10 Things We’ve Learnt About Book Apps in 2011

New Year is nearly upon us and it’s time to take stock of what we’ve discovered so far. Here’s 10 things I didn’t know about book apps at the start of the year.
iPad Season

1. They are called ‘book apps’.
There have been a lot of differing terms being thrown around to label these strange new forms: iStories, Enhanced ebooks, vooks, animated books, interactive books and so forth. I went for the neutral ‘tablet books’. These clever and considered names fought each other for the hearts and minds of publishers and readers, but while all that was going on people needed something to call them and, like it or not, the term ‘book apps’ was the one that rolled off the tongue.

2. Most lose money.
Blame Angry Birds if you like, but apps are still linked in people’s minds with coining it in. They are like the lottery, in that the hopeful thought ‘I could be rich‘ rings louder than the more honest ‘I am throwing away a lot of my money’. This is useful when getting funding for a startup, but problematic nine months later.

The amount of book apps – particularly children’s book apps – is extraordinary. The problem, however, is that no-one knows they exist. They disappear into the App Store and are never seen again. In terms of which ones do well, quality helps but it is not enough. Marketing and hype currently seem to be more important. Which is no fun.

3. No-one knows what the budget for a book app should be.
Or no-one I’ve spoken to, anyway.

4. No-one knows what they should cost.
The general assumption is that book apps will only sell at low price points – after all, low barriers to entry tends to create a low price, low quality market. Yet the few book apps that apparently make money are often more expensive, such as those from Faber & Faber. So, who knows? Nobody knows anything, as William Goldman concluded about screenwriting, but if a market for £5+ book apps doesn’t emerge, then it could all get a bit grim.

5. Epub3 could make things much better…
…but Apple and Amazon probably won’t allow that. Epub3, finally released a month or so ago, brings a lot more multimedia clout to the .epub format and would lead to book apps coming in from the app store cold and being sold alongside normal ebooks. This would be a very good thing. Unfortunately, Apple and Amazon… are Apple and Amazon. So expect ugly proprietary systems, production workflows for multiple versions and the horror that is iTunes for some time to come.

6. Fiction apps are terrific.
Who would have thought it? Straight fiction seemed the least suitable candidate for a digital makeover and yet the subtle addition of atmosphere through audio and visual design, plus the potential for readings by authors or performers, have been tried and they work really well.

See, for example, Papercut or Dracula.

7. There is a thin line between ‘interactive book’ and ‘crap game’.
On the other hand, despite the assumption that it would be interactivity that would enhance books, it is much harder to find examples where interactivity actually works well – in that it improves the experience. More frequently, it is a distraction, a novelty or a pain in the arse.

This is complicated a little by the huge amount of book apps that are aimed at children, because children just love playing on iPads. It is difficult, in other words, to tell when they are enjoying the content itself, not the act of using the tablet. This is a whole can of worms and should probably be a more detailed post sometime. But for now, the meeting of reading and interactivity is not yet a proven winner.

8. File size could be an issue.
When a 434-line poem becomes a 1GB app, to be stored on a 16GB machine, then you can see file size becoming a barrier. Of course, we’ll eventually move to 4G and cloud storage and so on, so this should sort itself out. But it is worth keeping an eye on in the short to medium term.

9. Non-fiction can work well but…
…it often feels like it should be a website – constantly updating, encyclopedic and allowing comments – and that it only exists as a standalone book app because you can’t really charge money for websites.

10. It’s going to get less experimental from here on in.
Call this more of a hunch, if you like, but I think we’ve reaching that point where it becomes more about refining than inventing. This isn’t a bad thing, for that best stuff is yet to come. But it will be less about being adventurous for the hell of it and more about finding practical, working models.

So, that’s what 2011 had to teach us. 2012 should be interesting, shouldn’t it? All being well, the Kindle Fire will greatly increase the market, and an app-specific work by a major author will grab the attention of the mainstream. So until then – happy new year!

*blows party blower*

SINGAPORE 2011 New Year Countdown :: VECTORAMA Firework ::

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