Want to bring along a library of great books wherever you go, from current bestsellers to the classics? To quote Apple's ubiquitous iPhone slogan, “There's an app for that.” Without question, the proliferation of smartphones is rapidly changing the way we think about mobile computing—and in the coming months and years, they may very well change the way we think about books.
Since Apple launched its App Store in June 2008, the market for apps—those little programs you download to your smart phone (iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, etc.) to make them do things other than make and receive calls—is booming. Just a year from its launch, Apple now offers more than 50,000 apps in its store, ranging from arcade games to GPS technology that can direct you to the nearest hoagie. And, of course, apps let you read books on your phone. In fact, books have become one of the most popular app genres. “The mobile platform is the place where we're both going to replace some of our readers and add new readers,” says Hachette Digital's senior v-p Maja Thomas. “It is absolutely a game-changing platform for us.”
Although Apple officials won't confirm how many iPhones are out there, clearly business is good. On June 22 the company announced that it had already sold over one million of its latest model, just three days after its launch. Competing devices are also generating buzz—the new Blackberry Storm; Google's Android mobile phone operating system; and just a few weeks ago, Palm introduced the Pre.
With such a robust emerging market for smartphones, publishers are actively reimagining the very notion of the e-book, creating book-based apps that both enable mobile reading and enhance their books. Simon & Schuster, for example, has had great success with game and utility apps, made in-house and with the help of outside developers. One, called 365 Crossword, mines the company's huge back catalogue of crossword puzzle books to offer readers a puzzle for each day of the year. “We launched that in February, and it's done really nicely,” Ellie Hirshhorn, chief digital officer and executive v-p for Simon & Schuster, told PW. “Even the first day or two as we were watching closely, it wasn't just being downloaded in the United States—it was all over the world.”
Hirshhorn is quick to point out that mobile technology has enabled S&S to “marry the platform to the content.” The company also did well with a Klingon dictionary app pegged to the release of Star Trek. And, while Hirshhorn says S&S launched these apps because they hoped to learn about the market, “we are making money,” she adds.
Hachette has had surprising success with an app called the Urinal Test, based on the company's title The Man Book, and Maja Thomas envisions even bigger possibilities. “I think it's going to be an interesting challenge to see how we can perhaps not think about and market what we're doing here as just books,” Thomas says. “We have authors like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. If we could deliver content from these branded authors in a way that's easy and entertaining, then we're not just talking about people walking into a book store and buying a book, but a huge new audience.”
At Random House, The Prima Guide video-game handbook imprint has released a “cheats and codes” database for the iPhone, and Matt Shatz, v-p at Random House Digital imagines all kinds of apps coming in the near future. “Fodor's travel guides, Living Language, some of our kids' books, parenting books, these are all conceptual examples, none of which are out in the market.” Shatz says. “You could picture what we could do with a pregnancy guide—you're seven months pregnant, you are at a restaurant and want to know if you can eat goat cheese. You can look up the answer in the app.”
A company like Lonely Planet seems to be tailor-made for the app boom. The travel guide publisher recently released interactive versions of its popular phrase books and travel guides in the iPhone App Store as well as for other platforms, and Todd Sotkiewicz, president of Lonely Planet for the Americas, says he is thrilled with the opportunities. “The phrasebooks have audio, which is obviously not in the print book at all, and in the city guides, we have GPS-enabled maps,” he explains. “That's more than repurposing, that's creating something for the specific medium.” Sotkiewicz told PW that in the few months since Lonely Planet released its apps, it has already seen 300,000 phrase books and almost 100,000 city guides downloaded.
For reference and professional publishers, apps are a natural extension. Philip Ruppel, president of McGraw-Hill Professional, said the publisher currently offers a half-dozen or so apps in medicine, via app developer Modality, but that there are as many as 50 different kinds of apps in the works with various vendors. “Our kind of content is ideally suited for the active business or professional person who needs content right away and may be in a mobile environment,” he says. “People who are in mobile environments, like doctors, need quick reference. It's extremely exciting. We're trying to be in every possible place, making sure the content we create is in every format.”
Apps are also proving to be effective marketing tools for traditional books. Six months ago, Penguin launched an iPhone app that serves as a portal into the mobile version of the publisher's Web site. The newest version enables e-commerce, so consumers can order Penguin's print titles right from their phones. “We have seen sales, and we see people linking through to the site,” says Jeff Gomez, Penguin's senior director of online consumer sales and marketing. “It's a perfect way to combine print and digital. They're clicking through and buying the actual print book. It's win-win.”
So how exactly does one go about envisioning and making an app? So far, publishers have embraced two basic approaches. One is the creation of apps like those detailed above—programs that takes book content and use it to make something entirely new. The other and far more common app, so far, is a standard e-book put into a format that is accessible through the iPhone, what Hirshhorn calls “migrating the book.”
