Some Tough Questions for Enhanced E-Books

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Last week’s Pew study on e-reading gave publishers some hope that consumers might be ready for enhanced e-books. I’m not so sure.

If the enhanced e-book is the future, then why is (almost) every enhanced e-book start-up either bankrupt, struggling or has pivoted to something else?

Why are most big publishers losing money on enhanced e-books (a few notable exceptions in specialized segments)?

And at what point is it no longer a book, but a game or video with some text (i.e. the equivalent of the free “extras” on a DVD)?

And has anybody actually tracked how readers “read” enhanced e-books? Do they click on those audio and video links and if so, when? Do we really understand this medium?

I am a big believer in enhanced e-books for children (replace carousel books and the like) or for travel books (now apps). But replacing narrative-driven books (novels) for adults? Gulp, hard to believe.

I am with Mike Shatzkin on this. Lots of noise, little evidence.

Andrew Rhomberg

About Andrew Rhomberg

Andrew is the founder of Jellybooks, a start-up focused on exploring, sampling and sharing ebooks. He previously worked at txtr (whitelabel ebook retail platform), Skype (internet telephony), Reciva (internet radio), gate5 (now Nokia Maps), and Shell (oil). He holds a science Ph.D. from MIT. Follow him on Twitter at @arhomberg.

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38 thoughts on “Some Tough Questions for Enhanced E-Books

  1. If by “enhanced ebook” you mean ruining a perfectly good novel with distracting and superfluous video, I’m with you all the way.

    But it’s way too soon to declare the sum total of the ebook product to be long form text, which is your implication. As the cost and technical complexity of building books and paginated apps drops to simple ebook levels, and it will, and there’s support for richer experiences in ebook reading systems, we’ll have an opportunity to see what the book-inclined imagination is capable of.

    At the moment, calling time of death on anything but long form text would be like declaring DOS, in 1983, the ultimate in operating systems.

    • enhanced ebooks create little hype waves from time to time

      This post was born in response to a statement “in 10 years the books as we know it will be dead” and the enhanced ebook will totally dominate”.

      In 10 years the conventional ebook will have a large market share, but printed books may still have double digit market share (10%, 20%, maybe even 30%).

      As for enhanced ebook (ebooks with enhancements, not apps which also use textual content): they are already thriving in some niches, like travel apps for example. I count these as enhanced apps in that they start with what used to be a printed books. The contents of a traditional book contained transformed into a new container, the app, and interface, the mobile device with touch screen.

      Above all, though, enhanced ebooks have been a business for publishers and developers. The few outlier do not make up for the many mediocre sales results to date.

      • Only iBooks, with a small overall share, is capable of anything more than an embedded video. Given that reality, how can one declare a format doomed because of mediocre sales? Better sales figures are impossible in ebook format until ebook reading systems can deliver such products. So the conclusion that books delivering other than text are not a business is an interesting species of tautoligical non sequitur.

        The sad fact is that the center of innovation had moved to native apps because ebook/ePub systems are designed to deliver text. You may be right, if I take your meaning correctly, that app makers will inherit categories that book publishing might have once owned, but lost their grip on.

        • I I am resisting the excessive hype (see recent Forbes article).

          I have never said here or elsewhere hat enhanced ebooks are doomed. They have their place, their fans, the people willing to buy them.

          However, the jury is still out on how big their share of the “book publishing market place” will be.

          CD-ROMS were hyped, hyped, hyped… They are not dead. I bought a book not so long ago that had a CD-ROM stuck in it, but their significance? A footnote!

  2. Few things are an overnight success. Enhanced learning/reading modalities are so new that there is no path yet to evaluate. The methods that resonate today are mere variations on the accepted norms. As the readers advance and the the newness wears off, there will, no doubt, be information delivery methods that become a new norm and the promise of all this will reveal itself. We are years from having this discussion and your shortsighted observations seem protectionist of the \old way.\

    • I was drawing attention to the considerable gap in the occasional hype surrounding ENHANCED ebooks versus market reality and user adoption.

      I would welcome an enhanced-ebook evangelist to share data on how readers actually use enhanced ebooks: how much time spent reading, how much spent watching video and audio, how many interuptions, how does the reader flip back and forth between the medium. Once we know more about how readers behave, we are in a better position to judge how this medium will evolve.

