Loose Strands is an award-winning interactive book app created by Darned Sock Productions. Following the story of Roland, a nine-year-old boy living above a barbershop with his parents and their dog, Rimbaud, the user is swept away on a narrative journey in which their choices have consequences and every adventure is different. As a creative piece, the app has been revered as “Set[ting] the gold standard for non-linear and user-controlled storytelling” by Digital-Storytime.com (4.75 stars), winning the 2015 Digital Book Awards’ Best App for Children. For the purposes of this project, I interviewed Loose Strands’ creator Markian Moyes, who lives in Toronto.
Loose Strands began as a passion project that Moyes was developing in his spare time while he was a fulltime web producer at Sharp magazine. After working at Shift, a technology and culture magazine which closed over 10 years ago, he was keen on their fantastic use of Flash to animate articles on their website, which helped to spawn his interactive book idea. With a programming background and English degree, he had previously experimented with using animation as a tool for creative storytelling. Since his time at U of T, he had dabbled in script- and story-writing, however journalism was his main work focus due to the nature of the industry. It wasn’t until hearing an NPR commentary about how kids are really taking to touch devices that he felt an app for iPad would be an excellent medium for an interactive project. At first he had seen himself writing more for adults, but once he decided to work on some children’s content he discovered a passion for it.
However, coding takes a ridiculously long time, and realizing that doing it all himself was unrealistic, Mark started looking at funding options so that he could bring more people on board and hopefully turn his project into a reality. He came across Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) in his research, which supports books, magazines and digital media:
“They do amazing things. I applied to the Interactive Digital Media Fund, which will fund up to 50% of your project – or at least any expenses that are in Ontario […] – so I applied for that and got it, which was awesome!” (Moyes)
It was actually perfect timing, because he learned about the grant a couple of months before the application deadline, which was just enough time to get his ducks in a row. Now, I’m going to get into some detail about the grant process and some interesting points in relation to it, because we discussed this a lot and it was critical for the type of property that Loose Strands is – being a digital media app that doesn’t really fit into the category of a game or an e-book.
Firstly, while most aspiring writers apply to arts councils for grants through a 5-10 page summary-type application, the process for OMDC’s Interactive Digital Media Fund grant is really involved. Of course, this grant offers more funding:
“Successful applicants are eligible to receive a non-refundable contribution of up to $150,000 to a maximum of 50% of the project budget to create a market-ready interactive digital media content product.”
However since it revolves around IDM properties, the parameters are much more complex and require more documentation than a regular print or electronic book. When you apply, they send it to a jury of about 6 people who all score you on a matrix. You can go in with other funding but Moyes didn’t – so the project was really riding on their approval.
Moyes wound up putting together a 40-page document, including a complete 15-page business proposal (with profit & loss projections over the next 3 years, for example). He took an entire week off work to pull it all together, and in the end after Darned Sock was approved for funding, their program coordinator at OMDC, Kim Gibson, actually thanked Moyes for “bringing in this really thorough application. […] We get a lot of applications in your category that just [feel] incomplete.” This is just an interesting note for potential applicants, since Moyes had realized from his manuscript editor who has a strong background in children’s writing that most arts people who may apply for the grant are accustomed to a very different (and much more brief) process.
In regards to getting it greenlit and finally launched, the full timeline was about 2 years from creation. Moyes’ individual work in his spare time – building prototypes and writing the first 3 chapters – took about 6 months. Then about 3 months after OMDC’s August application deadline it became greenlit. Once the contracts were signed, the first cheque arrived around February. After that, they had estimated 9 months to completion; however, as OMDC’s coordinators warned that about 90% don’t make their deadlines (which is fine as long as you keep them notified with regular reporting), the overall execution from application to launch took about a year and a half.
In total, Moyes ended up bringing on 11 other people – most importantly finding a manuscript editor and a copyeditor who both had experience with children’s books, as this was his first children’s content.
“I contacted a couple different people for the application process: the illustrator – hilariously enough I had been interviewing illustrators over the course of that six months and he ended up being my cousin [Jeff Frizzell]! […] That was just really fortunate, […] I asked him if he’d be interested and he ended up producing a couple sketches and I was like, ‘these are perfect!’”
Going into the application process, he had secured 5 people that he had worked with mostly in the magazine industry. Once the project was greenlit and funding secured it was much easier to get people on board, for obvious reasons. Most people were hired on contract, including a book publicist for marketing. Due to a limited budget, most of the marketing they did themselves through grassroots – Facebook ads, Amazon, and so on. After launching, they also did a lot of promotional visits and attended events like Word on the Street.
