The future of books on the iPad: AppBooks vs iBooks

Posted on March 12th, by Liam in Blog, iPad. 1 Comment

As today was the first day for iPad pre-orders in the US and there is quite a buzz about it, I thought it timely to make my first blog post and share some thoughts on iPad books.

A book is a book is a book

Not anymore!

A few days ago Mobclix data revealed there were some 27,000 AppBooks (Book Applications) on the iTunes App Store. Significantly, they now outnumber games as the largest App category.

Here is a pic from their website:

These are iPhone Apps. What will happen when the iPad releases?

We will see even more AppBooks. Or will we?

AppBooks and the iBookstore

There has been some discussion in the last few days about the possibility of Apple removing some AppBooks once the iPad and iBookstore releases. This began with Jason Kincaid’s TechCrunch post ‘Will books be the next to go in Apple’s App Store purge?’. The concern is largely based on the recent (somewhat unanticipated) removal of the majority of ‘sexy’ apps from the store.

Why would Apple do this?

Besides the obvious problem of store clutter, Apple will want to encourage users to frequent the iBookstore. They will also want to encourage publishers to join the iBookstore instead of looking for AppBook solutions. However, with so many Appbooks on the store already, it is hard to see Apple removing them. While there was been a mixed response to the removal of the ‘sexy’ apps, it’s hard to see how there would be much customer support for the removal of AppBooks, even the most basic eReader versions. However, Kincaid also reported on TechCrunch about a crack down on ‘cookie cutter’ applications – multiple versions of apps built on a single template. Given Apple’s unpredictability when it comes to managing the iTunes store, it is hard to predict how this will play out.

What are iBooks anyway?

iBooks purchased in the iBookstore on the iBooks app will resemble books. Everything I’ve seen suggests that Apple will encourage this (at least in the beginning). Matt Gemmell made a post about this on his Blog a few days ago referring to the ‘psychology of touch’ and the iBookstore, the ‘predilection towards realness on the iPad’, and the mimicking of real objects like a bookshelf to evoke familiar and pleasant memories of real life experiences. If you haven’t read it, it’s a great post about iPad App design.

Why have Apple done this? While I think it has to do with making users feel more comfortable with reading iBooks, it also has a lot to do with encouraging publishers to make the transition to embracing digital versions of their books.

The problem for Publishers

Publishers like books. Many of the people who work at publishing companies are passionate about books. They love the look and feel and smell of them; the way the pages sound as you turn them. They judge a book not only by its cover (or content), but also it’s weight, dimensions, paper quality, printing and importantly – it’s unique design.

Each printed version of a book is unique.

There is also the possibility that within a single print run of a book, two copies might be slightly different to each other. Even though it’s made by a machine, there is something appealing about this. Printed books can also be signed by authors, gifted to friends, have multiple editions and be sold and displayed in a variety of shop windows. There is also the ability to borrow them from a library, be upset (or pleasantly surprised) by another reader’s notes in a book’s margins, and they can be used to fill shelves that decorate a room.

It’s hard to let go of printed books.

In comparison, a digital version of a book is like every other digital book. It is a less personal experience to read one. There is no ‘book’, just a digital reproduction of text and pictures. My copy on my iPad will be exactly like your copy on your iPad. Now I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for traditional printed books. But then, it’s been a while since I bought one.

My most recent purchase was Seth Godin’s ‘Linchpin’. I actually wanted to buy a printed copy of this book, but it wasn’t available in Australia yet. As I was walking out of the book shop, I searched the Kindle online store and found it, purchased it and downloaded it onto my iPhone. Despite the difficulty I have with reading it on the iPhone, I’m not going to buy a printed copy of this book.

But what if I wanted to buy a children’s book that was actually available in the book shop? Would I first check to see if there was an iPhone or iPad version first, expecting perhaps if there was it might have some cool interactive features? I think this expectation presents a potential problem for publishers.

Besides some premium and flagship titles, the majority of digital books will have to fit into a template in order to justify the cost of putting out niche titles into the digital arena to sell in the long tail of the internet. It’s hard to imagine Penguin giving the full treatment of their current iPad examples to all their titles. It’s just not economical.

That said, it’s going to be interesting. I hope the iBookstore ePub format allows for a more interesting and entertaining experience for the user than simply kindle books in colour. Of course, we’re expecting features like contextual pop-up UI for menus and the ability to make notes. But it’s hard to know what the average iBook will be like until we see more titles.

In the meantime, AppBooks seem so much better. Or are they just different?

AppBooks: what do users want in a digital ‘book’

There is a tendency for ‘rich media’ books on the iPhone to be huge in size. Do I want to watch lots of videos when I’m buying a book? Do I need them to be embedded in the app or as I likely only access this content once (if at all), would I prefer them to be accessed via an external web link if it meant the app download wasn’t nearly 1GB?

Take Bunny Munro by Nick Cave for iPhone:

That’s 894mb

Or if you want to download the free (smaller 78mb) sample version, click here.

Now take into account the iPad’s larger screen size. Everything is bigger, including file sizes. We’re going to want to see those photos and videos in full screen. You couldn’t get many of these kind of AppBooks on a 16GB iPad.

