Apple's iBooks And App Store Price Out Creativity

Pioneering publishers wonder why Apple makes them underprice their most interactive books in the App Store instead of allowing them more options on iBooks.

When is a book an app and an app a book?

This isn't simply a philosophical question, a conundrum like: What is the sound of one hand clapping? The answer deeply impacts authors, publishers, programmers, and anyone else stretching the definition of a book and dealing with the constraints of Apple's walled garden--people like Ellen Jacob, a veteran children's book editor and creative director, and her husband, Kirk Cheyfitz, a former journalist who is CEO of digital ad firm Story Worldwide.

Jacob and Cheyfitz have teamed up to produce two interactive children's books through a partnership between Story and Bookerella, a tiny division of Jacob's company Jacob Packaged Goods. Kirkus reviewed the first, Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night, by Mary Kay Carson, calling it "a winner: beautifully illustrated," a "seamless blend of realistic graphics, high-resolution photography, and well-chosen interactive features." The second: Horse Magic, written by Cathy Hapka, comes out March 26th, and it, too, is visually dazzling.

The first chapter is titled "A Rainy Day" and is led off by the quote, "It shouldn't be allowed to rain on the first day of summer vacation." Meanwhile the reader is greeted by the sound of raindrops and drips of water dropping on to the screen, obscuring words. Turn the page, and the story begins, and the sound of rain diminishes until you page forward again--then it's gone. Each page is flanked by illustrations--tall grass, flowers, trees, and at various points in the story leaves fall. There's the sound of a horse galloping away while sentences on the page bounce along. A stream rushes over rocks. Night turns to day. A horse whinnies. Words disintegrate. My eight-year-old daughter loved it.

I don't want to give the impression that Horse Magic is all glitz and no substance. It's not a game, movie, or a cartoon. In the debate over interaction versus distraction Jacob and Cheyfitz come down clearly on the side of interaction. They approach the creation of these 21st-century works from the point of view of people who make books, and are adamant that the reading comes first. "A lot of the apps in the app store have precious little to do with reading while books have precious little to do with technology," Jacob says. "We wanted to create something where the primary experience of reading was enhanced by the technology of the iPad."

Here's the problem, though. If you want to sell your book in Apple's iBookstore, you have to create it on Apple's iAuthor platform, but then you are only allowed to have video and links in your book (unless those links lead to Amazon's store, then fuggedaboutit). If you design it so readers can interact with it and have it do all the things that Jacob and Cheyfitz wanted Bats! and Horse Magic to do--both were created on gaming platforms; Bats! on Unity, Horse Magic on Corona--it goes into the app store. For instance, if you make the bat in an illustration flap its wings then Apple classifies it as an app, not a book. In Horse Magic, effects like letters flying off the screen, fog, water rushing over rocks, a knight's horse galloping--all seen without having to leave the page environment like you would for a video--also disqualify it from being sold in Apple's iBookstore.

"Apple's approach doesn't allow many interactions in e-books," Jacob says. "You can put in an entire movie but you can't put in something that makes kids read deeper. What's the sense in that?" Cheyfitz adds: "Start with the classic notion of a book as being, in its most basic form, ink on paper, words, and pictures. We began with a book, and now Apple has informed us that is not a book, it is an app."

Apple's ham-handed attitude governing apps and e-books is by no means a trivial matter. There's a lot of money at stake for the content creators. Consumers are willing to pay more for an e-book than they are for an app that contains all the text of an e-book but also offers much more. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, of course. E-books are simple to make since they're comprised mostly of text that's relatively easy to format for different platforms. But people compare the price of the e-book to the price of a book in a bookstore, and because it looks like a book and reads like a book, they think nothing of paying more for it.

In contrast, the ceiling for most apps is about $4.99, while e-books generally go for twice that but it costs eight times as much to build an innovative book. Naturally there are exceptions. Some apps go for more but they're also vast numbers of free apps (that charge for greater capability once you're hooked) and while publishers generally hold the line on e-books by pricing them at a minimum of $9.99 there are plenty of self-published works for $1.99 or less.

"So the least imaginative, least costly to produce, and least technologically sophisticated use of an iPad goes for the most money," Cheyfitz says.

It would make sense, he adds, if Apple would embrace rational retailing: Put all these "enhanced" ebooks in one place so consumers could easily find them, separate from all the other apps. Then book buyers would have one place to go and publishers could sustain reasonable prices for all digital books, especially the more interactive ones.

