I have been watching struggling writers and struggling mobile app developers for a few years, and it seems to me that there is a lot in common between them.
First, and probably most importantly, making a mobile app can be a very creative process, just like writing a book. You start with a blank canvas – an iPhone simulator that is just staring at you, daring you to start painting on it. You might dive into programming right away, just like a writer may just sit down at a keyboard and start writing, but more than likely the programming comes later. What actually comes first – way before anything tangible is created – is the THE IDEA.
The idea for the mobile app may start much like a book idea: at a coffee shop. You may be alone when inspiration strikes, or you may be enjoying a beverage with a friend, but suddenly you have this blinding flash of inspiration, and you instantly realize that you’re going to show the world just how awesome you are! You have an idea, and it’s a damn good one. It’s not just any idea, it’s YOUR idea.
Later when you get home, you decide that you’re going to scope out the competition. How many others have already had your idea? Surely, you’re close to the first. Wait, what’s that? Google says you’re nowhere near the first? No. No, no, no, no, no!! You discover there are already tens or hundreds of apps (books) that are almost exactly the same as your idea, and it’s depressing.
So you do what any self-respecting creative person does: you check out the competition. And you discover that the world actually does have room for you. Although it’s true that there are already people who have published apps based on ideas similar to yours, nobody has published one with exactly the features that you want to build. Just like books… there may be hundreds of mystery novels, but none of them feature your main character, solving the mystery her own way. You decide to forge ahead, because you know that you have something unique to offer, and you’re absolutely going to do a better job than anyone else could – there is literally nobody else in the world who is better qualified to make the app or tell the story exactly how you want it moulded.
With the renewed energy of a runner getting their second wind, and with your brilliant idea in hand, you start. You bang out the rough draft of a program, just enough to see some objects on screen, and you’re euphoric:
There it is! The world’s next big mobile game! It may be a little rough, but those are just placeholder graphics, right? You’ll just get a hold of some talented graphic artist and they’ll turn that block into a spaceship, complete with animated flames for the thrusters. Small details like that can surely be worked out later. And it doesn’t matter that you can’t control anything, right now you’re just working on the idea. The concept. The big picture.
About six months later, when your app still isn’t ready to publish, you understand that you’ve come a long way since that original prototype, but the end still isn’t in sight. You’ve found some interesting people to bounce ideas off of, but it’s still just you doing the work. You’re sick of this project, and you start wondering why you ever started in the first place. But now you’ve got so much time invested you really do need to finish it.
So you put it away and stop working on it, because some new idea, some new project has come along and it’s going to be much more exciting than your old project! Out with the old! In with the new!! A while later you’ve got two unfinished projects on the go, and you almost feel enough guilt to call yourself a true artist.
After another three months goes by, you’re finally happy enough with the product to get it into the hands of your first testers — your friends and family. Sadly, these people really want you to succeed, and believe that they can help you along your journey by complimenting anything you produce, like a loving parent gushing over their toddler’s crappy crayon picture. They tell you that it’s great and that it’s sure to be a hit, and on your first few apps or books you might even fall for it. But if you’ve been burned a few times already then you know that you really need to get your creation into the hands of people who will be brutally honest and possibly even nasty with you: complete strangers.
So you seek out an online community, and you post preview versions of your creation, asking for feedback. These strangers, with no blood or friendship bonds holding them back, tear your work apart and expose what you’ve been scared to admit… it isn’t as polished and ready for consumption as you had wished. They’re telling you straight, and you’re forced to see that some of their criticisms are spot on. So you go back through your creation, polishing and refining it even further, inching slowly toward the true level of quality you secretly wanted to push yourself to produce anyway.
When you finally have a hit, and even a new round of internet strangers can agree on it, you pull the trigger and you publish. You publish! YOU PUBLISH!!! YAY!!
Dead silence. That’s the sound of your lack of sales. Aside from the few friends and family members who have gone out of their way to make you happy (again) you can literally count on one hand the number of sales each week. What happened? Doesn’t the world realize how wonderful your new game is? Don’t they want to play it? Where is the gold rush, where are the consumers, the kind that already have their credit card registered with Apple or Amazon and could buy your game or book with one tap or one click?
You’ve landed at the root of the problem with online market places: discovery (or, lack thereof). How do you let your potential buyers know that you have something they probably want, and how can you possibly reach them when you don’t even know who they are? App developers and authors share this plight – just ask any indie author who has published to Amazon.
So here we are, app developers and book writers alike, producing with the hope that our audience will find us. And some times – some glorious times – they do, and it’s all worth it.