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Anatomy of an ebook app

Lessons learned while building a top 20 ebook for the iPad.

RTAR.pngA week ago, we received a pleasant surprise. Apple had featured our ebook, “Rabbit and Turtle’s Amazing Race” in the iTunes App Store. The publicity came with an immediate 3-5X pop in paid downloads of our book, pushing it to the #12 Top Grossing Book for iPad.

“Rabbit and Turtle’s Amazing Race” is a children’s rhyming book with illustrations, quirky interactions and sound. It’s “pop-up book meets the iPad.” That’s the design goal, at least.

I would love to tell you that building a book was a straight path from concept to storyboard to launch and inevitable success. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated.

In the paragraphs ahead, I will try to give you a sense of how we built our book, the mistakes we made, the discoveries, course corrections, and how it all worked out for us. If I miss something integral to you, please follow up in the comments.

Fragmentation lives: Building for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad

At my company, Unicorn Labs, we have now built 13 apps for Apple’s iOS Platform. Eight of them are optimized for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Five are built for iPad.

From a technical perspective, I can say that developing for the platform is not a simple matter of write once, run everywhere.

That is not to say that the experience building iOS Apps and plugging into the iTunes App Store has been unfavorable. Quite the opposite. I am very proud of the productivity that we have realized, the global, automated reach and distribution that we have been afforded, and the goodness of frictionless billing/payment.

But, I would be less than intellectually honest, and strategically dumb, if I failed to underline that that matrix that I talked about here is upon us.

One small example of this is that the newest version of the platform is iOS 4.x. The new OS gives you some wonderful capabilities, such as video capture services, multi-tasking and of course, taking advantage of functionality like Retina display on iPhone 4 and the new camera on Gen 3 iPod touch. Simply put, it is a case of a really solid system just getting better. Don’t even get me started on how experientially enhancing iOS 4.2 is on iPad.

However, the point is this: once you call certain functions or use certain libraries that iOS 4 gives you access to, you pretty much no longer will run on iOS 3.x devices.

While this issue will be resolved later this month when Apple rolls out it’s unification release for iOS across all devices (the aforementioned 4.2), the other truth is there’s now a feature matrix that one can access as a developer to varying degrees, such as camera, telephony, video capture, audio, and photos.

Deciding which of these functions to use, abstract or ignore exposes you (as a developer) to all sorts of reach, performance and support complexity challenges and tradeoffs.

Moreover, in building our family of apps, we have leveraged two different development platforms that are complementary to Cocoa Touch. They are Ansca’s Corona and the Cocos2d middleware. Even here, actions like plugging into Facebook and interfacing with native Cocoa Touch functions are slightly different in each of these realms.

Android devotees, I hear you snickering. Before you do so, know that these complexities are materially worse in the Android world, where not only do you have to contend with these same challenges across far more device types, but also the meta-platform “forking” decisions of different handset makers and carriers.

Nothing is free, but the cost is relative to not hopping aboard the greatest rocket ship ride since the advent of the web, and the rise of the PC before that. The apps lifestyle — aka “There’s an app for that” — is the real deal. The mobile age is upon us.

What exactly is an ebook, anyway?

I have written in the past about where I think ebooks are headed (“Rebooting the book“), but the essence is this.

The advent of sound in motion pictures transformed not only how films were made, but what they were and the economics behind same. This is the rapidly approaching future for the book business and print media in general.

The current state of the ebook business is nominally better than a PDF stuffed into a bookish-sized reader. Think: Amazon’s Kindle. It’s mostly text, devoid of sound and/or interaction.

By contrast, in iOS an ebook is an app, and there are few limits to what an app can do. Touch, interact, be read to, savor high-definition art and stereophonic ambient sounds and special effects.

“Rabbit and Turtle’s Amazing Race” was built in Corona, and we’re happy with the decision. Our next book, scheduled for release in time for Christmas, is also built using Corona. In fact, the Play-Doh-like qualities of Corona enabled us to almost simultaneously come out with both full (paid) and lite (free) versions of the book on both the iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch.

