The Book App is dead. Again.

News reaches our shores that "The love affair with apps is officially over". This is the conclusion drawn by Forrester and Digital Book World and presented at their New York conference by James McQuivey.

This has echoes of Evan Schnittman at the London Book Fair 9 months ago, where he raised the question of the viability of apps. How can publishers justify spending often large sums of money on products that may have no commercial return are time-consuming internally and aren’t scalable across the company?
And on the other side of the argument we have a vibrant community of App developers who are, of course, looking through the telescope from the opposite end. They point to the creative opportunities and endless growth in device sales. Apps must make sense. Right?
The research presented at DBW, was based on feedback from US publishers. Only15% of them thinks that apps represent a significant revenue opportunity, down from 34% a year ago. Is this drop in confidence the result of some fingers being burned?
Despite this, the same survey noted that 75% of publishers produce apps. So, in a wonderful example of hope over experience, 85% of publishers think apps make no commercial sense but at the same time 75% of them continue to invest in them. A schizophrenic position, to say the least.
You only have to take a quick look at the products currently on the market to see that publishers have no problem producing gorgeous, amazing apps when they set their minds to it. Many publishers have found ways to use their content to develop hugely engaging, interactive apps that push storytelling and learning to scintillating heights. This creativity partnered with the vibrant app development community (particularly in the UK) is driving forward the limits of storytelling and information sharing.
So why do so many of these great collaborations often bear no commercial fruit?
It seems that many publishers put all their resources into the creative process but then have very little idea of what to do next, specifically how to market them.
Apps are not books. The marketing of apps demands skills that don’t naturally fit within the publishing cycle. With a book, marketing usually happens title by title with a huge burst of energy over a 3 month period around the release date. Successful app marketing is more analogous to the release of a new video game. Apps have a life, can change and be upgraded and remain relevant for longer. This continual marketing cycle just doesn’t fit for many publishers as they are currently structured.
This need to be nimble naturally plays into the hands of smaller publishers (like Nosy Crow) who can keep applying the marketing pressure and adjusting their strategy as and when the market shifts.
So, clearly there are structural problems but are publishers even covering the basics when marketing their apps?
I do hope that Faber won’t mind me using them as an example. In general, I consider Faber the gold standard in the app arena but even they seem to be missing some tricks.

Publisher websites

As you all know Faber has produced some of the most successful apps. So we’d assume they would be promoted well on their website. Not so. They have no app section. A search for ‘app’ on their site is sure to land me on their app page. It finds authors Adam Rapp, Petina Gappah and others. Perhaps if I’m more specific in my search I’ll find their apps. No, searching on Waste Land gives me a whole page on the book, not a mention of their app. One last search for T.S.Eliot, again no app.

My point here is a very obvious one: on the whole publishers aren’t using the one marketing channel over which they exercise 100% control – namely their own website. Faber isn’t alone. A quick look at some of the big houses will show websites giving apps very little exposure (if any).

In-house marketing

I don’t want to make assumptions here, but I’d hazard app marketing isn’t always integrated into the rest of publishers’ marketing activities. Are they using their e-newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, print books, publicists, etc?

But nobody buys apps directly from publishers, I hear you say. Fair enough.

So where do potential customers go to find apps? I’ll move onto the App Store later, but let’s first move our attention to the world’s biggest discoverability engine.

Let’s use another of Faber’s apps – The Solar System for iPad. A Google search for ‘Solar System’ doesn’t return Faber’s app on the first page. I’m not going to the second page to see if it’s there and nor will anyone else. So let’s search on 'Solar System app'. Good old Apple, masters in SEO as well as everything else. App Store is result No.1 in the natural search result. Interestingly Touch Press (Faber’s development partners on this app) also appears very high up the results. Not so Faber. Again not on the page at all.

(try a similar search for ‘Cinderella app’ – Nosy Crow has clearly invested in its SEO).

Arguably the second largest search engine. But again a missed opportunity. YouTube searches give some very random results and only one mention of Faber/TouchPress’s app.

