. Print, far from dead or dying, is now just one possible medium for story publication and dissemination. And I can’t wait to play there, too!

Your first digital book-app is about a French murderess. What does your choice of character say about you?

Gosh! I never thought about that before – about how my choice of Charlotte Corday as a character reflects on me as a person. What a fascinating question!

It’s true that I’ve always tended to root for the underdog. Perhaps it was this attitude that informed the initial mission of the Time Traveler Tours project in general: To reveal history through the stories of those who lived it and whose actions contributed to shaping their time.

I wanted to give voice to history’s lesser known or completely unknown players, not the Marie-Antoinettes and Napoleon Bonapartes we’ve already heard from hundreds of times.

As I searched for the perfect character to tell the story of the French Revolution, Charlotte was always there, lurking in the shadows, alluded to but never fully fleshed out. I noticed her, but didn’t really pay her attention.

Then, one day I was on a guided tour of the Palais Royal – yes, taking guided tours is part of my job description! Isn’t that fabulous?! – and our facilitator took us to the address of a once famous cutlery shop. Can you guess what made it so? It was where Charlotte Corday bought the knife she used to kill Marat.

There she was again, this time she’d jumped right out of the past and grabbed me by the collar. She begged me to let her tell her story, finally, as she had never been able to do in life. So I did.

You could also say that this choice of character reveals that, like Charlotte, I can be quite determined, even stubborn, when I set out to accomplish something. Convinced that Jean-Paul Marat was to blame for the Reign of Terror, and that committing a violent crime was justifiable if done at the service of peace, Charlotte determined to murder him, come what may. Similarly, once I got it into my head that I could produce this project myself, there was no turning back. Come what may.

(Note: Charlotte Corday. Original steel engraving drawn by A. Lacauchie, engraved by
Roze, 1849. Digital image courtesy of

I can’t wait for your next app release. They’re fun for adults too. Could you give us a sneak preview of your upcoming protagonist?

Sure! Whitney, I’d like you to meet the narrator/tour guide of the Time Traveler Tours StoryApp iTinerary currently in production: Day of the Dead, A Spectral Saunter through Napoleon’s Paris…

Bonjour! The name is Jean-Philippe Toulier.

Before you extend your hand, you might like to know that I was a gravedigger by profession. In truth, I come from a family of gravediggers. My father was a gravedigger, as was my grandfather for a time, and so too my sons. But we weren’t the kind of gravediggers you’ve likely just brought to mind. No.
We didn’t dig new graves to put the dead in – not at first.

We dug graves up to pull the dead out.

I’m planning a trip overseas and wish you had a tour app for every major city on this planet. Do you imagine a worldwide explosion for Time Traveler Tours?

Yes. That’s exactly the idea. The sky’s the limit with Time Traveler Tours. Our story-based Paris App Tours are only the starting point, chosen because it’s the city in which I live and whose history I know best. As it happens, lucky me, it’s also the world’s most visited tourist destination.

But in addition to Day of the Dead, I hope to add a London App Tour to the list this year, for release in time for the summer Olympic Games. Then, next year, another Paris and London StoryApp tour each, and…whadda ya say…New Orleans?

New Orleans? Yes! I’m ‘bout it, as they say in this gritty town where we have loads of historical drama. And what’s next for you, Sarah? Will you continue to write your own digital tales, or will you occupy the producer role and employ a team of writers, designers, and techies?

I hope to do both. My favorite part of this process is researching and writing the stories. But working alone, I have no hope of producing new content fast enough to establish the momentum sufficient to build Time Traveler Tours as a business. Also, I don’t really know any other locations as intimately as I know Paris except New York City. So I’d rather offer other writers a vehicle for publication. And I relish the idea of working with others in creative collaboration.

At this point, the only thing standing in my way is lack of financing. I don’t have sufficient funds to pay my collaborators, who thus far have contributed their time and talent for eventual revenue split.

It will be some time, probably years, before Beware Mme la Guillotine begins to show a return on initial investment. I was lucky, and gratified – my thanks again to you for your support! – to have achieved my Kickstarter campaign goal of $5000. In fact we raised $6,000. But it covered only a fraction of the total cost to build and launch the first app.

