What is a digital book worth? Reflections on Pricing Book Apps for Kids in 2013

| May 21, 2013 | 12 Comments

Over two years ago, as one of my very first blog posts I wrote about the prices in the book app market, using my first 100 reviews for analysis. Now that I have reviewed over 700 titles in this new industry, I’d like to share a few of the points I made in 2011, which are still very much true … along with some stats to compare over time.

True today and even evident at the very beginning of this revolution in enhanced digital picture books was a tendency toward very low prices. If you compare these apps to other book-like products in the cultural environment, getting new releases for under $3 is rather unusual. However, this ‘sweet spot’ of $2.99 for eBooks is even more true today than two years ago, with over 70% of children’s book apps in our survey priced at $2.99 or less.

Price Trends Based on the Curated Selection of 700 Books Reviewed

Overall, the market has slightly increased in free titles (from 10% to 12% compared to Oct. 2012) although this isn’t very statistically significant given the margin of error in a data set this small (under 1000). The number of titles in our data set of 100 are nearly identical to our data set for prices now that we’ve added an additional 600 titles to our site, showing a strong trend toward price stabilization.

Among the most important things that have been consistent for over 2 years in this marketplace:

1. There are some very nice free book apps and if you’re patient, you can even get many free promotions. However, this is not a practical long-term strategy for building a real ‘library’ of children’s books on your iPad. Eventually, paid downloads will be made by most consumers looking for quality picture books. It’s time consuming to try to find free ebook apps and good titles are only getting harder to find in the haystack that is the app store.

2. You can get a lot of great books for $0.99 – $1.99 USD. And for under $5 you can get almost anything in the app store, including enhanced titles of books available in print. A few premium titles are more than $5, but almost everything is under $10, including the newest releases with the most buzz. This is in stark contrast to the average $15-20 cost of new hardcover picture books, but more in line with the prices I’ve paid for used picture books. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the simpler eBooks found on Kindle, Nook & in the iBooks Store are actually much more expensive than enhanced book apps, on average.

3. Price can have a lot more to do with the amount of PR the developer can mobilize than it does with quality. This doesn’t mean more expensive books aren’t great – many of them are phenomenal, but what it does mean is that there are buried jewels in the lower price points.

4. Most books cannot hold onto a price point above $5 for very long and hope to stay in the top 200. There were fewer than 10 picture books above $5 in the top 200 paid iPad books when I checked in 2011. In 2013 I found the same thing was true, and if you removed the compilations of multiple books, it was fewer than five titles under $5. More than 95% of our site’s selection of the 700 of best titles are $4.99 or less, for instance.

5. Most free picture books in the top 200 are not really free. This is even more true now than 5 years ago. Most top free apps are:

a. ad-supported versions

b. lite versions (not the whole story most of the time)

c. free promotions that end within a couple days

d. one of a few dozen quality titles that have been free for a long time (a good place to start a collection but no way to supplement print)

 So what has changed in pricing for book apps since April of 2010?

I get asked a lot to speak about trends I am seeing in the book app market and when it comes to price often, and I would say the same thing I say about the overall market today, compared to 2010. Overall, the publishers of book apps themselves have matured along with the industry. A lot of book app developers have started to do their homework or even found ways to share their expertise with the next wave of aspiring authors, illustrators and digital publishers.

More developers are taking marketing into consideration much earlier in their planning process, too. In 2010-2011, it was a daily experience to hear from a developer who had only just begun to think about marketing AFTER their app had already been released. Creating and storytelling can be very satisfying, but without any market research or understanding of how to find readers (now that’s a real needle in the haystack problem), it is very difficult to complete the ‘cycle of life’ for a real book without a marketing plan.

Publishers may have had a knack for marketing in print, but even they are scrambling to figure out how to make digital publishing work. But at least publishers knew then and know now that simply shouting, “buy my book, please” on every media channel available is no way to pitch a quality read. Thankfully, I’ve found that the biggest change in the market is the sophistication of the people who are both selling and making the product in the first place. This means a lot fewer schizophrenic pricing plans that seem go up and down with little rhyme or reason (or impact on sales, I might add). It also means a lot fewer broken hearts when ‘viral’ sales of an app fail to materialize.

Ultimately, I try to remind anyone who produces book apps that this “new” industry is just like the old one. There are only two things that matter in a children’s story – the children and the story. Period. Everything else is icing, whether it’s a pop-up tab or a digital interaction. If you can take that to heart, this is an industry just dying for quality, thoughtful and polished content. And how could anyone be afraid of that?

Category: 100+ Reviews ... What I've Learned So Far, All About Apps, Marketing Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (12)

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  1. John Wilkerson says:

    Great article, Carisa. It’s true, the sweet spot is $2.99. Personally, I won’t consider a book over $3 unless I received a personal recommendation.

    When it comes to dead-tree books, many of them can be found at the library. Or you can wait until it’s been out for a month or two and check your local used book store where you canget a physical copy for around $3.

    While digital books often include some kind of interactivity, it’s not usually enough to push me past the $3 barrier because those added features don’t improve the product but rather support weak content. That’s my personal experience. I haven’t reviewed hundreds of books, though and you probably have a different experience.

    • I think your right John and the comparison to used books is a good one. I also find that consumers know prices fall after release if they can be patient. The market forces that drive prices down were very strong in the beginning and I don’t see things changing anytime soon. Anyone producing digital books that is expecting the prices to rise significantly may be waiting forever …

  2. Andrew Kao says:

    Thanks for the great article Carisa. As a kid’s app developer, it’s interesting to see that parents seem to be willing to pay a higher price for eBooks than for apps. I wonder if it is the perceived familiarity of the medium and the perception that books are good, games are bad, that’s driving this difference?


    • I wonder about this too, Andrew. I suspect that the marekets for iBooks have been artificially held up by price controls (which Apple and others have had to deal with in legal terms). So far, the biggest problem with the less enhanced titles is very low sales, so I think it is actually not true that parents are willing to pay more for eBooks, just that publishers are still holding out hope that they can sell them for prices over $5-10 … in the long run, my prediction is that all kids books in digital will follow the same pattern as adult eBooks. $4.99 seems to be the upper price point for anything but the most popular and well-publicized titles from famous authors and given the transient nature of ‘owning’ a digital book, I suspect parents will expect to pay prices more in line with used books since they never know how long a digital title will be readable, given changes in format, device and updates that can remove apps or render them inoperable.

  3. Lesley Taylor says:

    Excellent information. I will be sure to share this with developers.

  4. Odile LEVEUGLE - Applimini says:

    Yes, I totally agree with your conclusions Carisa. From here in France, I would also add our responsibility in this market. We (media) have got a lot of education on parents to do. We are a mix of journalists-book sellers and librarians. Here is France, the majority of parents (and also some teachers and librarians) just do not understand why they would have to pay for kids’ apps as there are so many free ones.
    And reaching these people to tell them that “yes there is much much more than talking animal apps (no offense)” is another mountain to reach!
    Thank you for your articles!

    • Great points Odile … I’m seeing a lot more interest in high-quality education apps and storybooks, but it seems like it might be awhile before this market fully matures.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Sheilah says:

    I’ve been following the children’s eBook market from up in Canada and seen much the same. Publishers who sell their ebooks on their website have no idea how much to charge and will play around with the price or in one case, charge the paperback price if it is available that way or the hardcover price if it is only available in print in that format.
    One study I saw suggested that at least 1/3 of a child’s personal library is made up of 2nd hand books. I think the lower price eBook is the equivalent.

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