Why it’s Too Early for Publishers to Give up on Media-Rich Ebooks

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Some observers of digital publishing have questioned why the many powerful tablets in the market have not brought forth a new generation of media-rich ebooks that delight readers with new forms of digital reading experiences. Meanwhile the current common wisdom among publishers is that there is no viable market for what have become known as “enhanced ebooks.”

Related: Apple Releases New iPads

I don’t think we can say whether there is a market for inventions we have not yet seen. Publishers do not (yet) see a market for inventive digital publishing, which is fair enough, given that there has yet to be a breakthrough ebook that proves there is one. But what if the reason we have not seen any real success in innovative ebooks is not a lack of market, but something else altogether?

Does Apple, whose iPad is arguably the best device we have ever seen for portable media consumption really care enough about ebooks to promote them to their user base? And why does Amazon, with its powerful line of Kindle Fire tablets fail to provide their devices with software that can viably even run basic audio and video files? Is the apparent market failure of media enhanced ebooks really about a different sort of failure altogether?

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Before we dispute the common wisdom about media-enriched ebooks, we need to talk about what “enhanced ebooks” has come to mean and whether we should even be using this term in the first place.

Digital reading platforms provide writers, storytellers and producers with the opportunity to enrich, enliven and deepen the reading experience. Almost every e-reading platform supports “live” tables of contents, where the reader can click on a chapter header and go to the chapter itself. Other simple text based navigation features include built in dictionaries, live linked indexes, endnote links and, connected to the web, live URLs embedded in the text as references.

We take it for granted that most e-reading experiences will enable these features — and it’s also common to give the readers some control over viewing photographs and illustrations.

But books — and ebook marketplaces — enter new territory when we add other media such as audio and video, and features like navigational interactivity and user-determined engagement tools. These features get books labeled as “enhanced” or “enriched.” Apple has been the leader in creating a platform that expands the concept of the book; the company’s term for what it enables is “multitouch” — a reasonably descriptive label for both the creator and the consumer. Another term that has gained some use is “transmedia storytelling” but it’s not clear whether that means anything to readers and many creators steeped in it dispute its meaning. Modern digital textbooks have sigificantly broadened the reading and learning experience for students without having to grapple with creating a new set of terms to describe the enhancements to ebooks they have introduced.

Aside from the fact that we don’t know what to call this type of ebook category (a marketing and a creative problem in and of itself!), creators and publishers who have tried to figure out whether and how to integrate these various multimedia and interactive elements into new products have faced a significant business challenge. Media-enriched ebooks for general interest readers have just not sold very well.

Admittedly we are in an early stage of the development of digital books, both on the creative and the consumption side. It took television 50 or 60 years to go from live proscenium filming with one camera to the sophisticated multi-camera computer enhanced productions we see today.

Digital technology develops much faster than we generally learn how to implement it. And it is entirely possible that book readers may simply be conservative by nature and not fond of “media interruptus.” Three-dimensional technology in movies may be a reasonable comparison. When it’s used as a trick to get more money from us as consumers, we don’t care very much. But if three-dimensional technology is integrated into the film-making in a way that makes it a better experience, (most notably in the recent feature Gravity), then we are much more readily compelled to put our money down to see it.

So it may yet just be a matter of waiting for a breakthrough use of media in ebook storytelling that compels readers to go out of their way to experience something new in what an ebook can do for them. We may soon start seeing generational changes in how ebooks are conceived and produced that we simply could not have imagined even a year ago, and these as yet unimagined products might capture the imagination of readers, especially those younger generations that have grown up on sophisticated screen based experiences.

Right now, we simply don’t know whether readers like, want and will pay for books that take full advantage of what digital publishing platforms can offer. And it’s likely going to take longer to find out than we expect. This is principally because of the nature of the fragmented ebook environment.

