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.


Papercut is a really interesting book app from ustwo that arrived last week in a nice little burst of publicity.

Have a watch of this:

Okay, elephant in the room first. There is a man in that video called Chief Wonka who sports a handsome beard/yellow glasses/string of pearls ensemble.

How you react to this says a lot about the background you bring to book apps. For traditional publishers, the sight of Chief Wonka creates a strange, unpleasant reaction that incorporates elements of both despair and anger. For digital media professionals there is also a strong reaction, but one that includes a jealous tinge associated with an understanding of personal brand projection.

These differing reactions stake out an unmapped no-man’s-land, and this is the land where the culture of book apps will grow.

But back to Papercut. If you need to, watch the video again and don’t be distracted by Chief Wonka. Because what they are saying is really interesting, even though what they are saying does seem to be completely contradicted by the shots of the app itself. They talk very astutely about focusing on the experience of reading, with the extra sound and visual elements being registered almost subconsciously.  Yet at the same time, they show screens with the tiny text shoved in the corner WHILE THE REST OF THE SCREEN FRANTICALLY SHOUTS AT YOU AND DEMANDS ATTENTION. Anyone who has ever attempted to read a book with small children in the room will know this isn’t a winner.

There are three short stories in the app, all with a very different visual presentation. The text is reduced to around 20% of the screen size, which needs constant manual scrolling. This can give the impression that the product was designed by people who either don’t like the sight of the written word, or fear that a modern audience won’t like it. It’s more likely, I suspect, that this was done in an effort to control the triggering of motion graphics more precisely. The smaller text window narrows down the area where the reader’s attention is focused significantly.

The visual effects unfurl alongside the text and so are controlled by the speed you move the text. Sometimes it can be very effective, as when the words ‘The Fall’ slowly form across the top of the screen as the narrative heads towards a turning point. There are times when it seems to go against the aims of the author, however, as when text painting life in an inner-city London community is accompanied by the slow appearance of what appears to be a white picket fence.

Each story has another odd feature, in that whilst most of the story is presented as text, certain sections are not shown on screen but read aloud by the author. The sound of the author’s voice is definitely a strength of book apps, but the way it is implemented here means that you are dumped into a passive, listening moment during an otherwise active experience of scrolling and reading. Those familiar with unexpected game cutscenes will know how this jars.

So – what is the overall effect of this ‘enhanced reading experience’ like? Well, this is where it gets interesting. There are three short stories here. I found one to be wonderful and complete, and the other two interesting but ultimately a little aimless. It doesn’t matter which was which, for you would no doubt think otherwise. But what is interesting is that when a story grabs you, the enhanced extras become really effective and do work on this near-subconscious level, drawing you deeper into it. It is only when the story hasn’t got you  truly absorbed that the extras become distracting and throw you further from the text.

Or more simply, an ‘enhanced reading experience’ such as this improves fiction you like, but worsens fiction that you don’t.

Which is an interesting result, and not one that I was expecting. Ultimately it should help good writers build a more engaged audience, whilst helping the good writers stand out from the also-rans. And that has to be a good thing for writers, publishers and readers, does it not?

There are number of other good things about this app that are worth mentioning.  The sound design is good, and in places very good.  The decision to team up with short story specialists Shortfire Press makes a lot of sense. The app is sensibly priced and plans to license the system to traditional publishers looks promising.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that it exists. It’s bold and clearly experimental, and we can all learn a lot from looking at it.  So, if you haven’t tried it out, I would recommend you do so soon.

For those who still haven’t got over Chief Wonka, however, you may be interested in this other promotional video, the start of which is happy to suggest, with a straight face, that Papercut is the culmination of over 10,000 years of human cultural progress.