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Writers Forum Magazine, June 2010
This article has been extended online.

How to make Apple iPad and iPhone apps for ebooks

Ebook applications now outnumber games in Apple's iTunes store. Sean McManus reveals how you can create your own application and tap into a market of over 50 million customers.

Ask a room full of writers what the difference between a book and an ebook is. Some wag will doubtless say "the e". And perhaps they'd be right. When most people think of ebooks, they think of conventional books that have just been distributed electronically and are read using an electronic device. Most of the popular ebook formats rearrange the same content as the printed edition. They add bookmarking features, search, and nifty page animations to try to recreate the tactile experience of reading a book on the sterile screen. But you're getting the same content, in a slightly different way.

One format, though, is radically reinventing the ebook. Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch devices can run applications (or "apps"), which are small software programs downloaded from Apple's own iTunes store. Popular apps include a virtual beer, which animates lager realistically as you pretend to drink from your device, and Shazam, which can help name a song playing on the radio. Most of the buzz is around simple games, but did you know there are more apps in the books category of the iTunes store today?

Book apps have much more creative latitude than static ebook formats do. Writers can incorporate a wide range of different content types, including audio, video and animation.

Sprouting success

One author who has taken advantage of the medium's potential is Allan Plenderleith, author and illustrator of popular children's book The Smelly Sprout. He partnered with his friend Jason Stewart from Wotsamaflip to create an app version of the book, which was a top 10 bestseller, and the most popular children's book app at Christmas. "I saw apps as a huge opportunity to really enhance the book reading experience," says Plenderleith. "You can read the book as normal or you can enjoy hearing the narration by the author (great for your little ones in the back of the car). We have sound effects, music and animation too. But we want to keep this a book at all times, so we've only animated it very simply in a Jackanory-type style. There are other apps like Little Bella which in my opinion aren't children's books - they're animated movies with text in between the chapters."

Smelly Sprout app title screen

He works closely with Stewart to build the app. "I provide the original artwork to the programmer, who takes the files and animates them in a cut-out fashion," Plenderleith says. "He then adds the music and sound while I record the narration. There's only two of us but it means we have tight creative control of the end product."

Ravette Publishing only holds the rights to the print edition and hasn't been involved in the project. "They were very supportive although to be honest the publishing world has not really grasped the potential with iPhone apps yet, so they were slightly bemused but pleased," says Plenderleith. "Their view is anything which promotes the book is good. People who buy the app may then order the published book."

The key to a successful children's book app is to make sure that children can use it by themselves, says Plenderleith. That means ensuring the text and visuals are simple and involving, and that the mechanism to turn pages is easy for children to use. "Above all the story needs to grasp the mind of the child and involve them emotionally," says Plenderleith. "We need original stories with beautiful illustrations, compelling narratives and loveable characters. Parents are crying out for quality kids book apps. This is an exciting new way for children to enjoy reading and books and the more quality product out there, the faster this market will grow."

The app sells for 59p and there is also a cut-down free version so people can try it without risk. Combined with his book "What does Santa do on Boxing Day?", Plenderleith sees an average of about 60-80 downloads per day.

An app on the side of the head

Roger van Oech is the author of bestselling creativity book "A Whack on the Side of the Head", and its accompanying card deck "The Creative Whack Pack". He created an app based on the Creative Whack Pack, which provides a number of ways to access the pack's inspirational advice. Readers can browse the index, take a random Whack, access a Whack of the Day and be guided through solving their own creative issues in four workshops which encourage them to take notes as they read appropriate cards. The Creative Whack Pack hit the number 1 spot in the business category of the app store last year and continues to sell well, van Oech says.

"Certainly apps provide a new medium for a writer's material," he says. "It's important to realise, however, that you just can't pour your material into an app. If you do that, it won't work. A writer has to understand what works - and what doesn't - in an app, and tailor material appropriately."

To create the app, van Oech worked with developer Phil Dhingra. "I had had a few other developers approach me previously, but the timing had not been right," says van Oech. "I went with Phil because I liked him. We had almost immediate chemistry. He had been a long-time fan of the CWP card deck, and he loved the concepts. I was very involved. I knew that as the process unfolded, I would discover a lot of things that weren't apparent at the outset. I did all of the PhotoShop work and wrote all of the copy, and I designed many of the buttons and icons. We tried to do a new build [test version] at least every other day. Some days there were several builds. We kept asking: 'What feels right? What's out of place?'"

