Illustrating in the Dark: Why Dick & Jane Can’t Count (A Publishing Mystery)

| August 7, 2013 | 12 Comments

The world of children’s books has changed a lot in the past five years. Print titles may look the same, but anyone who has heard of the iPad, eReader or tablet technology knows that there are digital options that stretch our conventional ideas of a what books can and sometimes should do. Browsing in bookstores or even online for a new bestseller is becoming a sure way to miss some of the most innovative new titles in the literary marketplace. Following data figures for print picture books or eBooks is also likely to give you a very skewed view of the current market and overall consumer interest in digital children’s titles. For content creators (the authors, illustrators and developers of illustrated digital books for kids), this is also a market rife with contradictions about the pathway to success and full of mirages that promise wide readership and high profit margins.

Kindle + Apple + B&N + ??? = 100% (+ or – 50%)

So much of the ‘talk’ and oft-quoted statistics for eBooks are based on spotty data from less-than-transparent sources. Recently, Porter Anderson’s Ether blog for writers, full of tweets & talk within the publishing industry, discussed this issue in Which Has More Impact? The Chicken or Self-Publishing? He brings up important questions about discoverability, data and the hidden side of everything (publishing). But even in this thoughtful analysis of the digital world, nary a mention is made of the dilemma unique to the eBook market for illustrated children’s content. And that doesn’t even begin to illuminate the issues counting illustrated, interactive, hybrid book-game apps alongside more traditional storybooks in the digital realm.

In the Ether edition just last week, written since I began this post, even more territory is covered about this issue in Counting in the DarkAnd yet the book app, especially the interactive, illustrated book app is rarely included in the popular industry dialogue. In the end one could simply summarize all of these speculative posts, including my own about price data within the iPad book app market, by saying, “Kindle + Apple + B&N + ??? = 100% (+ or – 50%)”. If we were to be completely honest, however, we would need to admit that sales & download data for nearly every part of the digital publishing market is truly unknown. In fact, the speculation that is currently going on borders on unprofessional analysis because there are too many factors in the equation that are either completely hidden or worse, likely to be misreported. Some of the ‘guesstimates’ being made may be intentionally misleading and even the most well-meaning are undoubtedly flawed in their data analysis.

Making Cents out of Statistics:

For anyone who is creating children’s digital books (for love or money), this makes for a singularly crazy marketplace to try to market yourself. I know this in part because so many people ask me to analyze and make suggestions for them. As someone very new to this industry, I find my fresh eye and limited pre-conceived ideas about how this particular economy should work to be an advantage on a certain level. I see facts (for the most part) and don’t have a whole lot of emotional investment in them. I don’t publish or produce, write or illustrate – I just review what comes to market, so I don’t really have a horse in this race. But people tell me anecdotally how they are doing, I read a lot of reports and try to synthesize it all into a picture that makes sense. And by evaluating nearly 1000 apps I’ve hand-selected for review as the best the market has to offer, I can say there is something very fishy about the way people are calculating this market. I cannot say for sure what is going on, but I can say with certainty that the information provided simply doesn’t add up. And as a lover of data and statistics, this is one of the few times I would encourage people to avoid believing even a fraction of what they hear. It would be better to spend time reading thoughtful projections, instead, like this market survey about children’s digital media: .

Ultimately my educated guess, since I suppose I owe you at least that much, is that book apps are difficult to monetize because they are expensive to make and priced low in comparison to similar digital content, not because they aren’t popular.

A recent info-graphic from Kite Readers, a publishing platform for children’s ebooks & apps, is accurate and overall very insightful, but potentially misleading about prices when it compares iTunes book apps to Kindle’s eBook store purchases, since the two are not really equal. But when compared directly to the eBook store on the same device, the iTunes iBookstore sales data in comparison to the exact same iTunes book app are clearly in favor of the app.

