What are my competitors doing on the App store?

There’s good news and bad news for book publishers seeking to publish iPhone Apps.

The good news is that, as of April 09, most of your traditional book publishing competitors have hardly any products on sale. The bad news is that you’re in danger of being beaten to it by upstart first-timers with no book publishing on their resume.

Most of the utility and reference apps on sale now – some of which sell very well – could have been produced by book publishers, yet most were made by one-man-band developers. Why’s that? My view, and a recurring theme on this blog, is that legacy content is a mixed blessing when publishing for new platforms or business models.

On one hand, publishers know their readership, have content more or less ready to go and can subsidise new product developments from existing cash flow. On the other hand, big publishers need to feed the beast, a point well made by this excellent blog post from Mike Shatzkin. The fixed operating costs of publishing hundreds of books a year means there is tremendous pressure on editors to find more of last year’s winners and to avoid anything that might cannibalize backlist income. Also, the transition from analogue to digital necessarily means switching from pounds to pence. Whatever they might say, most editors at the big corporates aren’t prepared to kill themselves making products such as apps if that means working at price points lower than anything they’ve ever encountered in their careers. I don’t blame them: the old print publishing models still work, for now, and publishing for the high street is tremendous fun.

Meantime, a fragmented legion of one-man-band iPhone developers, armed only with cut-and-paste and a desire to make money and/or great products, are cranking out apps that really ought to be the preserve of traditional book publishers.

You work for Harper Collins, have tons of self-help content and want to be on the app store? I’m sorry to say that someone you’ve never heard of got there first. You publish dictionaries? Great. So does Joe Public. You’re in the travel publishing game? Isn’t everyone?

Of course, I exaggerate in order to make the point that traditional book publishers need to get a move on. In time, expect traditional media to move in, raise standards, raise production costs and probably drive the little guy out of business or into ever-decreasing niches. Meantime, there’s money on the table for anyone, big or small, who can start today.

P.S. My guess is that most book publisher’s first attempts at apps will come from the marketing or publicity department, because they’ve traditionally got stronger links with new media and, of course, don’t need to make a profit… If that proves to be true it will be a bit of a lost revenue opportunity, because the iPhone has proved that people really are happy to pay for digital content if its served in a convenient form that works well on the platform at hand.

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