He sounds a note of caution too: "Don't expect to make any money. I consider myself to be among the fortunate 10% who have made money on an app."

Finding an app developer

The skills required to create an app are considerable. Future Workshops is creating an ebook sampler for Martina Cole. Director Matt Brooke-Smith says: "As well as the technical skills involved in learning Cocoa and Objective-C (the native language of the iPhone that all iTunes Apps are coded in), you need to have an excellent appreciation of design and a good understanding of your target demographic." He estimates that publisher budgets for an interactive ebook application would be at least $25,000 (about £16,400).

That's if you work with a professional studio, though. As an independent writer, you can partner with independent developers to drive that price down dramatically, as long as you're well organised. Todd Bernhard commissioned a developer to create 100sounds, which has consistently been a Top 100 entertainment app, and wrote about his experience in his free ebook 'App Store Success' (link no longer live). Typically, Bernhard pays about $500 per project. "If your project is small, well-defined, and doesn't drag on with changes, you should be able to find developers for $1,000," he says. "The more responsibilities you can take on yourself, such as designing the graphics and user interface, the more compact and affordable you can make the outsourcing project."

That might seem a lot of money, but it compares favourably with the cost of self-publishing a print book.

Bernhard recommends Elance (www.elance.com) as a place to source developers. You can outline your project and developers from around the world will bid to work with you. In his ebook, Bernhard says: "Do not necessarily accept the lowest bid. Look at a provider's portfolio and feedback. Are they experienced and trustworthy? Have they built apps like yours before? Will they be learning at your expense? Will they take twice as long, hurting your time-to-market? Will time zone and language barriers create communication problems?"

Carla Kay White created the Gratitude Journal app without any technical knowledge with a budget of just $500 (£350). In her ebook Inside Secrets to an iPhone App [link updated to her new book: Idea to iPhone: The essential guide to creating your first app for the iPhone and iPad], she advises app creators that the better they can specify their application (that is, draw up a plan for the developer), the less time it will take the developer to create, and so the less money it will cost.

If you work with a developer to create your app, you'll also need to factor in three additional costs: the expense of an Apple Mac computer if you don't have one, the cost of an iPhone or the cheaper iPod Touch for testing (from £140), and membership of Apple's iPhone Developer Program, which is $99 (£65). You might be able to get away with borrowing the hardware, but you won't be able to complete your project on a Windows PC.

Enter the intermediaries

UPDATE, June 2010: The market hasn't settled yet, and there has been a lot of rapid change in this sector. Since this article was written three months ago, prices have gone up dramatically, so the following section is out of date. iSites has gone from a $25 one-off payment to $300 per year, for example, and Appmakr has gone from $300 to $1000. At the same time, there are price promotions going on all the time, and it is by no means certain that the massive demand these sites are seeing will continue in the longer term. Please use the next part of this article as a background to the different technologies and services available, and a starting point for your own research on pricing.

In the last few months, a number of new companies have sprung up to plug the gap between developers and content creators. These companies provide standardised app designs which writers can fill with their content. The business models and pricing models vary widely, but they make app creation much more accessible for writers.

Appmakr (www.appmakr.com), for example, has been used by writers including business thought leader Seth Godin. You need to create a title image and an icon. You can then add in special links (known as RSS feeds) to your blog, Twitter feed or Youtube. Using these links, the app will pull your online content into the app, so your app is dynamically updated whenever your web presence is. On screen, you can play with a simulator to see what your final app will look like. The app stores the content in the device, so even if there is no web connection, readers can still see previously downloaded stories. The service costs $300, but friendly support is available to help guide you through the process.

iSites (link removed, no longer available) offers a bargain-basement price of $25 to create your app using a similar process, provided you're happy to have adverts included. The iSites apps require a live web connection to be able to view content. The company will also create an app for Google's Android phone platform at the same time, but warns that it won't refund you if it decides your app is unsuitable for submitting to Apple.