So if anyone out there wishes to join the fun, to bet on the future success of Time Traveler Tours, as I have, and to invest their writing, design, and/or programming talent for present experience and future gain, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Writers often say that marketing is the toughest part of the business because it takes time away from writing. You had to do this on vacation in Mexico. How do you manage this on a daily basis? What are your techniques?

This is definitely my greatest challenge. Marketing does not come easily or naturally to me. Yet, how to find balance between marketing (left-brain activity in extremis) and writing (right-brain all the way) has certainly become the eternal question for creative people trying to make a living in the twenty-first century. I can’t claim to offer any magical solutions, but here are a few things I try to do, even if I’m still far from perfecting them in practice:

Start each workday with your craft. I am in the enviable position of living several hours ahead of my development partners. This means that, in theory, I can begin my day chatting with my characters without worry of interruption. It never ceases to amaze me how much I can accomplish in relatively little time if I am disciplined and willing to give my total focus to writing first thing every day. Once done, I can turn to the research or production or business tasks at hand in the afternoon, when my right brain is both relaxed and exercised, and with a completely clear conscious.

Set up a social media platform based on your needs and abilities. It is no longer merely important to have an online presence as a creative person. It is now essential. And the invention of social media makes it easier and possible for all of us to be networking from the comfort of our desk chairs. But the plethora of platform choices can be overwhelming, paralyzing even!

Just remember, you don’t need to be on every platform. And you don’t need to start using them all at once. Best to choose your tools based on whether you prefer to communicate in words (blog, Twitter) or images (Facebook, Pinterest, Flicker, Instagram); whether you wish to communicate with a young audience (Facebook) or a professional one (LinkedIn).

I got my feet wet with a blog, eventually waded in with Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and only more recently dove in with Facebook. Next up for me: Google+.
Always be linking, liking, commenting, thanking.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, marketing was about promoting products in the hope of achieving sales. Today, of course, we still want sales, we want people to buy our stories, but the means to obtaining that goal has shifted.

Now, according to Guy Kawasaki in his book, Enchantment, it’s about developing relationships with your once and future audience. You do this by revealing yourself as a trustworthy authority in your field or niche. So when you come across an article you feel contributes to your professional discussion, share the link (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+); tell others if you like it (Facebook); post a comment saying why you do, or don’t (blogoshpere); and announce your news (everywhere) so that folks can share it and link back to you.

By virtue of the things you like and information you share, you start to “tell” your story and attract like-minded friends and followers. When they, in turn, link to, like, or comment on your platform, be sure to thank them. Then, when you have news—the coming release of your new book or app—they are ready to receive and, hopefully, act upon it: i.e., share it, shout out about it, buy it!

Rule of thumb: try not to self-promote more than about 20% of the time, less is even better; the rest of the time, promote the contributions and news of others. Social networking is all about karma – what goes around, comes around. Spreading the love is key!

Limit your social networking time. Circling back to my first point above, resist the temptation to start your day with social media marketing. You may never pull yourself out! Strategy is everything. Have Twitter days, Facebook days, blogging days, etc. Finally…

Don’t underestimate the power of good old-fashioned email. ‘Nuf said.

All helpful information, Sarah. What advice do you have for other writers who are thinking of creating book apps? What are the pitfalls?

The main pitfalls are the cost to build vs. the current customer expectation that apps should be cheap to purchase. In present digital culture, the smaller the screen size, the cheaper the price.

Of course this is completely lunatic because it costs much more to build an interactive app than it does to produce an eBook, for example. Yet, despite the fact that you can get much more from a StoryApp, eBooks can fetch a higher price.

The earliest apps – simple games, tools and utilities – set the precedent for free or close to free apps before anyone really understood what mobile could be harnessed to do. App pricing conventions will inevitably change, as they have with eBooks, and apps like Beware Madame la Guillotine will eventually be valued at closer to their actual worth. But this will take some years, and in the meantime, app pricing is determined more by what people are willing to pay rather than the quality of the content and programming costs.

Also, apps need constant updating as the operating systems they live in are being continually improved upon. So be sure to factor maintenance costs and responsibilities into your negotiations with any potential programming partner. You don’t want them disappearing when you need them the most. Believe me, it happens!