It is for this reason, that I think a lot of AppBooks will link to online content. But, they will still have the content. It will just only be accessible with an internet connection. Why? The extra content and features help to market the AppBook. And if it’s possible, we (authors, publishers, developers) want to put it in… which reminds me of how hard Apple reps have hammered resisting ‘feature creep’ to developers.

Maybe I just want a book on my iPad so I can read it?

That sounds like an iBook.

But when I’m buying Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, I’m not really buying a book. I know that. I didn’t want to just buy the book. I want the videos and all the bells and whistles. But if I’m buying Seth Godin’s book, do I want a video interview with the author as well? That could be cool, but I really just want to read the book. Give me a link to his website and I can go there and watch it. Or I’m pretty sure I can find something on google. However, I can see ‘rich media’ AppBooks aimed at a younger audience. Many of whom might want to use their iPod touches and wi-fi iPads on the school bus and share the content with their friends.

This is just one reason why I think we will see more and more AppBooks on the iPad. They provide a user experience beyond the current ePub standard. They will push the boundaries of what we consider ‘books’, to be surprising, unique and convenient portals of information about a particular topic. Perhaps the app is based on a book, but the actual experience is more like going to a website where you can read text, watch videos, listen to music, perhaps even play games and interact with a community of other interested users… all centred around the theme/idea/content of the App (book) and reliant upon internet connectivity.

The problem with AppBooks

Unless it’s Stanza or one of the other generic eReader apps, individual AppBooks lack a consistency of UI and features. When I read my second book in iBooks, I will be familiar with the UI and able to focus on the content. While developers follow Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines to produce AppBooks, there is a degree of flexibility with the choices they can make about their UI. I know that when I’m faced with the decision between accessing content via a familiar interface or something different (even if it is ‘better’ or has more features) I’ll usually choose the familiar because it’s the information or the content that I am most interested in.

The other issue is one which Kincaid pointed out in his TechCrunch article – ‘the issue of App Store clutter’. He provides the example of 25 different versions of ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, all with different prices and UI.

The future of AppBooks is unclear. While the absence of the iBookstore in all ITunes stores outside the US may delay any changes by Apple, I expect there to be some regulation of AppBooks in the not too distant future.

The problem with iBooks (or is that just reading books on the iPad?)

Let’s face it, some of us think books are boring now. We just want to look at the pictures. And we’re a bit disappointed when they don’t move. And anyone who has ever tried to read a book in a desktop browser will tell you how easy it is to convince yourself to tab over and check your email or Facebook. I think there is a similar issue for eReader devices like the iPad. I know even if I buy the more standard iBook version of a book I want to read, there will still be the temptation to hit that black button and start up the latest Firemint game. Would a more engaging AppBook version of the same book keep me interested?


The problem for developers

As an Australian developer without access to the iBookstore (or more information about the ePub formats that will be used), what choice is there but to make AppBooks? It’s frustrating to have so little information about the iBookstore while feeling uncertain about the viability of ‘iBookstore-like’ AppBooks in the future. Publishers have lots of questions and developers don’t have many consistent and reliable answers for them. Independent developers are trying to predict the future and put the pieces together.

It remains to be seen whether Apple will open up the iBookstore for small publishers and self-published authors, let alone developers. At this stage, all we can do is apply for the iBookstore program and continue to produce AppBooks.

Other thoughts

I dread the advertising that we are potentially going to get on some AppBooks in the future. Forget about banner ads, how about auto-playing video ads while you’re trying to read? If you’ve tried to watch a news story or television program online lately, you’ve probably realised we’re already in training to accept them.

Personally, when I want to actually read a book, I don’t want to watch a video or engage with much more than the text. I’d appreciate a link to a website if I get bored or am looking for more. I will go there and watch the videos if I want to. But then I don’t really want to read every book. Sometimes i just want to look at the pictures… Maybe I don’t know what I want in a book anymore?

What do you want?

These are just some of my thoughts. I would love to hear your AppBook vs iBook predictions. Please feel free share them in the comments below.

One response to “The future of books on the iPad: AppBooks vs iBooks”

  1. Gareth Cuddy says:

    Great post Liam.
    I have been struggling with these questions for a while now. Our readers want to read. Thats simple. B/W with no bells and whistles. I would personally be the same and I think eBooks will stay this way for a while. Sure, you will get niches/verticals such as fitness, cooking, travel that will benefit greatly from enhancements, but these are in the minority.
    In my opinion and those of my publisher clients, stand-alone apps do not justify teh expense with a very poor roi.

Latest Posts

App and eBook Mac apps

A couple of people have asked me what Mac software I use for app and eBook development. I thought I’d make a list.

Most of...

WYDAC Governance Video

Last year I made this community film with David Slowo and video trainees from PAW Media & Communications.

The brief was to explore the role...

The Very Hungry Bum

The Very Hungry Bum, written and illustrated by Claudia Rowe, narrated by John Flaus.

Like a very famous caterpillar, The Very Hungry Bum consumes quite a lot. ...