Apple has been cracking down on what it calls 'vanity apps', which are likely to be of little interest to the general public. To improve the chances of your app being accepted, make sure your blog is providing valuable content to readers: Apple will reject blogs that are self-promotional or a diary. Try to incorporate at least three different content types with at least eight items in each. You don't have to own all this content, though: many publications and websites make their content available in RSS format. You might have an app that includes your blog, Twitter feed and the Guardian news headlines, for example.

Six Voices (website no longer live) creates what it calls Tapstacks. These are like a deck of cards which readers can browse through, and have mainly been used by authors to promote their print books. The app for '100 Ways to Motivate Others' by Stephen Chandler has been downloaded 200,000 times and '101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions' by Ron Fry has been downloaded 100,000 times. Both apps are given away for free.

"A lot of our apps are provided for free and there are other options for the user to buy the book that the Tapstack is based on," says Jonah Bailey, chief operations officer at Six Voices. "We've seen a fair degree of success for our clients in that respect. They can clearly see that traffic is being directed to their website to the specific pages of the site they want users to arrive at. For one author, we set up an opt-in system in exchange for a free gift for users who downloaded her app. In the first month, we saw her email newsletter grew by about 2,000 people, which is really good. 10% of all people who downloaded the app signed up for the email newsletter. The average percentage for that sort of campaign would be more like 3%."

It costs about $1300 (about £845) to create a Tapstack, although you can save $500 (£330) if you create your own images. Six Voices does also enable you to sell your app, in which case you keep 100% of the money Apple passes on.

Omnitoons (website no longer live) creates flipbooks, where readers can flick their way through a cartoon-strip on the touchscreen. Existing apps include 'Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging', created for the movie based on the teenage novels by Louise Rennison. Authors working with Omnitoons need to provide images and captions in the required digital file format (PNG, 480x320 pixels). Most projects are financed on a revenue share basis, with Omnitoons taking a 50% slice of the money forwarded by Apple. "Based on our experience, average downloads can be lower than 50 pieces per month and up to 15,000 per month if you reach the top 25 in a specific category," says Karen New, CEO at Omnitoons.

Intelligenti (website no longer live) is another company that has worked on a revenue share basis in the past, although director Jon Bonnick warns that he is now being "very careful about which titles we take on." His most successful ebook app 'Tips and Tricks - iPhone Secrets' was downloaded 180,000 times, but novels have been unsuccessful. "A book of short stories we thought would do well has sold two (yes, just two!) copies," he says. "iPhone apps are not a certain route to riches! There are 140,000 apps for sale, and getting noticed cost effectively is very, very hard."

Intelligenti is now looking to partner with "people producing the kind of whimsical impulse-purchase content you'd typically see beside the till in a bookstore. Our technology allows colourful, illustrated content to be sold, and we also let readers email single pages to their friends which can help drive sales virally. Try to write something that people will want to share."

The price is right

If your goal is to reach a new audience, and maybe promote your print book or website, you can give your app away for free. If you want to charge, Apple will keep 30% of what the customer pays.

Enhanced Editions (website no longer live) has produced apps to accompany books by musician Nick Cave and US president Barack Obama. Co-founder Peter Collingridge says: "Because we integrate ebook and audiobook, we usually price around UK hardcover full price. Nick Cave's Bunny Monro has seen about 12% total app sales of UK hardcover sales."

Independent authors will likely need to compete more aggressively on price, though. "Users expect them to be very, very cheap, largely due to the myriad of 59p Apps in the app store," says Bonnick. "With ebooks generally (on other platforms) people seem to think that without the cost of paper and distribution they should be a lot cheaper than traditional books."

Karen New from Omnitoons adds: "If you are going for mass market, price it at a 'no brainer' fee of $0.99 (59p). If your content is very exclusive and people will buy it anyway, price it high."

Some say the arrival of Apple's new iPad device could transform the publishing industry, in the way the iPod changed the music business and iPhone reinvented telecommunications. It supports a standard ebook format (epub), which should make it easier to create and distribute compatible content. That format is limited to static written and illustrated content, though. The greater creative opportunity is to use the iPad's larger screen for book-based apps that incorporate audio, video, animation and dynamic content. That would be most apt.

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