  3. We have been publishing CD Roms since 1988 and apps since months after the app store when live, ( now with 52) we are about to publish our first enhance E-book using iBook Author. But the fact of the matter the product a history of Presidential Elections is not an enhanced E-book but rather a book re thought. Its very different from our CD’ and very different from our Apps, but it also very different then a standard book. In my opinion a book that is enhanced with a few videos and then cost an extra four dollars for a few minutes of video, has no future. Does our format? Not sure, its certainly an experiment on our part, but if we expect to get the next generation to consumes books it is going to have to be in a much richer media experience

    • experimentation is always great and every publisher should do experiments with mixed formats

      my observation is that currently for every enhanced ebook, there are 100, maybe even 1,000 non-enhanced ebooks being published.

  4. I wouldn’t give up on enhanced ebooks just yet. As a technical writer for a electronics system manufacturer, I’m experimenting with adding relevant content to user/service manuals for an ebook format. What I’m working against is that most readers aren’t ready to jump to using an ereader/tablet to read a technical manual. And I need to make sure my development time is short enough so my company doesn’t balk at the extra costs to create the enhanced manual.

    For the ebooks I read/purchase, I’ve yet to find any enhancement that really makes sense for me. In magazines, I like links to videos. But if you have to develop special videos/dynamic graphics and such solely for a book, it’s hard to keep the costs down low enough to make it profitable while adding enough value to the reader. And since most readers don’t want to pay a lot of money for an ebook, it’s even harder to work the numbers in any publisher’s favor.

  5. Give it time. The enhanced e-book market is just beginning to find itself. And yes, it will be a challenge to create innovative and compelling enhanced e-books while still being able to make a profit off of them, but I think it’s important to look at enhanced e-books (and we need a better name!) as an entirely new medium–a cross between books, movies, and games.

    Also, enhanced e-books aren’t a replacement for books or movies as much as an alternative. When movies first came on the scene, they didn’t destroy the theater, they merely reinvented it. As the author of a “regular” book, I look forward to a future where books and enhanced e-books happily coexist.

  6. If by enhanced e-book you are referring to the I-book2, there are serious problems with Apple’s pricing strategy. Since you have to invest a lot more money to produce a book that is half text and half video, you can’t sell most enhanced books at their $14.95 list price and make any money. It would only work for very high volume books, not most textbooks.

  7. Enhanced e-books probably don’t make much sense for novels, but they are very important–and proving very successful–in appropriate markets such as textbooks. For example, we’ve just completed the 11th digital edition of New Perspectives on Computer Concepts, which is–and has been–one of the most successful computer concepts books on the market. Other areas where multimedia books have tremendous potential–and growing sales–are language learning, cooking, how-to books, sport/exercise books, non-fiction books, motivational books. religious training, and corporate training.

    Key factors in success of multimedia digital books will be production cost, production time, added value for the reader, and cross-platform capabilities. Success depends on a cost-effective production process.

  8. Defining what an enhancement is would help. As a publisher we’ve introduced basic enhancements like images and similar static material that adds value to the text in bothy fiction and non-fiction.

    But even this elementary measure presents immense difficulties for many e-readers and especially for the millions of b&w Kindles still in use. And of course outside the US, and especially in UK and Europe Kindle-zone countries, the KindleFire is not available.

    Moving on to including video graphics and other enhancements seems all but pointless while we have a clear class divide with equipment that either can or cannot support the extras.

  9. I understand the reluctance to embrace the \enhanced\ book of today. Many of the examples we can touch and experience now feel forced and lack any specific strategic approach other than to show what’s possible (not necessarily desirable) with the various mediums and social platforms. But this is a storytelling medium in its absolute infancy. Like many great advances, it will be the artists and the storytellers that advance the idea of a broader canvas, one slow, organic step at a time. The path will be full of over-reaching and epic flameouts, but it will also continually advance the ball to the point where storytelling has a new definition that everyone has slowly come to realize and in fact, expect. That there are companies boldly striking out for the new world and sinking before arrival should not prevent our publishing industry from setting our sights in this direction. It strikes me as naive and shortsighted to assume that the future we can actually see today is what will happen tomorrow. Since when has that ever been the case? Video, performance audio, social conversation, user-generated conversations and content, games, etc — all of it will eventually figure more naturally into the story experience in some way or another that we’ve not yet fully mastered. In my opinion, publishers should (better) keep aggressively broadening their definition of \publish\ to include much more than just text. Too much is left on the table otherwise for other, hungrier, companies to gobble up and happily take for their own.

  10. There is nothing ordinary about the nonfiction enhanced ebook I’ve written. I will even go so far as to say that what I have done has never been done before: incorporated 63 minutes of embedded audio (in 32 mp3 files) into an actual narrative.

