Planet of the Apps

An Exploration of Mobile Reading

During the rush to convert backlist books into digital forms a few years ago, I was in the office of a fellow university press director. He showed me his impressive new website that offered e-books for sale directly to consumers. When I asked if he was selling illustrated books this way, he pointed to a pile of books in the corner, his “problem children,” and said he would have to deal with those later.

The problems inherent in migrating print books into digital form are complex, but doubly so for illustrated books. By illustrated books, I don’t mean books with the occasional archival image or author-rendered charts and graphs; I mean books where the image is the text, books whose argument is built around the graphic presentation of images. Mostly, but not entirely, these are art books. Rights issues alone mean that most backlist books may never make it into digital form. With hundreds of images held by scores of different institutions, it is not feasible to re-clear rights. We can make these books discoverable through search programs, but we may never be able to sell them digitally. However, the story can be different for frontlist titles if we negotiate digital rights along with print.

The reason publishers have been slow to do this has more to do with technical limitations than permissions restraints. Besides legal and economic hurdles, the nature of scholarship in visual studies makes digital delivery less useful than for other disciplines. E-books delivered on early single-color readers like the Kindle and Nook made a poor surrogate for the printed book. These readers rendered text well, but their screen quality and reflowing text made sophisticated page design all but impossible. PDF delivery is an effective and increasingly common alternative for illustrated books, but by directly replicating the book’s page, PDFs miss the real potential of what scholarly communication could be in a digital environment.

Alternatively, applications, or ‘apps,’ software designed to either perform a specific function or display material on a mobile device, are more technically flexible than a PDF, providing interesting opportunities for scholarly publishers. Apple’s iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone, and Google’s Android operating system all provide access to apps that address these technical issues. (With nearly 15 million sold since its release in April 2010, the iPad, in particular, is a device worth taking seriously. Besides its apps, the iPad’s larger, high-definition display with a touch-screen interface and powerful processor lends itself beautifully to the presentation of visual material.) Other tablet devices coming to market may offer similar benefits.

The ‘book-as-app’ allows readers access to many of the enhancements we dream of for digital books. A book on film theory might be embedded with movie clips; one on baroque music could play a recording performed on period instruments, while a translation of Freud’s journals might provide immediate access to an image of the original manuscript.

These examples point to the types of projects that lend themselves to the app format: works that benefit from multimedia presentation, that blend text, image, and audio files in an engaging and interactive way. Consider the most famous book app, The Elements: A Visual Exploration (Theodore Gray, 2010).

It is a non-linear exploration of the periodic table organized around a core text, but reliant on a host of data and images to offer a richly immersive experience. Complex chemical properties are immediately grounded both in their scientific and popular culture context. Interestingly, the Elements app began as a book. 

Other reference works, textbooks, guidebooks, and handbooks could also benefit from new app technology. So could books on visual culture. The Ansel Adams app (Hachette, 2010), for example, offers forty images from the photographer’s oeuvre—a subset of the companion book’s 400 images—along with three short films of the artist at work, a bibliography, a chronology, an interview, and a selection of his letters and famous postcards sent from the road. The app also links outward to the web for resources on Adams, including other books for purchase.

The MIT Press’s Nonobject (2011) is perhaps the most sophisticated of the book apps produced to date. It’s also the first from a university press. Created in tandem with the eponymous book, Nonobject announces that it is not just an electronic copy of then original hardcover (as if the reader had any doubt). It is a multi-dimensional discovery of futuristic product design delivered in highly theatrical way. If the best scholarly books can inspire the imagination, this app pushes every boundary. It is easy to get happily lost in the Nonobject world.

All these apps have a scrapbook-like quality that invites exploration. They allow readers to browse and probe the text, but within a controlled environment, not unlike a museum exhibition. The best apps do not replicate the limitations of the print book the way a PDF does with static text, fixed images, linear presentation; they incorporate dynamic elements, interactivity, sound, and action.

Ironically, like the print books they imitate, the app exists in a walled garden and not on the open web. Where we might search for an app itself on the internet, material within the app remains impervious to a web search (for now anyway). Although most scholarly books would not exist solely as an app at this point, this is still a limitation for the additional material an app delivers. 

And because apps exist in their own world and on their own dedicated devices, it is difficult to use them with other programs. Copying a portion of text for pasting into a document is not possible. Linking to one from another site is problematic. This further limits the apps’ potential for scholarly communication.

Equally challenging is the way apps are currently sold: exclusively through Apple’s App Store or the Android Market and downloaded directly to a device. Like iTunes, these stores allow a user to locate an app through a single search box. Given the vast number of apps and the search limitations, finding any given app can be challenging. With little curation except for popularity, book apps are easily lost in the abundance. Opened in July 2008, the App Store currently offers over 300,000 apps, and as of late January 2011, 10 billion had been purchased. The Android Market, Google’s App Store equivalent, carries about 200,000 applications as of December 2010 with about 2.5 billion total downloads already.

The greatest limitation with apps is their return on investment. Developing an app today costs between $15,000 and $70,000—roughly comparable to the cost of producing an illustrated book. Apps, however, list for as little as $0.99 for the very basic and as much as $25 or more for the more sophisticated (although the estimated average price, $1.95, is much closer to the bottom end). Apple keeps 30 percent of the sale and returns 70 percent to the developer, which is usually split with the publisher. Estimates suggest the median revenue per developed app is only $700. This hardly dents the P&L.*

The editorial and financial limitations of the app, however, are countered by promising possibilities for marketing. Instead of delivering a single book as an app, some publishers offer access to their entire lists via an app. Apps like this resemble something between a sales catalog, reading sampler, and richly-configured website. They give an immersive look at a publisher’s list, with enhancements like author interviews, sample chapters, and links outward to the publisher’s print and e-book offerings, as exemplified by the new McSweeney’s app that presents selected content and a direct link to their online store, or the Atavist app, produced by a small, boutique publishing house, which takes enhancement a step further. This app gives readers the chance to browse the Atavist catalog and buy books. The books themselves, however, are experiments with how long-form nonfiction can work within this environment: encounter a place name, and you can find it on a map; come across a historical character and a short biography and photo pops up. Another click reveals an audiobook, while another button introduces a soundtrack. This is impressive stuff.

App technology is clearly in its infancy with many issues still unresolved. But its benefits, especially for those problematic illustrated books, are promising. If we can overcome image rights issues—and that is a big “if” especially for our backlists—illustrated books might find a new life in this rich digital ecosystem. Apps may not replace the multi-platform approach that scholarly publishers have embraced, but they do offer an intriguing tool for how we market and deliver content. It is certainly a planet we should explore.

* For a thorough analysis of the economics of apps see Tomi T. Ahonen, “Full Analysis of iPhone Economics — It Is Bad News. And Then it Gets Worse,” June 22, 2010.

Gregory Britton
Publisher, Getty Publications