Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ebook or App: which should you write?

Kornacki Where Books Come to LifeHow do you feel about the ebook / book app revolution?

There’s a lot of bandwagon-jumping out there among self-published children’s authors these days.  Everybody, it seems, wants to publish not just a book but an app.  Indeed, there’s a bit of confusion; many people assume that if you can read it on a table, it MUST be an app – they’re confused about where the line is between ebooks and apps.

Though I’d step in and clarify. :-)

(Before I start, I must give credit for this amazing illustration to Christine Kornacki, whose site / blog and more artwork can be found here.)

So here’s where I draw the line.

  • If you sit down and read it, it’s a book.  The main verb here is READ.
  • If you can play with it, it’s an app.  The main verb here is PLAY.

In general (and feel free to challenge me with any exceptions you can think of!)…

  • An ebook is essentially words (and pictures) on the screen, in the same way that books are words and pictures on paper - the screen simply replaces the paper. Ebooks can be read on both ereaders and tablets (including ipads).
  • An app, on the other hand, although it can be based on an ebook, is far more interactive and usually includes games, sound, etc. These can only be read on tablets; most only on the ipad.

Many authors think they should automatically jump into whatever is newest and best, and I’ve seen a few people on work-for-hire sites offering to create interactive apps cheaply. 

There is also the woeful idea, in the minds of some lazy and/or unscrupulous writers, that they can take a less-than-wonderful book idea and conceal its flaws by turning it into an app instead.  Perhaps they can cover up the lack of plot or shallow characters with glitz and interactivity.  Caution:  not so fast, suckas! 

Here’s why I think you should steer clear of apps.  That’s right… I’ll say it again in bold:

If you’re a writer, steer clear of apps.

If you see yourself as an writer, with a burning need to create a children’s book, then do it:  write your book.  The verb here is WRITE.  You will basically go it alone, writing your book and either illustrating it yourself, submitting it to a publisher, or finding an artist on your own.  The core of the process is the writing and the final product will depend mainly on the quality of the writing.

You have all you need, right this minute, to create the best kids’ book in the world.

If, on the other hand, your idea is more about an an interactive fantasy world, you can think about creating an app.  Essentially, you will have to create characters, a whole bunch of interactive scenarios (multiple plotlines), and then bring them to life.  I’ve seen what it takes to create a high-quality videogame, and chances are, you don’t have the technical know-how to do it alone.  This is going to cost a bunch of money, and because other people will be involved, the quality will depend not just on your idea (which might be great) but on the others who bring it to life for you.

You do NOT have all you need to create the best kids’ app in the world.

Chances are, you can’t – create the best app, that is.  The market is flooded with cheap and flashy educational things for computers and tablets of all kinds.  Any idea you have has probably already been done better a thousand times.  If it’s what you really want to do, don’t let me discourage you, but if you believe your core talent is WRITING, then you’d better stick to WRITING.

With ebooks, on the other hand, there’s no barrier to entry.  You determine the quality of the final product by your own hard work.

ChildrenAccording to this infographic (click for original), apps are “ideal” for:  non-serial storytelling experiences (ie NOT books), well-known brands or characters (ie probably NOT your kids’ book) and significant marketing resources (ie probably NOT your budget).

Conversely, ebooks are ideal for:  serial reading experiences (ie books), the majority of titles (ie YOUR books), and lower barriers to monetization (ie it costs you less money).

What we “read” in our family.

Actually, no quotation marks are necessary.  In our family, we READ.  These days, since we live in a place where English-language books are rare and expensive, ebooks essentially are our future, and both kids are slowly coming around. 

My kids mainly use our ereader and tablets for actual reading - ie they sit quietly for hours turning pages and enjoying more-or-less traditional tales.  It took longer for our daughter, by the way, and she still can’t read for hours on the Kobo like she can with a print book.  Kids know the truth:  no matter how we may pretend, reading on a screen IS intrinsically a different experience from reading on a piece of paper.

B0058NUL6WThe main ereader the kids have access to (the grownups each have a tablet) is a Kobo Touch, in the alluring lilac quilted colour you see here.  This device is very limited… technically, it can access the Internet and it has a built-in Sudoku game, but these features are very awkward to use.  Essentially, what it does is display books on the screen.  It does a decent job of it and (with no backlight and a low-energy paper-white screen) has an incredible battery life.  It’s a couple of years old now, but there’s no reason it can’t last a good long time.

When it comes to apps, we’re limited in the kind and quantity we can enjoy, even on the Parental Tablets, because we don’t have an ipad, but I like to think that even if we did have one, I’m the type of parent who’d mainly steer her kids towards books, not apps.  I’ve seen a little of what’s out there, and (perhaps because I’m coming from a background of intense geekery in the videogame arena), I’m not terribly impressed.

I’m not dissing the potential of apps based on books!

Lest you think I’m anti-app… I’m not, believe me.  I see a well-done kids’ book app as the modern equivalent of the pop-up book, offering delightful surprises on every “page.”  I certainly don’t believe they mean the end of books, as many prophets of doom would have you believe.

(I would, however, treat apps as “screen time” instead of just “reading time” and limit kids’ access accordingly, but that’s a topic for another post.)

On the other hand, one big drawback I haven’t mentioned of apps, as opposed to ebooks, is that ebooks are generally offered in a universal format.  Apps are restricted to one device or platform, usually (these days) ipad or android.  That’s worth repeating, while I’m tossing out the bold fonts so liberally here:

Ebooks are universal; apps are single-platform.

A lot of writers don’t understand this, simply because they’re not coming at it from a technical standpoint.  Someone promises them an app, they test out the finished app and it’s good, so they go with it.  They don’t realize that they’ve just cut off some huge percentage of their potential readership.

(Some people pushing book apps may tell you that there are many confusing file formats in the ebook world, but most are similar enough to convert easily from one format / platform to another, unlike apps, which don’t port easily at all.)

Of course, if your book is a wild success, you can always think about turning it into an app later on.  If it’s picked up by a publisher, or if you already have a publisher and the book becomes successful, they may even find a way to do it for you, leveraging their resources to create an app that actually stands out.

Want to read more about the difference between ebooks and apps?

Are you planning to put out a book app?  Were you planning to but have decided against it?  Are you on the bandwagon or not quite sold on the idea?


  1. Thank you so much for this clarification. I don't know any writers doing an app, but saw something about it on social media. I was not familiar with book apps, but after reading your article I know that is NOT what I want to do. I have plans to print by book and put it up as an ebook. I enjoy your website and will continue to follow you. Thanks again for the great advice.

    1. There is indeed so much buzz about apps these days. If you get to know me, you'll know I'm not a "bandwagon" kind of person. Thanks for stopping by, Carla!


As always, I love to hear from you.