Though we’ve recently noticed a few more Kindles on the subway, mobile phones are infinitely more common. As more consumers choose to read e-books on their smartphones rather than purchase standalone e-reading devices, publishers are working to create apps and other iPhone-ready content.
Flurry, a company that provides analytics to mobile phone application developers, found that e-book usage on smartphones increased 300% between April and July 2009. In September, for the first time, more book apps were released to the Apple iTunes store than games. And in October, one of every five new iPhone apps was a book. “The sharp rise in e-book activity on the iPhone indicates that Apple is positioned take market share from the Amazon Kindle as it did from the Nintendo DS [for video games],” Flurry concluded.
And while reading on mobile phones is often perceived as being a more popular activity in foreign countries like Japan than in the United States, a study by e-book application developer Wattpad reported that, in October, the United States surpassed Indonesia as the country with the highest mobile phone ebook consumption in the world. Wattpad attributes the increase to the popularity of the iPhone.Earlier this year, e-book publisher and distributor Smashwords found that its most popular downloaded file format was ePub. “This was before any e-reader companies were really promoting ePub,” says CEO Mark Coker. “The primary consumer of those ePub files was [Lexcycle’s iPhone e-reading app] Stanza.” While much of the attention around ebooks is focused on standalone devices, “I think the mobile phone piece of this is more interesting,” says Coker. “Stanza is at over 2.5 million downloads of their e-reader app. That single company probably has more readers than most of the other e-reading devices combined. Indigo’s Shortcovers [the mobile phone e-book store that recently partnered with Smashwords] has over 1 million downloads. When you look ahead over the next two to three years, it’s likely that we will have hundreds of millions, if not billions, of entry-level mobile phones that are ebook-ready. From a platform perspective, that represents a huge market for publishers, a market where the consumer already owns the device they need to consume your book.”
“By 2010, there are going to be 1 billion web-enabled cell phones,” says Maja Thomas, SVP Digital and Audio Publishing at Hachette. “There are only about 3 million standalone e-ink devices between Sony and Kindle and all the others.” In other words, this is an area publishers need to get into fast.
“It’s been nearly a year since we launched our very first mobile app, which was an app version of David Pogue’s iPhone: The Missing Manual,” says Andrew Savikas, VP of Digital Initiatives at O’Reilly. “The success of that first app, which outsold the print version from the time it launched last December until we published a new edition six months later, told us we needed to pay closer attention to mobile as a market for books.” Since then, O’Reilly has published over 400 iPhone apps, most of which are e-book versions of their books. “It’s interesting to see which ones perform particularly well on the platform,” says Savikas. “We have two camera guides for popular high-end digital cameras that are selling very well as iPhone apps, even though they haven’t been strong performers in print.” In development, “we’re certainly looking to use the kind of features that make these devices so great—things like geo-location and an always-on web connection.” Though Savikas couldn’t reveal how many apps O’Reilly has sold, he said that many of the company’s titles sell more copies as apps than as printed books and that in terms of revenue, “the iPhone is our most important digital channel after our own website and Safari Books Online.”
Lonely Planet’s Innovation Ecosystem Manager, Matthew Cashmore, agrees: “Sales of our mobile apps are really, really strong,” he says. “We see our apps in the top 10 on the iTunes store frequently.” The company recently created a new app for Android devices called “Lonely Planet Compass,” an “augmented reality travel guide.” “Imagine being able to stand in the middle of Union Square in San Francisco and look through your phone’s camera screen and see actual Lonely Planet reviews overlaid on the real world,” he says. Recently, the company held a “Hack Day” at its Melbourne, Australia headquarters. Over 50 developers from around Australia spent 24 hours using Lonely Planet data to build apps, including an app that created a custom itinerary based on a user’s answer to a few questions. See the winners here.
As consumers explore reading on their mobile phones—Brent Lewis, VP Digital and Internet at Harlequin, sees them doing “a lot of experimentation and sampling”—there is also a learning curve for publishers as they expand into the smartphone market.
“Everything about [developing a mobile content program] was a challenge,” says Thomas. “Conceiving of how it was going to be done, finding the partners, understanding the business model, understanding how to work with Apple, negotiating with agents for grant of rights that weren’t included on the original contract. If you want to do an enhanced eBook, you have to spend the time to do the enhancements. It’s very creative and it’s very fun, but it’s also very labor-intensive.” Hachette creates both promotional apps and apps for sale. All of its titles are available on the iPhone through ScrollMotion and via Kindle’s iPhone app. In addition, there are enhanced e-books for some titles, like Daniel X’s Maximum Ride, as well as free apps created by the marketing department to promote individual titles or series. Thomas says apps aimed at the teen market have been particularly successful, including the free apps Hachette created for its Poppy series (which allow readers to read the books’ first chapters for free)—and, of course, “Twilight has done wonderfully well on this platform.”
In addition to mobile publishing, HarperCollins is experimenting with mobile marketing. Susan Katz, President and Publisher of HarperCollins Children’s, said the division’s first marketing application for the iPhone is a free app featuring animated flash video excerpts from Shel Silverstein’s bestselling books. “We were the first publisher to put a Quick Reponse code [2D barcode] on our books and promotional materials, which garnered a lot of publicity,” Katz says. “For the Lauren Conrad book L.A. Candy, readers could connect directly to the L.A. Candy mobi site and watch a video of Lauren, read an excerpt, send it to a friend, and buy a book.” The company is rolling out this type of campaign for other teen properties as well and will launch a mobile version of harperteen.com in January.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is also pushing children’s and YA apps, says David Langevin, VP of Digital Business Development: “This is where technology and design can really come alive.” HMH has a $9.99 Curious George Dictionary app and will soon release apps for other Curious George titles and The Polar Express. “Revenues are still quite modest, but we’ve done incredibly well in the reference category,” Langevin says. “Internationally, we’ve already had great success in Japan with our American Heritage dictionary and related reference titles. They’ve been selling as English-learning products on the major carrier networks, like DoCoMo, since 2003. This has made, and continues to generate, real money.”
The most exciting mobile phone opportunities for publishers may be abroad. Coker says Shortcovers designed its retail operation to respect the rights of international publishers, and notes that in developing countries mobile phones are spreading literacy. “These devices provide people with access to books, many of which are free,” he says. “The potential to leverage the digital delivery of books over cell phones, to expand knowledge and propagate culture, is very exciting.”
“This is a rich new medium that demands creativity and experimentation,” says Savikas. “These devices can see, hear, speak, and respond to touch, they know where they are in the world, and they’re connected to the two-thirds of the world’s population that has a mobile phone.” One of the best things about mobile markets like the App Store is that O’Reilly “doesn’t have to do anything extra to reach dozens of countries that have little or no access to our printed products. Well over half of the sales of our iPhone apps come from outside the U.S. . . . Some forecasts suggest that by the end of next year, more people will access the internet via mobile devices than fixed broadband. We’re in the early stages of a new phase in technology, communication, and connection—one that will have a truly global impact.”