Our first adventure in the app store / by James Huggins

There are loads of articles and blogs out there that offer advice, insight and opinion on the app store and children's book apps. To me the most interesting and useful have been those that disclose the first hand experiences of developers and publishers. So in the spirit of give and take I thought we'd do the same and share a few short observations from our first foray in this space.

The iPhone Book App Charts (UK)

In this post we thought it would be useful to examine the book app charts. Books are one of the key areas where the definition between e-book (or enhanced e-book) and app are increasingly blurred. Me Books is a perfect example of this, where the underlying content is treated in a traditional e-book reader format, but the 'draw and record' functionality would not be possible in iBooks. So we knew entering the book category of the app store would be an interesting experiment if nothing else. Based on thoughts and opinions from other developers it was clear there were three factors to bear in mind when planning to take on the app store.

1. Big brands own the charts

Just take a look at the picture above to see what I mean. The charts are important because based on our experience of the book app charts if you're not in the top 20 you're visibility suffers and you're probably not selling very much. What's also very interesting is how much children's media dominates the book app charts, with at least 12 of the top 20 slots occupied by the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon etc. So it's a question of how your app can vie for visibility in this landscape either by just being better and hoping that comes across, or by partnering. With Me Books we were lucky in that our partnership with Penguin meant our first app could take advantage of one of the most iconic logos in children's publsihing history. By stark contrast it will be intersting to see how we fare with a new and relatively unknown brand like The Land of Me, as we launch the first of the apps in the coming weeks.

2. Apple editorial is the best way to boost sales, but not the only way.

Pretty much everyone will tell you that if you get featured by Apple as App of the Day or Week, your sales will soar. Again, much like anywhere on the internet getting the eye balls is the hard part. However, Apple features apps at it's own discretion and figuring exactly how and why they decide to feature certain apps is tricky. If the app is part of a large PR launch that tends to have some sway as they're as interested in shifting units as much as the rest of us. Also, when apps utilise particular software and hardware features they're looking to promote it can make a difference.

But being as an Apple feature is not something you can count on we've been working hard on the PR side of things having success from small independent blogs to large media websites like the Guardian and Wired. As a general rule the blogging community is good for branding and awareness but will make little impact on your sales. The fact is that most of the time the audiences are just too small. Unsurprisingly it's been the larger players that have delivered the biggest uplift in sales. Me Books was featured in a small 'pick of the week' feature on the Guardian website and in print, and was also featured on the BBC radio show, 6 Music. Although these are seen as more traditional media channels they both generated significant sales spikes. What has also been surprising is how seemingly big players like Wired, whilst nice for the brand and the ego, have had almost no impact on traffic or sales.

3. Don't plan on getting rich with one app

I'm not saying it doesn't happen - just ask Rovio, creators of Angry Birds, but it shouldn't be part of the plan. Releasing successive apps on the app store can be frustrating as there are limited ways to reach customers who've already bought something. With Me Books we used an in-app purchasing model, which some people don't like but we thought worked well with the experience, and didn't mean those customers who bought Me Books had to go searching in the app store again to find more. In this way we're wanting to establish a platform rather than a single product. So far it seems to work well, so if you're planning to release apps remember that reaching new and existing customers again and again needs some thought, particularly when a lot of users don't like techniques such as push notifications and registrations etc.

4. Pricing

Ah yes, everyone's favourite app related topic. There's only one piece of advice here. Stick to your guns. It doesn't matter how low you go, there are those in the app store who will always say it should cost less. The Ladybird Classic Me Books app is 69p with one free book, the rest of the books can be bought from within the app for £1.99 each. We had a reviewer that said he felt "short changed" that there was only one free book with the app. I'm not sure I've ever heard of anyone paying 69p for something and feeling short-changed. 69p IS change! Now this isn't news to anyone I know, but it is worth remembering that whilst apps offer an exciting platform and sales channel, it's a volume game. Volume is easier with many apps rather than relying on one or two. So when you invest your money or anyone else's in an app idea, create a set of tools that allow you to iterate, expand or extend a series of apps and increase your chances of reaching the required volumes.

So what's the conclusion then. In short... Plan to create app series at a price that's competitive (at least one reviewer will always say you got it wrong) that manage to appeal to Apple and dodge (or befriend) the big brands.

Easy right?