Apple, whose iOS systems and multi-touch iBooks software provide the best multi-media and interactive tools for creators and thus experiences for readers, and whose devices are in the hands of millions of consumers, appears to do less than their competitors to interest iPad and iPhone users in ebooks.

Amazon, whose Kindle, Kindle Fire and Kindle reading apps are now in the hands of the largest number of book readers, has been exceptionally slow to develop its software and hardware to support media rich reading experiences.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook also does not support any serious multi-media reading experiences; Kobo, with the tiniest fraction of the U.S. ebook market is the only e-reader that supports a significant subset of the software features developed for the industry in next generation e-publishing standard EPUB3 (according to the Book Industry Study Group, which tracks such things.)

Apple does not pre-load its iBookstore on new devices, instead treating it like any other app a user must select and download from the App Store. But, of course, iTunes does come pre-loaded on every iPad, iPod and iPhone, so it’s hard not to conclude that Apple sees ebooks as relatively less meaningful to its user base, which of course creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Amazon only recently began supporting audio and video embedded within ebooks running on Kindle Fire devices and Kindle apps running on iOS, computer and Android devices. But other features that are available in the Apple multi-touch environment simply do not exist in the Kindle or any other system environment. Amazon seems by nature conservative – their ads encourage buyers of Kindle Fire devices to use them to consume video while they push readers to buy simpler Kindle reading devices that don’t support media rich books at all (and display ebooks in “paperwhite” – which they promote as great for reading because they are just like a print book).

So the challenges for creators and publishers that aim to create new kinds of reading experiences are profound. The best platform for enriched ebooks is the iPad, but a relatively small subset of readers choose to read using the iBooks app. The platforms that reach the largest number of readers either don’t support media at all or their makers don’t promote their color devices for reading in the first place.

Thus there really is no meaningful opportunity for readers to experience something new that will delight and engage them, and therefore no way to judge whether a commercially viable market opportunity can ever be developed.

Developing rich ebooks is expensive, requiring specialized creative talents and skills, and either commissioning professionally produced original design, as well as video and audio assets, or licensing them for ebook use. And if publishers must commit to developing ebooks for multiple platforms with different software and capabilities, development costs rise accordingly. These kinds of ebooks are expensive and challenging to produce, but in a world where exotic and wonderful apps can sell for as little as $.99, it’s been almost impossible to price enriched ebooks at levels that will produce a profit for publishers.

Publishers and creators interested in creating innovative e-books are faced with an incredible range of challenges and frustrations. They know that people do enjoy consuming ebooks with a range of enrichments, because film and television producers that have produced enhanced ebooks to accompany their shows have had great success, with download and engagement levels that have been extremely high. The catch is that these ebooks are made available for free because they are such valuable engagement environments for the shows on which they are based – and they are funded from network or film company marketing budgets.

In the current environment, there is virtually no way for publishers to find out if there is a reasonable market for them to sell media-enriched ebooks with advanced storytelling features. Those who say definitively that there is no market for these books are making judgments without evidence. Ebooks derived from NBC’s Grimm, Disney’s Frankenweenie and other similar projects have reportedly drawn over 100,000 highly engaged readers each. Google’s ZMOT video enhanced ebook produced by Vook has had over 250,000 free downloads. Maybe sponsored ebooks will provide a path forward for innovative trade book publishers.

But I suspect the only way a true market for media enabled ebooks will become a reality is if either Apple puts its brilliant and powerful marketing muscle behind the iBookstore (and maybe the presence of it in the newly released Mavericks operating system is a good sign for the future), or more likely, if Amazon decides to foster a Kindle Fire environment that truly enables creativity and innovation for its millions of customers. Until that happens, creators, publishers and readers are going to continue to be frustrated.

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25 thoughts on “Why it’s Too Early for Publishers to Give up on Media-Rich Ebooks

  1. Pingback: Why it’s Too Early for Publishers to Give up on Media-Rich Ebooks | Web Tech News

  2. Calee Lee

    I’m curious why you equate free downloads for a product linked to an existing license with interest in enhanced ebooks. The data I would be much more interested in seeing is whether or not these books are even being read and then how even a very low priced enhanced ebook with the same characters/license/content system does. If people are willing to buy a sequel, then there’s interest.