This is done by putting the text into ePub format, then distributing it through an e-book store with an app, like Amazon or eReader, or handing the book over to a developer like ScrollMotion, which turns books into stand-alone apps.
Standalone books apps are newer, and increasing in popularity. Many publishers, however, are wary of standalone book apps because the consumer experience just isn't quite there yet. The App Store is divided into broad categories—games, lifestyle, books—and within those categories, apps are simply sorted by release date. While they are searchable by app name it is simply not very good for book browsing. “I can't imagine we're getting many sales from browsing,” Ana Maria Allessi, v-p of HarperMedia, says about the nascent App Store experience. “We're watching the opportunities closely. But thus far it's a pretty confusing landscape.” Penguin's Gomez agrees that standing out in the app store is a problem. “I think the app store could become a victim of its own success because there's just so much in there,” he says. “It's like going to a book store and having everything on the shelves in a haphazard way.”
The consumer experience in the still-developing App Store will straighten out, publishers say, as more competition emerges in the smartphone market and as rival devices begin to increase their offerings in their own app stores. When that will happen, however, is unclear. Right now, the iPhone is dominating the book app market, and most publishers—and app developers—are putting their eggs in the iPhone basket.
How and where users will find and buy book apps, meanwhile, is only one area of concern for publishers. For many books, contracted before the digital era, the rights situations are unclear, and there are bound to be questions about how to compensate authors for the use of their content in apps. Contractual language with authors will need to be much more specific, but before that can happen, the territory—the breadth of apps being developed—will need to be much more defined. Will all new book contracts eventually stipulate that the content may be used for apps? How will authors be paid for apps?
The mobile marketplace also holds serious implications for the emerging market for dedicated readers. How will book apps for smartphones affect the future of dedicated reading devices like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader? Would you spend $400 on a device that limits you to reading? Or spend the same amount—or less—on a device that can enable you to read books, browse the Web without restriction, make phone calls, watch video and listen to music? “Over time, a lot more electronic reading will be done on multipurpose devices,” Shatz says. “But I'm not really sure that the notion of application versus book or even smartphone versus dedicated reading device is really going to be a critical distinction.” In other words—this market is still too young to proclaim winners or losers.
For all the uneasy development still to come, most publishers think the app offers still-to-be-imagined possibilities for both revenue and promotion. “Mobile devices are becoming much more prevalent and ubiquitous,” McGraw-Hill's Ruppel says. “The fact is, you go on a plane or train, everybody used to be reading a newspaper or magazine. Now, 50% are reading their telephones. It's a completely new channel that is growing by leaps and bounds—in this economy, it's one of the only things that's growing in that way.”
Indiebound, the independent booksellers' community sponsored by the ABA, launched an iPhone app in April to promote a cause—independent bookselling. According to Matt Supko, ABA's Web content coordinator, most content and functionality for the app comes from the Indiebound Web site—a GPS-enabled store locator, various book lists, news updates—with a phone-enhanced front end. “We got to #2 in the App Store for books,” Supko says, thanks to a boost from Apple, which featured the app on the front page of the App Store. “For a while there, we were beating out Stanza and eReader.” The app has been a winner for Indie booksellers, some of which told Supko the app has helped their business. “I heard from several stores at BEA who have seen sales because of it,” he says. “I know of at least one bookseller who uses it as a sales tool. I have another bookseller who will give a 10% discount to anyone with an iPhone who downloads the app in his store.”
App: Kindle for iPhone
Who Owns/Makes It?: Amazon.com
Special Features: Whispersync synchronizes reading location and books with Kindle device
Books Available: 300,000 titles available in Kindle Store
Who Owns/Makes It?: Lecycle/Amazon.com
Special Features: Download straight to iPhone; convert and transfer personal files using desktop application
Books Available: Over 100,000 titles from major publishers
Who Owns/Makes It?: Fictionwise/Barnes & Noble
Special Features: Download from Fictionwise/ eReader.com right to iPhone; launch Safari from within app to purchase books from other stores
Books Available: Proprietary eReader PDB format books available from Fictionwise and many other e-book stores
Who Owns/Makes It?: Shortcovers
Special Features: Create and sell content in Shortcovers store; also available for Palm Pre
Books Available: “Tens of thousands”
Who Owns/Makes It?: Language Technologies
Special Features: Text enhanced for greater readability; preserves publishers book design
Books Available: Public domain titles
App: Icerberg Reader
Who Owns/Makes It?: ScrollMotion
Special Features: Maintains print pagination; enables note-taking; searchable text
Books Available: Stand-alone app for each title; many major trade books; price often higher