Bugger on the Inside: the Doctor Who Encyclopedia

Fresh from the BBC and developers Brandwidth comes an iPad version of Gary Russell’s Doctor Who Encyclopedia. ITunes have made it App of the Week and there are lots of delighted Whovians eagerly downloading it. This is what it looks like:

What we have here is, once again, an existing book that has been converted into an app. There’s no question marks over the original book – if you want an encyclopedia dedicated to 21st Century Doctor Who, then you’ll not be disappointed with this huge brick of a book. What concerns us more here is how the book has been converted.

There’s no extra content – no audio or video (bar links to previewing episodes in the iTunes store, and a few sound effects). What you have here is the text and photos of a searchable encyclopedia, plus a few visual tricks to arrange the most popular subjects (Daleks, Cybermen, Amy Pond etc) in little visual galleries. The default navigation of the ‘Doctor’ gallery, for example, requires you to move or tilt the iPad itself left or right to scroll through the characters. I switched it off immediately on the grounds that it’s totally unusable, but my 8 year old son thought it was great fun. Before switching it off a minute or two later on the grounds that it’s totally unusable.

Pricing is… interesting. The App costs £4.99 but only includes the 11th Doctor entries. Should you click on an entry related to earlier series, you get a beg page asking for more money. The entries for the 9th and 10th Doctors cost a further £4.99 each, bringing the total to £14.97, or noticeably more than the weighty physical edition (which is currently £12.50 on Amazon). Presumably this will also allow the app to download future updates about future series, which would be a big plus, but the idea of a virtual edition costing more than a physical one is always a knee-jerk issue – as anyone who has tried to buy ePub ebooks will testify. So does the experience of using the app edition offer anything more than the physical edition, to justify this extra cost?

The answer is yes – but only just.

We’re all familiar with falling into a Wikipedia hole – we start looking something up, follow another link, see something else interesting and get distracted… until suddenly an hour has past and we are far from where we started, and we know far more about the illnesses of dolphins and 18th Century politics than we did before.

This doesn’t happen with a standard encyclopedia. While they have an index and are all in neat alphabetical order (and searchable, in the case of the app), the act of looking something up is sufficiently more complex than just clicking the link in front of us – a link that guarentees that there’s an article on that subject, right there, just click and you’ll see it… Because of this seemingly small detail, we use these reference works in a completely different way.  We don’t follow trains of references but flick through the pages (or scroll down the index) instead, until we see something that takes our interest – something unrelated to the initial search. Which is all well and good, but Wikipedia is noticeably more of timesuck than physical encyclopedias.

So the simple act of adding hyperlinks makes an app reference work qualitatively different than a paper version. And they have been implemented here, but in an odd way.

The text of the entries is always restricted to a small narrow column, even when the app has nothing else to fill the screen with bar the book’s cover. The text is small and strangely devoid of paragraph breaks, and it doesn’t actually have hyperlinks in it.  Instead, you press a ‘connections’ tab at the bottom of the screen to call up a list of linked topics, which have (a little pointlessly) been put into categories. You can’t leave this ‘Connections’ list up permanently, because once you click on an entry that comes with a photograph, it goes away again.

It may seem a small thing, for all the functionality of a hyperlinked reference work is there, but the implementation stops you using it like one. If they had added the hyperlinks to the text – along with a few paragraph breaks – then it would be a lot easier to spend hours getting lost in there. The scrolling parallax galleries are all well and good, but in a reference work like this, getting the presentation of the text right should have been more important.

Still – that gripe aside – ultimately content is king and this encyclopedia is crazily detailed.  And if they release an update for 20th Century Doctor Who as well, I’ll even forgive them about the paragraph breaks.

Budgets and Pricing of Book Apps

The economic realities of making and selling tablet book apps are currently as vague as Hell. In the absence of any hard figures, though, we have anecdotes, and they tend to be pretty grim.

Ustwo have rather wonderfully been very upfront about their experience with their Nursery Rhymes With Storytime app. It cost £60,000 to develop, they say, sold over 37,000 copies and rose to be the top grossing app in the App Store’s books category. All very impressive, but unfortunately it returned only £24,048 in revenue.