Finally, a non-trivial benefit of Corona is the fact that porting to Google’s Android is straight-forward, closer to a compile option than a re-architecting.

As noted earlier, we looked conceptually to the pop-up books from our youth for inspiration in cobbling together a book that has a solid story (a re-envisioning of the “Tortoise and Hare” fable) but is also packed with lots of cool sounds and visual interactions.

Now that I built it, will they come?

Here’s the rub. The App Store model is hugely competitive. It’s got around 300,000 apps, and the ease of development and distribution means that clone versions of your app are coming.

Worse, pick the wrong category, and your chances of being discovered by your target audience get lower.

For example, the Games and Entertainment categories are fiercely competitive. Choose Photo instead. Many iPhone categories are seemingly saturated. Their iPad counterparts are in an earlier stage in the product innovation lifecycle, albeit targeting to a much smaller base than the combined base of iPhones and iPod touches.

So how do we approach this from a go-to-market perspective? For one, we committed to iterating the book. Over a few different releases, we added new features, fixed bugs, and generally improved the product based upon user feedback and proactively monitoring usage data.

This turns updates into pseudo marketing events. And who doesn’t like a solution provider that is committed to making their products better for its users?

The idea of marketing events brings to mind the indelible truth that with apps, the initial launch date is such a significant milestone that there’s a tendency to underplay events like product updates and market validation news. Don’t fall for that trap.

Similarly, we baked social sharing into all of our products. We live the medium by Facebooking, blogging, micro-posting, and tweeting. It’s the ultimate drip marketing methodology.

We also assembled a media list and reached out to the folks that we hope will be advocates for our products. We customized, tweaked and tested messages and media kits. Obviously, the product has to deliver.

Finally, We approach app building like a shark that has to keep moving to keep alive. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

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  • Rich R

    You can get more details concerning the relative sizes of the app categories by going to http://www.appexplorer.com/ and clicking ‘App Stats’ (near the search box).

  • http://www.kirkusreviews.com Laura Jenkins

    Very interesting take on it all. Thanks for the inside look. By the way, I’ve been trying to reach someone at Unicorn Labs for about 3 weeks and haven’t gotten a response. We’re doing a year-end “Best Children’s Books for iPad 2010″ and wanted to include your app in our review. You can see a similar piece here: http://tinyurl.com/35dgxox. Please email me asap if you are interested in submitting your app for review; the deadline was 3 days ago.

  • http://sparkplug9.com John Koetsier

    Great, great story – thanks for sharing.

    I’m building a very similar app right now that we’re about a month or two away from releasing: The Wonderful Colorful House.

    http://wonderfulcolorful.com/

    Thanks for sharing this – it helps us make some decisions as we come down to crunch time.

  • http://www.twitter.com/brij Brij Singh

    Hi Mark – Couldn’t agree more with you. Fact that you mentioned cocos2d in a blog post about ebook says it all. We are firmly in the game/animation space.

    Hard part is to cover the ground between budget(ebook app) and expectation (animated/game-like app). We did handful of books (http://fliplog.com) and just started doing couple of them using game and physics APIs. Will definitely check out Corona. Looks very useful.

    Brij

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com Mark Sigal

    @Laura, thanks for the note, and that’s strange that we missed as I see every web form outreach we receive. Alas, I will check out your list, and shoot you a submission.

    @John, good luck on the release. Can’t wait to see.

    @Brij, you know the axiom that given unlimited time, money and people you can (theoretically) do anything, but at best you only have two of those three, and often you have only one of them. Plus, ebooks is fairly nascent so the predicting dollars over time is an iterative process in it’s own right. That stated, a TON of room for innovation in this exciting field. Cheers, Mark

  • http://www.pariuri24.com pariuri

    I have an ebook but i must say that after a while i started to not use it because i realized that a classic book is more atractive