Sunday, October 7, 2012

Getting Your Story App Reviewed - Interview

I believe there are 3 main ways to get your new story app or ebook noticed and bought many times over. 1. Make something AMAZING that changes the user/viewer/reader emotionally. 2. Tell your friends about it via social media and 3. Submit it to review sites. I strongly believe that advertising is for boring products so if the people you shared it with don't respond your time is probably better spent back at the drawing board. That's my plan anyway.

I'll have an app in Apple's app store in early November if all goes according to plan (and I'll be making tutorials on how I did it so check back soon) so logically I've wanted to get to know who and where I should submit my app to for review. Why mess around I thought - go for the most prominent children's story app review site and ask the reviewer directly. What I got was very unexpected. Straight talk. You guys know I love straight talk.

I love the answers Carisa Kluver of Digital Storytime gave me (some of her advice is what I've been preaching) and I'm so grateful that she was willing to give me her time. If you're at all interested in producing story apps you NEED to read this article

Will Terry: What do you review and how can someone get reviewed by you?

Carisa Kluver: When I began this site in late 2010, I would review things in the order they were submitted, but eventually got overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content coming into the AppStore (and my inbox), everyday. I decided it was better to continue to provide a solid resource for parents, teachers and librarians, than to cover everything. But that means some titles I enjoy, but don't love, may never get covered by my site. There is a sea of content out there, and it just seems to grow exponentially every six months.

I choose what to review a couple days in advance, giving me flexibility to cover whatever I'm most interested in at the moment. This helps me to be more engaged in the writing process, which is really important for good content. I'm particularly looking out for truly original stories and innovative use of the tablet medium. I'm also, personally, a sucker for gorgeous illustrations. I'm the daughter of an art teacher and really love the visual nature of picture books, which is probably why I'm reluctant to review for older readers.

Titles previously published in print are very popular, as are popular topics (like robots, princesses or dinosaurs) or titles from big media names. These reviews drive a lot of traffic to my site, so I try to sprinkle them in liberally as I'm reviewing. I make an effort to balance my readers general interests (everything in the top 200 book apps in the app store) with my own family's taste and a sense of obligation to the creative community. I'm also on the lookout for things that no one else is reviewing.

In addition, I find that authors and illustrators who were previously published in print are easier to review, since the job of 'vetting' indie work is very hard. People say such harsh things sometimes about the publishing industry, but they did set some pretty phenomenal standards for picture books. I didn't appreciate this well until there was no filter on my child's content.

Will Terry: How long does it take to get reviewed?

Carisa Kluver: I hate to say it, but the reality is that getting reviewed by my site

(or any decent sized site for app reviews) is one of those "6 months to never" situations, depending on the

app. It can range from as soon as the first week a book is out to 18 months after release, depending on the book and when I discover it for the first time.

I've had book apps that I've enjoyed for over a year before writing up a review, although I usually know within 90 days if I am eager to review something or not. Sometimes a new update or price drop will perk my interest, though. I keep everything installed on my iPad until it is either reviewed or previewed long enough to reject it as under 3.5 stars. I get a lot of app updates, since I have nearly 500 book apps I'm considering for review at any given time.

I do download and preview every app, when given promo codes with requests, within 30 days, so nothing is completely off my radar. I don't mind an email asking about a request, so long as people wait at least a month before contacting me. If I get a polite inquiry, several months after a request has been made, I will often respond personally and take another long look at the app.

Most people who submit to my site never follow-up in any way, even after I email a link to their published review, so if someone bothers to contact me, I will usually do my best to reply. I try to keep track of everything, but I discover gems on my own iPad that have been installed for months, without even being opened. This is the busiest business I've ever been in ... I try to sit and look at new books every few weeks to see if I've missed anything, but it's hard to fit everything into a 24 hour day.

Will Terry: If you don't like the app will you give it a bad review? Not review it at all?

