Archive for January, 2012

What Can Writers Learn From The App Store Gold Rush?

You’ve all seen the breathless media reports covering the stunning success of writers like J. A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke in the eBook market. You might even agree with the indie eBook pundits who tout self-publishing as the one true way, endlessly proclaiming the imminent death of traditional publishing. There’s a self-publishing revolution, no doubt, but haven’t we seen this somewhere before? You don’t need a crystal ball to guess at the possible futures. All the evidence points to eBooks and self-publishing heading down the same path recorded music and software have in the past.

From my perspective as both a developer of mobile apps and a fiction writer, I’ve seen first-hand how the market is likely to pan out. I think there’s some useful knowledge to be gained by taking a closer look at how the app market works currently, and seeing what we can apply to self-publishing. In this post I’ll be covering a potpourri of topics comparing eBooks and apps, with a particular focus on Apple’s iTunes App Store, since that’s what I’m most familiar with.

Farewell, Dinosaurs?

I’m firmly in the camp that believes traditional publishers won’t die out completely, but will continue to adapt to the changing marketplace, even if they never again maintain the dominance they once had. We’ve already seen the steadily decreasing advances paid to writers and back-list eBook rights grabs indicating the big publishers will fight tooth and nail to stay in the game. In the long-term their value might be proven more as back-list aggregators or fixed-price service providers, though it remains to be seen whether they can move quickly enough to make it to that point.

In the early days of the App Store (before Angry Birds!), independent developers ruled the roost. Games and apps like Trism, iShoot, Doodle Jump, and Brushes promised a burgeoning app marketplace where even a lone coder could hope to strike it rich, or at the very least make a decent living writing and selling apps. It didn’t take long for the big game studios to take note. Now the corporations clash head-to-head with indies on the App Store charts. Don’t count the big publishers out yet!

Packaging and Pricing

By now everyone is accustomed to the rock-bottom prices on the App Store. It’s also becoming increasingly common with eBooks, with 99 cent or free eBooks giving thrifty readers no shortage of options. This still seems to be a viable way of climbing the top-seller charts on Amazon and elsewhere, but for how much longer? As we’ve already seen with the app market, at a certain point even free or 99 cents isn’t enough to attract eyeballs and open wallets. You’ve also got to consider the signal this sends to readers. You can’t necessarily expect those readers to follow you to higher price-points when they consider your work cheap and disposable entertainment. Value your work, but keep the lower price-points in mind as part of your promotional activities.

How do you survive when even 99 cents is considered an excessive price? Freemium! This is the latest buzzword among the app community. You give the app away for free, but include in-app purchases (IAP) as a means of generating revenue, typically with consumables rather than one-time purchases. This is the direction the App Store seems to be heading now, with premium (i.e. paid) content becoming increasingly rare. If you’ve been paying attention to the Top Grossing charts lately, you’ll see it can be a highly effective strategy.

The obvious equivalents to the freemium approach with eBooks are free samples and serialization. In addition to the short description on an eBook’s sales page, readers can typically download a free sample of the work before deciding to buy. Just as with apps, giving customers a free taste of your work is almost essential in such a competitive marketplace. Selling individual installments of a longer work is another option, though this may mean settling for a lower royalty rate (due to the lower sale price) and might give readers the impression you’re nickel-and-diming them. Your mileage may vary. Giving away the first novel in a series (as a loss-leader) also seems to be a common, and often successful, approach.

You’d think packaging eBooks as apps would be an interesting idea, but I think the time has passed where you could just slap your eBook into a text-browser app and expect great results. It was probably an effective strategy before the App Store became cluttered with them. For an eBook app to be successful, you need to add value over and above the text itself. A great example of an eBook app done right is The Three Little Pigs popup book for the iPad, designed by Game Collage. Not only do you get the story itself, but there’s also the engaging popup aspect and the behind-the-popup X-Ray feature. However, development of such an eBook involves considerable investment which the writer or publisher is unlikely to recoup.

