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?