(Of course, as anyone familiar with the UK Children’s market will tell you, Nursery Rhymes don’t work overseas. Sure, there is some overlap with American ‘Mother Goose’ tales and a few of the rhymes are known in a few Commonwealth countries, but they are essentially British, an unusual Victorian invention that romanticises the pre-Victorian era. This is the reason why nobody makes, say, a Humpty Dumpty cartoon series these days. With this in mind, gaining the top spot in the Book App charts is pretty impressive, although of course they may have been referring to a UK-only chart)

But anyway – such anecdotes are backed up by the gist of the talk at MIPJuniour in Cannes last week, where there was much scepticism from publishers about Apps.  Egmont’s Emma Cairns-Smith sums it all up neatly:

With an e-book you can sell it at pretty much the same price as the book, but as soon as you put that on an app you have to sell it at 99p. There are real commercial issues around it. It is far more expensive for us to make an app than an e-book, and yet we can charge far less for it. That’s the conundrum.

What should we make of all this?  It’s true that the user base for tablets is still young and that another good Christmas, plus the arrival of the Kindle Fire, should see a much larger market to sell to.  Of course, as we noted when we discussed the low barriers to entry in this market, that will be matched with far greater competition.

Then there’s the cost of producing these things. They should get cheaper, as off-the-shelf development software arrives.  And yet, and yet… there is a natural tendency to budget-bloat in the creative industries. People resist lower budget productions, as if they believe it negates the value of their work. They are professionals, and big budgets are a sign of status. It’s almost as if creative people judge their own sense of self-worth by the size of the budgets they work with.

I’ve been around a while now, and I’ve seen how this all plays out. In the independent TV boom of the early 90s, the rule was that any company that made one programme but still hired a receptionist would not last the year. Whereas in the first dot com boom of the late 90s, the rule was that any company that had receptionists with Apple Macs would be gone in six months. With all that in mind, take a look at Moonbot Studios, who did the Morris Lessmore app we looked at a while back:

MOONBOT studios Office Tour from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Damn, there’s a nice place to work, don’t you think? And I’m sure they’ll do brilliant things and have patient backers with very deep pockets. But while it doesn’t bode well for a company to have both a vague business model and a GIANT LAMPSHADE!!!, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to very low budgets happening, especially when you have to compete with such high-profile money-burners as this. Cheap and small, in a global marketplace, will equal invisible. At least, that’s the current thinking.

So what does that leave us with? Well there is the quasi-blasphemous idea of trying to sell apps for a lot more money. Evidence for this comes from Faber’s Waste Land App, which sells for £9.99 and reportedly made its development costs back in six weeks. We should be slightly cautious here; much of the video content for this app came from an old BBC documentary and, given the links between Faber and the Elliot estate, you have to question how much of its research and development costs were hidden.  But even so, it’s still an impressive achievement and supports Faber & Faber’s argument that good stuff is worth the money.

Of course, in this era of 99p ebooks, there’s a lot of disagreement about pricing digital content and the Waste Land example does go against the prevailing tide. To give my own example, I wrote a book called I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary five years ago, and while it does not sell a massive amount, it sells enough to remain in print – a sturdy ol’ backlist title. The ebook was initially priced at £2.99, where it steadily sold a few copies.  Occasionally, however, it goes down to 99p, and the sales figures shoot up like crazy.  Then it goes back to £2.99 and remains steady and unspectacular again. For that reason, it’s just gone back down to 99p.

I’ve tried to work out why this is. As far as I can see, it’s a good book and a total bargain at £2.99.  How can price be that sensitive?  My best guess is this: It’s not how good the book is, it’s how much the book is needed. People do enjoy reading about the life of Timothy Leary, it’s quite a yarn, but they don’t really need to do so. They don’t think that it’s going to affect their Twenty First Century lives a huge amount.

But when a book offers something that people feel they need, then the price point stops being so important. Then they are prepared to pay a tenner for it. The Waste Land app, I would suggest, sells to academics and poetry lovers who feel that they need to understand the poem better, and that if it costs a tenner to do so then so be it.

So for those developing apps, the question isn’t “How can I make this cheaply enough to get my money back?” Instead, the key question should become, “What would make this app sell at a Waste Land price point?” Because all the signs are that the book apps that sell are going to have large budgets, and they will need to be recouped.