A few years ago I developed a couple of Android apps as a hobby. They were niche apps that did barely ok; the free one had about 9,000 downloads while the paid one had about 300. A few weeks ago, I self-published The Natural Victim, my first book (a mystery novella). As of today it has about 600 free downloads and a single sale.
Thinking back about my app experience and comparing it to my writing experience, I realized that there were a surprising number of similarities and a few crucial differences. Differences that, if I had known them then, might have convinced me to write a book instead of an app. Maybe this post will resonate with some of you and help you decide between one or the other.
Designing vs Plotting
Designing an app definitely takes more effort. It involves not just the logic of the app, but also wireframing the UI, picking a color scheme, and adding sounds effects and maybe some music if it’s a game. I love doing the logic part of it, but I’m not very good at the other aspects of design, and hiring a designer can get expensive fast. Plotting, on the other hand, is like doing only the logic part of app design, mainly identifying all the elements you need to get the overarching story to hang together and then figuring out how they can be put together to achieve the best possible result. There is still some design to be done (the cover and the layout, for instance), but these can wait till the book is nearly done. And of course, you can hire someone to do the design work for you (possibly for cheaper than you’d pay for an app).
Coding vs Writing
A lot of people, myself included, like to write the first draft of a novel before doing any editing. The goal is to pound out those 60,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words before worrying about refining the book. Coding the app (like all coding that I do) was exactly the opposite. I started small, compiled frequently, and iterated until I had the app done. I would not code the way I write and I would not write the way I code. I think I like coding slightly better because I get to see the app taking shape. Plus, there is the occasional coder’s high when I solve a particularly problematic bug.
Debugging vs Editing
Debugging is easier than editing in two ways: You know what the exact problem is and you know when you have solved it (mostly). The deterministic nature of debugging makes it very interesting to me. It’s like a little puzzle I have to solve. But once I have figured it out, I lose interest and it becomes a chore to actually implement the changes. In contrast, when you’re editing, most times you know that what you have doesn’t work, but you aren’t sure why or what will make it better. You just have to try it a few different ways before you find the best one. Editing doesn’t have the same highs and lows as debugging. Mostly you are never satisfied with what you have, though every once in a while a passage stands out to you and you feel it is perfect — even if you are the only one who notices.
I’m good at marketing neither the app nor the book. So far.
Advantage: Even (or maybe none).
After Sales Support
I’ll take writing a book anytime. In fact, this is the single biggest reason why I love writing: I DON’T HAVE TO SUPPORT IT! I hate support, and I have enormous respect for those who continue to provide such good service on their apps. Sure, I’ll fix a typo if it comes up, change the cover if I have to, add a dedication, etc. All of this is trivial compared to getting an email a year after you release the app about some obscure thing that is broken. What’s worse is when it isn’t your fault, like when a new version of Android comes out. I also don’t care much for “renovating” the app, adding features and generally keeping up with the times. I want to move on and solve another problem instead of making incremental changes to something that already exists.
Advantage: Definitely book.
Things You Can Screw Up
When I developed my app, I released two versions: a free version initially, followed a few months later by a paid version with extra features. I decided that I should make it easy for the users of the free app to transfer their data over to the paid one. So I released an update to the free app that I thought would make the data transfer easier. You can tell where this is going. I woke up the day after the update to a slew of error reports. This was before Android started doing automatic updates, so the damage was minimal, but it was a nerve-wracking 3 hours while I recreated the problem, figured out the solution and then worked on limiting the damage. Thankfully, only a few users had updated the app overnight and I offered every one of them a free copy of the paid app. That episode taught me a few things, including the fact that just because a bug goes away when you reinstall the app, it doesn’t mean that the problem itself is resolved. As for writing, chances are negligible that you will crash someone’s Kindle when you release a book or update it (*knocks on wood*).
Advantage: Definitely book.
Getting reviews is much easier with an app. It could be because the rating system makes it easy — just pick a star and write a few words about it. Book reviews, on the other hand, are more elaborate, which dissuades people from writing them. I didn’t ask a single person to review the app, and it easily had 20-some reviews within a few days. I only have three distinct reviews for the book so far. In the book world, you have to work much harder for your reviews.
Both the app and book markets are saturated, and getting noticed is very hard. But here’s the difference: No one wants 10 different planners or clocks or note-taking apps. It doesn’t matter if your note-taking app is just as good as the others; people just don’t need another one (the exception is games). On the other hand, people will keep buying books, especially in the genre that they like. So if you write a good book and make a sale, you get a repeat customer. Besides, people aren’t nearly as loyal to app companies as they are to authors. I can’t even tell you who developed most of the apps on my phone, and I was a developer!
Ease of Publishing
I think the publishing process is easy in both cases. However, as a quirk of the way Google runs the Android store, you have to collect and pay sales taxes yourself. If you develop apps for iOS, you don’t have that problem. And of course, you don’t have to worry sales tax when publishing your book on Amazon.
So far, the app is definitely winning in the profits department. And if I had to choose between writing an app and writing a book to make a living (which, at this point, I don’t), I would definitely go the app route (or maybe hire myself out as an Android developer). However, that is partly to do with market demand (there are plenty of writers out there but not enough Android developers). Besides, I haven’t given writing a fighting chance yet. In publishing, the more books you have in your catalog, the more likely you are to succeed. That’s because people buy books from familiar authors. Compare that to the app store. You run into a familiar problem — no one remembers the developer. There are a few big names most of us have heard about — Zynga and Rovio, for example — but unless you are in the app business, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of (or remember) many more.
Advantage: App, for now.
Tallying up the advantages, it’s clear that writing books wins for me. The process has been everything I wanted in a hobby: the creative energy, the thrill of publishing, the excitement of getting that first download/review/sale. And all without having to worry about when something is going to break or how the new Kindle is going to make the book unreadable.
But I’m only one data point in this world of app developers and writers. Have you written an app and a book? If so, do you prefer one over the other?