As things progressed, Moyes notes:
“Any time that you get to do something that’s really creative… well, one of the really fantastic things was we reached a point halfway through where things were even better than we thought – it exceeds your expectations – and that was really exciting.”
Of course, starting your own business for the first time comes with a lot of unexpected challenges. The administrative tasks take up a lot of time, and when starting on a creative project this is often overlooked until you’re in the thick of it. For one, the original Art Director wound up taking on a fulltime job that left little room for Loose Strands and eventually had to leave the project, which meant shifting the workload to other members of the group. Also, Moyes was paying everyone except himself, which meant he had to take a part time job, and subsequently extending the deadline put even more strain on the budget.
Although the app market is difficult and Darned Sock is doing better than the average developer, getting on track financially was tough. After launch, a whole new set of challenges took shape when they realized more than ever how little their product actually fit into any established categories. Moyes mentioned a particularly discouraging statistic that “nearly half of all app developers make $100 or less per month – which is just crazy” (research confirmed). That kind of business is unsustainable, so it was worrisome when they realized that their marketing budget couldn’t be paid off right away, particularly with the challenge of getting viable reviews. Their book publicist sent reached out everywhere, and despite Moyes following up to get the ball rolling, people just wouldn’t commit to a property they weren’t sure how to categorize. Game reviewers said, “well it’s not really a game” while book reviewers alleged, “it’s not really a book.”
That said, these low points are generally associated with the app industry – particularly for something as unprecedented as Loose Strands – and as is common with many new apps, it took a while to build momentum after the initial product release. Although discouraged when it took longer to catch on than anticipated, they had really good luck with some people in the US and the UK in terms of book-type reviews, and Digital Book Awards really helped. Things have since been looking up. At the time of the interview with Moyes in early February, they had just been featured as one of the Best New Apps in the App Store in Europe. Moyes explained that the fact it was featured in Europe was particularly funny because “we were hounding Canada and the States and then Europe picked it up, and we’re like ‘look we’re getting downloads from Hungary and Romania!’” Those unexpected victories can really pay off.
Actually, the fact that Loose Strands doesn’t really exist within a specific market category right now is both a risk and an opportunity. Darned Sock Productions has the advantage of initiating a strong interactive book app category in North America where many publishers have previously failed (according to Moyes, there were some industry missteps surrounding big-budget projects a few years ago before tablets were so ubiquitous, which have left many wary of getting their feet wet again). Following the footsteps of successful companies such as Nosy Crow and Inkle in the UK, there is plenty of potential for Darned Sock to partner with publishers on future interactive projects. Realizing that there is a lack of knowledge about book apps in the local market, Moyes has even spent time on library visits to educate people that iBooks and Amazon aren’t the only places to find electronic books – there are options in the app store as well.
In addition to the market-based strengths and weaknesses mentioned above, creatively Loose Strands is a little darker than most children’s properties (aimed at a 8+ audience), however it is very well done. It’s basically a story about regret, and the sense of being trapped by your choices while learning how to break free of that mindset, which is visually enchanting through the use of the interface and disappearing pages on the map. The animation is incredible, with tons of creative details that may go unnoticed the first time around. Moyes confirms that the next project they are working on now will be somewhat lighter and more game-focused.
You can access Loose Strands on Amazon app store, iTunes and Google Play. The software-publishing platform that Darned Sock used to develop Loose Strands is called Corona SDK, which will only deploy to iOS, Google and Amazon. The app is designed for larger screens, so it only runs on tablet, but hopefully their next one will be more versatile.
 DarnedSock.com. Loose Strands. <http://darnedsock.com/loose-strands/>
 Kluver, Carisa. The Digital Media Diet. “Loose Strands: Unlockable Edition.” Digital-Storytime.com. <http://digital-storytime.com/review.php?id=967>
 Digital Book World. “Announcing the Winners of the Digital Book Awards” (2015). <https://eiseverywhere.com/ehome/90839/196394/?&&>
 OMDC. Interactive Digital Media Fund. <http://www.omdc.on.ca/interactive/Funding/IDM_Fund.htm>
 Perez, Sarah. “The Majority of Today’s App Businesses Are Not Sustainable.” Tech Crunch. July 21, 2014. <http://techcrunch.com/2014/07/21/the-majority-of-todays-app-businesses-are-not-sustainable/>