In a media landscape fragmented into a churning array of niche interests, digital publishing and marketing increasingly means developing applications for mobile devices, and traditional publishers need to expect competition from just about everywhere, said media analyst Rebecca Lieb in a keynote speech at Mediabistro’s Publishing App Expo in New York. The biggest competitors for conventional publishers Lieb said, will likely be the brands and service agencies these publishers partner with today.

In a thoughtful overview of the mobile publishing landscape, Lieb, an analyst for the Altimeter Group, outlined a series of broad trends in today’s content marketplace as well as strategies for publishers to consider as they transition to digital delivery. In fact, in a landscape originally scrambled into fragments by cable TV, now further fragmented by digital delivery, mobile development is in an “embryonic form, it’s not even nascent,” she said. In an age when kitchen appliances have touchscreens and apps are developed for laptops and phones, Lieb said there’s not even a precise definition of what mobile publishing is.

In this post mass-market mediascape, everyone is a publisher, Lieb said, especially the biggest brands—Coke, Pepsi, Ford, American Express, Adobe, are now content producers. Indeed a magazine publisher’s advertisers are just as likely to be their publishing competition; for book publishers, the PR and social media agencies they partner with must produce content as well, evolving into “frenemies.” These partner/competitors are not only working for publishers but using these arrangements to inform their own content strategies, “publishers will have to learn to not show all your cards to your partners,” she said.

That said, Lieb said traditional publishers have some advantages over the “co-opetition,’ including experience in finding compelling content, presenting it and speed and agility in getting content to consumers. Apps, unlike books, combine “utility and entertainment,” she said, noting the ability of apps to act as essentially geographical search engines for local online content. “Apps can help a consumer find a bank branch or deposit a check,” Lieb said, “or they can help you find a clean public toilet, is that publishing?” 26% of all apps downloaded are used once, Lieb said and exhorted publishers “think hard about end users and how they will use the app,” and also think about metrics for success. “Key performance indicators; measure what counts, desired behaviors, which will vary from app to app, from number of downloads to user ratings," she said.

Mediabistro organized the App Expo into Book and Magazine/Newspaper tracks and subsequent morning sessions on book content as apps offered more specific information for publishers on looking at the development of the market and choosing development partners. In Maxmizing Discoverability & Profitability in Book App Marketplaces, Claudia Romanini, B&N’s director of developer relations and Nook Apps program, outlined a B&N app marketplace that is “70% women” who are buying apps that they can share with their children. “Know who you are targeting—it’s a crowded noisy space,” Romanini said, “our customers may not even have smart phones and are using a color smart device [the NookColor or Nook Tablet] for the first time. Can people understand what your app does? Use clean simple descriptions of functions and pay attention to the ratings and reviews.”

Oddly, unlike most speakers on mobile development, Romanini cautioned against over experimentation, “don’t experiment,” she said, “think about your audience and build your app for that audience.” On the same panel, Lyle Underkoffler, v-p, digital media, Disney Publishing Worldwide, advised publishers to “price to value, book apps don’t have to be 99 cents,” and don’t “over engineer. Keep it simple, a clear beautiful story is still the best application.”

The last panel of the morning continued with a focus on the nuts and bolts of app delivery, surveying both technical and editorial maintenance of apps once they are out in the marketplace. There were varied responses to updating apps; some panelists Like Zuuka’s Graham Farrar and Budge’s Noemie Dupuy, prefer to release apps complete and only update them if there is bug or technical need. Others, like Ruckus Media’s Jim Young, plan apps that will add content or functionality over time. All the panelists urged publishers to have “early conversations” about who will pay for technical updates, say, when Apple or Android upgrades their operating systems, a process that can be expensive if these updates are not included in contracts. And asked whether marketing an applications as an app, a game or a book, was better, the panelists were all in agreement that the book category “is much better,” said Dupuy, “we offer games and books and both do well but you can charge more for books.”

Farrar said that, “people are able to relate to an app by calling it a book,” and joked that these days young people view a print magazine, “as an iPad that doesn’t work.” Peter Costanzo, formerly with F+W Media, agreed, “People have more expectations about what a book app should do.”