Transworld on developing The Magic of Reality app

Sophie Holmes, Digital Publishing Manager, Transworld

The Magic of Reality is Richard Dawkins’ first book aimed at a younger audience, and his first collaboration with an illustrator to create a fully designed work. So it made sense that this should also be the first time that a Richard Dawkins book was released in app form.

To explain briefly the subject of the book to anyone who has yet to read it, there are twelve chapters and in each Richard Dawkins asks a question, such as What is a rainbow? Who was the first person? Why do bad things happen? He then begins each chapter by describing several myths– some ancient and others still commonly believed – that people have invented throughout history to explain these mysteries. Finally, he goes on to explain the true science that answers each question. His powerful and persuasive argument is that the scientific reality of life is far more magical and awe-inspiring than any made up story could hope to be. 

We had been thinking for some time that the book’s subject and design would translate well into digital format, but it wasn’t until we saw the work-in-progress layout that the ideas began to spill forth.  If you’ve seen a printed copy you’ll know what I mean. The fantastic illustrations from Dave McKean are incredibly vivid and really do leap from the page. They already go a long way to clarify the scientific concepts that Dawkins describes, but we knew that with the extra functionality of the iPad we could do even more.

Somethin’ Else were our first choice of developer for the app and they were involved from the start, helping to work up a proposal for the authors and agent before we were given the green light. We had worked with the team before, on the Malorie Blackman My Cribaby app for our children’s publishing division, and knew that their standards were as high as ours. From the start they really ‘got’ the project.

The key consideration for us was how to create an incredibly special digital book that made full use of the affordances of the iPad, without detracting from the reading experience. As a result, our early conversations with the team at Somethin’ Else were slightly contradictory – how do we make something that has all the benefits of a book (beautifully designed, comfortably readable from start to finish, yet easy to dip in and out of) but without feeling like an imitation book? We wanted the app to give readers an experience over and above the print book, but without feeling gimmicky. Other book apps sometimes fall down in this area and we were keen to ensure this was something that could be read in its entirety without interruption.

Thankfully, Somethin’ Else came up with the solution. Each chapter is designed in ‘ribbons’ and the images and text move at different paces as you swipe through the app, meaning that each screen brings something new and exciting. They also created a very simple but effective navigation panel that allows the reader to jump seamlessly from one section of the book to another. Subtle animation was added to McKean’s illustrations in the myths section of each chapter, which surprises and delights rather than distracts, and we came up with several interactive demonstrations and games to allow readers to delve deeper into the science.

We were fastidious about accuracy with this project.  The editorial team that worked on the book were involved in ensuring the app was proofread to the same exacting standards as the print edition. All of the animations were limited to the myth sections of each chapter, because we didn’t want to add movement to any scientific diagram that meant it was no longer completely precise. We worked very closely with Richard Dawkins on the interactive experiences to ensure that each is based on real science.  As a result, we hope that this is a genuinely useful educational product and that there may be a place for it in schools.

Some people suggested that £10 might be too expensive for an app, even an iPad app. However, we felt from the start that there is an element of ‘reassuringly expensive’ with The Magic of Reality. We also had the hardback to consider, released at the same time with an RRP of £20. The app contains the full text of the book, and so it was important to us that neither version undercut the other.  In the end, we modelled our price on other apps of this nature, as well as the average discount we could expect to be applied to the hardback, and always keeping in mind the authors’ share.

The Magic of Reality for iPad is a really delightful app and we’re all incredibly proud of it. It was launched on 23rd September. We supported the release with a full marketing and publicity campaign, including flagging the app alongside the hardback book on nationwide posters. The app’s release was a global collaboration between Richard Dawkins’ international publishers to promote locally in all territories. Dawkins also undertook an international publicity tour, and showcased the app at various events in the UK and US, including a sell-out lecture to 4,500 people at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s fair to say that this publicity really did help the sales – sitting watching it explode on Twitter and creep up the app chart in the first few days of sale was a joy.  The app was included in the ‘new and noteworthy’ section of the app store from 30th September onwards, and it is still there now. We definitely saw a spike in sales when this happened, but the app was already a number one before app store promotion. The Magic of Reality for iPad reached the number one spot in its category in nine countries and received fantastic reviews, both in the app store and from online and print reviewers. And we’re thrilled that it has now exceeded 15,000 downloads, which is no mean feat.

Further Reading:

Q&A with Paul Bennun, Chief Creative Officer, Somethin’ Else

Review of The Magic of Reality app by if:book Director, Chris Meade

Download The Magic of Reality app

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