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