With Digital Book Application Users in the Millions—and Growing Rapidly—Should You Be Offering Apps? A Q&A about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's pioneering efforts with mobile phone e-book applications
Earlier this month, research company Flurry (Flurry.com) reported that between April and July, the number of digital book application users increased by 300 percent. In July, Flurry tracked nearly 3 million active e-book application users on smartphones. While these numbers may make many book publishers think, "We need to start offering this," a number of publishers already are active in the mobile e-book application space, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).
According to David J. Langevin, vice president of digital business development for HMH's trade and reference group, "We had mobile applications—reference titles, mainly—available on some large carrier networks as far back as 2003." More recently, in December 2008, HMH announced a partnership with vendor ScrollMotion to start offering e-book applications. One of these titles, “Curious George's Dictionary”—which is sold on iTunes for $9.99—is an interactive, illustrated e-book that teaches children through voice and images about the alphabet, words that begin with those letters and simple concepts.
HMH also has partnered with multilingual software provider Enfour of Japan, among others, to develop mobile applications. In August 2008, HMH announced that, together with Enfour, it would provide iPhone applications for American Heritage dictionaries and other best-selling HMH reference titles.
Langevin spoke to Book Business Extra about his company's experience in the e-book application market:
Book Business Extra: Why did HMH decide to add mobile phone applications to its product offering?
David J. Langevin: We are simply trying to make our content available in all the formats our customers want. … Since , we’ve worked with quite a few mobile-content developers and distributors. Enfour Group in Japan has been our top reference-title partner. … Mobifusion is another. And recently, we started a new mobile e-book partnership with Shortcovers.
Extra: What goes into creating an application on HMH's end?
Langevin: We’ve been able to make apps a reality for consumers for two main reasons: The first is the fact that we’re able to provide high-quality file formats to our developer partners. This is the file they use to incorporate our content into the actual product.
For e-book apps, the formats are usually PDF and ePub, which often require some kind of customization. HMH’s unique advantage in the app space, and in the digital-content space overall, has been licensing our very high-quality and sophisticated XML. The XML format is structured and flexible, and allows for all sorts of great uses for complicated print-book formats. Think of dictionaries, guidebooks, encyclopedias and textbooks.
The second reason why we’ve been able to make apps a reality is we have good insight into which companies to work with, and then how to work with them to get monetary results. We have a clear sense of what we expect to get out of the partnership, what the product can be, and realize strong customer value.
Regarding unique aspects and extras in the apps themselves, we try to ensure great design, ease-of-use and sophisticated functionality. These elements may include, for example, embedded word lookup and searching, usage history, audio enhancement and quick navigation.
Extra: What sort of return on investment is HMH seeing from its mobile applications?
Langevin: Not a lot just yet, though we’ve invested very little—a negligible amount of money, actually. Our e-book and mobile partners have pretty much absorbed development costs. But we … do put a lot of time and human resources into preparing files, or digitizing and managing electronic rights.
We’ve already had great success in the Apple App Store selling dictionary and reference apps, however. These products—mostly through our developer, Enfour Group—have grossed over a half-million dollars in sales. I attribute this to three basic things: Very high-quality brands people want and trust; excellent technology thanks to our developer partners; and being first in the market—we were the first major publisher to launch major book titles in the App Store, and one of the first big publishers in the larger mobile space.