Animal Magic – photo app sells in the thousands

Case study by Tim Dawson

Perusing Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols’ iPad app is to see his famed work for National Geographic come alive.  There are more than 30 galleries of pictures from assignments over the past three decades, videos and expedition mementos, all are presented with the kind of slick quality that one might expect from National Geographic itself.

And yet this is not from the stable at the venerable American title, but from the photographer himself.  “If you’re going to look at my work, I really want it to be an ‘environment’ and with the app I could control that”, he explains.  “An app meant no gutters, no clutter, no ads—so you could make something beautiful. That’s what it evolved out of. I didn’t set out to have an app. I set out to come up with a paid content experiment.”

It is available from Apple’s app store for $3.99 – about the same as a copy of National Geographic on for the same platform.  And, as with most sales through the iStore, Apple takes 30% of the purchase price.  Nichols was able to publish his work in this way because, although he has been on National Geographic’s staff since 1996, and is currently the magazine’s editor-at-large, he shares copyright in his works with his employer.  Developing the app took around a year and was largely undertaken by Greg Harris of the Daily Interactive and Nichols studio manager Jenna Pirog.

Nichols won’t be drawn on the actual cost of developing the app.  He does confirm, however, that since its launch in July, it has sold nearly 3,000 copies.  The target has always been around 5,000 – the level of sales at which he says that he would consider his previous books of photography a success.

What his app shows beyond question is how fabulous photography can look on an iPad.  The luminous quality that the Apple device’s screens add to still images is wonderful – although, obviously, the lustre that this to images diminishes the more used to it viewers become.  Less certain is whether this publishing model is one that might be emulated by others.  Nichols acknowledges that he can only undertake his work because it is financed by his employer.

Notwithstanding that, as the skills in creating apps proliferate and the take up of tablet computers spreads, there is much in this model that could be copied.  Apple’s hermitically-sealed world might annoy some, but, apps offer a level of digital rights management that will reassure many of those who make their living from controlling use of their images.  And, even if selling photographs as apps might not provide sufficient funds on which to retire, the combination of usefulness as a portfolio, sales revenue with a long tail, and potentially very low start-up costs, should make this an attractive route to self-publishing for an increasing number of photographers.