Needle in a Haystack

How do you make an app or eBook stand out in such a crowded and competitive market? Without any effort to promote your work, it’s unlikely a significant number of customers will ever notice it. At a minimum you need a well-designed website to showcase your work, along with download links. Be sure to include affiliate links, which can be a nice income supplement. The products themselves should contain links back to your website and possibly also contact details, with links to your presence on social-networking sites like Twitter or Facebook.

You should value editing and good cover design. The cover is the first thing a reader sees, and it needs to be especially eye-catching at the postage stamp sizes it’ll be shown as online. This has been proven time and again in the app world, with attractive icons standing out from the crowd. If you skimp on the cover or editing, expect readers to notice. It’s all too easy to develop a reputation for sloppy typos, poorly crafted sentences, and a lack of attention to detail. Don’t expect to be able to do it all yourself, particularly the editing. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch advises in her post Common Sense And The Writer, you should prefer fixed-price quotes for editing, rather than offering a percentage of revenue.

Assuming you have a great cover and you’ve hired a top-notch editor to look over your work, the next hurdle is reviews. Reviews are hard to come by for both eBooks and apps, though I tend to think reviews by big publications, review sites, or critics are a little over-rated these days. While I’m not completely familiar with the review sites for eBooks, app review sites are springing up like weeds lately, and far too many demand payment for reviews. It’s hard to trust a site’s objectivity when their reviews are more akin to paid ads. Like apps, eBooks usually have reader reviews on the sales page to help prospective buyers make a decision. There are also social networking sites like Goodreads and Librarything that can help with word-of-mouth.

What about paid advertising? That’s a sure-fire way to attract eyeballs, right? If eBooks are anything like apps in this respect (and I believe they are), you’re unlikely to get a return on investment from paid advertising. The margins simply aren’t there when you’re selling your product for five dollars or less. If your prices are higher and you have some room in your budget for paid ads, I’m still not convinced they’re effective in driving sales. I talk more about my experiences with paid advertising and review sites in my Six Months on the App Store post. For traditional publishers this will be less of a concern, since ads are typically an integral part of their marketing efforts.

Your app or eBook may be able to stand out better if it fills an under-served niche. While less competition can be helpful, don’t expect to make your fortune in a niche. All of my productivity apps fill particular niches in the App Store, but as I’ve outlined in my Year on the App Store post, I’ll be lucky to break-even, despite minimal development costs. I’ve heard it said many a time that there’s money to be made in the long-tail of the market, but you have to consider this is over the long-term, and the concept is more applicable to aggregators with a lot of product to sell, like Amazon. Making sure your app or eBook is easily found via search is particularly important with niche products, since you typically won’t get exposure from the top-selling sales charts. The App Store currently relies on the app name and a short list of keywords to locate apps via search, ignoring the descriptive text entirely. For this reason it pays to choose your category and keywords carefully. eBook sellers don’t seem to be quite so limited search-wise.

If there’s one thing that attracts attention like nothing else, it’s featuring on the App Store. I don’t mean the smaller category features, but the big banners or staff picks that showcase apps on the main screen, either on-device or within iTunes. Likewise for eBooks, if you can gain a position high in the sales charts or get featured by your favorite eBook seller, sales are likely to shoot through the roof. Getting featured or rapidly climbing the charts is difficult though, and tends to be short-lived. There’s not much you can do here short of putting out a quality product and hoping you get noticed.

At the end of the day, you’ve just got to keep on writing. Don’t focus on promotion to the extent that you neglect your writing. After all, do you want to be a full-time marketer and promoter, or a writer? Without an ever-increasing body of work, readers who love your work will become frustrated that you don’t have more available, and new readers are less likely to find it. I particularly like the investment mindset suggested by Dean Wesley Smith in a recent post.

What’s next?

Just as with the app market, the eBook market continues to grow at an incredible rate. In 2011, estimated U.S. eBook sales grew by 131%, and are forecast to rise even higher in the coming years, with estimates of total mobile eBook sales of almost $10 billion by 2016. Thankfully we’re not yet at the saturation point for apps or eBooks, and for the foreseeable future we can rely on a steady stream of new devices coming online. This growth will eventually taper off, however I don’t see this happening anytime soon, particularly for eBooks.

