The iPhone entrepreneurs – Neal Hoskins of WingedChariot Press

In the first of a series looking at the flourishing entrepreneurial scene created by Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch applications, Alex Bellinger interviews a children’s book publisher who is leading a traditional industry into new digital territory.

By
21st September 2009 at 12:24 pm

When Neal Hoskins left his job at Oxford University Press to set up a boutique publisher of english versions of children’s picture books from all over the world, booksellers and others in the industry raised a doubting eyebrow.

It’s just too hard to sell children’s books from non-english speaking authors to parents in the UK, they said.

Four years later and Neal’s business, WingedChariot Press, is one of those leading the publishing industry into the brave new world of digital, with the launch of an application (App) for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

He joins a growing band of ‘iPhone entrepreneurs’ who recognise the potential of the mobile platform to prompt innovation and disrupt the distribution models of traditional industries like publishing.

wingedchariotThe picture book App, called ‘The Surprise’, has a simplicity and charm which parents and children alike will enjoy – very much in the spirit of Apple’s own design ethic.

It’s digital, but it’s also warm, benefiting from the gestures and beautiful screens of the iPhone and the Touch.

Distribution, distribution, distribution

With startup funding from the Arts Council, WingedChariot published its first books at the end of 2005, but rapidly found getting them into shops was the real challenge. As Neal admits:

Distribution is the hardest puzzle to solve and in some ways you should look at that first before throwing yourself into the deep end, but if you did you’d probably never take the plunge.

A link up with Walker Books in the UK has helped, but the distribution possibilities of the iPhone and other mobile devices was one of his main reasons for exploring digital.

It also has the potential to make WingedChariot, more of a publisher, rather than a translation, marketing and re-publishing business for foreign language picture books.

With digital overheads so much lower than printing and shipping dead trees to bookshops, Neal has ambitions to bring on new artists and authors who wouldn’t normally attract the attention of mainstream publishing companies.

Developing for the iPhone

A chance meeting with a developer at the Bologna Book Fair began the initially daunting phase of getting an App built.

In fact, although slow and sometimes difficult to begin with, Neal has learned a lot along the way about how to manage the publishing process in this new medium.

It was quite a tortuous process for us to learn how to work within that framework, how we work with editorial, images and so on. But I think it taught us a great deal. If this is really going to take off, we’ll want to develop ourselves in-house.

Of course, large publishers are already experimenting with Apps.

But by being in there early and by creating a new process and browser-based platform to streamline production and distribution on mobile, publishing minnow WingedChariot, like lots of disruptive startups in the web/tech space, has given itself the best chance to compete with larger rivals.

Marginal Margins and Speaking in Tongues

The irony is, despite slashing printing, distribution and other costs associated with getting a £15 children’s picture book into the hands of eager young readers in bookshops, margins for a 56p story in Apple’s App store are just as slim, if not slimmer.

And that’s the fundamental challenge. Will it pay?

Neal recognises pricing is untested and a bit of an experiment.

But plans to up the frequency of new titles, develop an App for WingedChariot itself to house collections of picture books and the promise of audio and images as a tool to teach reading, suggest there’s a lot of potential to sell in volume. The kind of volumes that even large publishing houses would envy.

WingedChariot’s roots are in publishing foreign language books in translation. And language may again be its biggest opportunity in the digital world.

Multi-lingual versions of its picturebook apps and the borderless appeal of the illustrations themselves, mean being big in Japan, Brazil, Russia and China is a real ambition, not a pipe dream.

As Neal says:

If we get this right, it gives us possibilities beyond our wildest dreams.

Like the books it publishes for kids, the WingedChariot story looks set to be a colourful adventure.

Let’s hope it has a happy ending.

#646464

Alex is the founder and editor of SmallBizPod, the UK's first podcast dedicated to small business, start-ups and entrepreneurship. Alex writes about topical small business issues, entrepreneurs and anything else that catches his eye here on the small business blog. http://www.smallbizpod.co.uk

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  1. Jane fisher says:

    As App developers we can visualise more and more small businesses wanting and benefiting from App development.

    The return in monetary terms may be small for iPhone Apps currently, but the advantages of having a presence on the iPhone or other mobile platform, can be enormous.

  2. How would you characterise the enormous advantages of having a presence in the App Store?

    How does an App get noticed on the store and onto an iPhone?

  3. Jane fisher says:

    Having a presence in the App store gives you another opportunity to connect to or be noticed by your potential and existing customers.

    There are lots of industry experts who believe the web is going mobile. Showing you are at the forefront of that technology can demonstrate a companies ability to adapt. As well as showcasing your products or capabilities. Or it can simply be used to direct more traffic to an already established website.

    Having an App on the iPhone or anywhere else is similar to having a web page. Yes, there are a multitude of Apps in iTunes already, but there are a lot more web pages in existence. You have to market and promote your App in the same way you would your web presence. If your App is good after a while viral marketing should take over. Regular updates then help to keep it at the forefront of peoples minds.

    There is a blog on our website called “The Human Side of App Development”. This talks about how how iTunes can draw you in and make you want to continuously improve your App in order to gain more downloads and better ratings.

    Alex, I hope that goes some way to answer your questions if not let me know if you require further convincing.

  4. Neal Hoskins says:

    Jane yes on your two points it is like having a web page and in some way our first app was a piece of marketing and I agree we want to go and make it better and better very different publishing from the paper model, not better just different.

  5. Oliver says:

    The story of the children’s book moving into the iPhone format is a fascinating one. My opinion of the matter is that it can only be beneficial to the smaller publisher especially if the book also exists in a paper format.

    At 56p it allows parents to ‘sample’ a book before spending, say, £7.99 on a physical copy. The benefit of selling a digital book to a parent at 56p is that if the child enjoys the book in it’s ‘travel format’ (as it were) then the purchase of it in paper format is sure to follow. Further to this, if the process happens in reverse, where a paper copy is purchased and it is your child’s favourite book, you would surely spend the (extra) 56p to have it with you at all times!

    You are effectively selling the book twice to the same person! Genius!

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