How to get in to the mobile app game without losing your shirt

Andy Roberts


Ustwo’s Nursery Rhymes iPad app by most measures is a success. An innovative interactive ebook, by mid-June after less than four months it had shifted over 37,000 copies, was subject to rave reviews and benefited from being promoted several times by Apple itself. Most developers would be extremely pleased. The only downside: £60,000 spent, £24,000 in income; it is still a long way off from breaking even.

There’s little doubt that their app will eventually make a decent profit. Ustwo was remaining fairly philosophical about the situation: “Innovate now, don’t think this is about making money now. It’s about pushing the medium forward. Have a lot of fun and you’ll benefit in the future.” A view I highly applaud, but a view which many publishers will understandably be weary of. There’s no shortage of avenues where money can be spent with no return! But mobile apps need not be one of them.

I’ve worked on a successful series of apps for an educational publisher. Below are my views about how publishers can get into the right frame of mind to approach the app market and avoid common pitfalls.


Avoid spending £60,000

That’s not to say that you can’t invest large sums and reap large rewards. But there are only so many apps at any one time which can rake in millions and there are many factors which lead to its success. The childrens’ interactive book app genre is an example where cost of entry is high. They are beautifully crafted apps with a lot of elaborate artwork, animation, music, narration, custom games, etc. Unfortunately if this is your segment then there’s little alternative to significant investment. However, it’s just one segment and the vast majority of apps can be produced for significantly less.

Try to build a platform which serves as a foundation for a series of similar apps, as opposed to a set of unrelated apps. A software platform is shared amongst multiple apps whereby each app uses the same source code yet bundles its own content and artwork. The development burden is shared and the effective cost per app shrinks rapidly.


Finding the right developer is critical.

Identifying those with experience in your particular field should pay dividends in terms of shorter development time and harmonious relations. Of course, I would say this, but don’t discount freelance developers. Their costs are relatively low (no overheads for swish Soho or Whitechapel offices), and if local, they have the advantage that they can often be based on site for the duration of a project and integrate themselves in your team.

Explore alternative revenue models in order to reduce costs. It’s not uncommon for developers to be willing to opt for a revenue share model in lieu of up-front payment. Of course, it also means reducing your potential profits too. For example, a 50/50 publisher-developer share – after Apple takes its cut – results in only 35% of revenue going to the publisher. It depends on the app and the developer, but it’s an option for those who have a good concept but limited means.


It’s not a book

Let me start by saying there’s nothing wrong with ebooks.  They’re quick and cost-effective for publishers to produce; customers enjoy them and there’s plenty of demand. For a great deal of content in fact, the obvious digital solution is ebooks.

If you want to take content a step further into something slightly richer and interactive, then you needs to stop thinking in terms of books and pages. For example, if you wish to commission a mobile app and a key requirement is a fancy, 3D, page-turning effect, then I’d argue that you’re missing the point. It won’t necessarily do your app any harm, but it may do so to your bottom-line.

Mobile apps are different: they constrained in capacity, connectivity and dimension. The app has to work within these limitations. Content that may have worked well on websites or CDROMs are not automatically applicable. Similarly with navigation models and layout. Everything ought to be thought out from scratch to ensure the concept and the content can deliver a viable user-experience.


Keep it simple

I’m a fan of the less-is-more philosophy, particularly in the mobile domain because ergonomics is such an important factor, and therefore simplicity is key. Sometimes it takes real ingenuity to simplify something, but often it’s simply a case of being focussed on a primary goal. An app that does one thing and does it well will not be disliked by the market. An app with every possible gimmick you can throw at it will be cumbersome and confusing. If your app cannot be distilled into a handful of core features then perhaps it’s not appropriate to the mobile domain.

Apple is obsessed by user-interfaces and usability. Its mobile platform is attractive and intuitive for users. Apple even produces their own Human Interface Guidelines and expects developers to follow their advice. Stray too far and your app may be rejected. My advice is to maintain fidelity with the target mobile platform because users will immediately be familiar with how your app works. But the other reason is that it’s far harder – and therefore costlier – to deviate from the norm.


If you can’t promote it, don’t build it

Perhaps a little harsh, but the app market place is now a crowded place, competition is fierce and getting noticed has never been more critical. Publishers generally have a means to communicate with their customers via a website and other social media outlets. It goes without saying that they need to be maximised. Do not forget to factor in the promotion in to budgets and schedules. It doesn’t have to be massive, but a one-minute demonstration on YouTube; review copies to influential bloggers; a short email campaign, etc. Something to kick start the launch because once your app become popular it tends to get featured more in the various charts.


The price is right

Like the nostalgic page-turning effect, there’s another clue as to whether you’re ready to embrace the app world. If the phrase “avoid cannibalising book sales” (or words to that effect) comes up in any discussion regarding app commissioning and/or pricing then probably best to stop and save yourself the bother of app development. I’d argue you’re not in the right frame of mind, and not determined to see apps flourish to their true potential.

There’s no avoiding the perception from the buying public at large that digital content is somehow significantly cheaper than a physical equivalent. We’ve seen that with music and ebooks to a large extent. Yet people are willing to pay good money for good apps. It’s not like the internet where’s there’s almost a default expectation for everything to the free.

The average app may cost less than £2 but that doesn’t mean you have to automatically start low. My advice is to have confidence in your content and don’t be scared of pricing high if it reflects its true value. You can always adjust lower if you over-estimate, but it’s very difficult to increase if you under-estimate. Publishers should leverage their brand and reputation to justify why their apps are greater than £0.99p.

Varying price can have a dramatic effect, and a good strategy is to have regular sales at different price points and analyse the overall profitability at each price point versus the original price. Selling at a lower price may well be more attractive to more potential customers, but it doesn’t translate necessarily that those potential customers will find your app.



The truth is that there are some really compelling apps that have vast budgets, novel interfaces, complex functionality and bargain prices, yet have achieved great success. There is no formula here. What I’m endorsing is a way for publishers to test the waters in a cautiously-optimistic way.  To find out what works and what doesn’t, before betting the house on a new, all-singing-all-dancing killer app.

The consequences of misjudging this market could easily leave publishers disillusioned and cautious of investing further in the mobile space. That would be a great pity since the opportunities are huge, and it’s only really just beginning. As Ustwo wisely suggested, it’s important for publishers to push forward this digital transition to reap the rewards of the future.

Andrew Roberts in an independent digital & educational publishing consultant and developer, with a particular focus on mobile and online applications. Go to for more information.
Andrew’s latest app, the Longman Activator Thesaurus for iPhone & iPad, has just been released on the App Store.

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