Making apps a core part of your digital publishing strategy

Arun BentyOn May 15, 2013, Apple celebrated 5 years of the App Store and released some astounding statistics.  Over 50 billion apps have been downloaded and that number jumped to 60 billion just 5 months after that announcement. That’s an average of 800 apps downloaded per second! With Apple paying out $15 billion to developers and December alone recording $3 billion in sales, do publishers need more reasons to look at the app store seriously? Let’s not forget, we haven’t spoken about the Google Play store yet, for which numbers are difficult to come by.

But aren’t customers tuned to buying books from iBooks and apps from app stores?
The answer is no. 10 to 30 times as many books are sold on the app store as compared to iBooks. The iBookstore pales in comparison to the Appstore in terms of traffic. So why would you place your wares in a store that has no footfalls? App Stores have changed the way we buy and install software and this begs the question: Aren’t ebooks software in a sense?

What’s the most important benefit of using apps for publishing?
It’s a common notion among publishers that apps makes sense only if you want to plug in some “interactivity” into your book. But there’s so much more to publishing books as apps than just this. Apps give you direct access to the consumer so it opens the doors to promotions, up-selling and cross-selling. It creates a channel to sell direct and increase margins. With the ever increasing focus on direct-to-consumer methods, apps can help publishers build a relationship with their readers despite the control exerted by dominant ebook retailers. With 90% of book sales driven through word-of-mouth marketing, engaging with your influencers is becoming increasingly important.

Aren’t apps expensive to build and maintain?
Yes, apps are expensive to build and maintain. This is where the Papertrell platform comes in. With an easy to use, feature rich, do-it-yourself app publishing CMS that simultaneously builds for all device platforms natively, Papertrell dramatically reduces the cost of app development and maintenance. It’s a platform that’s built for scale: an interactive app can be repurposed from an ePub file in under 48 hours. The platform also supports tools to import and repurpose from InDesign, PDFs and even blogs.

What about distribution? Isn’t it a complex ecosystem across multiple device platforms?
Manually managing titles across app stores is a complex process. The Papertrell platform takes care of end-to-end app distribution, publishers can now automatically submit or update to 7 different app stores with a single click. This also makes managing price promotions and meta-data management simple across multiple app stores. Publishers have a choice of distibuting as a paid app or as a “collection” of titles within a Shelf app with in-app purchase or subscrition as a payment option. The Shelf is fully cusomtizable with a host of features like banners, collections, a fully-featured EPUB and PDF reader, a cloud synced library, offline access, social reading with Facebook and Twitter integration.

What about updating content?
One of the most important features in Papertrell is the ability to quickly respond to customer issues related to content. App stores are notoriously slow in reviewing apps and this can sometimes kill the chance of an app being successful. A Papertrell app can be updated instantly without the need for time consuming app store reviews and will still work in an offline mode.

Can any type of book be converted to an interactive app using Papertrell?
It’s important to define what we mean by interactivity. Most content apps use audio, video and animations to add interactivity, but Papertrell uses a completely different approach. The idea is use existing book assets and repurpose it into a usable, interactive app without relying too much on “bells and whistles”. There are many instances here and here where this principle has been effectively applied. These are examples of books that contain no multimedia but the products have been repurposed into commercially successful apps by simply “gamefying” the content around usage, for example, unlocking chapters based on the quiz result. This is how “interactivity” is defined in Papertrell.

How scalable is app production in Papertrell? Can the process be automated?
Papertrell automatically ingests content from EPUB and other digital formats into a structured content dictionary using pattern recognition methods. Once the content is mapped, and a template is created, an app can produced from a subsequent EPUB in the same series in a matter of seconds. Here’s an example of a series that was produced using automation. This makes it incredibly easy to quickly make changes to the design and look and feel. The structured content dictionary also helps in reusability as new titles can be easily produced by remixing content across a series.

What sort of publishers are best suited for Papertrell?
Papertrell provides a robust platform for publishers who want to build a direct-to-consumer sales channel. Today this pretty much covers every type of publisher: trade, educational, comics, graphic novels, STM, Illustrated, non-fiction and even B2B publishing. With a range of options available to reach out, acquire, sustain and nurture readers, Papertrell provides depth and breadth in terms of features and flexibility to suit any requirement. Whether it’s creating highly engaging and interactive interpretations of books, social reading, ebook promotion and bundling or direct selling and subscription, Papertrell can play an integral part in your digital publishing strategy.

This article was written by Arun Benty. Arun is responsible for Papertrell's business development and product strategy. He is also the Co-founder and Director of Business Development at Trellisys.net, Papertrell's parent company. He has guided several globally recognized app projects for publishers including HarperCollins and Hachette including The SAS Survival Guide - a Webby Award winning app.


