Tonight’s Publishing Apps conference ended with a panel session of publishers: Michael Bhaskar, Profile; Alex Gatrell, HarperCollins; Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow and Nathan Hull, Penguin. It focused on the business of book-apps, and how to market them.

Gatrell went first, talking about Wonders of the Universe – the Brian Cox astronomy app. HarperCollins paid developer The Other Media more than £50,000 to make the app, which Gatrell said was money well spent.

The publisher also had different marketing plans for the UK and US – in the UK it was very focused on Cox, who’s famous here, but in the US where he’s less well-known the emphasis was on the app itself. “Within three days we’d recouped the cost, so it was a massive success,” said Gatrell.

The app costs £4.99 – half the price of many similar premium book-apps. “We just had this feeling that if you have a greater volume your value is actually more than if you have a smaller chunk at a higher price point… You’re benefitting from the social spreading of the word there.”

The app had to sell around 20,000 copies to break even after Apple’s share of the revenues – so that’s the figure managed in the first three days. “Since then it’s been… declining!” But HarperCollins is still very happy with the app’s performance.

Is a £4.99 app that includes content from two much-more expensive books a risk? Gatrell admitted there’s a “real issue about cannibalising that content”, especially if an app is released simultaneously with the physical books. But he said he’s pushing for these kinds of experiments – the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Hopefully.

Next: Bhaskar, who talked about Profile’s Frankenstein app. It had four major cost-centres: the professional writer; the development studio; the marketing and publicity budget – including hiring a publicist in New York; and the basic time costs for Profile’s staff.

“It’s been out for two months. In two months we’ve sold 10,000 copies, which we’re really happy about,” he said. “I know a lot of apps that have sold a lot less… We haven’t broken even yet, but we’re steaming towards that.”

Bhaskar noted that if Profile sold 10,000 hardback books in two months, it’d be really happy, although he admitted that the app is selling for a lot less – £2.99. While sales have “really tailed off from the early days” when the app was promoted by Apple on the App Store, but now it’s getting smaller spikes. An article in a Danish newspaper may have generated 400 extra sales this month, for example.

Onto Wilson from Nosy Crow, who said her company has a much more holistic view on its apps. It doesn’t outsource the core of app creation – it has in-house coders and animators. So the costs are spread across the business in a different way to other publishers who outsource.

“We do have now a bunch of code that is our code, that we’re able to redeploy, so each time we take something to market it’s slightly shorter [to produce].”

Wilson added that Nosy Crow is targeting a relatively small audience – mums and dads – with the aim of creating a brand that means “people are waiting for the next Nosy Crow thing… a community of loyal people that would have a set of expectations that we would be able to meet.”

At the moment, Nosy Crow’s print business is more profitable than its app business – “we have a VERY successful print business!” said Wilson. But she added that the company tries not to think of them as totally separate entities in so bald a fashion. Nosy Crow is also forging partnerships for its apps, just as it does for print books: licensing the rights to publishers elsewhere in the world.

Onto Penguin’s Hull, who talked about its partnership with games firm Mind Candy, which makes the Moshi Monsters virtual world for children – 50% of all 7-11 year-old children in the UK are paying subscribers. Penguin already publishes Moshi Monsters physical books.

Moshi Monsters: Buster’s Lost Moshlings was developed by an in-house team at Penguin. The app sold like hot cakes – Hull couldn’t give exact numbers, but said it was “far in excess” of the apps discussed earlier in the panel. He admitted it’s possibly an outlier because of the power of the Moshi Monsters brand.

“It’s not just about one app,” he said. Penguin thought hard about how to engage with Moshi fans over the course of a year, while also experimenting with different price points. The company has also dovetailed its plans with Mind Candy’s own plans to release non-book apps for Moshi Monsters – with potential for cross-promotion across the whole range.

What timeframe is there for these apps to make a return on their investment – how much pressure is there from colleagues to show a return quickly on digital products?

Bhaskar said that Frankenstein isn’t far from “making money for the company”, but he admitted before it launched he was worried about it losing money. “Is there pressure on this project? Not more pressure than there’d be on any project,” he noted – print or digital.

“The amount of money that gets piled into it is comparable to the amount of money that would get piled into an average book… so we should look for it to have the same return.” He added that development costs aren’t escalating to make book-apps – in fact, publishers have far more intelligence about how to cost apps – “they probably won’t overpay, or at least won’t overpay twice.”

Gatrell noted that publishers need a plan to keep an app fresh beyond its original release. He also said that HarperCollins has invested in a cooking-app template which can be used for a number of different apps – a high upfront cost for that template, but one that pays this back over time and several book-apps, where the reskins are cheap to do.

Wilson was asked what questions Nosy Crow asks itself on development costs and marketing. She noted it’s the same as for regular book publishing: publishers need to feel that it will make money and will be true to their brand – not “shortcutty… I don’t think our audience would tolerate that”.

That means keeping the quality bar high, rather than “it’s Tuesday, better chuck out an app!”. So avoiding quick hits that not be beneficial in the long term, including in delivering the user ratings on stores like Apple’s App Store that came across at tonight’s event as a crucial factor in the success of an app.

Nosy Crow aims to “keep the plates spinning” through social media, and connecting to bloggers and parents who can become “advocates” for the company’s apps and books. “It’s something we spend a lot of time and energy as well as money on,” she said.

Back to Hull, who said he refuses to publish an app unless he has a commitment for a marketing budget – 10% of the costs of making a project, as a rule of thumb.