(Try a search on YouTube for ‘whale trail’ for some tips on how to get exposure and buzz on YouTube)
The App Store

From discussions with app developers and publishers, the big wins with apps are only to be had if the App Store treats you well. Sales are guaranteed if you make it to App of the Week or into New and Noteworthy. If you don’t get yourself onto this bit of prime real estate, you’ll be consigned to the app dustbin with the other unsearchable gazillion apps.

In my opinion, this is where Faber excels. All of their apps have been placed front and centre on the App Store. This is where I suspect Faber puts its energies, into cultivating their relationship with Apple. They have a distinct advantage over other publishers here with their partner Touch Press’s established close relationship. But still, there is no coincidence that I was introduced to three Apple employees at their Waste Land launch party.

Can other publishers build a relationship with Apple? Yes, and if they can’t then maybe they should choose a collaborator or developer that can.
I hope the publishing industry doesn’t give up on the app. Publishers, before you dismiss them as too ‘commercially challenging’ please make sure you’ve at least got these basics covered. Give your apps a fighting chance.
The last chapter on book apps is still to be written, for now I’d say that, marketed properly, they have huge untapped potential for publishers.

The Book App is dead. Long live the Book App.


Image courtesy of Evan Schnittman, with thanks.



app marketing and discoverability

stephen Bateman's picture

This is a thoughtful and well poised counterweight to the findings made by Forrester and DBW across the pond 

@Sam, you're right pointing out that publishers are not used to marketing - at least not direct to consumer. Publishers have never been very good marketers full stop. The discipline has always been more promotion than marketing, whatsmore underfunded with a often junior people doing PR and a reluctance to invest more than 4% of net receipts across new titles and series.

Perhaps because the publishing model centres around relationhips with intermediaries: booksellers, book reviewers etc..

But in app publishing to success is down to your own effortds to stand out from the crownd on a level playing field, working relentlessly at making your wears discoverable in key places that users congregate 

Yes, SEO and search marketing are key

Yes, having an engaging presence in video sharing sites is key because people prefer to see what they're getting online - even when it's only spending on the equivalent of a mediocre cup of coffee 

In our case gaining the support of influencers was key to successfully driving adoptions so we targeted training institutions and instructors through broadcast, social and offline channels (email, social, consumer magazines and events). Determining where exactly our users would hang out online and offline was helped by defining our customer personas very early on during the R&D stage 

Blogs and youtube have had a higher penetration in SERP because search indexation is more frequent than on android marketplace or iTunes app stores

What worked best for us was to produce a great demo video and point all our inbound marketing at that on YouTube, Vimeo and Amazon and to embed this in social media: blogs, FB, Twitter etc 

It's helpful to have a publishing and media production background because we know about great content and how it feeds the beast: you have to have great content coming out your taps to continuously nourish, moderate, manage and maintain the buzz in your verticals.

The other key issue is cost of development: we have found that avoiding high dev costs is best acheieved using a single code base and bridging to iOS and Android 

Stephen Bateman

Enhanced has to be done right

Do a search on Google for enhanced ebooks and you will find that there’s a divergence of opinion on them. The main critique falls into three areas.

The first opinion states that enhanced ebooks with embedded video, sound and graphics, takes away from the enjoyment of the book because the enhanced ebook intrudes on the reader’s ability to imagine the story in his mind. The very popular Harry Potter books loved by children are used as a prime example.

This opinion states that any attempt to add greater dimensions to the Harry Potter story telling like the movies takes away from the imagination of the children. But that’s a false argument.

Sure, when a child reads a Harry Potter book, he or she congers up a vivid picture in their mind of the characters and environment in the book. Those critics hold that the movies made from those books somehow take away from that imagination process.

But if that were true, how do you account for the hundreds of millions of dollars each book in the series has generated as a movie? And most of the audience for these movies are the children that read the Harry Potter book.  The children enjoyed both versions of the story telling and it did little to take way their imagination of the story.

Of course, the professional handling of the book material by the movie studio did the story justice. As in anything creative – it has bee done well.

