How Australian writer Lee Atkinson created her Australian Road Trips App

I work with a number of authors to inform them about their digital publishing options and most of them are interested in understanding more about ebooks. Some authors are keen to understand how they can produce their own app (or application)  but can be put off by what they see as the complexities in delving into this sort of digital content.

Today we’re talking to travel writer and author Lee Atkinson about her new travel app Australian Road Trips and how and why she has chosen this digital content strategy.

Digireado: Hi Lee, thanks for talking to me today about your experiences. Is producing this app your first experience of digitising content?

Lee Atkinson:  This is the first app I have done, but I’ve been working with digital content since 2001, when I helped relaunch the NRMA’s travel and motoring website.  I had been editor of the print magazine, The Open Road, before that, but even then I spent a lot of time re-editing magazine articles and content to fit the website format.

Since becoming freelance in 2002 I have written for a number of commercial websites such as ninemsn and provided content for hotel and car company websites who needed some lifestyle to content to help broaden their brand.

I have also developed a number of my own websites to help market my content, such as a syndication website aimed at editors which also has an online image library attached with almost 7000 travel images.  In December I launched a new website called OzyRoadTripper which I will use to market and promote the app.

Digireado: Was it a big ‘mind-shift’ to change the output of your content creation or editing from print to online?

LACertainly you need to change the way you approach your writing. I don’t blog, so that means that most of the content I create for the online world needs to avoid the first person, while feature articles in a newspaper or magazines often rely on the use of 1st person narrative to hook the reader’s interest.

But really, I’m just a content provider at the end of the day, and it’s all about making sure you deliver the content in a way that suits the medium/audience. As a freelancer I find the way to stay afloat is to have as many fingers in as many pies as possible, so my work is a mixture of guide book writing, newspaper and magazine work and online content, but I am now finding that sometimes the one job will need to cover off all three areas.  For example, my most recent guide book (out in July 2012) will be printed in traditional book form, but will also be made into a website and have features extracted from it for the company blog, so I had to be mindful when I was writing that whatever style and tone I employed would be equally effective across all three mediums – which was a bit of a challenge at times.

Digireado: Did you find it as satisfying creating content for online as seeing your work in print?

LA:  Absolutely, perhaps even more so if you measure that satisfaction in terms of ‘instant gratification’. As any book author or magazine editor will tell you, there’s nothing to compare with that rush of excitement when you first hold a new book, or open a new issue of the magazine still fragrant with ink, but the beauty of working online is that you don’t have to wait so long to get that rush.  From submission of final manuscript to delivery of advance copy with my guidebooks, for example, is up to 12 months. When I was working on my app I could view a test version on my iPhone or iPad at the push of a button, and after only 50 entries or so it looked like a real proper app.  T’was a very addictive (and sometimes self-indulgent) buzz!

Digireado: Why did you decide to create the Australian Road Trips app versus pursuing another digital strategy?

LA:The number one consideration for me was that I wanted to monetise my content, not just give it away for free in a blog or on a website.

I did consider self-publishing ebook versions of some of my content, and it may well be something I pursue in the near future, but my content is all travel related and quite pictorial, and I thought the app format the most appropriate because I think people demand a level of interactivity these days.

It’s not good enough just telling them that the Waterfall Way is a great drive – they want to be able to see and choose a selection of photos, enlarge one of them if they want a closer look, find out how far away it is from where they are right now, get directions on how to get there and see a live map, as well as find out the history of the place and information on nearby attractions and places to eat and stay. And they want to make their own comments, whether that be that they loved it (hopefully not hated it) or share their own discoveries along the route. They also expect that the information be up to date, not 12 months old before they even buy it.

The app format, which works on iPhones, iPod Touch and iPad, delivers all of that in a way a website or ebook can’t.

Digireado: Once you decided you were going to create an app you seemed to move forward really quickly. How did you choose your app partner?

LATo be honest, while I have designed and created half a dozen websites from scratch, I really didn’t know where to start when it came to the technical bits of building an app.  I did a bit of a search, but couldn’t seem to find any affordable app development software (if any of your readers know of any I’d love to hear about it!) so I thought the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective way to dip my toe into the appasphere was to partner with a publishing company that had developed a CMS (Content Management System) so all I would need to do is input the content and figure out the navigation – I’d do the bits I’m good at and leave the rest to the experts!

I also like the idea that they do all the negotiations and liaison with Apple and iTunes, so I didn’t (and don’t) have to think about that side of things at all.

Sutro Media specialise almost exclusively in travel apps, so they seemed the perfect fit, and I got to keep all the rights, which was really important. They are also expanding into the android market, another important consideration for me.

Digireado: After you’d decided on your app partner and they agreed to work with you how easy was the process? Do you need to be very technically-conversant to get your content ‘into’ the app?

LA: The initial process was much the same as anywhere else.  I pitched the idea, provided a content overview, sent some sample entries in word doc form with pics (just like a sample chapter, really), they checked out my publishing history and agreed that my idea would sell.

They have been great to work with – everything was made so easy – you need no technical knowledge to use their CMS at all, it’s no harder than sharing copy on facebook!  And while I can’t speak for all publishing companies, Sutro just seem so much more enthusiastic about what they do – they have a passion for publishing that many traditional publishing houses seem to have lost – and compared to my relationships with previous publishers, I’ve never felt so much a part of a team as I do with Sutro. Which is no mean feat, given they have hundreds of authors on their books!

