Is the Future of Publishing the App?

The e-book marches onward, the vaunted wave of the future for publishing. But is it? What about the app? Bet you didn’t see that coming….

In the swiftly evolving world of e-retailing (and e-reading), you can’t be sure.

I just got back from living in France for several months, and noticed just before I left that one of the big department stores there, Fnac, has begun selling its own e-reader, similar to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, just in time for the holidays. There the e-book is in its infancy (and in Europe, it’s still relatively rare; in Italy, for example, e-books are unheard of, as is e-retailing in general – doesn’t even exist there).

Yet, France remains a nation devoted to books. Writers are revered there, people read everywhere. Actual physical books. And while you can speak on the cellphone in the Paris Metro, more people are reading than talking. Yet slowly, steadily, e-books are beginning to emerge.

One of the reasons for this is the growth of e-readers. News stories in the French paper predict that more than a million iPads are likely to be sold in France this holiday season. And the iPad enables several e-readers. So rather than wait for the market to get restless, some retailers are meeting the market head-on with their own readers. But the iPad, and other similar if less noted devices, are relying a lot on the app market. And the app market is emerging as the real forum for new publishing ideas.

French newspapers have already developed iPad applications. Le Monde has a good one – you “turn” its pages as if it were the actual print edition – and given that a country such as France is already attuned to technological progress, you can be sure app developers had their eyes on what was happening in the U.S. with the tremendous growth of the iPad (close to 8 million of the devices have sold here already).

Some literary agents I know say that much of their negotiating time lately comes from maneuvering the world of e-rights and now, app developments. If you sell a book to a film company – and if it’s a children’s book, it’s more likely to sell to film these days – the film company in general retains visual rights. But the publisher retains graphic novel rights (in case the author wants to rework his ideas into that form). What about app rights, which often include graphic elements? That’s a sticky problem.

This holiday season, in the U.S., there are apps for a pop-up “Christmas Carol,” designed by pop-up artist Chuck Fischer. (Pop-up books are a challenge in any form – very labor-intensive to produce – but in app form, they’re as beautiful as the paper-and-cardboard version, and maybe more durable.) And there are cookbook apps that are said to be much better, and more user-friendly, than the e-book version of the hardbound book. In dictionaries, the app is much, much more user-friendly than the e-book dictionary (for example, my e-book copy of a French-English dictionary doesn’t allow you to search for words, which is, to put it mildly, a really stupid design flaw, while my English-French dictionary app is phenomenal).

Apps can be difficult to produce, yet once they’re up, they’re genuinely interactive, meaning they speak to the audience (anyone who has loaded apps on his or her iPad or other interactive touch-screen devices knows this – there are bug fixes and updates constantly). This is all based on the instant feedback that apps provide. This is different from the approach of traditional publishers, who take a long time to finesse the product, and don’t really speak to the audience directly.

If the future of publishing is the app, it’s because app makers, rather than publishers, speak to their audiences.

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2 Responses to “Is the Future of Publishing the App?”

  1. Michael Drew December 10, 2010 at 12:44 am #

    Yes Bob there is a Santa Clause, and yes the future of books are apps or app like products, like Vook.

  2. Lynne MacQuarrie December 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    Great read, Bob! Just wondering if the book/reading related apps that are purchased by the user will get upgraded as needed or it it better to hold off until some of the “new app” dust has settled.

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