Marcus Chown has kindly agreed to give an author's perspective on the development process of his new iPad app Solar System: It all began in a Soho restaurant in May. I remember it vividly because there had been a fire at BT's Paddington phone exchange -- some kind of national Internet hub -- and none of the chip-and-pin credit card machines in the restaurant were working. Henry Volans said: "Would you be interested in doing an iPad App based on one of your popular science books?"
Henry is head of Faber’s digital publishing, an impressive-sounding title with a job description consisting essentially of a blank sheet of paper. The iPad had yet to be launched, but there was "buzz" surrounding Apple’s “tablet computer”. I had never had an illustrated version of one of my books such as Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, so was keen to do one. It therefore me took less than 10 seconds to say to Henry, as coolly as I could: "Yes, I'm interested."
And there it was left until a few weeks' later when Henry -- who, typically of Faber people, is far more dynamic than might be expected from one of Britain's oldest and most respected literary publishers -- phoned to say he had found a company called Touchpress, which had expertise in developing iPad Apps. "Can you go and meet them tomorrow?"
Over the years, writing has taken me to some odd places. A bog in the middle of Ireland. An eighth century metal mine deep in the Japanese Alps. And, now, an industrial estate in Acton. Actually, to be accurate, Touchpress’s base is Acton – and Champaign, Illinois.
The Touchpress offices were piled high with cardboard boxes and books and smoke detectors (yes, smoke detectors) and little, perfectly engineered cylinders of cobalt and copper and a myriad other substances. "Here, feel how heavy this is," said Max Whitby, Touchpress’s enthusiastic and (I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this) slightly geeky co-founder. He tossed me a cylinder of tungsten, which was so dense it nearly pulled my arm out of its socket. "When we got a sample uranium, we were even raided by the nuclear police," he said, gleefully.
Some background here. Touchpress was founded by Whitby, a former producer of BBC’s Horizon who, late in life, has just completed a PhD in chemistry; his friend from Oxford University days, Stephen Wolfram, multimillionaire creator of the computer language "Mathematica"; and American science writer Theo Gray. Gray had written the text for a stunningly beautiful, glossy book on the chemical elements called -- unsurprisingly -- The Elements. For years, Whitby and Gray had been trawling eBay, buying up artefacts made from each of the 92 naturally occurring elements. The idea was to, one, photograph them for the book and, two, assemble the samples of gold and copper and lithium and so on in “element cabinets" to sell to museums and art galleries (the smoke detectors contain the element americium, by the way).
And then, along came the iPad.
Whitby and Gray realised immediately that they already possessed the raw material for an iPad App that would show their artefacts -- zoomable and rotatable – in all their for glory. So was born The Elements App, created in a whirlwind of activity to coincide with the launch of the iPad. Apple leapt on it as an example of what could be done with an iPad and put it in its TV ads. As of today, it has sold more than 150,000 copies at $15 a time.
But this story is getting ahead of itself.
The idea now was to create a successor to The Elements -- Solar System for iPad. Touchpress would provide the programming and design expertise, and Faber the editorial skills and an author – me. It was not an App based on one of my books – Henry promised that for later -- but it was right up my street. I had been an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and am currently cosmology consultant of New Scientist. It seemed to me an exciting project. I jumped at the chance to be involved.
That day in Acton, I met Philip Eales of Planetary Visions, a company that specialised in taking raw NASA data and turning it into compelling space images, and Richard Turnnidge, a digital design specialist and windsurfer who lived by a beach in Kent and who was going to be the project manager. A project manager on a book! It was a first for me. In addition to these people, there were going to be computer programmers and design companies and sound engineers, both in the US and UK. It was obvious to me, as Richard drove Philip and I back to Stamford Brook tube station in his battered white van, that this was going to be very different to any project I had ever been involved with.
Thus began the phoney war. This consisted of exhausting, day-long meetings at Faber HQ in Bloomsbury, to thrash out the details of what The Solar System would do. One of my first concerns was that I would merely be required to write captions, something I definitely did not want to do. Fortunately, Faber and Touchpress were of one mind. The App was to be story-led - a high-tech manifestation of a book, but a book nonetheless.
