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eBooks May be Selling Well, But eBook Apps Are Doomed

536588182_7cc59afd6c_oThe 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.

Just so you know, Arcadia is a free ebook app which was widely profiled this summer, including in The Guardian, and The Silent History got even more attention when it was published in 2012.

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?

images by weefaecampbelj45ca


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Mackay Bell December 12, 2015 um 5:58 pm

Here’s the trick with ebooks: CONTENT, CONTENT, CONTENT

No one is going to bring mainstream popularity to enhanced ebooks until they come up with really great content, and are able to put it out on a regular basis. One app, with one book based by one literary darling, ain’t going to do it.

Enhanced ebooks will take off when a real content company puts some real long term effort into it. This latest attempt doesn’t sound like it. You need someone like a modern Edward L. Stratemeyer.

Steven Hoefer December 12, 2015 um 7:08 pm

Capability does not equal Profitability.

I’m one of the few people who ever made money on "taking media to the next level" projects because I worked as a freelance multimedia producer for a couple of decades. My invoices were (usually) paid. Everyone else took a bath. The dozen different times people tried to make the web 3D, the immersive multimedia experiences, the choose-your-own-adventure style DVDs, the interactive fiction, they were all quickly abandoned. (A notable exception was Myst and co.) It was heartbreaking to work with some of the greatest creative people and cutting edge technology and see the projects languish and die. They were incredibly expensive to produce and required specific hardware for the end user to experience, which both limits the audience and limits the amount of time it can be on the market. (There’s no long tail when you can’t buy a compatible device anymore.) For the consumer it can be frustrating. Beyond the occasional need for technical support, there is the learning curve of how to navigate/interact with/use the content. Books and video do not have these problems. And the customer is often paying for content that remains hidden because they didn’t explore every path. It’s unsatisfying. The experience is unique, but it’s not mer immersive than books or movies or video games (which have a much higher level of interaction).

Twenty years ago the DVD format came out with a huge amount of interactive capability built in. Outside of a few experiments, they’re essentially not used. Blu-Ray had even more features, and they are equally ignored. They’re simply too expensive to create. We’ve had the capability for twenty years and no one cares. Everyone* streams their movies and no one misses the interactive features, we prefer the convenience.

This is pretty much the same as interactive books. They’ve been tried before. Many times. Yes, such things can be built and they can be beautiful works of art. They are occasionally interesting niche products (like Lifeline). But they’re a lousy business model.

*For certain values of "everyone" and "no one".

William Ockham December 12, 2015 um 7:14 pm

Some friends of mine started what is now a billion dollar startup that produces a subscription-based enhanced ebook app. Users pay $30 and up every month for access to content (via the app or an HTML 5 web app). They have authors making over a million dollars a year. Many of their authors are traditionally published, but none of them made any money with traditional publishing.

Nobody in publishing has ever heard of them, even though I have personally pointed several publishing pundits to the company’s website. The company is completely invisible to the publishing industry. This is a company that has been profitable every year since its founding and only took VC money to buy up its competitors. Why are they invisible? Well, being based out of Salt Lake City is one thing, but the main thing is that they don’t talk about books. They are a training company.

Nate Hoffelder December 12, 2015 um 7:26 pm

I knew of Puralsight, and that it was a competitor to Udemy. I didn’t know that it offered a subscription, though (also not sure I’d call it an ebook app).

And yes, this is a company that no one in book publishing would know about (aside from maybe Pearson and Bertelsmann). It’s a very insular industry (so much so that it refers to itself as _the_ publishing industry).

BTW, this is one of the industries that Baldur Bjarnasson recommended getting into instead of starting a book publisher, and Pluralsight is an example of why.

William Ockham December 12, 2015 um 7:54 pm

Of course you wouldn’t call it an ebook app. No one would. And that is the problem with ebook apps. Pluralsight solves a problem that actual human beings have and are willing to spend money on. Ebook apps are a stupid attempt to 'monetize content'. Pluralsight started as a traditional in-person developer training company. When the bottom dropped out of that market, they moved into online training.

My actual point is that the threats to Big Publishing aren’t coming from anything that has 'book' in the name. Ebooks are better than paper for narrative fiction. But non-fiction physical books are losing to hundreds of different things, but no individual change seems important. When was the last time you used a phone book, encyclopedia, or cookbook. Ok, that last one hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

Nate Hoffelder December 12, 2015 um 8:07 pm

" When was the last time you used a phone book, encyclopedia, or cookbook. Ok, that last one hasn’t happened yet, but it will."

No, it has already happened.

A couple of the dishes I cooked for Thanksgiving were made with recipes from sites I Googled (the other dishes, I winged it from memory).