Carisa Kluver: I don't enjoy giving bad reviews, but the term 'bad' is subjective. I find that some developers/authors have heard in the media that "nothing less than 5-stars" is acceptable if they want success in the app store. On my site, with over 600 book apps rated 3 stars or more, so far, fewer than 10% have gotten 5 stars, so that is not really true for my rating system. I consider a 3.75 to 4 star rating from my site, a solid minimum recommendation, with any reservations I had listed in the written review and/or reflected in the rating categories.

We have a range that allows for 0-5 stars with quarter star increments, but in reality we primarily use the range from 3.5 - 5, which allows for a lot of subtle gradations. This rating system simply wouldn't work if it wasn't 'graded on a curve', so to speak. I compare each app to the current market overall. But I won't bother giving a bad review for sport or money ... I would rather not write it, especially if no one will read it anyway (bad reviews are generally traffic killers for a review site - unless they are funny or grisly). Instead, upon request, I will offer private consultation by the hour for app developers and content creators that would like a written report about their app when it scores under 3.5 stars.

As a result, I rarely review apps that rate under 3.5 stars. There are exceptions, for instance, books I think are awful yet still rank in the top 100 on the iTunes charts consistently, or free apps that are particularly misleading or educationally unsound. For those apps, should I discover them, I will give a rating well under 3 stars and publish it, if I think it is a useful warning to consumers.

Will Terry: How would getting a good review from you affect someone's app sales?

Carisa Kluver: I think it varies a lot. I've heard that a good review from my site can 'make or break' a book app, but I have a hard time believing that. I think if a book app is exceptional, it will do well no matter what, but a temporary spike in sales is not unlikely with a stellar review from a decent sized review site. If I had to make a wild guess, I bet the spike is probably biggest for apps I rate over 4.5 stars that are new or were otherwise not getting traction/attention in the marketplace.

A review on my site also gets an app into consideration for a lot of other promotions, over time. Any review with a price drop will be featured on our deal page for several days, for instance, giving more long-lasting help with actual sales. I also do a number of Top 10 and category listings for apps I review, so getting reviewed on my site can open up a lot of other opportunities for unexpected attention. I do special posts about 5-Star apps at the end of the year, as well as a yearly "Best of the Best" list.

I think linking social marketing, advertising, reviews and other aspects of app promotion directly to sales can be very deceptive. Someone with a phenomenal new release that is unknown might see a huge spike in downloads after I give them a good review, but another title that is already doing well might not see any impact at all. It can be difficult, especially if you are implementing a lot of different kinds of marketing at the same time, to measure which has the most impact.

But I'm not The New York Times. I run a niche site with a very loyal following and have a relatively good reputation in a tight-knit but also 'emerging' industry. Direct sales are much more complex than 'get a review = downloaded apps'.

Will Terry: What is the biggest mistake you see story app developers making over and over?

Carisa Kluver: I wish I could tell every story app development team, before they get out of the gate and start working on a new project just three things:

1. Story is everything and for picture books, illustrations are part of the story. Start with a good story (written AND visual) - always start there. Period. But don't stop there. Integrate all the elements you decide to add. Storytelling in digital is a blend of elements and it is clearly an art, not a science. I have heard many 'experts' tell authors to just have the text for their picture book first and then find an illustrator after-the-fact, but I, personally, think these two need come together first before anyone can tell if it is a good idea for digital.

2. Consider your expenses versus realistic sales of an app book and don't 'over-enhance' your story (assuming it's exceptional already) with cheap or unpolished attempts to be what you think an 'app' should be. Stick to the story and under-produce it when in doubt. You can update later, but don't go bankrupt over a picture book.

3. Remember that kids are the readers ... and imagine a real child in a home or school setting with this app. If your book is full of lots of tappable animations and interactions that are fun, but totally unrelated to the story or plot in general (or go on indefinitely if tapped repeatedly), why would parents & educators choose this app over a kid's game or general entertainment app? This sort of thing makes me want to leave the room while my child is testing a app. Even if my child says he likes the story, he can't tell me a thing about it afterward, except, "It was fun, mommy!" I'd rather he play Angry Birds if there is no story comprehension.

