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Mobile applications and book publishing

Posted by Stephen Bateman | Posted in app development, design, new product development | Posted on 09-11-2011

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Mobile applications and book publishing
Mobile applications and book publishing Photo Credit Ownipics (Flickr)

Failure and success in the creative media 

In a very short space of time mobile applications development has become fiercely competitive. The barriers to entry for app developers are very low and the stats prove it: for every “appilionnaire” there are thousands of developers whose game plans have been pixelated into nothing.

Book publishing on the hand is mature, some would say outmoded. There is no other business that works similarly on sale or return. It’s a lottery. The calibration of print runs and sales forecasts is chaotic. It’s a world in which 80/20 rules and where the top fifth of books contribute four-fifths of revenues and one title in four is a flop. The failure rate of aspiring novelists who never see their name in print is colossal. The failure rate of books that do make it to the printers but which are subsequently pulped is catastrophic.

Polar extremes: niche and blockbuster 

In truth profit in any traditional mainstream media tends to come from a tiny volume of super-successful titles. That’s because popular culture idolises the “hit” and media chases tribes that want to share the same culture. This is why media companies devote their resources to creating bestsellers, because they understand and can predict the psychology of tribes and followers. This “blockbuster” model has been the backbone of media commerce for a very long time. Yet the endless shelf space of stores like the app store and amazon means that the niche, the obscure and the specialist now have an equal chance of amassing fans. In this new media world, niche audiences can locate and cluster around esoterica and mass audiences can consolidate as they always have around blockbusters. It’s the middle ground that is losing out: the land of mediocrity that sprawls between blockbusters and niche.

Creativity: the big divide between geeks and publishers 

That’s why all creative enterprises need to function with robust marketing disciplines and none more so than mobile app developers who face a multitude of different platforms, discerning shoppers and complex business models.

In the last five years book publishers have been under pressure from basement and garage geeks. But unlike the untethered and nimble dudes in dressing gowns and pyjamas, publishers are strapped by legacy and liability, which means the hobbyists have been growing market share at the expense of the traditionalists, taking the risks and following their passion rather than being guided by what has become the dominant institutional decision making tool: the infamous title profit and loss (TP&L).

In this new media ecosystem successes like Tiny Birds, created by one-man-band Andreas Illiger, push billions of micro-payments from app stores in 80 different countries into the bank accounts of one man operations. Mobile users spend an estimated $250 million on apps every month and 10 billion apps have been sold through the app stores to date. In that same period it’s estimated that 80,000 developers have signed up to the iOS operating system.

In an ecosystem that incubates +500 app submissions a day it’s not difficult to see why the app failures are as apocalyptic as the successes are great. For every success in the app stores, there are several thousand failed app developers. Not unlike book publishing and its millions of failed and pulped titles, so much of the app development process is uncertain and risky.

The euphoria of media success is the same, the drive and culture are different 

The excitement of creating a success on the app store is no different from the excitement of breaking new ground and establishing a new brand or bestselling title in the book trade. The difference is purely that publishing was once gentlemanly, traditional and reserved, whilst app development is a moneyed business, cut throat and desperate. The barriers to entry on the app store are zero and the store is a magnet to brands with money to spend on getting their gadgets built. But, whichever way you look at it, there is pleasure to be had from both processes and that satisfaction in both cases comes from the simple act of creating a product that finds an audience.

As with book publishing there is risk in costing and building an app and the potential for making money. But savvy developers can mitigate against this risk and build apps for niches they can get to know the behaviour of. Publishers of bestselling fiction have always followed the mainstream blockbuster model that relies on advertising and promotion. Non-fiction publishers, on the other hand, have a very different approach to publishing: they cost and sell their titles based on lower volumes. In app development it is the same: the culture of game developers, who rely on brief and transient chart popularity for success, will always be very different from the culture of specialist niche developers who set out to create apps that are costed and designed for audiences they know and that will sustain sales over a longer term.