    Until its proven that these downloads are more than “content hoarding” and people actually like the format and experience and are willing to pay for it, there are better publishing investments out there.

  3. David Wilk

    Calee – Thanks for writing. I’ve been told by producers that the engagement level on the ebooks connected with TV shows and movies is very high. Producers are very happy with them. These examples do demonstrate that consumers can be attracted to ebooks that extend what books can be. It’s entirely possible that traditional publishing economics won’t work for this kind of ebook production; after all, digital is changing the economics of all sorts of media, so maybe sponsored ebooks are going to become a big part of the future. YouTube has attracted huge audiences and plenty of production investment and viewers don’t pay for any of it (directly at least).

  4. David Wilk

    Calee – Thanks for commenting. I am not sure I agree that purchasing is the only way to measure interest. Producers of ebooks based on TV shows and movies report high levels of engagement and quite satisfactory responses from readers. YouTube producers invest heavily in videos that are viewed by millions at no cost to viewers. So maybe the business model for enhanced ebooks needs to be reconsidered. My main point is that it’s way too early in the development of media rich and inventively made ebooks for anyone to know what the actual market is. But there are clues….

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  8. Robert Gottlieb

    Publishers like these rights because they can warehouse them and wait for phone calls asking for rights as if they were permissions.

    Publishers are not in the business of cross platform content (enhanced books). They either publish or sell rights. Ware housing is not fair to authors who like to exploit rights in the market. I am only speaking of trade and not academic.

    The publishing model remains much the same at it’s core. Publishers don’t market rights well and enhanced books are a very good example. I was recently on a panel at BookExpo and there was a director of rights for a major publisher also on the panel. What struck me most about her presentation is how much publisher still rely on a phone call asking for rights as opposed to marketing rights.

    The Trident Media Group has fought hard to retain as many rights for our authors as possible but with the continuing consolidation with trade publishers and the painful changes taking place in the retail market push back continues to be a challenge with all the publishing houses.

    My advice to publishers is make sure you do well within the publishing space and be very careful about speculating in space you are willing to invest in and have no history with and taking rights for simply the sake of having them on a self.

    Robert Gottlieb
    Trident Media Group, LLC
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  9. John Shableski

    Much of this really depends on your expectations as a publisher or an author and whether or not you actually understand what the market is looking for. Publishing enhanced ebooks ‘just because we think there’s a need for it’ is akin to producing CD ROMs or apps-just because everyone else is doing it.

    If you want readers to discover your books in any platform you have to make it easy to access and read. Offering an enhanced experience without knowing if people actually like the story is a major time sink and waste of funds. Release the book in basic formats first then, if gains in popularity it might be worth investing in the enhancements. Otherwise you’re asking the reader to fly a Stealth Fighter before they even have a chance to take a seat on a commercial airline.

    I’d like to also comment on Apple’s lack of promotion for ebooks: it’s not Apple’s responsibility to promote anything but their products and services. Apple’s e-commerce tools are distribution. Promotion and Marketing lie squarely on the desk of the publisher and the creator/author. If you don’t tell people about your book then it has a very poor chance of surviving.

    Ideally, you create the book in a basic edition for print and digital. The great thing about digital is it allows you to gauge the success of a story without eating print costs. If the book grows legs(provided you have actually been marketing the story) then digital should be converting to hard copy sales. Then, if there really is a deep love of the story you can invest in the enhanced reading experience. The film industry already does this with basic dvd and bonus feature editions.

    I’m not saying that enhanced ebooks are a waste it’s just that serious consideration needs to be given of where the book is targeted and how it will be marketed first…before you invest in the enhancement technology. Not every book is worth it but some are.

