|Book-apps like The Waste Land and Jack Kerouac's On the Road hint at potential|
The attendees were drawn from the digital and marketing teams of several key publishers – including HarperCollins, Faber, Profile Books and others – and while the agreement was that quotes would not be attributed, here are the key themes that emerged.
– Book-apps aren't just being made by traditional book publishers: independent app developers are also piling into the space, albeit often working with out-of-copyright content like nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Meanwhile entertainment brands like Disney - who have been involved in the books business before through licensing deals - are now publishing their own book-apps directly.
– Publishers are at an experimental stage with apps: they are trying different formats and content, but in many cases they still have to commission apps with a firm eye on delivering a return on investment.
– Publishers are looking for partnerships with innovative developers rather than pure work-for-hire projects. Often this involves revenue-share deals – something that appeals to both sides to ensure they are committed (and also reducing the upfront costs for the publisher). Developers are keen to secure a marketing commitment from the publisher as part of this though. Meanwhile, publishers say they can help developers with access to authors, dealing with agents, commissioning and editing content, and handling territoriality and permissions.
– It's still unclear what a truly compelling experience for the reader is in an app. For example, if you buy a novel, you know you're making a commitment to reading a sequential narrative. But what do people expect from book-apps? It's more obvious for some genres – reference for example – than for fiction. Are publishers re-interpreting the original book, or doing something completely different?
– Publishers realise that they don't have to confine themselves to creating book-apps, especially in the non-fiction area. HarperCollins' SAS Survival Guide was one of the first books to become a lifestyle app with more functions and features - for example Morse Code signalling using the phone's flashlight - to create something that's more of a hybrid app product built for the device, as opposed to a straightforward e-book. Apple is also encouraging publishers not to make book-apps that are too similar to e-books, which it sells through its iBooks store.
– There is already one example – Faber and Touch Press' Solar System – where what started as an app is now becoming a printed book.
– What's a good price for a book-app? This is still a very fluid area. Many cost between £2.99 and £3.99, with occasional drops to 69p for short-burst promotions. However, book-apps like Faber's The Waste Land, Penguin's Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Insight Editions' Harry Potter Film Wizardry have been selling for £7.99 and above. The conversation focused more on innovation and content rather than pricing strategies though.
– Many publishers - although not all - think that the best margins are likely to be in creating a platform for publishers to release digital book experiences through, rather than simply in the content. "Publishers need more windows, and whoever owns the windows will really make the money..."
– There is still a lot of "paranoia and secrecy" around sales figures for book-apps, not least because they're perhaps not doing as well as has been supposed. "Nobody wants to admit it's really not making as much money as we'd like..." ustwo's decision to go public with the fact that its chart-topping Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime was only earning £2,000 a day when it was the Top Grossing Book on the App Store was a welcome break from the secrecy – even if the figure was a bit dispiriting.
– There is a distinction emerging between 'marketing apps' and 'product' – book-apps as something that promotes a physical book, versus those that are products in their own right. Often the work of separate teams with separate budgets and goals within a publisher.
– Children's books seem to be a really appealing area, but there is still a compromise to be made "between making something that's really good for children, and making something that's going to sell". Possibly because parents are quite keen on educational apps for their children, whereas the kids would rather have something playful – a digital toy.
– One contrast between the worlds of books and apps: there isrelatively little analysis done of who is buying books and how they consume them – "we're pretty unscientific – I've never sat down in an editorial meeting when anyone's brought scientific data other than sales" – whereas in apps, there is a big focus on getting analytics and then acting on them.
Three reasons why publishers aren't more involved in apps than they are, according to one attendee: "It's already a risk-based business – we are spending a lot of money on things that quite often fail. Second, margins are very small – publisher profit margins are much smaller than the development industry. Third: culturally books is still a quite old-fashioned industry..."