This is a story about an energetic author who deserves an award for truly living by the adage, “There Are No Rules.” In fact, I shall start an honorable group, “There Are No Rules Crown Club,” for people who live up to this moniker, starting with Al Katkowsky.
Al e-mailed me over the summer and suggested that he might be a valuable speaker at our annual conference in NYC. I agreed, and he spoke about his success in transforming his book, Question of the Day (self-published), into an iPhone App that now ranks as one of the Top 25 book apps and has been downloaded more than 80,000 times.
I asked him to answer some questions that would give you an idea of how you can accomplish something like this too. You might also want to read this other article he penned for Teleread.
So at first you were initially skeptical if turning your book into an iPhone app was a good use of your time and energy. But ultimately you decided to go for it. What did that process look like, e.g., how long did it take, what resources did you need, and how much did it cost?
The process of building the first version of the App occurred over a six-week period. This was with Daniel, who was simultaneously working a 60-plus hour work week, and had previously committed to other outside work. It needn’t take that long. The work came in between $500 and $1,000 total, but there is more work to be done [for another version].
For authors, I would say keep in mind that the improvements I am about to take on fall further and further away from the presentation of a book, and don’t necessarily reflect the amount of work that any author needs to take on. However, your App must “do tricks.” This is iPhone, not Kindle—you’re competing with Tetris for attention. That’s why I wisely got into the Books category [for iPhone apps], and left Entertainment!
What are some practical steps that an author can take to launch their book as a successful iPhone App?
We’ve been studying this for a long time, listening to experts in the field and watching what authors and publishers are bold enough to do, and what they are afraid to do. I recommend putting out two thirds of your content for free, perhaps more.
The publishing world is currently focused on how to move into the digital domain while minimizing the threat of piracy. They do need to be addressing this. So the idea of increasing the release of free content is, well, freaking them out. Yet, it is exactly what they need to be dealing with.
Free content is part of the glue of “tribes”, as Seth Godin might say. Understanding the true ratio between free content and paid ensures a healthy, continuous relationship with customers.
Thinking about preparing for the future when it’s already here is like preparing for a flood when you’re already drowning. They’re doing too little, and it may already be too late. They’ve begun to release one free book of an author, or of a series, to promote interest in the rest. What if you’re a first-time author, with only one book?
Lite versions of apps fall into a great literary tradition: generating enough interest to facilitate purchasing the next installment. The classic example is “A Tale Of Two Cities”, which was originally published as part of a literary journal, in installments. Pick it up and pay attention to the end of each chapter, the way things are summed up.
I want to recommend three operable models here for the first time, for fiction writers:
1. Release a lite (free) version chapter by chapter. Every four to six weeks, update your App with a new chapter. There will be a push notification through the App Store that your book has added a new chapter; iPhone users love updates of their favorite Apps. Whether your App was pay or not, updates are always free.
Some people don’t update right away. But you can track the amount of updates on a daily basis to see how many people are actively keep up with your new additions.
After updating the app to Chapter Seven of your ten-chapter book, that’s it. Game over. Now, at the same time, release your full pay app version for purchase. They can pay now.
2. Release a lite (free) version with somewhere between 60% to 80% of the content. Less than that may engage them, but that amount will really seal the deal. If they like what they’ve seen, they will pay for the rest. If you give away too much, they may pick up your book somewhere and check the last five pages for the ending.
3. Have you begun podcasting? I’ve spoken to best-selling authors whose hands are tied; they are not permitted by their publishers to put out iPhone versions of their books. One of these is a very well known podcaster.
You can create first-time integrated experiences for your readers. This author should have been the first to do this, but instead, it could be you. At the top of the page, a choice in media:
“Chapter 4: Would you like to read, or would you like to be read to?”
We’ve all had to discontinue reading before we’ve felt like it. In this format, you could offer your reader the option of plugging their iPhone into the car stereo and reading to them at the point where they had to stop reading on their own.
What’s been most surprising about the experience?
That major publishing houses are nowhere near me [in the iPhone app rankings]. One James Patterson book came close for a while. I’m at number 23 today, he’s at 53. We’re both free. I’m also surprised by the fact that the other apps that are near me are compendiums, reading apps, etc … no actual print books.
It surprises me that people are impressed that I got the Apple Store event dates. Again, is anyone even trying?
The acceleration of Books within the App Store is surprising and even a little shocking. When I got in in April, there were 3,000 book apps. Check this out: on September 7, the books category hit the 10,000 mark. On October 7, it hit 12,000, a full 20% growth in only one month. That’s staggering, and you can’t tell me that people aren’t paying attention to the potential of books within the iPhone format.
