The Book App is dead. Again.

The Book App is dead. Again.

News reaches our shores that "The love affair with apps is officially over". This is the conclusion drawn by Forrester and Digital Book World and presented at their New York conference by James McQuivey.

This has echoes of Evan Schnittman at the London Book Fair 9 months ago, where he raised the question of the viability of apps. How can publishers justify spending often large sums of money on products that may have no commercial return are time-consuming internally and aren’t scalable across the company?
And on the other side of the argument we have a vibrant community of App developers who are, of course, looking through the telescope from the opposite end. They point to the creative opportunities and endless growth in device sales. Apps must make sense. Right?
The research presented at DBW, was based on feedback from US publishers. Only15% of them thinks that apps represent a significant revenue opportunity, down from 34% a year ago. Is this drop in confidence the result of some fingers being burned?
Despite this, the same survey noted that 75% of publishers produce apps. So, in a wonderful example of hope over experience, 85% of publishers think apps make no commercial sense but at the same time 75% of them continue to invest in them. A schizophrenic position, to say the least.
You only have to take a quick look at the products currently on the market to see that publishers have no problem producing gorgeous, amazing apps when they set their minds to it. Many publishers have found ways to use their content to develop hugely engaging, interactive apps that push storytelling and learning to scintillating heights. This creativity partnered with the vibrant app development community (particularly in the UK) is driving forward the limits of storytelling and information sharing.
So why do so many of these great collaborations often bear no commercial fruit?
It seems that many publishers put all their resources into the creative process but then have very little idea of what to do next, specifically how to market them.
Apps are not books. The marketing of apps demands skills that don’t naturally fit within the publishing cycle. With a book, marketing usually happens title by title with a huge burst of energy over a 3 month period around the release date. Successful app marketing is more analogous to the release of a new video game. Apps have a life, can change and be upgraded and remain relevant for longer. This continual marketing cycle just doesn’t fit for many publishers as they are currently structured.
This need to be nimble naturally plays into the hands of smaller publishers (like Nosy Crow) who can keep applying the marketing pressure and adjusting their strategy as and when the market shifts.
So, clearly there are structural problems but are publishers even covering the basics when marketing their apps?
I do hope that Faber won’t mind me using them as an example. In general, I consider Faber the gold standard in the app arena but even they seem to be missing some tricks.

Publisher websites

As you all know Faber has produced some of the most successful apps. So we’d assume they would be promoted well on their website. Not so. They have no app section. A search for ‘app’ on their site is sure to land me on their app page. It finds authors Adam Rapp, Petina Gappah and others. Perhaps if I’m more specific in my search I’ll find their apps. No, searching on Waste Land gives me a whole page on the book, not a mention of their app. One last search for T.S.Eliot, again no app.

My point here is a very obvious one: on the whole publishers aren’t using the one marketing channel over which they exercise 100% control – namely their own website. Faber isn’t alone. A quick look at some of the big houses will show websites giving apps very little exposure (if any).

In-house marketing

I don’t want to make assumptions here, but I’d hazard app marketing isn’t always integrated into the rest of publishers’ marketing activities. Are they using their e-newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, print books, publicists, etc?

But nobody buys apps directly from publishers, I hear you say. Fair enough.

So where do potential customers go to find apps? I’ll move onto the App Store later, but let’s first move our attention to the world’s biggest discoverability engine.

Let’s use another of Faber’s apps – The Solar System for iPad. A Google search for ‘Solar System’ doesn’t return Faber’s app on the first page. I’m not going to the second page to see if it’s there and nor will anyone else. So let’s search on 'Solar System app'. Good old Apple, masters in SEO as well as everything else. App Store is result No.1 in the natural search result. Interestingly Touch Press (Faber’s development partners on this app) also appears very high up the results. Not so Faber. Again not on the page at all.

(try a similar search for ‘Cinderella app’ – Nosy Crow has clearly invested in its SEO).

Arguably the second largest search engine. But again a missed opportunity. YouTube searches give some very random results and only one mention of Faber/TouchPress’s app.

(Try a search on YouTube for ‘whale trail’ for some tips on how to get exposure and buzz on YouTube)
The App Store

From discussions with app developers and publishers, the big wins with apps are only to be had if the App Store treats you well. Sales are guaranteed if you make it to App of the Week or into New and Noteworthy. If you don’t get yourself onto this bit of prime real estate, you’ll be consigned to the app dustbin with the other unsearchable gazillion apps.

In my opinion, this is where Faber excels. All of their apps have been placed front and centre on the App Store. This is where I suspect Faber puts its energies, into cultivating their relationship with Apple. They have a distinct advantage over other publishers here with their partner Touch Press’s established close relationship. But still, there is no coincidence that I was introduced to three Apple employees at their Waste Land launch party.

Can other publishers build a relationship with Apple? Yes, and if they can’t then maybe they should choose a collaborator or developer that can.
I hope the publishing industry doesn’t give up on the app. Publishers, before you dismiss them as too ‘commercially challenging’ please make sure you’ve at least got these basics covered. Give your apps a fighting chance.
The last chapter on book apps is still to be written, for now I’d say that, marketed properly, they have huge untapped potential for publishers.

The Book App is dead. Long live the Book App.


Image courtesy of Evan Schnittman, with thanks.