    The book is titled, ROOFMAN: A True Story of Cold War Espionage. It describes my experiences as a double agent for the FBI against Soviet intelligence. Ten of its seventeen chapters contain audio tapes of conversations I had with my FBI case officers and my Soviet GRU officer. Some of those tapes with the Russian were made in my apartment. Needless to say, none of the other protagonists knew they were being taped. I bugged the buggers!

    Please checkout my website and see for yourself:

    http://roofmanthespy.com/

    Thank you

  11. Enhanced eBooks have a place, but perhaps it will take time for them into fall into it. We’re still in the discovery stage with eBooks, having these extra features may be beneficial to one genre but not so much for others. The issue is with publishers forcing content to be enhanced when it just takes away from the purpose of the content.

  12. I’m willing to bet that in 10 years what we now think of as an enhanced ebook will no longer be called or thought of as “enhanced.” It will just be another type of book, the way coffee table picture books are now considered just another form of a print book. In other words, our mindset about what constitutes a book, whether it’s electronic, paper, enhanced, illustrated, etc., might need to evolve.

  13. Nobody should give on trying new stuff (a bit on the side at least) and enhanced ebooks make a ton of sense in some cases, we just don’t know yet what the sweet spot for enhanced ebooks is and how big that sweet spot is, but it may much smaller than some of the hype surrounding enhanced ebooks suggests. ebooks (non-enhanced) have discovered their sweet spot in trade publishing, especially for crime, romance, scifi and genre fiction in general.

    As for manual, it is noteworthy that flight manuals are moving to tablets despite the fact that you were not supposed to use these devices on air planes. Once the utility was proven the FAA though tablets were perfectly safe to use in the cockpit. Interesting isn’t it?

  14. but does the size of this future place justify the hype surrounding enhanced ebooks? Is hyperbole like in 10 years we will read all books as enhanced ebooks warranted? Cheap colour printing has been with us for a long time, yet most narrative books (novels) are still printed in black and white (except for the cover). The availabilty of a tool does not mean it is appropriate for all uses.

    • Hype is just another tool in the salesman’s tool belt. How many examples are there of a product or trend that lived up to the hype that preceded it? Maybe besides Apple products…

      • hype is the tool of the desperate salesman who has no data and no proof

        hype destroys companies as inevitable they start believing their own hype and start mis-allocating resources. Hype shuts down the vital feedback loop from customer to supplier.

        hype burns out like a fire feeding on straw

        • When is it hype and when is it vision? What is the difference between those two words when the future one sees and conjectures about actually comes to fruition, in some form or another? The point that you are making I believe, and that I agree with, is that it’s wasteful for many of today’s mostly text publishers to over-invest in an unformed, unproven idea. You reference CD-ROM, which is the sword most frequently brandished by those who’ve been around for awhile in the publishing industry and by those that doubt the world of reading and engaging with an author’s work will change significantly. For me though, the point is about publishers staying relevant and vital and open to the possibilities. What I see is not a future where enhanced books (such a temporary, moment-in-time name, by the way – reminds me of the”talking pictures” label applied to movies with audio in the 1920s) replace text volumes, but rather a time where it is an increasingly natural way of engaging with the type of content publishers have traditionally published. Why should we, as you suggest, leave that content to other industries to exploit such as movie studios and record labels or gaming companies, when it’s highly likely that the authors who feed our publishing industry will eventually desire these elements, either incorporated into a book or featured online on their websites or as an additional revenue source. Why leave that on the table for others? I’m suggesting that publishers need to wipe their one dramatic flameout — the CD-ROM — from their memory bank (it happens!) and keep doing their best to have show the vision necessary to stay vital and find new ways to keep their bread and butter base – authors, artists and content creators – from having to look to alternate industries to publishing all of their content.

          • I have 12 years in technology behind me from Internet radio, through VOIP, LBS, etc to ebooks. Skype wa a homerun and Nokia Maps was a very decent success, the rest were failures and they were failures mostly becasue we chased a vision despite the negative data that was in plain sight.

            I am with Eric Ries, author of the “Lean Startup” on this one. If you can’t test your vision or at least break it down into testable experiments, you may be wasting many of years of your life or career on a mirage.

            Also, ther description “the book industry” is part of the problem here. Educational publishing, academicic publishing, trade publishing, etc serve very different consumers and needs. I would encourage propenents of enhanced ebooks to formulate how “enhancements will benefits users in each niche, how these enhancements will be economically attarctive and competitive and show data how consumers enagge with theproduct.

            Then I will convert. I am not taking it “on faith”

  15. As an independent publisher in the fitness industry, I hope this gets sorted out soon. I’m sure that enhanced ebooks will become the industry standard in my field, and numerous other nonfiction genres too, as real time demonstration a skill or set of steps is infinitely better than photographs or illustrations.