  10. Jan Whitaker

    I would think children’s books would be the most likely entry vehicle for enhanced effects. But I have to admit to a dread about books becoming even less and less about literature and more and more about the entertainment/games world.

  11. Jon Feldman

    David, your essay nicely lays out of the challenges and paradoxes in this space.

    At Open Air Publishing, we focused on nonfiction, digital first (read: digital only) original works. Our “Betterbook” instructional ebooks were built on Inkling first, because
    (1) Its platform (unlike Amazon’s) allowed the seamless integration of video, audio, and interactive photos and illustrations that enhanced the instructional experience.
    (2) Its authoring and design tools (Habitat) are lightyears ahead of iBooks Author, which is the next closest thing. And as you correctly highlighted here, there’s no marketplace for ebooks on the iPad via the iBookstore — its iBooks Author category is a ghost town. (Our ebooks as iOS apps sell 10-30X more in the App Store than the same titles do in the iBookstore — see related: http://paidcontent.org/2013/07/03/publish-ebook-ios/ )

    What’s missing among the traditional publishers is digital marketing savvy, and patience. For example, nearly two years since the launch of our title “Master Your DSLR Camera”, we’ve now *sold* over 100,000 units, and for far more than 99 cents (it sells for $9.99 and is sometimes discounted to $4.99). It’s not enough to make great products. You need a new kind of hustle to sell them. Publishers need new digital-only marketing teams that come from non-publishing backgrounds and live in the digital trenches — people who eat and sleep digital paid marketing funnels, landing page a/b testing, app store optimization, SEO, SEM, Facebook mobile ads, and more.

    If publishers see low early sales of “enhanced” ebooks and, as a result, scale back their future budgets for this stuff, they’re only creating their own self-fulfilling prophecy.

  12. Clynton Hunt

    I’ve spent a lot of time working in children’s ebook production, including enhanced ebooks. Is there a market? Have you ever compared the reaction of a child to an enhanced ebook, even one that only contains audio elements, to an ebook that contains no enhancements? Which one do children exhibit delight in? Which one do they ask for again, or go back to on their own? I’ve seen the same thing in classrooms too. The preference for enhanced ebooks, at least with this young audience, seems clear. Discoverability remains a major problem. Many, many parents and teachers simply don’t know that they exist or how to find them. Many assume that they’re apps and have no idea what’s available as ebooks. If we can’t solve that problem then I’m not sure we’ll find out how much potential the category actually has.

  13. David Wilk

    Jan – there are many examples of ebooks for kids that are interactive in some ways but not “game-ified” either and that preserve the reading experience for kids. The read along feature is very powerful. Recent reports indicate that engagement is very high for kids ebooks. And it’s still a reading experience. I am involved with Frederator Books, where we are publishing ebooks for kids; our mission is “to keep alive the magic of books and especially to preserve the unique relationship of reader to text as we move into the digital age.” http://bit.ly/H6CSdO.

  14. Mark Sroufe

    My enhanced ebook — 2084 — received this year’s Digital Book World Publishing Innovation Award (now called the ‘Digital Book Award\) for Best Graphic Novel for its use of interactivity, music, animation, video, SFX and 3D presentation.

    I spoke with various agents and publishers who served on panels at Digital Book World when the awards were given in January. The word was the same from ALL of them: they were only looking for standard, text-only ebooks. Those who took the time to look at 2084 were blown away, but it was clearly beyond their mindsets and, frankly, they didn’t know how to approach the concept of ‘Enhanced eBooks’, had no insight into what the medium is capable of and, when asked if they knew of anyone venturing into the area, came up blank.

    DBW itself has treated enhanced ebooks with only passing interest

    If agents, publishers, comics/graphic novel web sites and even DBW are scratching their heads to the point of tacit disinterest, why should we be surprised that no progress has been made?

