Photo Apps and Photo Books: Is There a Photo App in Your Future?

By Lee Foster

Is there a photo app or a travel photo guide app in your future? Perhaps there is, especially if you’ve been thinking of a photo book or a travel photo guide. An app is a parallel presentation, but it is a distinctly different type of product. If you want to earn photojournalism income and connect with a new audience in an entirely new product area, the photo app is attractive. You might also consider publishing a photo app and bypassing a photo book.

I have two travel photo guide apps in the Apple iTunes App Store.  They are different from but parallel to my two travel photo guide books. 

My $2.99 apps are San Francisco Travel Photo Guide ( and Washington DC Travel Photo Guide (

My photo travel books are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco ( and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington, DC, ( both $14.95 from Countryman Press.

You can see covers of the books and apps on the right side of my home website at

As you think about apps, here are some questions that may come to mind.

What is a photo app, anyway?

Apps are an entirely new type of image/information/insight product. They are downloaded to a so-called “smart phone” or tablet. The big market now is the Apple iPhone. But Google’s Android phones are developing quickly as another market. The two platforms are different. A consumer anywhere in the world can download my travel photo guides to their Apple iPhone, iPad, or iPod.

Is an app just a conversion of photo book material to this new format?

No, there is more to it than that. I have parallel books on my subject. But the writing for an app requires short, self-contained entries. The photos for an app could be quite numerous, such as 500 in my San Francisco app, while my printed book has only 75 images. The first release of my San Francisco app had 100 images, the second had 500. An app organizes material alphabetically and also in a dynamic subject manner, by categories, unlike a linear book. An app can have map capacity that makes it a transformative product, unlike a book. An app can show you a cluster of entries on a map. You can navigate to them, looking at writing and photography, and relate them to where you now are. The app structure depends on the functionality built in by the developer. Sutro media is the developer and publisher for my apps. In the latest version of their software, for example, a consumer can now email an entry to a friend. App software continues to develop quickly.

Can I do an app myself, or do I need a “publisher”?

At this point, you need a “publisher,” but the appropriate word is “developer.” The software is now too complicated to do yourself, especially in the Apple world. This may change if Google comes out with do-it-yourself app software for its system. There are three aspects to the app marketplace—the Author, the Developer (who creates the software), and the Retail Seller (such as the Apple App Store). Typically, the sale money goes 30% to each, and 10% to admin. You need to partner, at this point, with a Developer. Sutro Media is the company with whom I work.

Can I make money selling photo apps?

I believe you can and will. The market is already large and could grow exponentially. AT&T scrambles to create more bandwidth in its infrastructure to meet the needs of the iPhone. Verizon now offers an iPhone. Games are the biggest app category of sales, but info products, such as travel apps and photo apps, have a respectable minor slice. The green purity and elegance of the publishing scheme has some appeal. The buyer can be anywhere in the world. The buyer needs only to have a phone. The buyer can download in an instant. No trees are sacrificed. No objects need to be printed and shipped at huge expense and environmental impact.

My San Francisco app did become a best seller in the Apple iTunes App Store. By best seller I mean it sold a thousand copies in a month, last May. My San Francisco app has sold in 46 foreign countries. My parallel book on San Francisco will never sell outside North America. That’s the nature of the book trade. It is difficult to manufacture and ship profitablty around the earth a physical product weighing a pound and priced at $14.95.

Why do you price your app so low, at $2.99? Aren’t you “selling out” and “cheapening” your photos?

When you do an app, you can generally set your price. The relationship with the “publisher,” meaning the Developer, is entirely different than in most past publisher arrangements. In the traditional photo book model, the publisher brought to the table capital (for the printing) and distribution (getting into Barnes & Noble). Though realities in the app world are evolving quickly, the scene tends to be that the Developer has the software and the Apple iTunes App Store is the egalitarian distribution channel. The Author gets a high percentage of the sale, typically 30%, so even a few sales can generate income.

Please break down that app-vs-book sale income further. Is there a dollar to be made?

I earn about as much when I sell one app at $2.99 than when Countryman sells one of my books at $14.95. (My apps were first priced at $1.99.)  Here is the math. Two apps sell for $1.99 x 2 and I earn 30% or $1.19. Countryman sells my $14.95 book through Amazon/Ingram at a typical 55% off, so they get $6.73 back, and I get 15% of net (which is a “good” rate today) or $1.01. Looking ahead, do you think it will be easier to get two sales worldwide at $1.99 to a smart phone device or one sale of a physical object at $14.95, possibly plus shipping, and likely only in North America?

I’m skeptical. Why should I get excited about photo apps?

It’s good to be skeptical. But consider the possibilities. Could we be entering a possible Golden Age from the point of view of the Content Creator, which is us, the photographers? Could we connect almost transparently with an audience? Could we earn micro payments from a vast new audience among the 6.9 billion people on earth? If Google comes through with sophisticated do-it-yourself software, could we manage it all ourselves, without even a Developer, and keep all the money? Could we, as photographers, become leaders in a green future, sharing our photo images with a worldwide public without ever cutting a tree or shipping a printed physical product around the earth? Of course, there is an alternative. We can continue to sell our photo content solely in the traditional markets. We can hope our outlets will remain slightly ahead of the insolvency and bankruptcy projected for the old model, such as National Geographic Adventure, where ad revenue reportedly fell 44% in 2009, making the shutdown of that magazine in December 2009 a prudent decision.

I’ll continue to meditate over these matters related to travel journalism, both apps and other matters, which you can click into from my Travel Journalism Instruction page, at

(Note: Lee Foster presents several instructional articles on his web site. If you find this instruction useful, you are encouraged to make a contribution/donation of $1 or more to Lee Foster’s PayPal account at [email protected] Funds will be used to develop further such instruction.)