Commercialising Apps for the Australian Publishing Industry

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Today I attended a forum put on by Australian Interactive Media  Industry Association (AIMIA) on Commercialising Apps.  I think it’s very important from a publishing industry viewpoint to step outside our own world and listen to what other industries have learnt. Since the launch of the iPhone and iPad and the plethora of apps available I do think that we book and publishing people need to watch and learn, not just from what is happening in Publishing overseas, but also learn from other media – whether they be newspapers, magazines, online content providers or entertainment (amongst others) and how they have or are integrating digital into their businesses.   The challenge of course is that the book industry doesn’t usually have the budgets that some of these organisations  have available to them and book  publishing (by and large) isn’t supported by advertising.

The speakers today included:

Richard Salter, Creative Director at Webling Interactive
Libby Hodgson, Manager, Memberships and Digital Communication Taronga Zoo (talking about their app Monkey Mayhem)
Paul Buchanan, Mobile Business Developer, PayPal Australia
Luke Buckle, Social Media Manager & Web Producer, Sunrise (talking about their free Sunrise app)
Moderator: Rob Marston, regional Director – Pacific, InMobi

I will admit to a personal love of apps. I’m like a kid with a new toy and I have celebrated the launch of some early runners in Australia, a few that I mentioned in this previous post. Special mention goes to the following local apps:

  • 4 Ingredients: This successful app had the advantage of two authors who had a VERY successful book behind them and really excelled in promoting both themselves and their book. Not only that but the app had a lovely clean interface and great purpose. I’d use it!
  • Jungle Drums by Graeme Base: Again, VERY successful title, well-loved book and author. This app has (as I’ve previously mentioned) saved my sanity quite a few times when attempting to corral the toddlers or wait in a queue somewhere.
  • Sleepers App: I still feel fondly about this app because it was a real leap into the digital unknown when Sleepers Publishing, with some funding support from Arts Victoria, put six years (200 stories) of their annual Almanac into an app. I do love to see a small publisher out there experimenting! While they hope to be able to afford to do an updated app when they publish the next almanac they are putting a lot of focus into ebooks, where they can see things being read on multiple formats.
  • Sydney Writers Festival:  For the second year running the SWF have produced a great little FREE app. I found this invaluable last year to know when I was due somewhere, and where it was being held. No doubt it will prove just as useful this year, although I would no doubt have explored it more if it had been available before or at the same time as the program was released this year.

Now, I could blog all night about apps, what I love about them and what I think could be improved but today after the forum I had to really consider the business viability of producing an app. For the book industry, and especially in the Australian marketplace (compared to larger overseas markets) there has to be clearly defined objective. Sure, sometimes ‘first to market/get loads of press’ is as good a ROI (Return on Investment) as any other – if you can afford to experiment digitally. But what struck me today is ‘How often do I return to these apps once I’ve explored them?’ The answer was, not often at all.

So yes, I’ve paid my money, I’ve got the app, I’ve either got a positive or negative experience of the app (and thus the brand/book/author) but if it sits unused then they don’t have the potential of getting MORE money from me! Will I buy the next Sleeper App? I’d like to think so, but maybe not. Have I got enough kiddie book apps on my iPhone? Absolutely, enough for the next year or so.  Have I actually made my entire way through many of the book apps, even those I’ve loved? Sometimes not. Now that my initial thrill and excitement about apps has died down, would I rather spend my money on apps or ebooks? Ebooks, so far just about every time.

This is what they called ‘engagement’ today. How engaged am I with the book industry apps I have? Having had another think about this, the two that I use the most are Kobo and Instapaper (Instapaper reviewed here on my blog).  Both of these have me fully engaged because I use them daily (Kobo) or at least weekly (Instapaper) because they are USEFUL. They’re not entertaining per se, though Kobo makes it feel so, but they deliver what I NEED. I NEED to read (yes, really, I absolutely must be reading a book all the time). I NEED to purchase my ebooks easily. I NEED to find a way to read the links from Twitter or email on my iPhone in a way that is easier on my eyes.