I was set the task of writing an outline. The idea was to come up with about 150 compelling, fun, informative stories that we could tell about, say, 50 celestial objects -- planets and moons, and so on. Richard insisted this be done as an Excel spreadsheet document. Another first for me.
Although my worry that my contribution to the App would be mere captions was allayed, I was still concerned about collaborating with a large team of people. As an author, I write an outline, then write the book. There is no interference from anyone else. I have total control. It is all down to me. What if - to mix a few metaphors - everyone and his dog wanted to stick their oar in? How would I cope?
I would soon find out. The phoney war came to end with Richard e-mailing his timetable – yet another Excel spreadsheet - setting out everyone’s task with the precision of a military operation. I casually ran my finger along the time-line to find "Marcus -- writing". I had been given just nine weeks. Was that possible? I felt queasy in the pit of my stomach.
Actually, after so much talking and planning, it was a relief to get going. I calculated I would have to write 16 to 17 "stories" each week. Some of them I did not know much about. So I would have to research them first. And be authoritative. And entertaining. And write each story into just 275 words. That was the length that would fit onto the screen of the iPad in the chosen font (we did not want people to have to scroll to another page). I would be writing in a straitjacket.
Quickly, a routine developed. On Monday morning, Richard would set up a Skype conference with Philip and I. Over the next three hours, we would go through my outline, selecting the stories I would write that week, and discarding others as not up to scratch. Inevitably, there were compromises. Sometimes I had to do a story I might not have chosen because Philip had good images or videos. Other times, Richard – a non-scientist – would trigger a story by voicing something he did not understand. “How come the Sun has a surface when it’s just a ball of gas?” he asked. A story entitled “Windsurfing on Titan” (a moon of Saturn) was a nod to his seaside obsession.
In addition to the Monday morning story meetings to come up with ideas for visuals. I remember a long discussion with Richard and Philip on whether we could make an ice “cube” the shape of Saturn and film it splashing into a gin and tonic (Saturn, you see, is the only planet light enough to float in water). All these meetings ate, worryingly, into my writing time.
Those nine weeks were the hardest I have ever worked. Once I finished a story, I barely had time to cut it down to 275 words and read it through before going on to the next. When I got too boggle-eyed from scribbling with a pencil in a notepad or staring at a computer screen, I stumbled out, blinking, into the daylight. As I walked around Hyde Park, I kept stopping to scribble things that occurred to me in a notebook (I was even waking in the middle of the night to do the same thing). Some of the App was written in Apostrophe in Baker Street -- the same coffee bar where they filmed that opera singer in the “Go Compare" TV advert. Day after day, as I drank my tea and scribbled, a whole office block rose from its foundations across the road.
And, even when it was over, it was not over. There was editing -- by Henry, by a Faber sub-editor and by a tough US editor. And all the while I was vaguely aware of others in different parts of the world who were working equally hard on other aspects of the App. Then there was a “beta version”. The immediate feeling was of disappointment. Until I realised it was just at first, tentative step along the long developmental road. I gave my feedback, as diplomatically as possible - another thing I learned to do on this collaborative project – and waited.
The excitement every time I went into the Faber offices was palpable. Everyone seemed to know about the App and each milestone in its development. The funniest thing was that Faber and Touchpress made such an odd couple. The high-tech geeky company and the traditional publisher no one would have expected to be pushing the envelope on the digital High Frontier. What would T. S. Eliot, who once climbed a rickety staircase to his garret office, have ever thought of it?
Now Henry’s baby is finished (and it is not the only baby he has had in the past months!). It is not perfect. But it is the best I -- and everyone else involved -- could do in the time available. Icelandic singer, Bjork, has even written some haunting music especially for it!
How will Solar System for iPad do? The Elements had the market pretty much to itself at a time when there were comparatively few iPads. Now there are many more but the market for Apps is crowded. I have no expectations of sales. That way I cannot be disappointed. However, if we sell more than zero, I will be very happy.
Are Apps the future of the book? Or just a flash in the pan? I do not know. All I can say is that I am glad to have been involved. How could I have not been? It was simply too exciting to miss.
Marcus Chown is cosmology consultant of New Scientist. His books include We Need To Talk About Kelvin, short-listed for the 2010 Royal Society Book Prize.
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