Digireado: How much content have you put into the app compared to the amount of writing and photography you would do for one of your books?

LA: At launch, the app had more than 265 entries and almost 2500 photos, so it’s as big, if not bigger, than a traditional guide book, and that will continue to grow at each update as I plan to add more and more road trips.

Most of my guide books have been around 60,000 words (around 330-350 printed pages), and while I haven’t counted up the exact number of words (I think that would make me weep if I did) I’d guestimate the word count to be way over the 100,000 word mark.

So, when you consider that the cost of a guide book is around $30, and the app is less than $5, and includes constant updates, it’s phenomenal value.  Makes you wonder what the future viability of guide books will be…

Digireado: Can you tell us about the Australian Road Trips App?

LAI don’t know about you, but all those ‘pocket-sized’ guide books on the bookshop shelves would never fit in one of my pockets!  The iPhone app really is a guide book you can actually keep in your pocket.

It covers 25 classic Aussie road trips, from fun-filled family holiday drives along the coast, mountain drives through world heritage rainforests and remote outback adventures.  Each road trip includes recommendations on what to see and do, where to eat and where to sleep, even where you can camp. Routes include the three famous trans-continental journeys (across the Nullarbor from Sydney to Perth, Adelaide to Darwin and the Savannah Way from Cairns to Broome across the top end) as well as iconic red desert drives from Alice Springs to Uluru and plenty of day drives and short weekend getaways from each capital city, including favourite road trip routes such as Sydney to Brisbane and Sydney to Melbourne.

But the great thing about the app is that you don’t have to follow my advice, you can use it to plan your own unique trip according to your interests using the sorting filters; you can create a family-friendly road trip, a gourmet road trip, arty, 4WD, outback, coastal… whatever you want really. Or, it will just tell you the best foodie finds or great walking trails near you, if that’s all you want to know. And it works well off line, which can be handy in a place like Australia where phone coverage outside capital cities is patchy.

The other thing is that, unlike traditional printed guide books, you know the information is totally up to date and current. It’s updated every three months, and all updates are free (and automatic) once you’ve downloaded the app. In between times, I (or a user) can leave a comment that everyone can see if something has changed, or temporarily closed (which is very important when it comes to roads and road trips!).  All entries include twitter addresses as well, so you can really stay up to date.

Digireado: Discoverability is the buzz-word these days. How does your content get found online and in the app store? What’s your strategy to help users find YOUR content when there is SO much out there?

LA: I suspect writing the app might be the easy bit. It can be hard to find the app in the app store amongst all those millions of other apps unless you know the name of what you are looking for.  Sutro has its own free mini app store, which you can download and then search though the 300+ the apps through it – great if you’re a travel junky!

I have a dedicated website that will lead people to the app on the iTunes store, and social media will play a big role in my marketing campaign; I’ll be posting complementary content, content updates and special offers and discounts on Facebook as well as Twitter.  But I’ll also be utilising the traditional print world and radio to help get the message out there with news and reviews.  There’s some things that print is still really good at after all 🙂

DigireadoAre the financials different from a traditional print advance/royalty model?

LAUnlike most traditional publishing deals, where you either receive an advance and a percentage of rrp, or a set upfront fee, with Sutro it’s the author that takes all the risk, really.  There’s no upfront fee or advance, but you get a much bigger cut of revenue; of course, the sales price is a lot lower than a book – $3-5 compared to $25-$35. In the end though, when you take into account all the discounting that most publishers do with major chains and department stores, and the small print in the contract about ‘nett earnings on premium sales’ it works out at around about the same earned per sale. (Or maybe I’ve always just had lousy contracts!)  Potentially the market is bigger as well.

Digireado:What would be your advice for writers keen to explore a variety of digital options?

LA: Go for it!  But be aware that the risk is yours, rather than the publishers.  There’s no advance, but if the app does sell, the market is truly global, and you don’t need to worry about booksellers pulling your books off the shelves after 12 months. But don’t expect it to be quick and easy – those apps look teeny weeny, but behind the friendly interface there’s as much blood, sweat and tears as the monster books on your coffee table.

Digireado: Thanks Lee! I’ve already purchased the app and for those who love a good Australian road trip or curious about how you can fit all those words into one little app get along to iTunes and download now

Lee Atkinson is one of Australia’s leading experts on travelling in Australia. Author of On the Road: 40 great driving holidays in Australia and nine other guide books to Australia, Lee has been writing about her adventures on and off the road since 1991.

2 thoughts on “How Australian writer Lee Atkinson created her Australian Road Trips App

  1. Lee, Great to read about this exciting new venture. I always keen to assist Aussie authors on a world stage. As you said, it isn’t easy but it can be tons of fun. I’m a travel fanatic too, and currently have 30 eBooks, most just travel essays. By the end of this year I plan to have 50 topics and have a How to Travel series also underway.

    I’d be keen to offer Australian authors details of what I’ve learned in the digital age. I publish through Amazon and Smashwords. Some months I’ve had over 30,000 downloads – now thats a buzz.

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