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.


The Waste Land App

The Waste Land app is really good.

This app is Faber & Faber’s love letter to T.S. Elliot’s bewildering death-soaked modernist poem. What, you might wonder, could they do to convince people to pay £9.99 for a 400+ line poem you can easily read for free online?

The answer is pretty much everything. There’s the text, of course, and scans of the original manuscripts. There’s 6 different readings from the likes of Alec Guiness, Ted Hughes and Elliot himself. There’s extensive notes, photographs, and video interviews with wise folk including Seamus Heaney and Jeanette Winterson. Best of all, there’s video of a terrific performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw.  It’s an impressive haul, even if much of it is plundered from a 2009 BBC Arena documentary. Here’s a video from the developers Touch Press to explain it all

(warning: goes on a bit.)

What we have, essentially, is the ‘DVD extras’ model of a tablet book – there’s the central piece of work plus a variety of added extras that aim to shed light on the work itself. It’s an approach that seems ideal for wilfully obscure modernist poems.

But what works really well here, and what justifies the price tag, is how well those extras are integrated with the text itself. Tapping on individual lines snaps the reading or performance to those words. Highlighting an explanatory note on the poem highlights the text concerned.  The overriding experience of engaging with The Waste Land is the challenge of getting to grips with it, and these extra features are perfectly aligned with that. The result is an app that seems more than the sum of its parts.  It understands that you are wrestling with the text, and it is basically designed to help you in any way it can.

I first read this poem about two years ago. I have no real education in English literature, but I am engaged in a doomed ongoing attempt to make sense of the early 20th Century.  Occasionally I expose myself to modernist works and try to understand that insane leap from the Victorian mind to that of the ‘Modern’. When I first read the text I was intrigued, but I didn’t understand it.  Having explored the app at length, I still don’t understand it. But I feel that I fail to understand it at a far deeper level than before.  This is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, a significant step.

What, though, does this app tell us about the emerging world of tablet books?

Well, the amount of video mounts up.  This app is nearly 1GB in size and, whilst I appreciate Moore’s Law, in a world of 16GB iPads that is an issue.  You’re not going to have a whole library of these things.  And most of the video, in the ‘Perspectives’ section, is at a tiny resolution in a little box – it’s only Fiona Shaw’s performance that is full screen quality.

There are a few niggles with the developers getting carried away with rotating the iPad as a form of function selection – something that is never intuitive. Should you be watching the ‘Perspective’ videos and turn the screen to see what happens, you’ll lose the video and turning the tablet won’t bring it back – you’ll need to return to the main menu and select it again.  But as I say, these are niggles rather than serious problems.

It’s another app based on a short, pre-existing ‘classic’ text – we’ll see this cropping up quite a lot as we talk about other tablet books.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of this app is Fiona Shaw’s performance of the poem. It’s really good.  Where Viggo Mortensen’s reading, for example, suggests that he understands the poem about as well as I do, Fiona Shaw is clearly in a different league. She gets it, and watching her convinces you that the poem is worth the effort.

This raises the idea of author performance as part of tablet books. In a world where literary festivals and author readings are growing in popularity as publishers decline, it’s easy to imagine how video performances of author readings, integrated with the text in this manner, could be a big draw.

It will be interesting to see if any authors explore this route – or if the filesizes needed for lengthy video will prove to be a real problem.