Buyer's Guide: The Nuts & Bolts of Apps & Ebooks
This article is from the Book Business Buyer's Guide which is a publisher's reference on emerging technology in the book industry. You can find other Buyer's Guide Sections here:
Ebook & App Solutions
> The State of Ebooks 2014
Although digital tech has been transforming the book industry since the CD-ROM hit the scene, publishers have yet to master digital books the way they have printed pages. Because the digital book form continues to evolve, publishers are in a perpetual state of experimentation, testing out app products or introducing interactivity into their ebooks. The industry is still discovering which digital products resonate and how best to produce them.
Here we will specifically explore ebooks and apps, but browser-based ebooks are another platform publishers may want to consider. O'Reilly's Safari Books Online is one example of this.
Ebook vs. App
While ebooks and apps can be very similar, they differ in how they are produced and in their overall capabilities. Ebooks, often built on a standard specification such as EPUB, allow for a large degree of automation in production and greater device compatibility. And though ebooks are more scalable than apps, there are greater limitations on the variety of user experiences they can deliver and publishers are forced to conform to the capabilities of the given software platform.
On the other hand, a book app is essentially a customized software application for which programmers write code to directly develop the user experience rather than working with an authoring tool. Because apps are individually coded by computer programmers, they are much more versatile.
Muddying the distinction between ebooks and apps is the enhanced ebook, which like an app incorporates multimedia, such as slideshows, audio, and video. Also, the EPUB 3 standard, powered by HTML 5, is making ebooks as we know them much more flexible.
Where book apps truly diverge is in their nearly unlimited capacity for interactive and customized experiences: Interactive diagrams, animation, audio and video recording and playback, and game-like features are much more endemic to apps. Apps can also be designed to incorporate live updates of new content and features after the app is released.
Ebooks also live inside a reading app, where book apps are typically a stand-alone icon on a user's device. Also of note are branded publisher "shell" apps, which can house ebooks and serve ecommerce and e
Many Paths to Create an Ebook
Publishers typically pursue one of three ebook creation strategies: hiring an offshore conversion service, purchasing software solutions, or partnering with a digital solutions provider.
Based on sheer volume the dominant approach for creating ebooks is sending PDF files to a conversion service and having EPUB files built from them. That path is attractive because labor costs are much lower, but there are often limits to what PDF conversion can yield. "Conversion works well enough," says Martin Hensel co-founder of TextCafe, "As long as you are talking about creating a single-column text like a mystery or science fiction book." For more complicated outputs, like ebooks with interdependent links or charts, publishers may need to purchase authoring software or partner with a provider.
2. In-House Solutions
Methods for creating ebooks in-house vary in levels of sophistication. The simplest approach might be purchasing a single, end-to-end software product that creates ebooks, such as Apple's proprietary iBooks platform. Other retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo provide similar services. Although these creation platforms require little investment, publishers cannot produce cross-platform compatible ebooks on them.
A more common and slightly more complicated approach is implementing a software solution like Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite. Thad McIllroy, digital consultant and founder of The Future of Publishing, recommends DPS because it supports a variety of formats, including EPUB, and is relatively affordable. McIllroy believes that this type of solution is ideal for publishers who want to create simple, reflowable EPUB titles, well-suited for straightforward trade books.
It is important to note, though, that exporting an EPUB from DPS does not always yield a clean file and may require tweaks to satisfy different devices or when working with more complex content.
The most sophisticated end of the ebook production spectrum is creating a digital-first publishing system in-house that can push content to multiple platforms. This benefits publishers who have a massive amount of content to manage or a great deal of data in each title, as in a textbook. That data, be it an interactive chart or adaptive learning assessment, cannot be easily converted from page-fidelity design into reflowable EPUBs. Instead, to optimally display this content in digital formats, an XML-first approach is beneficial.
XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a foundational language that can be used to define how different parts of an ebook will be structured for different formats. The goal of using XML is to create digital content first rather than manipulate print-ready files for digital devices. Other XML benefits include the ability to relate similar content in and across ebooks and the flexibility to adapt to emerging device formats.
XML and digital-first production is a heavy investment in both tools and talent, requiring significant workflow overhaul. It may mean investment in XML authoring tools, which allows authors to create their manuscript in an XML editor, or a new CMS that can combine related content to create new titles. "The technology is there," says Mike Rosiak, CMS manager at Elsevier, "But it is really just wrangling the whole workflow to have it done in the right way and with the right care so that your electronic products are of good quality."
3. Partnering With a Provider
An ebook service provider can help a publishers create ebooks in a number of ways, from creating a from-scratch ebook based on a manuscript to enhancing a basic EPUB file with additional functions, such as advanced search or complex navigation. Typically, a service provider is hired when a publisher wants to create something more involved than a standard reflowable ebook.
The benefit of working with a provider is that it precludes publishers from needing to invest heavily in software, rework their production process, or reevaluate organizational skillsets. Matthew Cavnar, co-founder of ebook platform Vook, says most publishers simply don't have the bandwidth to take on the expanded roles that come with digital production. "The production, distribution, the sales reporting, the analytics—all of these pieces need to be handled." Providers have the expertise to do this, and that can be a huge help for publishers still experimenting with new digital products.
Like software, providers are not a cure-all. Without clear communication between publisher and provider, the project could easily derail. MarkLogic's Paul O'Neill recommends publishers do their homework before approaching a provider. "The first thing publishers need to do when looking for a vendor, is learn the vocabulary of ebooks, which is web development." Not only will a better understanding of terminology help narrow down the vendor search, but it will also help publishers better articulate their challenges and goals to vendors.
O'Neill also recommends better quality assurance in the demo phase of the provider search. Publishers should push providers to construct an entire title from a completed manuscript instead of just a partial ebook. "If you are looking for a long-term relationship, it makes sense to insist on seeing what is truly indicative of future work. And, if the test run works out, they've already ticked a project off their list."
For any of these ebook solutions, publishers need a plan in place. Technology solutions aren't a strategy but rather the tools needed to execute strategy. "Don't come to these solutions thinking they will deliver you an audience," says Cavnar. "Come with an audience and find the right solution for them."
Apps: Engaging a Mobile Audience
Book apps come with their own set of considerations. Generally publishers can pursue two types of app creation strategies. The first is the one-off book app, which could be an incredibly rich reading experience like an interactive children's book. A one-off could also take the form an accompaniment to a title. Quirk Books, for example, created the Baby Owner's Data Tracker, which recreates a tool featured in the correlating title, The Baby Owner's Manual. The app allows new parents to track feeding and sleeping schedules on one platform. "It took something from the book and made it more user-friendly," says John McGurk, director of digital and print production.
Container apps are the second strategy, which publishers like Atavist and Comixology have pursued. "Container" or "shell" apps deliver multiple pieces of content to the reader and are typically publisher-branded. Cavnar thinks this type of app motivates more app engagement. The added value of new and updated content can also push users to make in-app purchases.
Despite some app successes, generating significant revenue from apps is still a hurdle for publishers. McGurk chalks this up to the abundance of apps out there, the majority of which can be downloaded for free. "People aren't willing to pay more than $1.99, maybe $4.99 if you're lucky. Price sensitivity is a big factor where apps are concerned."
Although a less tangible benefit, McGurk thinks that engaging an audience, even through a free app, is worthwhile, building awareness for a range of titles and leading to more purchases.
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