Note: A lot of storybook apps are being bought to replace time reading print books, so the ability to experience the book with or without narration is important. Page-turning as a pause is also important, and anything that helps young readers focus on the text (like highlighting as narrated). These things matter a lot more than other kinds of enhancement. Often developers get focused on the 'wow' factor in an app, when much less expensive and more educational enhancements make sense, depending on the story itself.

Will Terry: Do you see any niches not being filled by story app creators?

Carisa Kluver: Books for older readers are in large need, especially for reluctant readers, who find many of the narrated picture books too 'babyish' for their interests. I also think non-fiction is still wide open for every level above preschool.

The toddler and preschool markets for almost every type of app are saturated, in my opinion. Moving up into the 6-12 market and even middle & high school non-fiction, especially for enhanced, text-book-style titles, is a smart move right now. Story apps aren't right for every title, though, so I would hate to see chapter books and leveled readers try to become overly enhanced. I'm actually rather fond of iBooks and other .pdf style formats, but they haven't resonated with consumers as much as the book app ... at least so far.

Will Terry: Do you see the story app market growing?

Carisa Kluver: Yes and no. Yes in that I see the actual market growing ... by leaps and bounds actually. But I also see the field of developers who are able to publish works successfully (independent of the authors/illustrators or creative folks behind the work) narrowing substantially.  It might be a number more akin to what we knew in publishing before digital ... not necessarily just a handful of developers, but maybe just several dozen small presses, instead of thousands of independent app developers.

I don't think children's books and children's software are the same for parents, educators or librarians. I personally doubt that there is room for thousands of small presses with limited credibility. I suspect children's librarians, in particular, will also have a lot more influence over time in this market. They need trusted sources of information about books to purchase for young readers. Mark my words ... bells & whistles are not going to sway this crowd.

Will Terry: Aside from submitting apps for review what other marketing strategies should creators take?

Carisa Kluver: I'm so glad you asked this question! I wish app developers and book creators, in general, were less dead set on reviews as a source of marketing. I actually think reviews can be good or bad for a story app, depending on the review. But getting a review, even a good one, isn't really marketing. It's useful to submit your story for to review sites, especially in digital, where it costs little or nothing to make sure a decent sized website actually gets a copy of the app to see for themselves why it's special.

This isn't a sure way to make sales, however, even if your review is published. Reviews, in my opinion, should be an 'examination or assessment' of a book, not a glowing source of marketing 'quotes'. For any title, it can be valuable to have a certain 'minimum' number of thoughtful reviews, but they don't guarantee direct sales. They are part of a bigger picture that includes building a brand or author platform, as well as creating AND understanding your audience.

Sometimes a tiny app review site can give a stellar review that helps a developer change or improve something vital to an app's success. Or maybe an app isn't visible to a certain group of users, like homeschooling families, where a specific review really makes a difference. It may also be useful to pay for professional consultation during the process of app creation and marketing a launch.

Marketing should be, on some level, built into every part of the process of development. There is nothing wrong with just 'telling a story' if you have one you are passionate about, but it is another thing entirely to expect people to pay for it ... you have to communicate to others why your story is special. This is essentially what marketing is about. You either have a product that fills a clear need or you create that need through buzz by stimulating curiosity. Creating 'buzz' is easier said than done, however.

Note: I also think app creators of all sorts need to embrace the 'google alert' and set them up for several phrases that might lead to their app ... then comment on articles/blogs when you have something relevant to add to the discussion. You can share about your new app, and in the process, you will come across blogs and sites you didn't know existed. There are a lot of online sites for specific topics that your book might fit well into ... including communities much less saturated by 'app' news than many app review sites.

Will Terry: What question(s) should I have asked you and what's the answer to it?

Carisa Kluver: One of the questions I get most often, is simply, "Who are you?"

People wonder what sort of background I have and what it takes to run a site reviewing digital picture books. I'm married to a programmer, who customized my site for me, which is no small part of why I am online. I'm not especially technically savvy, but really appreciated how well a database system can organize information over time, when I worked in research. I like to see numbers and move data around as a result, so my custom system allows me to see trends in my own reviews that would be hard to pick up without data to crunch.

