Not All Publishers Need Mobile Apps

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

mobile apps book publishers responsive web designBack in 2010, at the European Tools of Change Conference in Frankfurt, I took part in a research group evaluating the pros and cons of mobile apps for book publishers.

I remember one of the speakers saying something along these lines: “Before you put $10,000 aside to make an app, have a look at your homepage and see if you might not want to invest the money to improve your website instead.”

That seemed like a very old-fashioned thought at the time. Apps were all the rage, while websites sounded very ’90s to me. Today, I’m not so sure I was right.

Five years later, it now seems to me that mobile websites are the future. It’s not uncommon to find publishers that have spent more than $10,000 on apps, particularly when chasing the ‘wow factor.’ Many have worked or are now working with hip app developers, for whom “agile” development sometimes means only that the release date is flexible; as a result, whenever they come up with a new idea and feel it must be implemented for the app to succeed, the original deadline gets renegotiated (that is, ignored).

At the same time, many publishers are finding that the revenue apps generate hardly ever covers the costs of development, let alone the overhead. Publishers have also learned that if they want to have an app that works on both Apple and Android devices, the likelihood of a good return on investment gets shakier still. And that’s to say nothing of the technical variables that change continuously with the release of new hardware.

So a more heretical voice might suggest instead that the leading platforms’ app stores really only pay off for developers who make a great app in their garage with hardly any infrastructure cost. If they can break even after a couple of apps have been sold, the rest is profit.

Unfortunately, most publishers invariably face a very different set of costs. Even if you see an app as a loss-leader for promoting books, it might still make more sense to reconsider what my colleague hinted at half a decade ago: Why not build a mobile-friendly website with responsive design instead?

Indeed, one of the central ironies of the mobile boom has been the renewed importance of the website. While that isn’t necessarily true for other industries, the advantages for book publishers of doubling down on web development are obvious. You can avoid worrying about competing platforms and display sizes while maintaining one source for many channels, with one investment. You might say you can kill a lot of (angry) birds with one stone.

Publishers still need to find a way to monetize their online content, and many don’t have a ready-made third-party distribution path. But there are other options, like a direct-to-consumer subscription model, for instance (something that academic and STM publishers have done very successfully at scale).

A simple browser-based CMS with the right functions makes such an approach pretty easy to implement. So perhaps you should let the developers program the next big hope for success in the app stores and focus on how to sell your content through a mobile friendly website instead. With a website with great response design, your users might not even be able to tell the difference, but your accountant will.

On the other hand, I recognize that this advice represents my own one-sided view of the challenges and priorities publishers face. If the mobile world has done anything, it’s multiplied the number of variables that content creators of all stripes must consider. What if you need your readers to be able to access content when they are offline, for whom an ebook just won’t serve? What if you have practical content for users who are out in the countryside with weak or no reception, like veterinarians working in the field?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Please weigh in via social media or in the comments section below, and I’ll follow up with another post considering why some publishers might indeed need an app after all.

10 thoughts on “Not All Publishers Need Mobile Apps

  1. Ellen Bilofsky

    Yes, but–How does a mobile responsive website help readers utilize the book once they have bought it? Suppose you have a product that would lend itself to an app, such as a reference work in which readers want to be able to easily look up information? if you only have limited resources–and who doesn’t?–then the website may be first priority, but how does this solve the problem of making the books themselves user-friendly on mobile?

    1. Abe Dane

      Great question, Ellen (and great post, Felix!). Book content can be delivered into browsers just like the rest of a website. For example, here’s how one of our customers does it…

      If you click into the free sample section at the beginning of the book, you’ll see that you’re able to browse through as much or as little as the publisher wants to allow before being asked to purchase.

      This approach also allows excellent search. For example, here are results of a search in Albert Einstein’s translated papers for all mentions of the word “universe”…

      Hope this helps. More info on the software used to create these web-based books at

      1. Ron Martinez

        These Tizra books aren’t mobile/responsive, at least in Twitter webview. The text is tiny and unreadable; it’s rendering for desktop. Am I missing something?

        Check out to see how it’s done.

    2. Mary Alice Elcock

      I’m not sure that I think there’s any single product that lends itself to an app, while a strong responsive website can be a better marketing tool overall. I’m not convinced that books need to be user-friendly on mobile beyond the ebook format – ie. I read books I bought from Amazon through my Kindle app all the time. I think more readers want an app that allows them to read lots of different types of content, rather than an app for a single book and would agree that money is better spent elsewhere.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    One of life’s most important rules is to not think that everyone views the world from your perspective. These publishing executives thought that, because the most important thing in their lives was their firm, that readers felt the same.
    Not true, most readers pay almost not attention to who publishes their books. They may tilt in favor of Home Depot or Lowes for home repairs, but they could care less who publishes the books they read. Assuming otherwise, assuming that they will put a publisher’s app on their smartphone and eagerly follow what it has to say is simply silly.

    A few, a very few authors, might have that level of fandom to make a speciality app for them sensible. But I’m not sure there are any publishers.

  3. John Joynt

    I’m the General Manager of Mobile Apps at Folium Partners. Since 2009 we have created over 3,000 ‘book’ apps. Most have been audiobook-centric (though we can combine audio, video, epub, trivia etc). I agree with you that many publishers should not create apps themselves, they are costly, difficult to design, and require a team to support. However we’ve found a niche creating white-label apps based on a template experience and can provide a low cost of entry. I’m happy to talk to you about our solutions, and how we provide not only new revenue streams but also ability for publishers to control price, content and gain customer insight that other ‘partners’ restrict or prohibit.

    Not to do an ad here… but our single title apps start at $800 and turnaround in less than 30 days.

  4. Tim

    If you paid $10k for a mobile app, you got MAYBE a few weeks of their time. Good apps take months and cost many times that.

  5. Zardoz

    In my experience few executives who would be in a decisionmaking position know the difference between mobile apps and native apps. Someone says, \We need an app!\ and a company is hired to create apps for the Android, Apple and Amazon app stores when this may be utterly unnecessary and can be fraught with unforseen issues like vendor lock-in and app store approval delays, to mention just two. No, a mobile app would suffice.

    Nor is it true anymore that the user must be connected to the Internet at all times in order to use a mobile app. The big things in mobile apps today are Offline First, No Backend, Redecentralize and similar concepts that design for occasional and interrupted Internet connection. In fact, a user need never connect to the Internet in order to use a properly designed mobile app. The user can connect to a local Wi-Fi server, say at a bookstore, venue or event. This server need not be connected to the Internet in any way, but it can deliver E-book downloads and mobile apps just fine.

  6. Andrew Hill

    That’s great post Felix! I agree with you. I have worked with one of the employer and we have built one app for internal purpose which helps for our clients. And as you said, whenever we built new website, that should be mobile friendly in terms of mobile solutions, design, structure and proper navigation of the website.



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