The second critique of enhanced ebooks comes from those that say the imbedded multimedia and extended material interrupts the reading experience. They claim, rightfully so, that the embedded video, audio and links to the Internet within the text interrupts the reading of the book. But if one places the 'whistles and bells' out side of the flow of text, in lets say in the margin, and can be turned off at will, this   marginalia can add to the ebook's use. 

The third critique has nothing to do with the reading experience. It has to do with economics — the cost of producing enhanced ebooks. This is a valid critique. It does cost more to produce an enhanced book. Thus the retail cost of the ebook is higher than the traditional ebook.

But a solution to that. Make the enhanced book apps  FREE by having ads in the app just like for any other app we today. The advertising supported ebook app  pays for the production of the ebook.

For an example of this type enhanced ebook,  download a free enhanced digital ebook app at

Time for a New Reference Point?

I think that mimicing the book format digitally and using the physical predecessors to ebooks as a reference point was a useful convention as books migrated into the digital world.  However, now that we have been in the "horseless carriage" phase of ebooks for some time, I think it is time to start giving these new forms of media new names.  There are a lot of conventions and expectations surrounding a "book."  However, as we continue to iterate in the space, the output is becoming decidely less like book-like.  Using new terminology might help allay everyone's fear that they are losing an old friend; the book.


iucounu's picture

I think the real problem we're having with app publishing is that it's so expensive. Outsourcing development to digital agencies usually means a mid five-figure investment in a product which will sell for, at most, the price of a paperback book.

Making an iOS app just isn't viable for anything other than the biggest brands, and even then it feels chancy. It's not entirely clear that books translate particularly excitingly into apps. The best and most visible titles - say, those by Nosy Crow and Touch Press - are, or at least feel like they are, designed from the ground up for the platform. If you discount the need for book brands, and our rights in them, then I'm not sure we're the most important people with the most important skills required to make such things. In fact in many ways it seems it would make more sense for developers making book-like apps to simply publish their own new IP themselves, and hire in people from print publishing to edit it. It's a bit of a puzzle for us still, I think.

Apps are here to stay - Climb aboard or stand aside

Dean Johnson's picture

A great summary of the publishing industry's current attitude towards app development Sam. Over the next 12 months we're working with a collection of the greatest musicians of the last 4 decades, iconic film properties, automotive legends, global hallowed institutions and some of the most compelling authors of our time. All irresistible subject matter with essential written narrative but not a single book amongst them – they're apps.This is bigger than publishing. Get over it.Apps aren't something new that only publishing is dabbling with. Encapsulated mobile content has the power to touch all our lives and encourage all generations to engage with words and images.This is fun, fulfilling and the future so choose the right content, make the best product you can and tell the world about it. Two out of three just isn't good enough.

For children, the app has only just been born ...

Great post, Sam! I followed a lot of DBW over twitter & blog summaries during the week ... such an interesting amount of psychology to try to read from the different constituents at the conference.

But if you were to ask a child who has read book apps what they think of the format, it would become much easier to understand why 75% of publishers are producing book apps. Adults may not have the forumula for making a profit on these books ironed out quite yet, but the appeal to the target audience is strong enough - from both kids & their parents - to keep the app (or whatever enhanced digital format comes next) alive and well for a very long time.

Not that I'm an expert or anything ... but I have read more than 1000 book apps and reviewed nearly 500. Unless publishers would like to stay on a sinking ship, they might want to stick around just a bit longer - they hold an important piece of this puzzle going forward. It's just that they don't hold the whole game any longer ... 

Long live the book app

Dave Addey's picture

“How can publishers justify spending often large sums of money on products that may have no commercial return […]?”

Isn't that what book publishers do?

As for the SEO of "Solar System", I wouldn't expect any app to be on the first page for that phrase, any more than I would for "Moon", or "Mars", or "Space Shuttle". It's just too generic a term for something as specific as an app to make the first page.

