How to Build a Best-Selling Children’s Book App

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Many book publishing companies are entering into the book application business, some with more success than others.

National Geographic, the Washington, D.C.-based publisher of nature magazines and books, has a hit app on its hands with “Weird But True” based on its Weird But True book series.

The book is full of “weird but true” facts. The app allows readers to rate just how strange the facts are and to see the ratings that others gave the facts.

The app has sold about 50,000 copies since its launch in September 2011, according to the company. According to our calculations, that’s an average of about 2,700 per week and at $1.99 a pop, that’s about $100,000 in revenue. Apple takes a 30% cut of revenue for apps sold in the App Store. National Geographic said that the app has turned a profit.

“This was an inexpensive app to make and it’s already paid for itself,” said Nancy Feresten, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of children’s books at National Geographic.

Related: Are Children’s E-Books Really Terrible for Your Children? | For Reading and Learning, Kids Prefer E-Books to Print Books

For more on the state of children’s publishing and children’s book apps, attend the Digital Book World Children’s Publishing Goes Digital Conference on January 23, 2012 in New York City.


Getting Started

The idea for the app was conceived in the Fall of 2010, according to Natalie Jones, the digital project manager at National Geographic who shepherded the app from concept to reality. Jones said the project had been conceptualized by January 2011 and that development began in March.

Once the concept was finalized, the first thing National Geographic did was select a software development vendor for the project. The company chose Mission Data, a Louisville, Ky.-based app development firm.

It’s easy for development costs for any software project to spiral out of control; National Geographic managed to avoid this pitfall.

“We had firm dates in our contract,” said Jones. “They started working on it in March-April and finished September 1.”

In selecting Mission Data, National Geographic looked at a variety of factors: Can the company do the programming? What is the consumer feedback like in the iTunes store for other apps it has produced? Did their ideas for the app match what National Geographic had in mind? Cost was also a factor.


What It Costs

Cost for apps ranges widely, depending on a number of factors, like size, scope and how much work will be handled by the developer versus the client.

“No two apps have the same functionality. No two efforts are the same. The content is always different,” said Stuart Gavurin, CEO of Mission Data.

Mission Data was hesitant to offer many details about the project, citing confidentiality with the publisher. Both Mission Data and National Geographic would not divulge how much Mission Data was paid to develop the app.

According to Peter Meyers, a digital book consultant based in New York and author of the new book Breaking the Page, which is about digital books, a vendor might charge $100,000 or more for a “professional-quality” children’s book app, depending on the work involved. An independent software developer might charge $200 an hour, according to Meyers, and a book app project can take hundreds of developer hours.

To cut down on cost, a well-established publisher might negotiate with a developer for a smaller up-front fee and a system of royalties where the app developer would receive a small percentage of the take until it reached a certain level of revenue, according to Meyers.

A company like National Geographic might also be able to take advantage of a different kind of discount.

“Deals get cut with developers looking to build a prestigious client list,” said Meyers.

To be sure, each app project is unique and what the “Weird But True” app coast may not be indicative of what other apps might cost to develop.

“Asking what it costs to do an app is like asking an architect what it costs to build a house,” said Nicholas Callaway, founder, chairman and chief content officer, Callaway Digital Arts, an app developer based in New York that has partnered with Sesame Workshop and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia on apps.

Hear Nicholas Callaway speak about e-books and apps at the Digital Book World Children’s Publishing Goes Digital Conference on January 23, 2012 in New York City.


How It’s Built

Mission Data provided a lead software developer, a project manager and feedback on the project from their executive management and design team. National Geographic handled the rest of the project in-house, gaining valuable experience along the way.

The in-house team consisted of a sound engineer, two designers, a rights management professional, about five people from the editorial department, a project manager (Jones), a mobile analyst in a technical advisory role from the digital media department, the quality assurance team and a director-level manager to oversee the whole project. In all, 12-to-15 people worked on the app internally. Staff at National Geographic juggle many projects, however, and no one staff-member was dedicated solely to the project.

The app was finished in September and out of the hands of development and design and into the hands of sales and marketing.

Pricing, Marketing and Selling

“We thought we could successfully market it based on the success of the book,” said Jones. “We had a robust multi-media marketing campaign – print, digital, social media – using a wide variety of tactics.”

First, the price of the app was determined based mostly on two factors: amount of revenue needed to recoup costs and the price of other, similar apps.

Then, National Geographic took steps to ensure to Apple, the only seller of the app, that it was serious about marketing it. The main carrot was an ad that National Geographic printed on the back of the Weird But True book slated for the Fall.

“We are reliant on Apple same as everyone else to have them promote [the app] on our behalf,” said Jones. Support from Apple is “the key for discoverability in the App Store.”

The gambit paid big dividends. The app was featured for two weeks in the “what’s hot” section of the app store and was an Apple “staff pick” for an extended period of time. A spokesperson for National Geographic said that the company had features in the App Store several times this Fall.

In addition to its efforts courting Apple and promoting through the App Store, National Geographic used its own consumer-marketing levers to drive interest in the app. The company used its website, a variety of editorial newsletters, social media, a live event at company headquarters in Washington and even hired Appency, a Sacramento, Calif.-based app public relations firm, to reach out to bloggers and media.

The result? A best-selling, profitable app – and lessons for the next app venture.



“Keeping the creative in-house was a valuable lesson we learned from this,” said Jones. “We know our products best and know what it takes to make a good product. And timing is key. It takes a long time to develop any app.”

National Geographic is planning to build more apps for both children and adults, including more Weird But True apps.

One open question is how should the true cost of apps be measured? Weird But True was profitable, according to the company, but cost of developing the intellectual property for the app was attributed completely to the book and not the app.

“If you count the intellectual property, then very few apps on the market are profitable,” said Feresten. “If you think the digital transition will continue where the print book is the smaller play, then you need a business model where the app can bear the intellectual-property expense. If the book is going to shrink as a proportion, then the fact that the business model is maybe unsustainable on the app side is a big issue.”

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

For more on the state of children’s publishing and children’s book apps, attend the Digital Book World Children’s Publishing Goes Digital Conference on January 23, 2012 in New York City.

5 thoughts on “How to Build a Best-Selling Children’s Book App

  1. Bridget

    I gifted this app to a 6 year old and he loves it! The reason why this app is so successful is because the content is both entertaining and educational, and the interactive features are very engaging for the user.

  2. Allison P.

    Thank you for this article Jeremy. Keep more like these coming! Those who have begun getting into this area during 2011 have found specific sales figures for apps pretty elusive. With some multinational book publishers saying the profits weren’t worth the effort, it’s reassuring to find that an app can actually make a profit.

  3. Danny is a digital books store for children (Kung Fu Panda, Hello Kitty, Garfield, LazyTown etc.).

    Castle Builders (IL), the owner of is a software company that offers writers the option the publish their own books via iPad, PC, Mac, Android and Nook.



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