I have a Master's degree in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Washington, and background working with youth and families in both direct services and research, but no formal training in early education, library science or literacy. I also have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus on cultural transitions in modern society, so the 'digital shift' spoke to my inner-anthropologist more than anything else, I suspect.

I am an avid reader and love the challenge that blogging and reviewing gives me as a writer, but other than that, I'm a mom who fell in love 'at first sight' with the picture book app in early April of 2010. But I sensed a huge gap online when I would try to find out more about these new apps. I guess I have been trying to bridge that gap between content creators and readers ever since.

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of, an iPad children's book review site and, a curated deal page for kids apps. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health. She also has a blog, focusing on kid lit, technology and the app development world, called The Digital Media Diet.


  1. Great article! I sent in a review request to Digital Storytime for my Mousey the Explorer app about 3 weeks ago.

    So I guess it's only about another 5 month wait! lol!

    I too find it's better to keep my attention mostly on creating new work than trying to do promotion endlessly.


    1. Good luck on your review John - sounds like a sea of apps out there all trying to grab attention...

    2. Hi John ... I got your request & sent a reply the same day, about a month ago. Since Mousey the Explorer is inside the Interactive Touch Books app, we aren't able to review it. We currently only review stand-alone book apps - hope you got our reply?



  2. Really great comprehensive article...very interesting, useful and current!

    1. Agreed Roxie - I wasn't expecting such a comprehensive report - I like that I'll be able to go back and refer to it...

    2. How long do you archive your posts!?

    3. Hi Sabrina - You can still go back to the beginning of my blog - You would have to hit "older posts" a bunch of times but they're all there. I don't have any plans to take any of them down. I also have that search widget up there somewhere on the right side - you can always key word search to find a previous blog post...

  3. Fascinating interview! Being part of Carisa's loyal following, I always enjoy reading what she has to say!

    1. I'm paying more attention now than ever - it's nice to know that there are truly committed reviewers who's motivations are in the right place!

  4. As a fellow reviewer I just wanted to chime in and say that Carisa always masterfully and succinctly describes the experience of an app reviewer. There is so much to cover and reviewers must be selective in order to maintain quality sites. Great advice for developers to follow as always - thanks for the interview.

    1. Thanks Jennifer - I'll have to check out your site too - do you know of a list of story app review sites?

  5. Fantastic interview! Thank you for the insights!

    1. Carisa gave us her time - what more can we ask?

  6. Personally, I find it hard to believe that Carisa is actually one person. I'm continually impressed with the quantity and especially the quality of her reviews and blogs. This article is a perfect example of someone asking straight questions and getting straight answers from somebody who knows what she's talking about.

    1. Amen Stan! I would go crazy - she might have to eventually hire a staff.

  7. Digital Storytime gave our app, Laloo the Red Panda, a 4.25 star review and we definitely saw a nice spike in sales the day it was posted! Carisa wrote an honest review and included solid feedback that we are prioritizing for our next update. However, as mentioned, reviews are not the be all end all for marketing. For a new app, a good review is a great sanity check and pat on the back for developers. It's equally if not more important (esp. for us indies!) to build a platform/community around our app... this is a slow and steady process that can't really be bought or expedited. Having worked in traditional publishing for a while, this is probably the biggest similarity between print and digital that I've come across.

    1. Thanks Lauren - I agree!!! That platform is huge! It's not going to happen overnight for most developers - it's that lifelong steady progress towards a body of quality work.

  8. Thank you so much, yet again. As you know I'm floundering, but Carisa's pointing out what is desirable I feel put me a few notches ahead in the game. Often we get wrapped up in process, so knowing what the end product needs to look like a little bit, is a great, great help. I look forward so much to reading about your process, again, it's helped me so much (I only have small bald patches instead of a shiny pate from the hair pulling, lol)

    1. Thanks agy - I can't wait to post progress reports!


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