Rediscovering Zite

I first wrote about Zite a couple of years ago when I did Zitethis interview with their CEO, Mark Johnson. If you're not familiar with Zite, it's a news-gathering and reading app that learns what you like and feeds you additional related content. (More on that last point in a moment.) Within a year of that interview Flipboard made it to Android, my preferred platform, and I started using Zite less and less. Why?

The Android version of Zite always felt like an afterthought. The UI was clunky at best and didn't offer the sizzle of Flipboard's UI. Yes, I admit it...I was won over by the shiny object that is Flipboard. I even went to the trouble of creating my own Flipboard magazine.

About a week ago I noticed Zite had an upgrade to their Android app and I thought I'd take another look at it. I'm glad I did.

Zite finally got things right with this latest Android version. It still doesn't have the fit and finish of Flipboard but it's lightyears ahead of the prior version.

More importantly, Zite's key feature that attracted me in the first place still makes it a unique product: Zite does a nice job finding new content I'm interested in. Although Zite's algorithm could easily lead to life in an echo chamber, I've never found that to be the case. I originally configured Zite with my favorite topics and I'm often presented with new articles in those areas from people I never would have discovered without Zite.

So if you haven't explored Zite up to now, or if you were like me and lost interest for a bit, now is the time to revisit this terrific app.


Best of TOC

Best of tocIt's challenging keeping up with publishing industry news and analysis. I have way too many content feeds to monitor and I'm sure you do too. We do our best to highlight the most important developments on the TOC website but you're forgiven if you fall behind or miss an article every so often.

Most of analysis on the TOC site is somewhat timeless but the blog format might not make it feel that way. That's why we gathered the best of the best articles and assembled them for you in a handy, to-go version. It's called Best of TOC: Analysis and Ideas about the Future of Publishing. More than 60 of the most thought-provoking articles from the TOC team and community are featured and it's available in EPUB, mobi and PDF formats. Best of all, it's completely free.

If you need to catch up on your TOC reading you no longer have an excuse. Download your copy today and tell us what you think.


What devices and formats do your customers prefer?

Most publishers create ebooks in all formats figuring it doesn't matter whether mobi is more important than EPUB or if the content is read on an iPad more frequently than on a mobile phone. That approach means these publishers have no idea how their content is being consumed. It also means they probably don't have a direct channel to their customers or some other way of polling them on their preferences.

At O'Reilly we like to stay on top of our customer reading habits and preferences. We monitor device and format trends through surveys and download statistics (from our direct sales channel). For example, here's a chart showing which primary and additional devices our customers read our books on:

Devices

As you can see, a computer is the O'Reilly customer's preferred reading device and the Kindle family is a distant second. What I find interesting here is the fact that Android tablets are much more popular reading devices for O'Reilly content than an iPad is. In fact, for our customers the small-screen iPhone/iPod combo is also a much more popular reading device than the iPad. Another interesting tidbit is that the iPad's popularity is almost exclusively as a second option, not the primary reading device.

Now let's look at preferred formats:

Formats

Here we see PDF still dominates; we learned long ago that most of the reading taking place on the computer is with PDFs, not EPUB or mobi files. This is a trend we've seen for years now and PDF doesn't seem to be any closer to relinquishing its format leadership status now than it was back in 2009, for example. And despite the Kindle's popularity EPUB is preferred much more so than mobi.

That begs the question: If the Kindle is such an important device for O'Reilly customers (see first chart), why is mobi a distant 3rd in format popularity? Is it possible our customers are loading their Kindles with PDFs? Sounds like a great question we need to add to our survey...

These charts reflect the preferences of the O'Reilly customer. Unless you also happen to publish technology books I'm pretty sure your results will look different from ours. But are you even taking the time to ask your customers these questions?


Reverse showrooming

This past weekend a friend asked me to pick up a couple of books for them. Print books, btw, and they needed them later that day. That meant it was time to head to a local bookstore, something I'm doing less and less of these days.

B&N was the closest and when I walked in I immediately realized why online shopping sometimes offers such a better experience than in-person. My local B&N moved all their categories around from the last time I was there and I must have circled the entire store three or four times just to find the two books I needed.

Then there's the reviews and top-seller lists I'm so used to seeing online. They don't exist in the brick-and-mortar world, so I decided it was time to do some reverse showrooming.

I chose the Amazon app on my Android phone, mostly because I know Amazon tends to have far more customer reviews than B&N. So I found myself flipping through the Amazon app while standing in the middle of a B&N store. I kept waiting for a store employee to walk past and make me feel guilty, thinking I was just buying the books from Amazon instead, but that never happened.

The whole experience made me realize, once again, that a chain like B&N needs to build a mobile app to make the in-store experience more pleasant and, dare I say it, rewarding.

The only mobile app B&N has is for the Nook. They offer nothing to help you navigate your local superstore. How about simple store maps so I can find the sections I'm looking for without walking all over the place? Yes, I know this has to be done store-by-store and updated regularly. And yes, I'm sure they like it that we're all walking through the store since maybe that means we'll stumble across something we weren't even looking for. I wasn't interested in serendipity on this visit though. I was on a mission and pressed for time.

