Guest Post: If I Were a Rich Man

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I am a reluctant member of the app-making business, a recovering programmer/designer who has fallen off the wagon. This matters, because when I chose to base my ebook platform on Corona SDK, I chose it to minimize the programming involved.

See, if I were a rich man, I’d be in the jungles of Borneo reporting on the environmental and social destruction, gathering the sounds and photography and video and stories to make a book app. That’s where my passion is — shooting great pictures and telling important stories that have the chance to move people and change the world. Nice work if you can get it!

After a life of programming and design, I switched to photojournalism. I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, in 2001 and spent twelve years photographing in the mass graves of Kosovo, the wars in Macedonia and Iraq, the tsunami in Thailand, and the insurgency in eastern Turkey. I came back to the US in 2007 and photographed stories about wrongfully convicted people (see “Innocence Project”) and wildfires. Frankly, it’s been a lot of fun.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

So, if were a rich man, I’d hire a team of programmers and designers, some fancy San Francisco shop with an in-house pogo stick parking lot and a stuffed cow on the scrubbed, red-brick wall.

However, when you’re not rich, you just have to do things yourself. So, I built that ebook app myself. It’s been a long journey, but the platform is up and running. The latest apps built on the platform are “GG Bridge” (out now!) and “Ed Kashi” (out as soon as Apple finishes review). Even my book on Borneo is in progress because I was able to demonstrate to potential funders a working prototype.

It’s been a long slog.

About two years ago I started looking for a tool to build ebook apps. It took quite a while to find a system that worked for me. Adobe InDesign had some beta tools that looked promising — when they didn’t crash — but Adobe had prohibitively high publication fees. Apple’s Xcode looked great for an objective-C programmer, but years of PHP and CSS and Javascript work, I really didn’t want to learn another language and library, along with whatever huge set of quirks and bugs that would entail. Appcelerator and the other Javascript-based tools looked promising, but they turned out to be too slow (and often buggy) for the smooth user interaction a good ebook’s needs. I even tried the Baker Framework; in its early days, I successfully programmed sliding, cached pages in Javascript, inside of HTML 5, which was put into web-views. It almost worked, but was simply too unstable.

Many believe Corona is just a game platform, but I don’t agree. It turns out that if you want a smooth, fast, realistic user experience, you need a platform designed for speed. If you want clean graphics and animations, smooth and subtle, the kind that allow an ebook reader to NOT notice that she’s using a computer, then you need a platform which focuses on graphics and sound functionality.

I ended up reprogramming my Javascript ebook into Corona, and I had a working prototype in a week.

Lua is a bit of a joke on the other languages — compared even to PHP, it’s so easy to work with that you just want to laugh at the other guys. I can work PHP and Javascript and Perl, so I didn’t need to “learn” Lua. I just did it.

A year later,  here’s what I’ve built: an ebook platform that lets you create an interactive ebook using XML code. I can export pictures and captions from Adobe Lightroom (using LR/Transporter) and create a photo ebook, with slide-up captions, in under 15 minutes.

My demo book is called “3 Stories,” built using InDesign for the layout, Lightroom for exporting, and the Corona platform for the app (free in the iTunes App Store).

For Ed Kashi, one of the world’s great photographers, I’ve built a book with text and zooming images, audio commentary, zooming contact sheets, and an interactive map (out soon, see “Ed Kashi” in the iTunes App Store).

For the California Historical Society, I used Corona to build “GG Bridge,” a visual history of the Golden Gate Bridge, just in time for the 75th Anniversary (this one is free on iTunes).

Now, I’m a step closer to spending less time programming, and more time making great ebooks. I’ve even turned apps into a side-business, making ebooks for other people.

Not bad for a platform commonly mistaken for a “game” system, right?

-David Gross

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This entry has 5 replies

  1. Luc says:

    Thanks for sharing, are you publishing books for Android as well?

  2. Paul Osburn says:

    Great writeup David, thanks!

  3. XenonBL says:

    Thanks for detailing your experience, David. Do you have any plans for releasing your photobook platform for use by other Corona developers (either for sale or on the code exchange?)

    Also, I’m curious what tools you use, or would consider using, to develop image heavy standard ebooks (like ePUB), as opposed to books as apps. If you’ve seen Yellow Submarine from iBookstore then you know much of the ebook-as-app functionality can now be done in the ePUB format, at least on Apple’s platform.

  4. David Gross says:

    Luc, I haven’t published for Android yet, but I have tested the platform on a Kindle Fire. As you’d expect, some iOS native video doesn’t work, and the feel is slightly choppy but very usable.

    XenonBL, I am investigating how to make the platform available for others, but I really don’t know how long that will take. It is one of my goals.

    I have used Apple’s iBook Author, and it’s quite good. I almost had a heart attack when it came out! I’d been expecting it, and I thought it would kill my platform but that hasn’t been the case. It doesn’t have some of what I wanted for an ebook experience. Phew!

    Yes, clearly, much (or most) of the interactive book functionality can be done in ePUB with HTML5. I haven’t seen all the plugins yet — so unless you do some more programming, those books are still slightly more primitive. That will change soon, one can expect.

    Therefore, I’m pushing my platform to do some things that standard ePUB simply cannot do: I am allowing for the structure of a book to grow, change, and respond to the reader. In addition, while my books are currently one-off apps, the system soon will allow you to be your own publisher. That is somethings special!

    The question remains (on the Apple side): build an app or use something like iBook Author? Many of us are struggling over that question, and there is no obvious answer. Rather, it depends on (a) the content of your book, since edgier books won’t make it past Apple’s review, (b) How you want your book marketed (as a book, or as an app), (c) whether the book will become something bigger, basically a “portal”, a medium of its own…or stay “simply” a book.


  5. David Gross says:

    GOOD NEWS: The “Photojournalisms” app was approved by Apple and is available.This app uses more of the abilities of my platform, including overlays. Also, the text is rendered by Corona, and is not created as inDesign JPG files, so the app file size is much, much smaller than it would be with JPG text.
    Here’s the iTunes Store link: