Apps vs. E-books:

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Dean Johnson

An open e-Letter to the publishing industry: Great Expectations

“Not another ‘Digital Publishing Expert’ telling us how to play in our own back yard,” I hear you cry. After all, anyone who claims to know your market better than you do, probably doesn’t really know enough. As publishers, you understand your existing customers and how they behave, or at least you should.

But that’s not the challenge. The challenge is to understand the new digital target market and integrate it into your established audience. So this is why I’m going to start by making a confession: I’m no expert.

What I do have is valuable experience in how to make collaborations work. And for the successful pioneers of this new digital frontier, it will be all about dynamic partnerships.

What’s more, I’m going to chance my luck with a sweeping statement: from now on it is all about expectations. Before attempting to formulate a strategy for digital development, publishers should have considered your audience’s current and future expectations for print and digital publications. What will they expect an ebook to do or a digital app to be? What do they expect the purchasing experience to be like?

Migrating from print to digital

Let’s start with the people publishers know well: those migrating from a paper-based reading experience to the digital realm.

The truth is that these people expect an ebook to perform as a straight translation from print to pixel, with simple page turning at the heart of the concept. eReaders (E-Ink Kindle & Co.) provide an acceptable solution but limit the possibilities for enhanced eBooks. The key challenge when dealing with this audience is how to convince them that a move from print to pixel is in their best interests. The eBook revolution is not the same as the CD to MP3 shift – with music there was already a digital market and many forget that most people don’t need their entire book collection with them all the time nor aspire to pull content randomly at any given point.

The latest generation of eBook readers isn’t helping the cause as they don’t offer anywhere near the level of intuitive interaction we deserve. Apple succeed with the iPad but face size, weight, price and screen issues that won’t convince readers that a move from print to digital isn’t going to demand compromise.

People in this group are likely to wonder what purpose an app serves for them and remain skeptical of whether it can add anything worthwhile to their reading experience. As a publisher, here lies your first chance to exceed expectations by delivering something stunning and relevant and opening up a new world to your new audience.

Then we come to the purchasing experience. This has to be at least as simple as visiting but on mobile platforms we have to try harder to make the task even simpler. Take a lead from Apple where it’s easy to buy a book on an iPad, however even this experience doesn’t come close to the ability to browse a bookstore or library. What’s more, publishers need to consider the ways they can group titles together for greater visibility and promotional opportunities – via their own branded presence on the App Store.

By aggregating all their content into one app, publishers have the opportunity to group their own titles under one virtual ‘roof’. This isn’t as complicated, expensive or time-consuming as an e-commerce site or facilitating in-app purchase. On the contrary, this concept delivers a shop window for their own publications, directs sales through the iBookstore, therefore utilizing Apple’s own infrastructure and allows publishers to take control of the promotion and background information for selected titles, catalogues or genres.

And what do these users expect of their hardware? Unsurprisingly, they don’t need all the added benefits an iPad brings. However, the fact that they don’t need it doesn’t mean they don’t want it. E-Ink wins for novels, but anything beyond this makes the Kindle & Co. look like calculators – which is not good enough. Multitouch interaction is essential here along with a rich color display. You have to add significant value for this audience or you will continue to face the argument that your digital book is no better than the printed alternative. If you don’t do this, people will stay where they are – with their printed books, and your investment in digital will bring you little or no return.

When it comes to what they are prepared to pay, this audience is more likely to mirror their current paper- based book buying habits, accepting a higher list price than regular apps but expecting a discount nonetheless. Where does this leave the second-hand book market and it’s considerably cheaper prices? That one needs solving, along with libraries and the bookshop of the future (but that’s a topic for another post…)

Responding to a new audience

Now, let’s look at the new market: the tech-savvy, smart-phone-wielding early adopters. No matter what wesay about the printed book losing ground, the arrival of eReaders and the iPad has reintroduced reading to many that had cut down on their book consumption, and this is good news. Apple users alone have downloaded more than 35 million eBooks, so technology early-adopters are embracing digital publishing. [NOTE] Figure is from Steve Jobs during Sept 1st Keynote no direct link but ‘live’ feed can be found at

What you need to bear in mind is that people in this market are more open to social integration, and happy to share extracts or opinions. This opens up a world of instant feedback, but also a world where the new audience expects quick responses or revisions. Give this time and publishers and authors who do engage with their readers will see a positive effect on sales and reputation. Publishers need to take this into account when allocating time and personnel.

The distinction between ebooks and enhanced ebooks exists for this group in much the same way as DVDs are offered in standard form or with a bonus disc. The choice is more often than not based on price. The cheaper “non-extras” version appeals to those happy to view the main event without the excess baggage. Just to confuse matters, the term ‘enhanced eBook’ is being attached to two different formats. The first, an eBook featuring additional audio or video content, viewable on black and white eReaders, or iPad. The second features similar elements to the first option but is built as an app with the potential to deliver more interactivity.

Full Apps, however are a different matter. This audience has a working knowledge of smart phone apps. They know what they like, what should be included, how it should work and how it should feel. Anecdotal feedback and star ratings provide instant test results, but publishers have to be prepared to respond with app updates and keep the communication channels open. This audience already understands the workings of the App Store, iTunes and the iBookstore. They understand the pros and cons associated with the purchasing experience. As mentioned earlier, their expectations can still be exceeded by using a standalone branded store app, with publishers in control of the experience.

It’s worth remembering this group is least accepting of conventional book pricing. However, the option remains open for high-end pricing ($7.99 and above) as the perceived value increases. In other words, If you are going to charge the higher price, it has to exceed expectation in all areas.

A personal view

In a world of eBooks and apps, where does my loyalty lie? As a reader I’m happy for my novels to stay as eBooks in their simplest form. There is room for enhanced eBooks in my reading material – but only for non-fiction. When I read a novel, I want to escape into it – not leave it at any point other than to be interrupted by reality. In a world where we all multitask like crazy, a book allows a few brief moments of genuine escape.

For me, enhanced eBooks have a place on my virtual reference shelf or as an educational tool as they represent a functional and cost-effective solution to mass produced non-fiction, I just can’t get excited about something that sits between a page turner and a full app, but I’m willing to refer to it as it’s the subject matter that interests me when choosing a book.

If I’m looking for excitement and inspiration, apps hold the most interest for me – both personally and professionally. I want to produce engaging and stimulating publications and develop amazing interactive experiences that bring the written word to life and enthrall readers of all ages in ways they never thought possible. That’s an opportunity that publishers simply cannot miss. The question is how to enter the market?

Making the App market work for you

Here is my quick guide for publishers looking to take their first steps into the world of apps:

Select {Choose a ‘hero’ publication or publications – a title with a proven readership, high profile subject matter and interactive potential}

Develop {Work with a sympathetic developer who understands your business and will produce a beautifully designed and planned app worthy of ‘hero’ status.}

Promote {You must be willing to promote your app at every opportunity through your existing channels and those relevant to the app marketplace. Social media is key}

Cost {Remember 100,000 downloads at $1.99 = $199,000. But pricing your app at $9.99 does not equal $999,000 because the higher cost means fewer downloads. Consider a heavily discounted launch offer to boost your app into a visible chart position, but be careful to avoid a perceived low value. If a $100k development budget is beyond your reach, consider a revenue split (eg. $50k + 20% profit share). Don’t be afraid to share the risks and the rewards}

Engage {You have the opportunity to create an experience, not just a conversion. Our Guinness World Records: At Your Fingertips app, The Elements or Alice for the iPad are just three great examples of stunning content presented in a format that avoids obvious page turning and delivers unexpected but entertaining interactivity}

[NOTE: app links if required below] Guinness World Records: The Elements: Alice for the iPad:

Respond {Listen to the reviews, respond to the criticism. You’ll increase those all-important star ratings}

Understandably, the publishing industry is looking inward for existing skills and the temptation is to fill quite specific roles with freelance developers and designers. This is your window of opportunity to partner with the most dynamic digital teams bringing a range of essential skills to help you unleash your greatest content on a market hungry for change. There are plenty of experts out there so look for a flexible partner willing to share the challenge of this newborn market rather than leave you holding the baby.

I’ll be on a panel of ‘experts’ at Tools of Change: Frankfurt with Rhys Cazenove and Neal Hoskins, talking about apps and publishing’s new digital frontier. I look forward to hearing your views between now and then!

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.