The NYTimes has discovered the promise of ebook apps (enhancements, embedded multimedia content, etc), but unfortunately they have yet to grasp the pitfalls.
Writing for this august publication, Alexander Alter profiled a new ebook app publisher last week. Metabook is a developer along the lines of Byook or Vook (in its original form), and the NYTimes lauds Metabook for, well, existing.
Landing a new work from Mr. Lamb is a major coup for Metabook, which was founded last year and specializes in multimedia, interactive storytelling. With an original novel by Mr. Lamb, author of best sellers like “I Know This Much Is True” and “We Are Water,” Metabook is establishing itself as a serious player in the growing marketplace for book apps.
Metabook has yet to publish a single title, but they feel they have a blockbuster in Wally Lamb's I’ll Take You There, which will be published next year exclusively as an app on iOS.
Yes, the novel will not be released as either a print book or as a more traditional ebook; anyone who wants to read it will have to fork over their money and buy an iDevice before buying the app.
The NYTimes sees this as a bold move rather than a foolhardy one, and they also make the mistake of misjudging how long the idea of enhanced ebooks and ebook apps has been kicking about:
Mr. Lamb is the latest fiction writer to venture into the realm of interactive, multimedia book apps, an area that is still relatively new terrain for novelists. When the first wave of enhanced e-books arrived a few years ago, most stuck to areas like nonfiction, science, history and current affairs, where add-ons like interactive graphics, audio and video clips and enlargeable maps and photographs could help deepen readers’ understanding of the topic. Interactive children’s books have become another booming genre, with everything from Dr. Seuss to an app based on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. But when it came to adult fiction, interactive bells and whistles often seemed like noisy distractions that pulled users out of the immersive experience of reading a story.
The NYTimes isn't the first to gush over the unfulfilled possibilities of enhanced ebooks, and they're also not the first to miss the fact that this field has a twenty year history of partial successes, fizzled experiments, and one-off successes.
There's much to dislike about this piece, and it would be easy to write it off as a puff piece lacking in context and perspective. But it also includes a couple details which quietly predict limited success for Lamb's novel, if its predecessors are anything to go by:
A few months ago, the British novelist Iain Pears released his genre-bending novel “Arcadia” as an experimental app that allows readers to toggle through 10 different characters’ story lines. It has been downloaded more than 20,000 times, outselling the hardcover edition of the novel.
Eli Horowitz, a former editor and publisher at McSweeney’s, has also found an avid audience for his interactive digital novels. His serialized app “The Silent History,” which he co-created, has been bought and downloaded more than 30,000 times.
And yet in spite of all the publicity, these two apps only sold about as many copies as a respectable mid-list novel (source, source) published in the US. And to make matters worse, one of the apps is free while the other costs $2 and earns most of its revenue from in-app purchases.
Edit: a reader reminded me of Touchpress, a leading app developer that recently decided to get out of selling apps. After five years and millions of apps sold, Touchpress is pivoting its business model to brand sponsorship.
So what does that tell you about the market for ebook apps?
It tells me there isn't one, or at least there isn't a market large enough to justify the six-digit advances that Metabook is paying authors.
This publisher plans to produce a dozen titles a year, and currently employs fifteen people, but something tells me that Metabook is going to have about as much success as Vook, a startup which launched in 2009 with the same general idea. Enhanced ebooks didn't work for Vook, and four pivots later Vook is now Pronoun, a services company.
To be fair, Metabook could succeed where Vook failed.
But even if the time has come for ebook apps, they're still being released in a market where few developers are making any money through app sales. Consumers have become conditioned to not buying apps, so much so that many developers have turned to either adverts or in-app purchases (see The Silent History) to make a living.
For better or worse, that is the market that Metabooks is getting in to.
How much success do you think they'll have?