Apps will feed your family, not the corporate bottom line (yet) – Pt. 1
There’s no money in them. They’re expensive to produce and then they don’t sell, destined to disappear in the App Store slush pile.
This kind of app trash talk isn’t fresh – it has circulated in hushed whispers around London’s high-rent barstools for months. Six months ago, apps were “the most tangible manifestation of a new type of publishing product”. Now they just suck.
Angry Birds may be a €50m brand, but that’s a game. We’re talking books. Talking books. Wiggly jiggly books. Books with video, music and the kind of flippy pagey turny fun that distracts children from text.
Those books – according to this week’s rush of blog posts – don’t make money. I don’t believe it. But then, I do.
Let’s look at numbers. Imagine you’re a publishing house releasing a celebrity-driven app. You rack up 50,000 units of App Store goodness. At a fiver per, you expect profit. But the developers charged 40k of your local currency, the celeb wanted an advance plus a fee for their video production company. Marketing took a chunk. Apple ate 30%. Tack on taxes, internal resources and the groan of bricks and mortar and a 5% profit margin looks ambitious.
Five percent of £250,000. As an indie producer or author, that’s reasonable first quarter profit – as a publishing executive, not so much.
This is the kind of scenario pushing publishing’s app backlash, with few solutions suggested outside broad references to cost-cutting, or bailing out altogether. What are needed are direct answers to the challenging questions wrapped around app development for the publishing industry.
Over the next several posts, I’ll try to address this. I’ll post about App Store marketing and politics, plus Apple’s algorithm for App Store ranking. And I’ll put my money where my mouth is, producing a rapid-turnaround, low budget iPad children’s book and reporting back – what I learned, what I thought I knew but I didn’t, and whether the family gets to eat this quarter.
Let’s start briefly with cost. The problem with sinking budgets is the risk of a loss of quality. This needn’t be the case.
The primary cost in app production is not design or talent – it’s development, and specifically “native coding”. These are the words developers speak, when what they mean is “programming in Apple’s low level Objective C language in the Xcode environment”. Agencies and for-hire-coders like to tout the Xcode toolset as the only way to go, but for the rest of us, it’s a bit like driving a Ferrari to the supermarket. There are saner alternatives between the extremes of the two-seater and the bus.
At the low end of the App production cost scale is an SDK (Software Development Kit) called AppMakr. With AppMakr, a cloud-based development environment, a marginally geeky graphic designer can create a dynamically-fed app on their lunch hour. And the SDK is free. Seth Godin, PBS, Harvard Business Review and DJ Tiesto’s people have all used AppMakr.
For more complex apps requiring animation and physics, AnscaMobile’s Corona SDK has become a popular favourite. Often used to create games and animated books, Corona was developed by a couple of veterans from Adobe’s Flash camp, and beats most other development environments hands down. In the past three months, more than 10,000,000 Corona apps have been downloaded from the app store.
If you’re trying to cut app development costs, seek out agencies touting rapid prototyping, and alternative development environments like these. Next post, we’ll cover app store marketing. And I’ll update you on the children’s book app, how app production budget cutting works in a real-world scenario, and whether it looks like the family will be eating salad or steak.
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