    I’m not talking about revenues of existent enhanced ebooks (what few there are). My sales have been hurt — as was expected from the beginning — by the fact that readers need to view it with red/cyan glasses (included in the app’s $2.99 price. When they buy 2084 they are sent the glasses by mail) which means there is no immediate gratification. Too, the overall market for eGraphic Novels is still low in comparison to ‘regular’ eBooks. David is correct when he points out that Apple does very, very little to promote ebooks in their store and nothing to highlight enhanced ebooks.

    I’m speaking, instead, of the lack within the industry of a mindset that can envision anything new. I suppose this is part of the learning curve. After all, it has taken five+ years for them to really begin to take e-content seriously.

    As David suggests, truly enhanced ebooks are expensive to make and it will take a \breakthrough\ enhanced ebook that makes a lot of money before the industry will take them seriously.

    So, while I await for a glasses-free 3D tablet to be released by a mainstream player (currently available in Asia, of course) all of us will simply have to wait for the industry to continue its slow evolution.

  15. Calee Lee

    Jan- that’s why all of our children’s ebooks have been designed to be “distraction-free.” Since most of our titles are for the Preschool – 2nd grade range, we’ve found that the last thing parents want is for reading time to be game time. I think there’s plenty of space for hybrid media, but just because families are shifting to digital content, doesn’t mean that there still isn’t going to be that recognizable bedtime story routine.

  16. Michael W. Perry

    I fully agree with this remark: \Apple does not pre-load its iBookstore on new devices, instead treating it like any other app a user must select and download from the App Store. But, of course, iTunes does come pre-loaded on every iPad, iPod and iPhone, so it’s hard not to conclude that Apple sees ebooks as relatively less meaningful to its user base, which of course creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.\

    With a correction that notes that iBooks does ship with the just out version of OS X. That was easy for Apple to do.

    Apple doesn’t put much into digital books, almost certainly because its upper executives are from a beaches, surfing and music generation. That, I suspect, is why the iBooks team at Apple is small. I doubt it’s much more than 1% of the size of the iTunes team. There’s only so much they can do.

    But fussing about the lack of media-rich books misses one of the main issues. In comparison to video, writing is incredibly easy and inexpensive. I once listened to the director of a movie explain a few short scenes that took place just after sunrise. They looked marvelous. That is a ‘magic moment’ for filming. But he said he’d never do that again. Those few scenes took a week to film and almost destroyed its budget. Writing ‘it was just after sunrise’ was easy. Filming it wasn’t.

    Video is filled with those sorts of complications. I can, with the greatest of easy, set the scene of a book on a busy street in the 1920s. Finding such a spot and leasing the antique cars, as well as dressing and paying those on that street will run into five digits even for just a couple of minutes. No publisher has that sort of money, particularly for a novel that may bomb. That’s one reason why expensive movies tend to be based on books that are already bestsellers.

    I’ve not heard a term for it, but writing differs from film-making in one very important respect. A Hemingway can bang out a short story on a battered old typewriter that’ll be marvelous, however it is published. That’s not even remotely true for a movie or media-enhancements for books. The costs of creating realistic scenes is enormous. Hemingway could sit in a cottage in Key West and take his readers to a lion hunt in Africa. Actually filming a lion hunt in Africa for a movie version costs far more in time, money and risk.

    There’s also an additional factor. Thanks to television and Hollywood we’re used to quality productions. When someone tries to throw together a low-budget equivalent that will be obvious. With only a few exceptions, you simply can’t fake all the bother and expense of doing even half-decent rich media.

    Even simply adding pictures to books can be a problem. My latest two books/ebooks have a picture with each chapter. But that’s because for their topic, hospitalized children, there are literally hundreds of quality photos available from stock photo services. It’d have cost me thousands of dollars, dozens of willing children, and the permission of a hospital to create those pictures on my own. If you want to see the result, get samples of Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments & My Nights with Leukemia from Amazon or Apple. A well-chosen, full-color photo at the start of each chapter is about the best that’s realistic for most books published today, an not every books has those pictures available. Even moving that picture elsewhere from the opening of a chapter that starts on a new page triggers all sorts of ugly page breaks in most ereaders.

