Indie Writer & The App

Way back in March of 2012, Forbes columnist Alex Knapp wrote an article called “Are Apps the Future of Book Publishing?” in which he voiced marked enthusiasm for ground-breaking eBook apps. 80,000+ hits on said article notwithstanding, there isn’t much being penned these days about throngs of authors diving into the app fray.

One may very well still ask: “will apps indeed take over the ePub/Mobi mainstays of individual eBook titles?” Many an author on my considerable list of contacts wonders if the effort/expense of making their titles into apps is even worth it.

Take, for instance the most popular apps downloaded on the iPhone, free or otherwise. According to several websites I visited (Googling “most downloaded apps 2013”) a few apps that find free eBook titles for you were among the top ten. There are apps that categorize eBooks, read eBooks and promote eBooks, but I had a hard time locating eBooks-turned-into-apps on any general popularity list. I did, however, notice a blurring of the already-thin line between “enhanced” eBook ePubs and eBook apps, a trend that seems to be gaining strength among younger consumers.

A handful of traditional publishers have branched out into creating apps from books, from re-doing classic novels–with manuscript notes and author interviews–to redefining novels entirely by including story-board like images, interactive pages and audio along with the prose. Authors with Amazon already have a kind-of, sort-of app for their titles via the Kindle-for-PC app, Kindle-for-iPad app and others.

As an indie author, I love the idea of making each book title into an app. Such individualization—to me–really helps focus on the feel and tone I envisioned for each book when writing it. Just being able to include a soundtrack, font and old-school decorative printing flourishes makes my mind whirl with ideas, and such is the case for many of my fellow authors. Feedback excitement for branching out into Novel Apps is almost palpable when I send ’round my queries on the subject, but the tangible evidence for such work being done is sadly lacking.

I’d love to get my ebooks into apps!” a fellow writer wrote back. “Tell us how that goes!”

Another wrote: “I’ve heard of companies that can do it for you—for a truckload of casheroo. Let me know if you find a good DIY app maker…”

Truckload of “casheroo” indeed…

I found several dozen companies that can take my eBooks and make them into apps for me at a hefty price. The cheapest reputable company I found was approx $350 per title (extras like interactivity aside) and only if I did ten titles. That’s approximately $4K out of pocket–which might be nothing to a publishing house–but is actually quite a bit of coin for a couple of virtually-unknown indie writers using free-yet-time-consuming services like WordPress & Twitter to market themselves.

That being said, what are some options for cash-poor, plot-rich indie writers that want to leap into app-making?

To start, you’ll need to take stock of your current sales and download data, free and paid alike. A platform I’ve found lately—that does just that—is App Annie. I was able to link my Amazon Kindle storefront and Kindle novels to this platform and get a one-glance graph by title and month to help me determine the most popular novels and the most active weeks. And…. it’s free. (Huzzah!)

Once you’ve soaked in the myriad data you can determine which titles should be apps and which you can feasibly ignore ’til later.

DIY app-making is an industry still in its infancy. Platforms without strings are limited–to say the least–and sparsely populated. It seems—to the average indie writer—that this void in self-service is some kind of publishing house-led conspiracy… but there are good reasons why app-makers charge so much. The work is time-consuming and exacting. Folks that purchase apps want a svelte, professional product thus—as in DIY eBook producing—scathing “bad” formatting reviews appear like great gobs of guano let loose by the Seasgulls of Snark wheeling overhead, cackling to themselves as writers run for cover.

But, hope is not lost. Meandering around the net–looking for an answer to my app problem–I thought I discovered a “bridge” solution, for lack of better word. ePub Bud touts to be a free DIY platform for writers to create ePubs of their work, and convert it into various forms… not unlike Calibre, but–apparently–a little less complicated. The ePubs created with this system should resemble apps and–when formatted “correctly”–behave like apps on tablets. Albeit bare-bones in appearance, and only offering a slender array of fonts, ePub Bud seems to give indie writers a DIY solution to their “do we make an app” problem . Books are compiled in chapters. Drawbacks include a loss of formatting, which must be redone once each chapter is copied and pasted. I was however, able to keep my pretty little divider image at the end of each chapter, something that touched my old-school-publishing heart. Whether due to my being a novice at app creation, or the rudimentary nature of the platform, I was not really able to make anything that was better than the ePubs I generate with Calibre.

After tinkering around with Epub Bud for two weeks—working on one title—I stumbled across a generous loophole in the Adobe InDesign system.

Like most indie writers/designers I’ve often looked wistfully at Adobe products, dreaming of the day I could afford such gorgeously professional software. Someone brilliant at Adobe figured out that–while they make a lot of coin on the few folks that can afford their software–they were missing out on a greater pool of consumers willing to pay a monthly fee for cloud access to the Creative Suite. Students, high school or college, can get fairly cheap access to a lovely modern invention called Creative Cloud, for a mere $19.99 per month. My oldest daughter is a junior in high school and interested in a career she can tele-commute to. I suggested learning InDesign, bought her a Student pass to CC and an account with Lynda.com and promptly hired her to do an eBook layout . Under the periodically curious eye of her mother, she began converting one of our ePubs into an much-better enhanced ePub within in a matter of days, with embedded fonts, anchored images and the correct formatting for a polished eBook. The main issue was the ePub format itself; the chapters flow together,thus—as in Epub Bud—one is required to make separate documents for each chapter. InDesign further requires separate documents for covers, meta data, TOC (Table of Contents), copyright info and image files. I will say that the Lynda video course on using InDesign to make an ePub (while slightly outdated) still proved detailed and extremely helpful.

Apps however are a different animal. The Folio Producer part of Creative Cloud proved challenging, even for the combo of my savvy teen’s mind and my old-school-eBook mentality. After a week of tinkering and watching a library of you-tube how to videos, we got a workable app, with suave user-interface, a tasteful number of interactive photos and charming publishing embellishments, but the layout issues gave us pause. Before apps can be created on this system, they must be “approved” by the Adobe Folio Producer platform. Now, I agree with this , as no company would want inferior/ non-workable apps floating around with their name attached to it. The only frustrating part is the denial message does not tell which document(s) have the issues, thus requiring a hunt & peck type strategy which eats up a considerable amount of time.

But, Time—that capricious ally–is what I have to spend. When said issues are resolved, I will post the completed project links up for perusal.

~ L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

Update: Since posting this article, a flurry of ensuing remarks have shown up in various parts of The Web, more against the idea of eBooks apps than those in the “pro” category. The quips and outright request of readers especially caught my attention, decrying the use or need for eBooks apps. An issue we’d not even considered came up as foremost in the arguments for giving up our app quest: storage space. Limited device storage space makes it a precious commodity, one that app designers would do well to consider. We have and after a series of grave discussion have put our eBook app plans into the “it was a good idea, but…” box on a dusty shelf in the closet.

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