I’m going to refrain from speculation about the Apple announcement later today, but I suspect whatever they announce will have game-changing implications in the eBook market. We’ll see soon enough.

Where do you see eBooks and self-publishing heading in the future?

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2011 Retrospective

During the first few minutes of 2012, it’s time to cast one final glance back at 2011 for my traditional year-end retrospective.

Overall I’d say 2011 was a good year. While there was still some overtime at the day job, it didn’t seem to be quite as insanely busy as 2010, and I was able to devote a fair amount of time to after-hours pursuits. I released a new iOS app and tonnes of updates for all of my apps, attended more Bonsai meetings and workshops, visited Disney World, and wrote two-thirds of a novel. Not bad at all.

Since 2008 my fiction writing has essentially been non-existent, with only minimal effort devoted to submitting stories to various markets and keeping them in circulation. Even this died down to nothing in 2011. The bulk of my spare time was devoted almost entirely to app development and marketing. Writing and maintaining apps, dealing with customer support, and somehow trying to get the word out in a crowded marketplace all takes a huge amount of effort. I think this is something many writers would agree applies equally to writing, especially now that many are finding their way in the eBook market and exploring self-publishing. By October it was looking like yet another year would pass without any new activity on the writing front. And then in the final week of October, I got caught up in the excitement of various blog and Twitter posts talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short). In years past I’d toyed with the idea of participating, but quite frankly the idea scared the hell out of me, and it was always easy to dismiss it and use excuses like the massive time commitment required, or not having a novel-sized idea in mind. In that final week of October, the idea that I should finally throw my hat into the ring and participate became steadily more insistent. So without having a clue about what to write, in a brief blog post I announced my insane plan to try to write a novel in a month. As the last of the trick-or-treaters left our front porch on Halloween night, I threw together some rough ideas that would soon snowball into a novel. While I didn’t meet the 50,000 word quota, I wrote consistently throughout November and learned a tremendous amount about what it takes to write a novel. By the end of the month the novel-in-progress had become the longest single piece of fiction I’d ever written. The momentum came to an abrupt halt in early December when I felt burnt-out and decided to relax and spend more time with family. That, and some quality time with the Portal, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead games ๐Ÿ˜‰ After all, I’d spent most of my evenings and weekends in November hunched in front of the computer working on my novel…

If there’s one thing I regret, it’s that I wasn’t able to read more fiction. Even my comic reading took a back seat to the writing and app work. Here’s my paltry list of reads for 2011:

Drawing out the Dragons
Elephantmen, HC Vol 1 – Wounded Animals
Invincible Ultimate Collection, HC Vol 3
How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months
No Plot? No Problem!

Audio books used to be how I kept myself amused during workouts and the daily commute, but this year I continued listening mostly to music or podcasts. Among my favourites were the Comic Geek Speak podcast, and the Comic Book page podcasts (The Mayo Report and Spotlight episodes).

Here are some of the various statistics I’ve been keeping track of each year:

2011 Stats:

New apps released: 1
App updates released: 24 (includes Lite and Paid versions)
2011 Word count: 35,769
Stories written: 0 (novel still in progress!)
Total submissions: 0
Total acceptances: 0
Total rejections: 0
Waiting for response: 0
Books read: 5
Comics read: 89

When 2011 arrived, my app plans for the year were fairly hazy. I knew I’d be updating my two existing iOS apps, Artwork Tracker, and Story Tracker, incorporating feedback from customers and generally adding more polish. I knew the Mac App Store was to be announced early in the new year, but I wasn’t yet committed to developing for the new platform. That soon changed when I had a chance to play around with it and download some apps for myself. The ease of use was astonishing, and it didn’t take long for me to realize this would be a fun and viable new platform for app development. I posted some thoughts, including the announcement of Story Tracker for Mac. So began several months of study and initial development on the new app. Unfortunately this proved to be more complicated than I thought, and several new developments conspired to make life difficult: iOS5, iCloud, and OS X Lion. With iOS5, I would have to re-test and update my iOS apps, and the impending arrival of Lion and iCloud would mean I’d need to either upgrade my slow, aging Mac to Lion (and not be able to test on OS X Snow Leopard, the other Mac App Store platform), or buy a new Mac. Finances being what they were, the latter was not an option in mid-2011. Meanwhile, I’d had an intriguing idea for a new iOS app. I’d been looking for an app to keep track of my Bonsai collection and various related activities, but there were slim pickings on the App Store. As soon as I’d wrapped up some updates to my existing apps, I wrote up some requirements for a new app called Bonsai Album and wrote a quick blog post about it. I put everything else on the back burner and spent the next three months working on Bonsai Album. On October 6th, it landed on the App Store. Initial feedback from the Beta testers was promising, and since then I’ve been very pleased with how well it has been received. Bonsai Album has been reviewed by App Advice, and even got a mention in the Midwest Bonsai Society newsletter (my club!), among others. While the app has had only modest success so far, it’s doing far better in its first few months on the App Store than either of my other two apps did. While I’m still yet to recoup my overall development costs for all three apps, 2011 is the first year in which I’ve made a small profit.