Eugene Woodbury December 12, 2015 um 9:35 pm

For as long as the "interactive novel" hasn’t succeeded in the U.S., the "visual novel" has been huge in Japan, with studios like Key VisualArts becoming major players in manga, anime, feature films, and "light novels." But while manga and anime have carved out profitable niches in Western markets, the visual novel has only recently found a tentative foothold. Why this particular storytelling format does so well in Japan and yet remains so marginal in the U.S. is deserving of an in-depth dissertation.

Nate Hoffelder December 12, 2015 um 10:46 pm

@ Eugene

That’s new to me, but it explains a trend we’ve seen in games.

Some video games have lately become more scripted with more text and set pieces. I think they’re being influenced by visual novels.

Haesslich December 12, 2015 um 10:32 pm

Eugene – I suspect that the general literacy rates in Japan and a culture which has been more into reading helped the rise of the VN or the Kinetic Novel (which is completely non-interactive, versus the more "choose your own adventure VN). North America, especially the past fifty years.. is probably less so. Which may be why gamers here go for graphics over all, over here.

Granted, the niche is expanding a bit (look at weird titles like Hatoful Boyfriend being translated), and western ones have been written… But they don’t get the marketing push and the teenage customers going. But VNs, KNs, and similar games which are ebooks, don’t exactly appeal to the young teens there either. It’s the older crowd (18-25) who buy and play them.

pond December 13, 2015 um 10:34 am

What is wrong with the NY TImes lately, particularly re: the book biz?

Usually the publishing industry counts $$$ revenue as the metric for sales rather than unit sales, so a single sale of a $15-wholesale hardback outscores 14 sales of 99-cent ebooks.

Here the writer counts as sales something given away. Since when do freebies count as 'outselling' items for which actual $$$ are given?


Nate Hoffelder December 13, 2015 um 11:04 am

The NYTimes has an unhealthy relationship with the legacy book publishing industry, and they’re not the only ones.

The real problem is that NY newspapers are caught up in the same Manhattan book culture slash echo chamber as the legacy NY publishers. This leads to a lack of professional distance between subject and reporter, and as a result we have articles like this one where the reporter fails to apply any thought or analysis.

Haesslich December 13, 2015 um 11:05 pm

@Nate: I think that you’re giving VNs too much credit there – the set pieces have been more an evolution of game engine cutscenes and storytelling… which itself is an evolution of the use of FMV and cutscenes going back to the 90s. Half-Life may get the credit for introducing more interactivity to those (like how you can look around in the starting section while riding into Black Mesa on the team), but Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy 7 were probably the more influential games in the industry. Plus, text heavy stories seem more confined to the indie crowd – the AAA titles are going for more voiced story with the emphasis on cinematic experiences. Take the latest Fallout – FO3 and New Vegas were more text heavy than the latest release with its voiced protagonist.

VNs and Kinetic Novels may have created an audience for Western indie games like Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story, and Her Story, though. Basically, we’re returning to interactive fiction from the early 1980s… a form of game which died out when adventure games and the first graphic based games and RPGs showed up. Well, they died out everywhere outside Japan, for the most part. Reading was more a chore than anything for a lot of gamers in the west, those who weren’t fans of Infocom games or Lucasarts/Sierra On-line adventure games. Look at how quickly they died once graphics and sound improved with the widespread availability of FMV synthesis based sound cards like the AdLib or Sound Blaster cards at the end of the 80s, and VGA graphics.

Haesslich December 13, 2015 um 11:26 pm

FM synthesis cards, even. Basically, once we got the ability to go beyond beeps and digitized voices through the rather poor PC built in speaker, and decent VGA graphics, the adventure game and graphical RPGs took the market that interactive fiction once held.

Kit December 14, 2015 um 11:04 am

I think ebook apps can work well in specific circumstances. There’s an ebook app for Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color. The original book was 80 loose plates and 48 pages of text in an enormous box. The idea was you’d be able to work with the pages and move the colors around and see how they appear to change as you put different colors next to each other. It’s been reprinted several times, and some of the reprintings are decent, but none of them have the loose pages or the ability for you to play around with the colors in the same way as the original. If you want to buy a copy of the first edition now, it will cost you thousands of dollars. The Interaction of Color app gives you the color, designs, and text, and it also allows you to work with them in the way you could with the original book. It has added functions as well; you can completely change the colors in various designs and save things and so on. It’s beautifully done and really well worth it. I think the basic app is free, and it’s $10 if you want the added functionality. So that’s an instance of an ebook app really adding things to the experience over print, but I have to say I don’t see how adding media to a novel (other than possibly illustrations) really does anything except pull you out of the story. And no, I don’t work for Yale University Press who publishes the app; I work in an art library at a university.

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