Creative Connections: Why we don’t do Apps


For nearly a decade, the team at our publishing house has closely followed the rise and fall of new media. That includes pursuing own original research, developing unique new publishing software and analyzing trends both in the U.S. and around the world.

With the introduction of the iPhone and Kindle in 2007, we immediately saw the need for publishing solutions to quickly and flexibly produce books in all formats—print and all digital formats. We closely tracked what is now called “the digital scare” or “the digital tsunami”—the period from roughly 2008 to 2012 when publishing experts thought print books might be extinguished by e-books. And we celebrated the industry-wide declaration in the wake of that “scare” that the future of publishing is producing books in both print and e-editions. More than half of all books sold in the U.S. today are in print—but there’s no way to reach an entire audience of readers if all formats aren’t available.

Want to reach readers? You need all formats.

So why don’t we do Apps?

By 2008, we were hearing everywhere we turned in this industry that Apps were The Future. In fact, Apps might replace all other forms of media delivery, we heard from some national experts. This focus on Apps was part of the “digital scare” that hasn’t received a lot of attention until now.

Our Publisher John Hile sensed the danger in leaping into Apps as early as it began. At a major publishing-industry conference in New York City in 2008, organized by O’Reilly Media, media movers and shakers appeared in session after session lauding the boom in Apps as a delivery system for literary, educational and other content-based material.

After a lifetime in software development, John’s verdict as the conference closed was: “We need to follow this closely, but building Apps isn’t our specialty. We have to be careful about mission creep. I think the heart of this transformation in publishing is understanding XML-first systems so we can deliver books in all formats—and quickly change and revise those books from a single-source file. That’s where we need to spend our time.”

Flash forward eight years. Bottom line: John Hile was right.

A very important overview report about the plight of Apps was just released by Publishing Perspectives, an international magazine that covers trends in the industry. If you read the entire report, you’ll find several reasons Apps are an endangered species as a delivery system for the kind of content that really belongs in a “book.”

Among the problems:

The Big Squeeze—Apps that provide red-hot games, easy photo sharing, video streaming and daily services like weather forecasts and driving tips now dominate the available space and time for most users. Think about how you use your own smart phone or iPad: You check email, maybe do a little Facebook or Twitter, play a level or two of your favorite game and glance at tomorrow’s forecast. Along the way, you might text a friend. When is the last time you fired up a content-based App like the countless Apps launched to explore everything from the world of Charles Dickens to the history of dinosaurs or a course on the culture of tea?

A Never-Ending Fixer Upper—Hate home repairs? Well you get the idea. Apps keep changing along with the operating systems for digital devices. This means someone has to ensure that the App’s roof isn’t leaking, the furnace hasn’t blown out and the interface isn’t flat-out busted. The whole idea turns out to be a nightmare for developers and users.

Flexible Books Are Better—Now that books can include everything from multimedia extensions to cost-effective color interiors—and it’s possible to flexibly change books in all formats—books are back as the central delivery system in the worldwide publishing industry.

Do you enjoy reading on your smart phone or other hand-held digital device? Millions do. But the solution for millions of readers is simple—either use a Kindle or a Kindle-like App. So, some Apps truly do dominate the global market. Our publishing house routinely delivers all new books via the Kindle format—and Nook and iBooks and Google’s bookstore. But the dream of home-grown content-based Apps springing up from every author and publisher? It’s fleeting. Next time you’re in the App store, just try to find the cool Charles Dickens Apps that were produced for his 2012 bicentennial.

Want to hear about the decline of content-based Apps from an expert? Here’s an example of one industry veteran quoted in the Publishing Perspectives overview:

“When the iPad launched,” Dean Johnson of Bandwidth says, “the first thing we all did was purchase quality Apps delivering a visually impressive interactive experience. Why? Not because we felt a sudden urge to expand our horizons and demonstrate our literary prowess, but to fill up an empty vessel. A $600+ tablet was hard to justify if you had nothing compelling on it and in the early days most consumers didn’t really know why they needed one, just that Steve Jobs had said so. …

“Fast-forward a couple of years and familiarity hadn’t bred contempt, but it had defined the platform. Most consumers were using tablets to watch films, catch-up TV and YouTube, play games, browse social Apps and search the web. Most publishers never invested enough in design, storytelling, App development and even marketing, and you just can’t do this if you’re not fully committed.

“The days of the big paid-for App are numbered. I salute the perseverance of publishers but we stopped flogging the dead horse a few years ago—it’s the main reason we work with big brands, including automotive, fashion, film, TV and music labels.”

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  1. Debra Darvick says

    Fascinating analysis. There’s a lot of jumping on the newest bandwagons and thinking later.
    I, too, and glad that RTS thinks first and jumps, where appropriate, second.