    Oddly, the best use of media-rich books is likely to be ebooks that center on topics for which there’s already existing film footage, whether that’s great events in the World Series or World War II battles. Creating video from nothing is simply too expensive.

    –Michael W. Perry

  17. DMcCunney

    Color me cynical, but I suspect most \enhanced\ eBook offerings put the cart before the horse. The publisher says \Hey! I can *charge* more for this and make more money!\

    Er, no. Value is relative. Something is worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. You can only charge more if the buyer sees added value to *them*.

    Most examples I’ve seen of enhanced eBooks could be published just as effectively as text. The \enhanced\ features don’t add anything significant to the work that will justify a higher price.

    An enhanced eBook is a multimedia presentation, and should be planned and executed as one from the beginning, starting with \Does this content *need* a multimedia approach?\ If it doesn’t, don’t do it. You will likely fail in the market, and will have spent substantial extra money to produce something customers won’t buy and simply increased your losses.

    Apple is not the driver in the marketplace. Nor is Amazon. The customer is the driver. You succeed by understanding who your customer is and offering things your customer wants to buy. Apple and Amazon expending marketing muscle will not magically make a silk purse out of the enhanced eBook sow’s ear. The only thing that will do that is enhanced content the customer wants to buy, and 95% or more of what anyone publishes will not qualify for enhancement. Anyone who thinks it does in engaging in starry eyed wishful thinking and deserves the failure that will result.

  18. PF

    E-readers are quickly becoming tablets. At what point does an enhanced ebook become a website? What are the real differences between an enhanced ebook and a website as a media for sharing information?

    When given the choice, it’s likely consumers would rather have a free website and ignore the ads, than a pay-for-access, DRM restricted, one user website (enhanced ebook).

  19. David Wilk

    PF – Doesn’t the offline portability of an ebook provide some advantages over a website, which can only be accessed when online? And aren’t the ebook-making tools and navigation capabilities, especially when optimized for touch screen environments on e-reading devices and tablets, also significant advantage to the ebook over a website? It is a fair question to ask whether the abundance of free content reduces the attractiveness of paid products and services, but we see over and over again that when presented with compelling content in compelling and interesting formats, people will pay some amount for the benefits they gain. I think ebooks have a very good chance of maintaining value over free websites that are less conducive to immersive experiences and are always tethered to the internet.

  20. Sara O'Connor

    I can’t help but be frustrated at accusations that publishers are not experimenting, not innovating, or even sitting on rights, as accused in Robert Gottlieb’s comments.

    We’ve been experimenting with trade fiction titles as enhanced ebooks from day one, at the same price as the regular ebook.

    And what we learned quite early on from our experiments is that terms like “multitouch” and “transmedia” – and even “enhanced ebook” – are so far from what a consumer is familiar with or cares about. They are meaningless words that the industry is obsessing over, when to a reader, it’s just a book with whizzy things in it.

    The easiest way to sell an enhanced ebook is to sit down with a consumer and walk them through it. With our MAGGOT MOON multitouch, we get gasps from everyone we show it to.

    In addition, actually talking to readers helps with understanding that problem: “Right now, we simply don’t know whether readers like, want and will pay for books that take full advantage of what digital publishing platform can offer.”

    Trouble is, sitting down one-by-one with readers, librarians, teachers is a very slow process. But we don’t mind leading the march.

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  24. Jennifer

    I think that there is a huge market for enhanced ebooks, which I agree also is likely in the children’s market. While of course, you don’t want things to become a crutch (i.e. too overstimulating or busy), I feel like enhancements would aid children’s reading comprehension and engagement. I think it is way too early to say that there is not a market for these types of books… It’s like a more engaging electronic pop-up book. I think the hardest part is figuring out the dollars and cents.



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