Interestingly enough today we found out that where once most of the income from apps was generated by the purchase of the app itself, now we are seeing more and more that it is ‘in-app-purchases’ where most of the income is derived. This may involve paying for extra content, or purchasing products from within the app. If you are interested in finding out more about mobile internet trends including apps then this presentation by KPCB on Top 10 Mobile Internet Trends is worth a look. The reality is that more and more internet use is via the mobile, and more and more transactions are occuring via the mobile internet so  it’s important for your business to understand and react to this.

As app development costs come down, then the potential to make them financially viable naturally increases. Both Luke and Libby talked today about the ‘cost’ being a bit more than a $ for their customer acquisition, and in the case of Monkey Mayhem they know that it is one hour of engagement. That’s worthwhile! (Cleverly they integrated Google Analytics with their app). Sunrise have their app for free, and have resisted having ads in their app, although perhaps they may look at how to integrate sponsorship opportunities.

If you ARE thinking of developing an app, then I think the following feedback from Libby on what she learnt from developing Monkey Mayhem is really worth sharing:

  • DO have a fluid approach to design. Design your app based on customer needs, not on what you think the customer needs.
  • DO engage stakeholders at your end so that they ‘own’ the app, not allow that passion to be contained within the small group that develops it. You need your stakeholders going forward and after the app is launched to keep it going. (Interesting enough this is what we heard at the Social Media Marketing workshop from Murdoch too, in relation to getting them to contribute to content)
  • DO more user testing, especially at prototype stage. It’s the problems in an app that give you bad feedback, so make sure you have time to do more testing than you anticipate.
  • DO have a post-launch contingency budget to allow for upgrades to fix those bugs/errors/problems.

Obviously with all the press that apps have received there must be many Australian publishing industry/book apps/author apps in development around the country and I am prepared to eat my words if I’m proved wrong. Certainly there was a fair amount of debate about the future of enhanced ebooks and apps at the recent London Book Fair, do they have a future? I’m not saying they don’t, obviously they are fun and engaging and I do still love them. But I think we as an industry should think more strategically about the focus of our efforts, if there isn’t a big ‘let’s experiment’ budget! And if there is that budget, then hell, I’d be experimenting myself!

Since the key issue with apps is ‘disoverability’, then surely there is a case for the industry to work together to deliver some great apps that help sell not just one book but a range of titles. Ongoing, not just once. That delivers a range of services and keeps the user coming back.

And what is that app? Well, I’ve got a great idea, if only I had the money to develop it myself!

Have you got a favourite book industry app, and what do you love about it?


2 thoughts on “Commercialising Apps for the Australian Publishing Industry

  1. Hi
    Thanks for this informative post. I’m itrigued by the tentative way book publishers are edging into apps. Getting a good agency relationship going will bring down the prices of app development so hopefully once each publisher has made one, they will see the benefit.
    A basic app of an author’s blog feed could deliver current content to a reader and give them a link that may encourage a follow-up purchase.

    Has any publisher you know of tried that approach?

    Also, a minor correction — Sunrise’s ROI is well below $1.00 per user but I just can’t give an exact figure at this time. (Partly because Android downloadsare harder to track)
    Cheers, Luke

  2. Hi Luke
    Sorry if I got the metrics wrong on customer acquisition for Sunrise. I remember Libby mentioning that figure and I thought you agreed – obviously not!

    I believe that some Australian publishers have apps in development for release in 2011 from reading through the submissions to the Book Industry Strategy Group http://www.innovation.gov.au/Industry/BooksandPrinting/BookIndustryStrategyGroup/Pages/BookIndustryStrategyGroupSubmissions.aspx

    Although so far Australian inroads in app development have been – I agree – tentative, I think that’s for a good reason. The focus has been very much on setting up their ebook programs and generally only the larger publisher, likely those part of international groups, have the financial luxury of experimenting in other areas.

    I do like the idea of the author blog app, although I see that this would work best with an author that already has a large readership to enable success and only if it had the ability to purchase books and ebooks directly from the app, as well as having ‘extra’ content not available elsewhere, and a range of interactivity.

    However, just as we are seeing bookshops working together with technology providers and publishers, I believe there is greater opportunity in numbers. If only everyone would work together, there are opportunities to create a useful app that works for a number of publishers & booksellers.

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