What makes it so hard to determine the real sales numbers for profits and downloads in the eBook & book app market? I was with the author of this post about “Apple’s Risky Business” until they came to the following conclusion:

“Alternatively, Apple could put these apps where they ought to be, i.e. where book buyers are. My guess is that this was was iBooks Author was supposed to achieve, and in part it has, but still the best stuff (in fact the really creative stuff) resides elsewhere. That’s just odd. Imagine opening a bookshop and then putting the most well-designed books in the mobile phone shop two streets away.”

There is an assumption that ‘book buyers’ do not overlap much with ‘app buyers’. I doubt this is true even for literary fiction, but for illustrated children’s titles it is a false assumption. A lot of the potential ‘book buyers’ for children’s digital content are most certainly already in the app store. This isn’t like putting your book in a mobile phone shop, but instead in a toy store – and one with a lot of traffic.

Ultimately, what many industry-watchers are missing are a number of key factors that make reading the tea leaves about illustrated digital books very difficult. I wish I had solutions to offer to this conundrum but at this point I think it is instructive to list some of the reasons no sane person would believe the stats, hype or speculation going on without doing a lot of their own research.

Among the issues:

  • Counting Illustrated Book Apps is Nearly Impossible – Book apps can be released under any category and children’s titles are often released under Books, Education, Entertainment and even the Games category in the AppStore on iTunes.
  • Price Data for Illustrated Book Apps is Splintered – In addition to difficulties finding all the children’s book apps in different categories, the number of ‘lite’ versions and in-app purchases makes it difficult to tease out ‘full price’ of the content. Non-illustrated titles as well as adult-oriented titles are also included in the book app category, so just using it as a sample is problematic.
  • Sales Data for Illustrated Book Apps is Secret – It’s impossible to get hard data from enough private developers to get an aggregate picture of sales, so most publishers have to rely on crunching in-house stats, expert estimates, anecdotal reports and rumor.
  • Comparing app stores for book apps vs eBooks and other formats is like comparing apples and oranges, only the apple is sauce and he orange is juice. Or something like that … it’s basically two seriously flawed data sets being compared. Often comparisons for apps vs eBooks are made between the two largest markets for both, meaning a comparison between Apple’s iOS book apps vs Kindle’s eBooks. When looking at iBooks, specifically, for instance, the message most developers get is to go for the app – however the analysis on Amazon’s eBook stats would indicate the opposite strategy for best results. See: 10-30x sales for app vs iBook?
  • Book App stats get mixed up with general app stats while eBook stats get mixed up with non-illustrated content. To get a grip on sales, content creators need to distinguish between the challenges of being categorized with other interactive software OR with strictly text content in digital form. Neither can give a very good interpretation of the illustrated, interactive picture book market right now.
  • The lines between book, ebook and app are getting blurrier over time, not more distinct. Storytelling has gone non-linear, non-traditional, interactive, transmedia and gamified. And in the end, the worst fact is the best fact – nothing is as it seems anymore, which is bewildering, but a whole new ecosystem of storytelling is evolving and emerging before our eyes. You can’t count what you don’t understand. And no one fully understands the digital shift.
  • Consumers, Developers, Authors, Illustrators, Publishers, Agents and other industry ‘experts’ are still confused. This means the average consumer or newbie to the self-publishing world should not delude themselves into thinking they understand this market. It is evolving and complex. The real experts are often the people who admit they have a ‘theory’ or two but honestly don’t know what the real numbers mean. Keep an eye on these people – when they say they have a solid idea, then it’s time to listen.

How do you make sense of the book app & eBook market?

Can best seller charts ever be the same without industry-wide transparency for sales and download data?

How do you define ‘book’ in a sea of digital, book-like content? Is a game with a story a book? What about a story with a game?

All of these questions are still up for grabs on a cultural level, so let us know what you think!

Join me Sunday, 8/11/2013 for #storyappchat on Twitter for the topic: Measuring the Marketplace.



Category: All About Apps, Marketing Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of, 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.