Q&A with Developer Who Turns Ebooks into iPhone Applications

Ebook files and e-reader software usually exist as separate entities, but Tom Peck of AppEngines merged the two to create individual ebook applications for the iPhone App Store. In the following Q&A, Peck discusses his ebook software development process, consumer response to his apps, and future ebook projects.

Why did you opt to bundle individual ebooks as software applications rather than create a single e-reader program?

I have been reading ebooks (mostly from eReader.com) for many years. I wanted to make a book reader program for the iPhone that was as simple to use as possible. I feel that the way existing ebook solutions work is too complex for many users: they have to download the ebook software, then go to a separate Web site and create an account, enter credit card data, and then find and purchase content.

The iPhone App Store sales and distribution process makes it simpler and more convenient to have an ebook reader as part of an ebook itself. Developers can only distribute applications through the App Store; there is no way to distribute data files like ebooks. Therefore, it made sense to me that each book had to be a complete application.

Although this is more convenient for App Store customers to get a book, the process of making each book into an app takes more time for development. Each book becomes its own Xcode project, requires testing, and requires time to load all of the data (descriptions, screen shots, application file) to the App Store. I have developed tools and techniques that automate as much as possible, but each book takes several hours to complete, not counting the many hours spent writing the ebook reader itself.

Have you used any of the e-reader applications available through the App Store (e.g. Stanza, eReader, etc.)? If so, how do these compare to your own apps?

I have used the eReader software. I am a long-time eReader customer, having purchased dozens of their books and read them on my Treo. I have not used Stanza.

The biggest difference is that those products let the user download content from the Internet. Some let users create their own content and download it to the iPhone, which is nice. My reader is purely a book reader.

The eReader app supports a bookshelf list, showing all the ebooks. With my apps, each ebook appears as its own icon on the home screen.

My current reader program compares nicely to eReader. At the moment, I do not support landscape mode, which eReader does. Both offer text search and table of contents. I admit that the search function in my first batch of books was not very usable; newer books have a much better implementation, even better than eReader’s. Both programs support different font sizes, images embedded within the text, layout options such as indenting and centering, and font styles.

One feature my reader has is instant repagination when the user changes font size. Using my reader, the user can increase or decrease font size using the “pinch” gesture, similar to zooming in and out of photos, and the results are immediate. I spent a lot of time to make this very, very fast. Changing the font size in eReader requires the program to repaginate in the background, a process that can take over 30 seconds for the entire book.

How many ebooks have you made available through the App Store?

Currently, about 140. More are in the pipeline; all newer, copyrighted works from other publishers and authors.

What has the response been like?

Response has been very good. My current download numbers for all books (not counting several free books) is almost 1,000 books a day. The numbers per book vary day by day, with some books having as many as 50 downloads a day. Most of the public domain titles have counts around five per day.

Most encouraging are that the newer works are selling just as well as the classic stuff. iPulp, a publisher of science-fiction and adventure short stories for young adults, has four works in the store right now with six more in review. These are priced at $0.99 and $1.99 and have sales of about 10 per day. The two Max Quick novels sell for $5.99 each. Currently they are selling about 13 copies per day and the numbers are increasing (they’ve been in the store for less than two weeks).

Are you selling ebooks or ebook applications through other platforms?

Right now, I am only working with the App Store. I am watching to see what other cell phone vendors and carriers do. As some of your blog postings have noted, the success of the App Store is making other carriers look at copying Apple.

I have spent time with Google’s Android platform and have a version of the ebook software that runs on Android.

How much of your ebook content comes from Project Gutenberg?

My initial group of books, about 110, were all from Project Gutenberg. I constantly get requests from customers to add new books, so I have added more Project Gutenberg stuff. Now that I am working with publishers and authors to produce their works as ebooks, I will focus primarily on new works.

Can you list some of these publishers/authors? How did your relationships with these publishers and authors come together?

In the store now are a book on computer security by Neal Puff and a memoir by Teresa Wright. All relationships came about because of my presence in the App Store with the initial set of ebooks. I’ve been contacted by small publishers and individual authors to turn their works into ebooks for the iPhone. I work with them to get the content in an appropriate format, get the various graphic elements (cover art, icons, etc.), produce the ebook app, have them review the app, and put the app into the App Store.

Do publishers pay you a flat fee to prep App Store titles or is it a revenue share?

Revenue share.

Did you anticipate this type of publisher response?

I was a bit surprised at how quickly publishers contacted me. I thought I would have to market to them.

Are there other content sources or types you’d like to incorporate?

One publisher I am working with offers textbooks. That would be an interesting type of content. A textbook could take advantage of the ebook being a standalone app, offering more interactive content for quizzes that would appear within the book.

Some App Store reviewers complain that you’re making money off of public domain content. How do you address these complaints?

The Project Gutenberg license clearly allows people to sell works based on the Gutenberg files. I am following the license, and I do send 20 percent of the revenue earned to the Project Gutenberg Foundation. Mobipocket, eReader and Amazon Kindle all sell public domain works for much more than $0.99.

Each book requires a lot of manual work. The Project Gutenberg text files are a good starting point, but I have to edit each one to add information about chapter starts, poems, songs, emphasized text, etc. Many files have extra data like page numbers that have to be cleaned up. I tried to automate this part, but there is so much variety in the files that only hand editing can get the correct results.

Since your ebooks are applications, and iPhone apps are stored on the device’s docking screens, is there a concern about clutter? Do you have any organization tips for people who buy multiple ebook apps?

I would say that this is a general problem with the iPhone Home Screen user interface. iPhone blog sites describe users with 100 apps or more on their devices, and finding a specific app can become a problem.

iTunes does allow users to selectively install apps on individual devices. This is probably the best way to deal with lots of apps: for users to only install the apps they need, and keep the rest on their desktop machine. Personally, I tend to read about two books at a time, then I remove them from the device when finished.

What near-term features or products are you planning?

I am working on a new version of the reader software that adds many new features: bookmarks, notes, landscape mode, etc. Once completed, I will re-release all existing books with the new features. Customers will get the updates for free.

I also am working on several non-ebook iPhone apps.

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