The challenges faced by book publishers on devices like the iPad appear to mirror those being faced by most application developers. Speaking at the Publishing Next conference last week, Radhika Menon of Tulika Publishers said she views the iPhones and the iPad as the ideal solution for book publishers going digital – “iPhones and iPads are irresistible who use them, parents who buy them and content providers who see them as an irrestible opportunity. They are perfectly designed for children to handle. The multi-touch user interface is so easy, attractive and intuitive, that children take to it naturally.”

Tulika Publishers targets children in the 3-16 age group with mainly picture books, and they have around 1000 titles in nine languages. But the application ecosystem poses several challenges, including one of diversity. “The economics of digital content creation is based on the biggest English speaking markets across the world. The picture that emerges is heavily loaded against diversity, but the potential cannot be ignored,” she said. Menon pointed out the following issues that Tulika Publishers has noticed with the application ecosystem:

– Crowded Market: hundreds of childrens apps are being created for the iPhone and iPad making the market incredilbly crowded. Parents prefer an iPad over TV, which they see as mostly mindless, and they consider the iPad Educational because of interactivity and learning skills.

– Digital content is almost entirely marketing driven. The development of the app is as much about marketing strategy, as the app itself. Menon pointed out that the technology dominates the market, and the market dictates the content. In the print medium, there was the written book and printing technology, and the content continues to grow, independent of technology. In case of the digital medium, there is a problem when marketing considerations have to be embedded in the book, forcing the publisher to make the app entertaining and attention grabbing.

“The teaching-learning element has to be strong for a children’s app to work, and while the main buyers are parents, they have to be convinced about the usefulness. If you look at reviews of apps and ebooks, there are no ratings for educational value, and in the same way, you dont find reviews based on education value. Childlike cute illustrations are favored in apps, especially icons because they stand out. A book (that) we publish is a finished product and comes together as a whole. Will adapting a book for the digital medium weaken the integrity of the book? Using popping, bobbing, growing, moving pictures for their own sake is pointless, just clickability isn’t enough. Techniques have to be used for some purpose, they must contribute to the whole. Yet publishers say that what is happening to books in the digital world is invigorating. It is clear that the space for children cannot be ignored. Our overriding concern is the quality of apps.”

– Single marketplace: “You can buy it only at one application store, which is the iOS.”

– Availability of devices: “The best digital content for kids is in iPhone and iPad, and it is inaccessible to a majority of the children in India, and it is largely irrelevant to us in India.”

– Connectivity & Access: even if we turn to other platforms (like online), connectivity and accessibiltiy to computers is a big problem in the majority of schools.

– Language limitations: “Most of the technology for digital content creation is tailored for the English language and the roman script.”

– Apps vs Websites: Oluguti Toluguti, available in 18 languages, has a digital version with rhymes on StoryTruck.com. The book has 84 pages, and 54 rhymes in multiple languages. Menon said it is easier to provide this content on a website, rather than an application. On the iPad, the publisher had to do separate applications for English and Hindi, which they found tedious. “It’s easier on the website, and more accessible.”

Tulika has 3 products on the app store: One is a book Who Will Rule an iPhone app; Ekki Dokki, an illustrated ebook for the iPad in English and Hindi; The Runaway Peppercorn, an illustrated ebook for the iPad in English and Tamil with audio in both languages. The first of these was launched on a revenue share basis.

Tulika’s Experience With Paid & Free Apps, Apple’s Lists

“The marketing process (for books on the app store) that follows is – The app developer sends the app/ebook to the app store along with the product description and category, the app store screens the app, then the app is put up for sale, if it thinks it will sell, it goes into the new and noteworthy section, and customers tend to buy new products featured here. They also tend to download content they are familiar with. If the app sells well, then the product may be features in the What’s Hot section, and it sells more. If you don’t make it to either of these lists, your app will sink.”

Who Will Rule? was made a free app for a while, and it is now 99 cents. It was number 5 on the free book apps, but when it was made paid, it sank without a trace. Because it was not in the new and noteworthy section by the App Store, though it was highly rated by customers sampling free products. So we dont know what happened. To sum up, an iphone and ipad is the best digital device, but the storekeepers decide what will sell and wont sell,” she concluded.

Disclosure: the writer was a speaker at the Publishing Next conference in Goa at the invitation of the organizers, with costs of attending covered.