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Open Air published its first interactive book for iPad, Speakeasy Cocktails, in 2011. Fast forward two years, and the New York-based startup has published 11 ebooks. In that time, Open Air has learned some surprising lessons about publishing ebooks on iOS (s AAPL). I asked founder and CEO Jon Feldman for his tips for other publishers.
The App Store sells way more books than the iBookstore
Open Air sells 10 to 30 times more books through the App Store than through the iBookstore. Open Air started out only publishing its titles as iPad apps and selling them in the App Store. Then, when Apple launched its publishing platform iBooks Author, Open Air decided to adapt its titles for the iBookstore and for Kindle (s AMZN).
“We thought being on iBooks and Amazon would be a huge multiplier,” Feldman said. “What’s actually happened is that we’ve seen that the App Store is a massive channel with 10 to 30 times the sales of the iBookstore.” Open Air’s bestselling title, Master Your DSLR Camera, sells thousands of units per week on the App Store, compared to a few hundred on other platforms. (About 60 percent of those sales come from Kindle and 40 percent come from the iBookstore; while Open Air’s titles are available on other platforms like Nook (s BKS), sales there are tiny.) “Even on days when a book is being featured by Apple in the iBookstore and not being featured in the App Store, we see the same ratio,” Feldman said.
Competing against games and utility apps
Master Your DSLR Camera can sell just 10 copies a day and still hit the No. 1 ranking in the Photography category of the iBookstore, Feldman said. On the App Store, by comparison, DSLR Camera sells 150 copies a day in the U.S., “which puts us into the top 7-10 range in the Photo & Video category and 200-300 overall.” (Open Air also sells books in other countries.)
“The challenge is that the App Store rankings are optimized for games and utilities,” Feldman said. “It isn’t a place where one can go and browse for books on wedding or books on parenting. It’s very hard to properly position high-quality content as being high-quality content.”
The App Store “values high quality,” Feldman said, “so built into our products, we encourage readers to write reviews and give a rating. It’s a virtuous cycle. Now, if you type DSLR into the App Store, we’re the No. 1 result.”
What should Apple do better?
Why the discrepancy between the App Store and the iBookstore? Feldman suggested it’s because customers still don’t really understand what the iBookstore is, and don’t do much browsing or discovery there. When Open Air’s customers visit one of the company’s landing pages for a book, when they are given the option of choosing an iBooks version or an app version, “we see much higher conversion rates on that traffic in the App Store,” Feldman said, even though the books are “substantially similar in terms of content” and the user presumably already has an iTunes account that allows him or her to purchase from either the iBookstore or the App Store.
In iBooks Author, “Apple has the most interactive [ebook] format of the book retailers,” Feldman said. “But it hasn’t done enough to educate customers that that exists. iBooks Author is very known in the industry as a format, but customers are still expecting a text file” when they go to the iBookstore. “On the contrary, when they go to the App Store, they are expecting a highly interactive experience.”
That’s not the only factor. The discrepancy might be caused by the fact that iBooks isn’t a default app on iOS devices the way the App Store is, and many users won’t know to download it. In addition, iBooks will be available for desktops when the next version of Mac desktop software, OS X Mavericks, is released this fall. At that point, iBooks might attract more users.
A focus on ebooks as apps, but testing other platforms
Open Air’s success in the App Store “really got us thinking that instead of second-guessing App Store distribution, it should be an area of focus,” Feldman said. But that doesn’t mean that the company isn’t taking advantage of other platforms, like Kindle, as “an area of discovery and testing.”
In fact, Open Air just released its newest title, Investing Made Easy: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Your Money, as a text-only Kindle book. It’s not yet available in the App Store. On Kindle, the ebook is $4.99 (and free in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library), and Feldman describes it as a “minimum viable book.”
“We want to explore how users are finding the content and where they’re struggling or requiring further information,” Feldman said. “The customer tracking is “necessarily low-tech because of Amazon’s format” — Open Air built some links into Investing Made Easy, but it’s also relying on the user comments on the book’s Kindle page. When the company has gathered enough customer data, “we hope to be able to to invest in interactive [features] and videos” and release an app version of Investing Made Easy.
Open Air is also working on Android (s GOOG) app versions of its titles now, and Feldman said he hopes that being in the Amazon Appstore will lead to discovery on Amazon’s website. “The goal is to have interactive experiences for Kindle Fire users, and any Android tablet.”
Advice to publishers: “Carve out a digital-first division”
“I don’t think that publishers think about apps as books,” Feldman said. “I think often when they think about apps, they think about extensions” of an existing brand — “like a What to Expect iPhone app where you can see your baby as the size of a fruit.” But as Open Air has seen, the App Store can be “a great place for full-length narrative nonfiction.”
For publishers to release books like Open Air’s, though, they can’t start with print. “My advice for publishers would be to carve out a digital-first division that would allow them to play in that space without having to think about Barnes & Noble or a shelf or a piece of paper at all,” Feldman said. (In fact, many publishers are experimenting with digital-first fiction lines — but those books are entirely text-based.) Then “take some digital bestsellers and see if there’s a print version that could be made downstream.”
So is Open Air thinking about print at all? In fact, Feldman said, they are. “It’s not something I’m interested in building for first,” he said. “But it could make sense — for our photography book, I think it may.” If Master Your DSLR Camera were released as a print book, Open Air might provide a web login so that users could access the interactive content. “It would certainly widen distribution,” Feldman said, “but at the cost of what is really unique about our books.”