When you spoke at our conference, you said that you weren’t quite ready to be looking for an agent on the print edition, even though QotD has been downloaded more than 80,000 times, and currently in the Top 25 out of over 12,000 titles in the Book App category. What benchmark are you waiting for? OR, are you waiting to be approached?
I walked into the conference thinking that I had something going for myself, but that there were a lot of people in the business who either think nothing of it, aren’t aware of it, or don’t understand the value of it. These feelings were confirmed and magnified at the conference. Several respected industry people told me that I have a huge platform now. I did, in fact, meet up with an agent who was enthused about what I’m doing. She sees “huge” potential, and doesn’t think that others in the biz see it that way. We’ll stay in touch, and that’s a good thing.
Industries won’t change until they see money flowing into someone else’s pockets. If industries can’t create money flow, they will certainly follow it. They are forcing me to grow. And that is a good thing.
The next time I update, it will be like tapping over 80,000 people on the shoulder. They love their apps. They are going to listen. And here’s the kicker: I asked about a hundred people to download my app. The rest found me. It’s a marketer’s dream. How can you
not see the value in that?
You’ve had some tremendous success without any mainstream or
“traditional” assistance (or that’s my impression?). What advice do you
have for others who may be pursuing an indie path?
The main thing I had to do was to get right with myself, and my answers are based on that.
First of all, if you need to write and be read, and selling thousands of books is not a major concern, don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t serious.
For the rest of us:
People often do things like self-publishing without fully realizing why they did it. It serves to make them feel good about themselves, temporarily. It is exactly like when someone you work with or go to school with loses weight. They needed to do it, it was a lot of work, they feel a feeling of satisfaction and they get a lot of compliments. After a while, they don’t get compliments and they still have to give up the Twinkies. Are you kidding? What kind of rip-off is that? A total rip-off! A few weeks later, the Nordic Track gets parked in the garage. They quit as soon as it stops feeling good.
I always say, “Know what’s driving you.” Why are you doing this, and is that driver enough to get you through rejections, confusion, boredom and that lost in the woods “what do I do next” feeling? You need to know, but there will be tough moments when even the drivers leave the room, and you’ll really want the Twinkies. Starting at that moment, every little thing you do for your self is a huge victory. The down feeling will go away, something will turn in your favor, and then “perseverance” is not just a word anymore.
So, know your drivers, know that you will change course many times, and be ready to divorce your naysayer friends in a split second. Some people keep them around as motivation, but to me, they are poison. You can’t afford the time it will take to figure out why they give with one hand, and slap with the other. You don’t know why, and they don’t know why. And they’re not going to stop. They don’t need to change, but your environment needs to change. You’re doing something much riskier and more difficult than most of the people people you know. Distance, immediately!
Every day that you recognize that something is off course, and you don’t initiate work on a solution, you’re blowing it. You may as well quit and start to like working for somebody else, because you are not being true to yourself, and your babies are dying. You are killing them with inattention.
I’m fairly easy going, but I have a pretty big ego. As a creative person, I know that my ideas are my life blood. I did create Question Of The Day, but making it into a book was not my idea, and neither was the iPhone App. My indebtedness to others teaches me a lot.
There will always be a right time to jump from “indie”, whether it means hiring staff and becoming a startup, or going with a publishing house. Your ideas will always be your own, but you can never achieve as much by yourself as you can with other people.
What are your next steps, let’s say in the next year? Do you have any longer range plans or goals?
Question Of The Day will remain a free app. Not a “lite” version, but a full version that is free. We are now putting together a companion pay app, built from suggestions of QotD downloaders. This version will have twice as many videos, and I am also weighing the possibility of adding half of the questions from the next book, which is already written.
We are planning a social networking version, where people who are playing with the app can locate and communicate with others playing with the app, and play together. At their option, they will be able to see each other’s location in the world on a map.
Ultimately, I’d like this to do well enough so that I can put it behind me and focus entirely on music. In one way or another, I’ll always have something to do with Question Of The Day, but I have to get back to what I was doing before I got here. Not that I’m not working on it, but it really needs my full attention. I need to be doing it all the time, like I was.
My indebtedness to Al for sharing these thoughtful, thorough answers (and also thanks for his enduring patience). And to all iPhone users: Go download that app! (I did, and it’s wonderful.)
So, for readers, does this raise more questions for you? What do you think the big surprise is? Let’s hear it in the comments!