Available today for iOS and for Android, the app will sell digital comics as single issues or bundles, with famous brands including My Little Pony, Transformers, Popeye and The Beano present from its launch.
The app functions as both store and reader for the comics, with children able to browse entire pages or flip between individual panels, while also recording their own voice narration and sound effects for the stories.
Me Comics’ release follows Me Books, which launched for iOS in October 2012, and then Android in February 2014. “We’ve had over 400,000 downloads of the Me Books app, and of those close to 200,000 are now active users,” Made in Me CEO James Huggins told The Guardian.
“Of people who download, around 20% will buy a book, and then of those people, around 20%-25% become the super-users who are repeat-purchasing. There isn’t much middle ground: people either buy one or two books, or they buy and keep buying.”
Former Penguin and Moshi Monsters executive Eric Huang, who joined Made in Me in August 2013 as its development director, added that around 70% of Me Books’ business has come from the UK, with another 20% in Australia, where the company has been working hard to sign up local books.
The pair are hoping that Me Comics will be able to find an audience of slightly older children than Me Books, although there will clearly be some crossover between the two.
“Me Books maybe goes up to age six-ish, but Me Comics will go up to 11 or 12. Me Books is very much picture books for preschoolers, but comics seemed like the next logical step for parents and older kids wanting something different,” said Huang.
Made in Me is hoping to compete with established all-ages comic apps like ComiXology, stressing that children will be able to browse the Me Comics store without encountering titles more suitable for adults. “Our shop is brands that parents trust,” said Huang. “It’s family-friendly but still cool. There’s no blood!”
As with Me Books, the company is hoping that Me Comics will introduce parents and children to some new, independent authors and illustrators, even if they’re initially attracted to the app by the famous brands – with some major deals on the latter score set to be announced in the coming months for Made in Me’s three apps.
Three? Yes, Me Books and Me Comics will be joined this summer by a third app: Me Activities, doing for digital activity books – think colouring and (virtual) stickers – what the existing apps do for picture books and comics.
“It’s based on an activity-book reader that we’ve developed: a set of creative tools to colour, do dot-do-dot puzzles, mazes and so on,” said Huggins. “Parents will be able to browse a collection of titles, buy an activity book and then their children can go through it drawing, colouring, stickering and then maybe printing a gallery.”
Huang said that when Made in Me signs licensing deals with publishers and brands now, often they’ll cover all three apps. Meanwhile, the company is also looking to open up its platforms more to new authors and illustrators, with a self-publishing section of its website.
“We’re thinking about Me Books not just as a shop, but also as a place where we can create ebooks. We’re asking illustrators and writers to submit books for us to look at, and if they pass our tests, we will publish them onto Me Books and Me Comics, and later Me Activities when it launches,” said Huang.
“We’ll be working with them to help build the brands, characters and worlds, and then maybe take them into games, TV, consumer products and all these other areas. But the first step is to have a digital platform where people can get their work published. It’s about us being a publisher, and we think there’s a massive talent pool out there to work with.”
It’s fair to say Made in Me is grafting away at building a business from children’s digital books, rather than rolling in the kind of money being earned in the free-to-play mobile games market – a point freely admitted by Huggins in various appearances at industry conferences since Me Books first launched.
Many traditional book publishers have found the apps market hard going too, launching what they feel are creative, fun digital versions of their stories, only to see them flop on the app stores. Huang, who spent his time at Penguin launching a series of digital projects, thinks the industry hasn’t always got its products right.
“A lot of the book-apps where you read, play some games, and read again are expecting children and parents to adopt a completely new behaviour rather than how parents and children have read together for centuries,” he said.
“The psychology of the mind when reading is not the same as when you’re playing a game, but I think a lot of the disappointment that publishers have had came from trying to mash up the two in a way that doesn’t work, because it requires a change of state-of-mind in one sitting.”
That may not be a universal view. Fellow British firm Nosy Crow, for example, has been building its apps business by gradually introducing more gaming elements into its fairytale apps – particularly its recent Jack and the Beanstalk. Both companies are slowly but surely finding audiences for their different approaches.
Huggins suggests that disappointment in the more independent waters of the children’s apps industry may be down to the ease of self-publishing on the app stores, and the challenges of then marketing those apps successfully.
“It’s become incredibly easy for a creator or a small group of creators to come together to make something really lovely and stick it out into the world, in the same way that anybody can write a book and self-publish it. As we know, that is a long, long way from commercial success,” he said.
“With our [pre-Me Books] The Land of Me apps, we tasted what it’s like to make something beautiful that you’re really proud of, which you then watch flounder commercially. Putting an app somewhere where people can actually get it is only 10% of the battle, but often when you’re doing it, you think it’s 80%.”
Another widely-debated topic within the publishing industry is the question of whether apps are distracting children away from reading. Witness the study revealed by Nielsen Book in September 2013 suggesting that the percentage of children reading for pleasure was falling, even as their app usage rose.
Made in Me is one of the companies aiming to prove that apps can support early reading, not harm it. Huggins thinks that it’s an “adult thing” to become “obsessed with format” in terms of whether children like games and apps more or less than books.
“Kids love characters and stories, and they will do whatever it takes – whether it’s paper or glass, book-app or game-app, to get the characters and stories that excite them and have what they want. Are books doomed because there are more ‘exciting’ things to do on devices? That’s an adult mentality, and it’s 100% wrong,” said Huggins.
“It’s simply not the case. I’ve had my five year-old boy – who’s a prime case for someone turning their nose up at something like Me Books because he’d rather play Temple Run – march up to me wanting to buy one of those Newsstand magazine apps. I explained to him that it was a magazine, not a game, but he said ‘cool!’ and then I watched him devour it page-by-page.”
He suggested that this revealed a wider truth: “Kids don’t see the difference between physical and digital. They will pick up whatever allows them to get to the characters and stories they want.”
Huang chipped in: “It’s also true that when publishers try to ‘gamify’ their books, and they become a really crap reading experience with a really stupid game or animation, kids think it’s a bit lame. Product development shouldn’t be about throwing in every capability that the device offers to make a really crap book. You shouldn’t try to do everything.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010