"This would benefit Apple, authors, publishers, technologists, and the public," he says. "So why doesn't Apple do it?"

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.

[Image: Flickr user Arturo Martin]

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10 Comments

  • Erika Nygaard

    I think it may be the market holding back prices and creativity, more so than Apple. My understanding is the market for this type of product is just not developed yet, and that developers who invested their time and money into startups to create beautiful, interactive book apps are now going out of business, because there just isn't the demand to sustain them.

    I totally agree that ebooks (in any form) should be engaging and beautiful, and they should command the price of a book. There seems to be a perception from consumers that if it's digital, it's easy to produce and should be very cheap or free. Actually, digital production can be more expensive. Developers and programmers can easily be more expensive than printers. I think this even applies to the longform books, such as novels, which can involve hours of tedious code and content manipulation. As someone who works in the industry, I also feel discouraged at times that my work does not seem to have the value it should.

    I am quite sure I have at least one book on my iPad bookshelf that is an interactive ebook, where I touch the page and it responds with a graphic change or similar feature. And for the record, you are not required to create on Apple's iAuthor program. But I agree the line between ebook and book app is blurry, and I think it would eliminate confusion in the marketplace if the line were eliminated. I think it is a product of two different development processes that can each replicate some of the things the other can do. And perhaps that some developers got into the app field before ebooks started having the functionality they do now.

  • Rafiq Ahmed

    I share your sentiments to some extent, Erika. You are right that app development led the way and ebooks are starting to have more functionality now. The gap closes with ePub3 and the iBookstore to some extent. But Apple's policies on ebooks in iBookstore and book apps, and what those differences should be, also are in flux. This uncertainty coupled with the inverted pricing model for digital products makes it really tough to innovate!

  • Amy Heber

    Does anybody know the answer to this?

    Can you enter the same title as an ibook and an app.  If the versions are different, (e.g. more interactivity in the app version)

  • Amy Heber

    I recently submitted a full version of Is It Night or Day? to the app store, and submitted the Lite version later.  Apple rejected the lite version with something about having to build an in app purchase utility to have a Lite version.  (Something hard to do)So, the only way I can give free samples is to offer the whole app for free. Hope something changes soon

  • Keith

    Well, all of this just points out how hard it is to assign logical pricing in the turbulent uncharted digital sea, where an extra copy costs nothing to make and doesn't even reduce the "stack" of old copies, and people are three or four removes from the real costs of production. As an occasional writer of books I hope the $9.99 pricing holds for another few years, but I'm well aware it's artificially propped up by what's left of the publishing industry & probably doomed; the app store is the Wild West apocalyptic endgame, where prices are predictably dropping to zero, and more reflective of the future.

    That said, Horse Magic is truly wonderful and more like what books SHOULD and COULD be; it should at the very least be able to command the price of a book. It would be great if someone like Apple with the klout to do it could find a way to incentivize for such innovation, instead of de-funding it by pinching off the IV like this. I think people would embrace paying more to get more, if it were presented the right way. But, reality check: Apple have their own rival/substandard publishing platform, so maybe that's like asking Google to be a sport and include Bing as an option on their homepage.

    Bravo to creative innovators unwilling to wait for pricing models to come around!

  • ellen jacob

    While The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr.Lessmore is stunning, books should be able to be just books, without deriving from movies (in this case a short) to be successful. Mr Lessmore also uses animation which is separate from the text. Text and imagery can be integrated as they are in our apps. And, eBooks or iPad apps should be able to command similar prices. 

  • Leigh Haber

    I love what Ellen is doing in this space, and I commend Adam for shining a light on her work, and the work of other great independent book entrepreneurs.  This hybrid book model is one that serves to enhance what a book is and can be, and I'm really excited to see more of what Ellen is up to!

  • Josh D

    The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Lessmore is a highly successful and wonderfully done example of what an "app book" (for a lack of a better word) can do. Their approach (app book, animation short, and printed book) is a system I'm sure we'll see replicated often as more of these new hybrid creative shops begin to open. Using their method, they didn't waste anything. All the hard work they put into graphics and animating the "app book" was reused for the short and the hard work they put into the images was replicated in the printed form. It's an efficient use of resources with the best ROI. Sure it costs more money than someone sitting down with a pad and paper then tacking on some cheap animation at the end, but Apple's price model isn't prohibitive if the story and production values are properly developed.