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What We’ve Learned About Apps

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What We’ve Learned About Apps

by Adam Salomone

Within the past two or three years, content delivery has begun to seem as important to book publishers as content itself. We talk often about vanilla or verbatim e-books and enhanced e-books or e-book enhancements, and we vigorously debate the merits of book applications or “apps.”

As our experience has shown us—and as Linda Nix noted in “Apps: An Overview for the Undecided” (July)—it’s important to address several issues before embarking on development for any app, including issues related to the development process, to cost, and to purpose; it matters whether you’re creating an app to generate revenue or to serve as a marketing tool.

At the Harvard Common Press, we’re in the early stages of developing apps, but we have given the process a lot of thought. Focusing in two verticals (cooking and parenting) as we do gives us an opportunity to create apps that complement our publishing program across channels. We’ve had a multitude of discussions about specific apps.

One example: We’ve been thinking about creating an app to coincide with the 25th anniversary edition of our bestselling Nursing Mother’s Companion. For this app, we’ve been looking at enhanced functionality with nursing timers, Do and Don’t checklists, and quick-reference information for nursing mothers—in other words, we’re not trying to reproduce the book or to produce something just so we can get into an app store. We’re trying to present relevant content in interactive form so that it will be useful on an app platform in ways the print book couldn’t be.

Overall, that’s the important question: How do you add value with an app?

Dealing with Development

We define an app as a program that delivers content to be read on a platform such as a smartphone or tablet. The best known of these is clearly the iPhone/iPad/Mac OS platform for reading apps, though Android is quickly catching up. Apps tend to be more expensive to produce than verbatim e-books are, and they usually offer richer media experiences (think timers, shopping lists, and serving-size calculators for cookbooks, for example). Also, apps are usually limited in terms of distribution to the platform(s) you create them for (whether Apple or Android), whereas e-books can be distributed through a variety of vendors for a variety of devices (Kindle, Nook, and more).

The app development process can vary widely, depending on the kind of content you’re developing and the company you partner with. The spectrum of opportunities ranges from relatively low-cost, templated apps (which could work well for novels or books in a series) to highly stylized, custom-built apps with lots of multimedia (used for cookbooks and other lifestyle books).

If you choose a template option, the process is pretty simple. Usually, it’s just a matter of choosing the content, and, if you have a choice, deciding which template to use. Obviously, you’ll also have to make decisions about pricing and about design for the app “cover,” if that’s a variable. But for the most part, content is flowed according to preset standards, and the development company handles everything else. Pretty simple.

If, on the other hand, you choose a highly customized approach, the process is akin to designing a book. You have to think about the overall look and feel of the app; about design and color schemes; about navigation panels, functionality, and multimedia options (and where to insert them); and, of course, you also have to decide what the content will be.

It is great to have help, either from a developer who can assist as you navigate the design process or handle it for you, or from an experienced publisher. And it’s smart to try to find a partner who has done what you’re doing. Exploring ideas about a cookbook app isn’t highly productive when the company or colleague you’re talking to has done only works of fiction.

Keep in mind that the development process takes time—maybe three months or more from conception to distribution, depending on the kind of app. Think of the time it will take to source a development company, choose the content, flow it into templates, approve the output, and send the app to Apple (let’s say) for distribution. Then think about how much longer a customized approach might take.

So How Much Does It Cost?

Costs vary widely. Template solutions that are quick to deploy usually run $2,000–$5,000 and sometimes perhaps a bit more. Estimates for highly stylized apps are often between $10,000 and $50,000, and I’ve heard some publishers say they’ve developed apps for $100,000 apiece, which is quite a chunk of change.

Remember, it all depends on the company you partner with, the kind of content you’re developing, and the rounds of back-and-forth that occur (whether on initial design or actual development, or both). When you’re contracting with a company, define costs as clearly as possible, including any costs for additional rounds of tweaks, as these can quickly add up if you’re not getting exactly what you want.

Also, keep in mind that development costs don’t include costs for additional media. If you want your app to include video, for example, you’ll have to pay extra for it (and likely find a different company to handle that piece of the content creation).

And as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. If you’re not paying much, you’ll probably end up with something pretty basic.

For Money or for Marketing?

As with everything else that we undertake as publishers, having clearly defined goals is key. Do you intend to make money from an app? Use it as a marketing tool? And what metrics will you use to measure success?

I’m skeptical about the power of apps to generate significant revenue if they don’t present a well-known author or series. Discoverability is a huge issue in the app world, especially for publishers who don’t have experience attracting eyeballs to apps. Pair that with the issue of pricing that is bound to arise (many iPhone apps are priced below $4.99), and you realize how hard it can be to recoup your investment, let alone generate a profit.

If you’re still interested in creating an app to generate revenue, you may want to consider a customized approach, one that enhances the content in a way that will help you create buzz and entice consumers to pay up for an experience they won’t find elsewhere.

I can see more potential for apps as marketing tools that draw attention to particular authors and/or books. Usually this requires an author or a publisher who is active enough online to push the app to an audience and provide an additional platform for discoverability.

Apps can also be good tools for establishing thought leadership, especially if you have a core set of content across books that can be bundled into one app (for instance, we could offer an app on barbecue, an app on vegetarian cooking, and so on). As it provides value to consumers, this sort of app can establish the publisher as a key voice in the conversation on particular types of content.

The clearest pointer I can offer about apps may be this: Walk before you run. Don’t jump into apps without a solid e-book program and experience in developing multimedia content for your books. Talk with publishers who are doing apps and with companies that offer app services so you can gain useful insight on what to do—or not to do.

There is plenty of hype about the newest technology widgets for content distribution, and it can be difficult to resist the pressure to rush to the newest option. But apps are still in their relative infancy for book publishing, and many more advancements will come our way in the coming months and years.

So focus on what your goals are for digital distribution of all sorts—who’s in your market, how to hit them, and what format(s) serve your content best. When you’ve defined what you want to get from different digital options, you’ll be able to evaluate each opportunity as it comes along, and make the best decisions for your budget, your content, and your audience.

Adam Salomone is associate publisher at The Harvard Common Press. This article is based on a presentation he made at this year’s Publishing University.



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