APPly yourself

This is the first article of a two-part series about apps — what they are, how they work and how they can make you money. Part two by Natalie Bartley will talk about the creative process and challenges of creating an app, which will run in the April/May issue of OU.
What the heck is an app, anyway? Should you be creating one? Can it make you money?
The word app is short for “application.” It’s a software program that works on devices from smartphones (like an iPhone or an Android) to tablets (like an iPad or Nook) and sometimes even computers. An app can be anything — a book, a game, a how-to or a travel guide — and it can do almost everything. For example, I have apps that can track airline schedules or replay recordings of bird songs.
Why did I start creating apps? Like many of you, I found that my writing markets started dwindling about five years ago when newspapers and magazines cut back their freelance budgets, or worse, went out of business.
I decided to give apps a try. The app I created is Seattle Essential, a travel guide to the city covering attractions and restaurants. I’m also now working on travel guides to Napa and Sonoma wine country.
Just like the need for a publishing company to turn your manuscript into a printed book, you need someone to develop software to turn your words into an app. To create your app, one approach is to “rent a geek,” to hire a software designer to create the necessary program. That costs about $10,000 to $100,000.
Alternatively, you can deal with a mobile app publishing company such as Sutro Media (, with which I work. Natalie Bartley, who is writing a follow-up article to this piece, also did her Boise’s Best Outdoor Adventures app with Sutro. The world’s largest platform for indie travel writers, Sutro has more than 350 apps with another 300 apps in the pipeline.
So, how much money can you make? According to Sutro, the average app author earns — net — about $650 a year. But don’t stop reading now.
I’ve done better than that. I’ve sold nearly 5,000 apps in less than two years and expect to make about $2,000 a year. In comparison, I earned zilch from the various Frommer’s guidebooks I have written. All the advances went to my research costs and I never saw a penny in royalties.
Here’s how the profits for an Apple app are divided with Sutro Media:

  • Apple gets 30 percent
  • Sutro gets 40 percent (software designers and editor)
  • Author gets 30 percent

My app sells for $1.99 — which means I get about 60 cents for each sale. Does this sound like chicken feed? My writer/photographer friend, Lee Foster, who has written several guidebooks as well as apps, has analyzed how the two compare. Basically, he earns about as much when he sells two apps at $1.99 each, compared to when his publisher sells one of his books for $14.95.
Creating a travel or how-to app is like writing a print book. The Sutro software uses a database format. You cut-and-paste details such as addresses and phone numbers. For each listing (such as an attraction, tour operator, or restaurant), you write a description, which runs about 150 words. Long copy doesn’t work on the small screen of a smartphone.
It takes me about 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete each listing. Seattle has about 170 listings at this point, so it took me roughly 200 hours to complete — about 6-8 weeks of work.
Photos are a very important part of each listing. You can either shoot your own or get open source photos through a group such as the Flickr Creative Commons group ( And, with larger screens and vibrant display screens on iPad, videos are now crucial additions to app content. But you don’t have to be a film director like Francis Ford Coppola, you can just link to already-existing videos.
How do you make money? Here’s the secret of success and it’s quite simple: the amount you make is directly proportional to the popularity of your subject matter. For example, the travel guide app to Las Vegas. Las Vegas gets nearly 40 million visitors a year. The city has 150,000 hotel rooms occupied 85 percent of the time. Guests in those rooms want to know about the best restaurants and the latest shows.
So, if you’re in it for the money, rather than to get exposure or express yourself, why should you do an app?
Do it if you have:

  • App-titude: If you’re an expert about something …
  • App-eal: … and that something is very, very popular …
  • App-etite: … and you can (hopefully) cannibalize previous work you’ve done.

Then go ahead — APP-ly yourself! ◊
A member since 2004, Risa Wyatt has been a travel writer for more than 20 years covering adventure travel, food, and wine. In 2010, she created her travel app “Seattle Essential,” a guide to top attractions in the city. The app is now the number-one bestselling mobile guide to Seattle. Contact her at

Scroll to Top