Once they create this in-store app, how about adding some other features like deals-of-the-day? Base them on my purchasing habits. Make me a deal I can't resist and customize it for me. Feel free to mix the offers between print deals and ebook deals. Let me know about upcoming events and anything else I might be interested in, especially if it ties in with my buying habits.

All I'm asking is that they give me a reason to come back. Without any of this it will probably be a few months before I return. And when I do, the experience is likely to be as frustrating as this last visit. If Mr. Riggio is serious about buying the brick-and-mortar part of the business you'd think he'd want to implement something like this to improve the shopping experience.


Why B&N should abandon hardware

The ebook retailing business consists of three elements: hardware, content, and selling model. Dedicated e-readers (think eInk devices) are losing momentum to tablets. Content is mostly quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions, or "paper under glass", if you will. The typical selling model is to buy one ebook at a time. Pretty simple. And not a whole lot of innovation happening in any of the three areas by the major players.

Recently there's been speculation that B&N is about to ditch the hardware part of their Nook business and focus instead on content and licensing. If true, that's probably the wisest thing I've heard from Riggio & Co. in a long time. Hardware has been, and will increasingly become more of, a fool's game for B&N.

They can't possibly steal Apple's mojo, so why try? I'll bet more people are reading B&N ebooks on an iPad or iPhone than they are on the Nook tablets.

On the Amazon side, B&N simply doesn't have deep enough pockets to lose money on both hardware and ebooks as long as Bezos can, so it's time to cut bait. Plus, Amazon's goal is to turn the Kindle Fire into a gateway for purchasing much, much more than ebooks. Amazon has a significantly larger product catalog outside of books, so Amazon can afford to lose money on the device if they make it up on the sale of electronics and other goods B&N doesn't sell.

So if B&N completely gets out of the hardware business what can they do to compete in the ebook world? Think app functionality, reader experience, and content sales model.

Today's e-reader apps have pretty much the same functionality as yesterday's. There's basically no innovation happening with the user experience in any of these apps, whether they come from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc.

Now is the time for B&N to shift all those resources they have in hardware onto the team that develops their Nook apps. What features are customers asking for? More importantly, what features have readers never even envisioned but would love to have? Channel Steve Jobs. We were all pretty content with our MP3 players back in 2000 and then in 2001 the iPod hit the scene. What a game-changer. What will be the "iPod moment" for e-reading apps?

And while they're working on that, be bold and work with publishers to develop some genre-specific, all-you-can-eat, ebook subscription programs. Romance is a good place to start but look at other verticals as well. What kind of package would compel customers to pay a subscription rate of $5 or $10 per month? They'll need to find the publishers who are willing to experiment here but that's why you focus on just one genre to start and build a success story to create others down the road.

At the end of the day B&N should continue to let Apple, Google, et al, distribute their Nook apps. They don't need to lose any more money selling devices that are viewed as commodities. They should instead focus on dramatically changing the reading experience and content acquisition model. After all, once hardware is eliminated, those are the only two other elements of ebook retailing that matter.


Next Issue: Why I recommissioned my old iPad

I had to take my first-gen iPad out of mothballs for this one. I’m talking about the Next Issue service and app. Like most of you I’ve let my print magazine subscriptions lapse over the past several years. I spend less than $150/year on my remaining subscriptions and more than half of that is just for one, The Week, which is highly recommended, btw. So why would I sign up for an online magazine subscription program that will cost me $15/month, or $180/year? Because it’s terrific.

Read more...


The slow pace of ebook innovation

I love this comment from Dave Bricker regarding an earlier post, EPUB 3 facts and forecasts:

Ebook vendors enjoy a closed loop ecosystem. They have millions of reader/customers who are satisfied with EPUB 2 display capabilities and devices. Amazon readers, for example, are largely content with the offerings in the proprietary Kindle store; they’re not lining up with torches and pitchforks to push for improvements. While publishers wait for eReader device manufacturers to add new features and EPUB 3 support, eBooksellers are just as happy to wait.

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Three questions for…Jason Illian of BookShout

1. What is BookShout and what makes it unique?

BookShout is a unique type of ereader that allows for sharing and discoverability. In other words, the “social” tools are built into the ereader so that users can either actively or passively share the books with which they are most passionate, increasing unit sales and notoriety. Not only can readers share notes and thoughts to other BookShout users, but they can also share them out to Facebook and Twitter.

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Kindle Remorse: Will consumers ever regret ebook platform lock-in?

If Barnes & Noble doesn't already have a sense of urgency, especially after last week's developments, this quote from a thoughtful piece by Joe Arico should help fire them up:

In the age of the e-reader and tablet, every person that purchases an Amazon Kindle, Nexus tablet or iPad should be viewed as a customer Barnes & Noble will likely never get the chance to serve again.

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