    • Sadly, you are facing a future of:

      - “enhanced ebook for iPad”
      - “enhanced ebook for Kindle Fire”
      - “enhanced ebook for Nook tablet”
      - etc.

      this is one of the big challenges for enhanced ebooks. They are complicated and expensive to produce and the fragmentation of platforms is making it even more challenging. Note, how Rovio, developers of the smash hit “Angry Birds”, didn’t find it worth their time to develop a version for Windows Phone, evn though that is the chosen platform for the future of their Helsinki home town champion Nokia.

      Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Co have no interest in a unified standard. It’s like the internet anno AOL & Co.

  16. I agree that it is not going to be economically feasible to create enhanced ebooks for iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook tablet, Mac, Windows, etc. And creating custom apps for each platform would cost even more. The solution is cross-platform, multimedia books–products that you create once, then run on almost everything. This is definitely possible, particularly if you go beyond current limited e-book standards/readers and think of the browser as the cross-platform reader.

  17. then you are essentially advocating HTML5, as opposed to native app and today “enhanced ebook” is almost synonimous with native app.

    There is nothing wrong with multi-media HTML5 products and they probably deserve more attention than they are actually getting. People might be afraid of HTML5 simply because the tools for using it are still immature, but commercially this is probably where the future lies.

  18. That the ratio of 1000-100 (and I think it’s a far small number of enhanced ebooks in reality) is in part simply in the economics (and format and…). It’s simpler, faster and less costly to produce a non-enhanced ebook.

    As you say, enhanced books have their place, but they are not appropriate for all content. In many cases, such as with Travel Guides, the form will cease to be a book at all and therein will create an issue with the ability to judge the relative success or failure of ‘enhanced ebooks’ as a category. There are too many nuances within this catch-all and we would do well to not lump together all the types of products discussed here. Long-form narrative will utilize (or not) enhanced features far differently from children’s or reference titles, for example. And what some may consider an enhanced ebook by some may be an app to others. National Geographic has had great success (e.g. seven-figure sales) with its atlas apps. But are they enhanced ebooks or a new form of content altogether?

  19. well maybe we should drop the term “book” from enhanced ebooks” and instead talk about:

    - apps enhanced with narrative

    - apps for things we previously used books for

    but this prompts the question if book publishers are those best placed to exploit these opportunities and I think book publishers are still distinct from record label, movie studios and game or app developers in terms of their business models and practices…
    ….

  20. I did an enhanced version of my historical novel, Duty, Honor, Country a Novel of West Point & The Civil War using photos of historical characters, maps of battles, even some a song sung in the book via the West Point Glee club.

    I dropped it all. I found it interfered with reading.
    However, that’s not to say the generation growing up with video games and the internet might not see things differently.

    Also, I definitely see a place for it in nonfiction. How many of us have gone to YouTube to watch a “how to” video?

  21. There is future for enhanced books–ebooks–whatever you want to call them. Currently, I don’t believe it is in the world of fiction, but in non-fiction and used as learning tools. However, as we as a society embrace the technology, and innovators create products we want to have, then we will see a surge of these types of books in fiction. The mindset seems to be the reader wants an easy way to read their “books” and these eReaders have given us the ability to carry many. I was just recently on vacation and I saw more Kindles, iPads and other eReaders on the beach than I saw books. Heck, I brought my iPad and wrote 5k words on the beach for my next novel. Just like we fought the eBook, we will fight the enhanced eBook, but eventually, its time will come.

  22. “replacing narrative-driven books (novels) for adults” – now there’s your problem right there. Enhanced ebooks are something completely new and different. Most publishers are just trying to tag the media into existing book structure – that’s why they suck.

    • No, not really, about 100 million narrative driven ebooks are bought every month by happy readers. These are people who are happy to pay money for the product in its current form without video or audio interrupting the narrative, no multiply story endings, nu op or down voting of characters, etc. Publishers are simply reacting to demand. Many publishers had been dragged into this brave new world of digital publishing, but they were convinced by hard data, sales, by customer engagement metrics and the like.

      For enhanced ebooks most of this data is missing. The main line of argumentation seems to be “have faith this is the future, enhanced ebooks are not interactive CD-ROMs, they are not QR codes, etc.”

      There are phenomenally successfull enhanced ebooks and they have have deservedly succeeded, but their importance in the digital publishing market as a whole is roughly equivalent to the role of coffee table books in print publishing.

      I merely asked people to look at the facts. Nobody has produced any data in support of why enhanced ebooks might have a bigger role in the future than they have today.

  23. It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion between all these terms. What is the definition of each? And the advantages and disadvantages?

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