At the London Book Fair I dropped a fair amount of loose change to attend a one-day workshop on new technologies in publishing. Seminars and Q&As. Lots of info. Yet there was an elephant in the room. A stonking huge one, taking up a whole lot of space. And people were like, What elephant? Where?
Before we talk about the elephant, let me make two points. The first is this. The publishing industry as a whole is super conservative. We got dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century having managed to more or less dodge the 20th c altogether. Silicon Valley’s gallop towards new technologies and ways of doing things is not just alien, it’s repulsively so.
The second point is that what is technologically possible may not be what the consumer wants. So what someone with verve and deep pockets can produce is not necessarily what sells on the open market. Publishing struggles with that concept. So I’ll dumb it down and repeat it. It’s not the supply that’s the problem; it’s the demand.
Now, back to the elephant.
People read differently than they did even 10 years ago. For the first time since widespread literacy and Mr Gutenberg, the how of reading is changing. Ebooks, fanfiction, writing platforms, audiobooks, bloggers and vloggers, genre conferences, used and pirated books, and now book apps. Everybody knows this. And a lot of people were talking about this new reality at the one day symposium.
Only no one was talking about book apps, as if they don’t exist. Here’s why.
1. The publishing industry gets to ignore book apps because they’re not considered to be part of publishing. Book Apps are (legally) considered to be part of the gaming, video and entertainment industry, as opposed to the publishing industry. I know that’s ludicrous. It’s part of the antiquated notion of what’s entertainment. Books are serious, for people with big brains. Gaming is for dummies. Same attitude that TV dealt with before The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and so on. (Adaptions are different because they originated in an author’s imagination and have a patina of respectability.)
2. Then there is the “discoverability” problem. Discoverability is hugely important if you don’t already have a well-developed brand. People have to find your product. Bookstores did that rather nicely in the past. 31% of book impulse buys were because of bookstores (Nielsen 2016 data). Amazon, blogers and Goodreads (among others) have partially replaced the bookstore. Where’s your store or platform to impulse buy a book app?
Even if you plan on buying a book app, how do you do it? When you buy a book from Amazon, you go to the book section and input in the book title and up pops the book, the ebook, and the audio. If you want the book app of the same book, you have to first go into the Apps and Games section. And most book apps for youngsters are educational so again searching in Games section for a how-to-spell app might not occur to you. It certainly didn’t occur to me.
3. Now let’s talk money. After I accept a book for publication, I send it off to my book designer. My book designer designs it and at the very last moment, saves it in a number of formats: a pdf for printing, an ebook in epub and mobi, high resolution cover for printing, low res for websites. It adds on whole minutes to the entire process. In other words, the cost of designing the book deos not lie in the format that the reader consumes the book. The costs of designing the book lies in designing the book.
In comparison, a book app on to an ipad, an android device, and an Amazon device requires the basic formatting to be different. That is, the person coding the app has to do it three different times. Kaa-ching! And then everyone upgrades their devices and guess what the publisher has to do? Upgrade the book app. Kaa-ching Kaa-ching!! This then raises the risk of producing the book app because the publisher has to sell more copies to break even.
Examples of funders for successful book apps which are not simple picture books for young children include the Church of England, Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), Al Gore about climate change, National Geographic, you get the idea. As institutions (Al Gore is practically an institution), they can afford to risk capital to produce a book app. And the book app will enhance their larger brand so even if the app doesn’t sell so well, it’ll make them look better in the long run.
So why do book apps at all? Because they’re coming, that’s why.
Since the Stone Age we have been telling stories to each other (audiobooks), painting pictures on the walls (they even made them video-like, that is they moved with the angle the person was sitting at), and with the advent of literacy, writing stories down (the Bible comes to mind). We have acted stories out, producing plays and movies, with people impoverishing themselves to be involved in the production of storytelling. Later, interactive digital games were invented so that the gamer discovers the story through playing the game. Now, for the first time ever in the entire history of humanity, we can combine all these three forms of storytelling into one interactive format: the book app. It has written material, spoken material and visual material, and the consumer of the book app absorbs the material through directed independence.
Furthermore, there are toddlers right now who are hooked on this form of learning and entertainment thanks to educational apps for under 8s. Do you think that at the age of 9 they’re suddenly going to not want to use book apps? That demand has already been created. No one has yet met it.
The question is not: Are book apps coming? (because they are) The question is: Who is going to take advantage of this reality?