Publishers’ Bad Habits, Now Glutting the iPhone

This post, from Ryan Chapman, originally appeared on his Chapman/Chapman blog on 11/3/09, and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.

Publishers are hungry for as much data as they can get on how the written word is consumed online and on mobile devices. (Or they better be.) Unfortunately, honey traps abound which lead to specious logic and flawed conclusions. Take the latest stats from the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store. In October there were more new book apps than gaming apps, the previous top category. Gizmodo succinctly phrased this as “iPhone Ebooks: The New Fart Apps.”

O’Reilly’s Ben Lorica, possibly my favorite media statistician on the web, breaks this down even further, noting the quantity of book apps does nothing more than glut the app store. Games continue to outsell and outrank books on almost every metric. (See Lorica’s chart.)

[Publetariat Editor’s Note: you can click on the chart below to go to Lorica’s post (in a new window), which has a larger version of the chart.]

O'Reilly Radar

And let’s not forget that several of the top paid children’s book apps, like Duck Duck Moose’s “Itsy Bitsy Spider“, are listed in the games category. And why not? For picture books with light animation, the distinction between “book” and “game” disappears.

What we’re really seeing is a recreation of the industry’s bad habits in the App Store.

I subscribe to the belief that the print book industry is suffering from publishing too many books. The average reader is easily overwhelmed, and so relies on their friends and trusted sources to discern what’s worth reading. This would work if everyone’s friends weren’t increasingly interested in other, more exciting media, and if the notion of a trusted source remained static. We all know a front-page rave in the New York Times Book Review doesn’t mean what it used to. The most common reason cited by friends why they don’t read as many books as they used to? It’s impossible to know what’s good. Every week another 25 “amazing literary debuts” and “spellbinding journeys of the heart” and “adventures into the mysterious underworld of sexy vampires.”

…So before I go off on a rant, I’ll just say this: we’ve done the same thing to the app store that we’ve done to the book market. I counted over 600 book apps a few weeks ago. iTunes isn’t built for browsing or highlighting apps specific to your taste. If you’re not in the top ten in your category, you’re sunk. If you’re a publicist with a debut author, this should sound familiar.

Which is where marketing comes in, right? It’s not enough to create the app, you have to tell people about it. You have to put in the work and find that audience.

Well, yes and no. Of course marketing and publicity are important — you don’t think T-Pain and Smule made $3 million purely on word-of-mouth, do you? But publishers need to rethink the book apps the same way they need to rethink the print market. Don’t just wrap your ebook in a reader template and shove it off to customers. They’re used to playing games, watching video, checking the weather, and using Shazam, Skype, and Evernote on this device. It’s on us, the publishers, to rise to that new consumer expectation. (Nick Cave’s Death of Bunny Munro app is a step in the right direction, though 894MBs is a bit cumbersome.)