I'm also not surprised that Faber don't make the first page of Google for "Solar System app", as the app is listed on the App Store under Touch Press's developer account, not Faber's. The search results have the same pattern as Cinderella – the top hit is Touch Press / Nosy Crow's web site, followed by the app itself on the App Store. And in any case, I'm not sure that having the app featured on the Faber web site would make any difference to sales – people don't go to a book publisher's web site to find out about apps.

I completely agree about the value in the Apple relationship, however. It's something we developers work hard to build, and it's certainly worth the effort. Our established relationship with Apple, coupled with a smartly-timed content update by Faber, was the reason our QI app (co-produced with Faber Digital) was New & Noteworthy over the 2012 Christmas break, a year on from its original launch and feature on the store. This scope for ongoing re-promotion is one of the advantages apps have over the traditional three-month book promotion window. Or to put it another way, a (good) app is for life, not just for Christmas.

Hi Dave

Sam Missingham's picture

Thanks for taking the time to comment Dave.

To respond to the point about publishers punting money on books already, true, but this is a calculated risk based on years of experience. Not an argument to say that if they take a risk in one area then why not take a risk in another. Especially if they've lost money and had fingers burned when taking a risk. And in reality the odds ARE stacked against them making money. (Unless someone can show me the ££ behind lots of commercially successful apps?)

If Solar System is really too generic a term to return Solar System app then why not pay for this result? Surely worth it?

Your comment 'And in any case, I'm not sure that having the app featured on the Faber web site would make any difference to sales – people don't go to a book publisher's web site to find out about apps.' They would if any other search directed them there. Also I'm assuming has traffic - customers, potential customers expressing an interest in Faber's products by being there, no?

Not having the app there is like owning a bookshop and not putting your books in the window because you assume people will buy them from Amazon.

 (Also why not run a competition there for someone to win the app do some data capture etc?)

The more general point I'm making is that, if publishers do 'risk' it with apps at least use the marketing assets they already have to get some quick wins. 

You are so right

You are so right on this. Making apps successful is a complete new game, for anyone, not only for publishers. Saying apps won't work is nonsense. Concluding it is more difficult than we thought to make them work is a better point of view. 

Making digital work means specializing your people (at least some of them). In the publishing department (but that seems to be common sense by know), but also in the marketing department. And that seems to be forgotten. Digital productions isn't something the regular marketeer can pick up and do besides all the other work. It requires knwoledge of a new world, finding new places to promote your products/have them reviewed. But it also requires a combination with the 'old world', where the biggest part your target group is. I call this hybrid marketing. 

The app is not dead, the old way of marketing for publishers is.


Sam Missingham's picture

Hi Timo,

Thanks for your feedback. Hybrid marketing - nice term.

You must find this an even greater challenge in Holland.


app marketing

Bert Vegelien's picture

Hi Sam,

How are you? Great article and I couldn't agree more with you. I 've had this discussion with publishers lots of time. Most of them just don't know what tot do with the app once they have one.




Sam Missingham's picture

Hi Bert,

Very well thank you. And you? 

Thanks for feedback. Would be interested in the challenges you are facing with this. 

Hear from you soon I hope.


App focus is mis-directed


With the exception of educational and children's literature, the over emphasis on apps hasn't made much sense up to now.  The app is not the point because it is primarily a container and distribution vehicle.  What's far more important is identifying what it can usefully do that print and vanilla eBooks can't efficiently accomplish.

While some of these new "enhancements" are interesting, they are mostly cure's to maladies that don't really exist and distract from book makers addressing the fundamental new challenges that come with the production, management, and marketing of digital literature.

Why do I think so? We spent almost 2 years experimenting with "The Mongoliad" project where we put a long string of hypotheses to the test.  With a flexible technology pallet and the harsh lights of the market, we got pretty clear answers as to what writers, editors, and publishers needed and were able to put some of them in practice.



Sam Missingham's picture

Hi Gary,

Agree with your points. Not familiar with 'The Mongoliad' project. Be interested to hear more. ( if you fancy emailing me)

Thanks for commenting


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