Finally, keep in mind that there are a lot of programmers out there, but not a lot of good ones; and even the good ones might not be the right ones for your project. You must take your time, do your research carefully, talk to a lot of people, and choose your partners wisely.

On your website you’re running a writing competition for a three-dimensional children’s story set in London. I assume that you’d like to turn the winning story into an app. Describe your dream submission.

The dream submission will contain all the elements encountered in Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris: it will not be simply an engaging and well-researched story focused on a specific historical era narrated by a compelling central character who lived at that time, but it will also be woven around a London walking tour comprised of sites relevant to the story.

The author will have a sense of the period art and or artists that can be used to illustrate the tale. He or she will have indicated in the manuscript where the story can be expanded to include More Info links and Treasure Hunts, Orientation Games, and Trivia Challenges, all the interactive elements introduced in Beware Madame la Guillotine. I wouldn’t expect for these things to be fully formed upon submission, but they should be suggested.

You must eat, drink, and breathe French history in order to create your apps. Did you have a past life in France or something? Who were you?

Who knows, maybe I did! If so, I was probably someone who rebelled against authority and injustice, like Olympe de Gouges, but I can hardly imagine myself being as brave as her.

Olympe was amazing – a late 18th century writer and political activist who advocated publicly for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. In 1791, she self-published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in an ironic attempt to expose the Revolution’s failure to achieve gender equality, evidenced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. She was guillotined in 1793 for her views, in particular for attacking the radical regime of Danton and Robespierre.

Sarah, I love how you flesh out these amazing historical figures. And now for my final question—your interview readers will be insanely jealous of your life in Paris and your success in the digital world. Throw us a bone, please. Anything…

Nearly five years ago, in June 2007, I read aloud in front of a group of writers for the first time. This was during your workshop on writing creative non-fiction for children and teens at The American Library in Paris. Do you remember?

It was a formative moment. My hand shook so much as it held the paper that my eyes – downcast for fear of meeting disapproving glances – could not focus on the words. It didn’t matter, because I had the text memorized. So I forced myself through this simple 250-word reading despite near-total loss of control over my vocal cords.
I finished with palms and forehead burning from certain embarrassment, sensations quickly extinguished by your reaction, and by the reaction of all the participants that night.

You, Whitney, were so spontaneously positive that I left the workshop feeling like a writer, for the first time. The confidence you offered that night sustained me for the next three years as I took my little project into the workshop and planed away at the edges.

Three years later, in 2010, I re-emerged, packed my suitcase with hope, a proposal, and three finished manuscripts, and boarded a plane to Bologna, to the SCBWI conference and Children’s Book Fair. I was determined to find a publisher of what by now I had determined would be a series of interactive StoryApps. But at that fantastic fair, five football fields wide, the number of people talking digital could be counted on one hand.

One was Stephen Roxburgh of namelos, who I had to good fortune to meet. He loved Charlotte’s story, too. He said my proposal was the most exciting thing at the Fair. His encouragement gave me the confidence to produce Charlotte’s app myself, rather than wait for the industry to catch up. And here I am, two years later, app in hand and an SLJ Top 10 distinction to boot!

But guess what?

It’s time to return to the workshop, and start all over again!

Late at night, Sarah Towle wonders if she had been in Charlotte’s shoes, would she have used the knife? She doesn’t let this keep her up til dawn, however, as she has other stories to tell and apps to create. Her second title, also with a death theme, Day of the Dead, is due for release this summer. Sarah is represented by Hen&ink Literary Studio.

Cynsational Notes

Whitney Stewart publishes award-winning non-fiction and fiction, from picture book to young adult. Her latest novel manuscript, “River Voice,” now on submission, is the story of a troubled boy in post-Katrina New Orleans, and is represented by Hen & ink literary studio. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneystewart2.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

3 thoughts on “SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-App Creator Interview: Sarah Towle

  1. I met Sarah in Bologna and was so inspired by her (and Charlotte's story). Thanks for being a pioneer Sarah, and for paving the way for the rest of us. I can't wait to see more of your apps!

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