I continued to attend the monthly meetings of the Midwest Bonsai Society in 2011, along with the shows they run at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This year I again visited 4 Bonsai shows, three of which were at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and one at Morton Arboretum. I also attended 2 workshops (Satsuki Azalea, and Pomegranate) and added a new tree to my growing collection (a Bald Cypress). I’ve learned a little more about the art of Bonsai this year, unfortunately mostly related to the impact of pests and long-delayed repotting. Like most things, I anticipate this hobby will involve a lifetime of learning.

We didn’t plan much travel this year. We’d intended to just make some short road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin, but that was about it. What actually ended up happening was a totally unexpected trip to Disney World in Florida with my wife’s parents. We decided to make a big trip of it and spent a few days at each of the parks: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and the Animal Kingdom. We also made some side-trips to visit SeaWorld and Cape Canaveral, including catching up with some Florida-based relatives. We had an absolute blast, and our trip was definitely the big highlight of the year. For Thanksgiving this year we spent some quality time in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

One of my goals for 2011 was to get back into a regular workout habit. I managed to keep at it for about half the year, until hurling myself back into app development and writing the novel. I returned to it in December and promptly realized exactly how out of shape I’d become. Ouch!

Sadly, I wasn’t able to make much of a dent in our massive photo backlog this year. I’m still over a year behind! I think it has helped having to at least keep ahead of my wife’s scrapbooking. When she needs the photos, I make the effort to get them organized in time.

As is usual in the waning hours of the year, I like to come up with goals and hatch devious plans for the New Year. So what’s cooking for 2012? I’m glad you asked ๐Ÿ˜‰

I’d like to at least reach my previous level of fitness and build on that for 2012. I’m probably not going to bench press 170 lbs again anytime soon or start running marathons, but regular workouts and a decent level of fitness are definitely achievable. The pain of having to start all over again from square one should be sufficient motivation!

For apps, I’d like to put out more updates for my existing iOS apps, possibly including those much-requested language localizations for Bonsai Album. If the app continues to do well, that’s definitely on the cards. The big one, of course, is to finally launch Story Tracker for Mac. I know a lot of people have been waiting patiently for this one, and I hope they won’t have to wait too much longer. I finally bought that new Mac Mini, and I’ve spent the last few hours getting it all setup for app development. After I get Story Tracker for Mac out the door and have a few updates under my belt, then I’ll think about what comes next.

In 2012 I’d really like to get back into writing in a big way. Starting a new novel in 2011 was a good start, but now that I know what it takes, I’d like to build on that and finally break the writing drought of recent years. Task one will be to complete my novel, Plague Magic. You can track my progress on the sidebar on this blog. Task two is to get back into writing short stories and start submitting again. I may do some dabbling in self-publishing. I also plan to ramp up my fiction reading, not only for enjoyment, but also in support of my writing efforts. You can’t be a writer without being a reader, right? And though it’ll be a stretch, I plan to write at least one more novel in 2012.

While I intend to update the blog periodically, I spend most of my social networking time on Twitter these days. I mostly follow other iOS developers, writers, and Bonsai fiends. You can look me up at @andrewnicolle.

I wish everyone the best for 2012, and hope you have a happy and productive New Year!

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