Enhancing Ebooks: An Author Perspective

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

Right now we are facing a game-changing moment in publishing, where publication is possible for those who might never have achieved it before, an opportunity created by the rise of digital publishing. As an author I am excited by the opportunities that the digital medium presents and keen to find new ways to entertain and engage readers. Yet it’s also true that one of the greatest challenges facing authors today is how to write for the digital age.

Skill at storytelling using the written word does not necessarily translate to skill using various new technologies available, or even knowing which options to utilize.

Writers write and, thankfully, I think there will always be a market for the book in its traditional print form and electronic equivalent.

But digital publishing presents an opportunity for enhancement and interactivity that’s talked about a lot more than it’s explored, and the main reason for this is the technology available to authors, the level of knowledge authors have about these programs, and differences between the various digital reading devices.

Related: The Digital Book Awards, honoring the most innovative digital publishing


Challenges and opportunities

For example, what does your average writer know about EPUB3 and the industry-wide hesitation surrounding this program? How much do they need to know? What do authors know about building an app, about learning how to use programs like iBooks Author or Demibooks Composer?

Learning these new technologies – which change every couple of years – means losing valuable writing time and takes authors away from their key competency. Authors are writers, not software engineers! Nor are they film-makers, photographers, illustrators, typographers or designers, or any of the other professions that contribute to enhancing ebooks or building apps.

The point is, applying any level of interactivity or enhancement to the book in digital form (whether ebook or app) relies on specialist skills that most writers do not have. Yet the quandary remains: In order to succeed as authors today, familiarity with these technologies is becoming increasingly important.


Doing digital differently

When I set out to write my own series I had highfalutin ideas about what I wanted to do to enhance it digitally, but I didn’t know how to make an app, or build a website, or even what a MOBI file was. But I knew I had a ripping yarn to tell that could accommodate some reader interactivity – without surrendering control of the overall narrative or offering alternative endings (a la Choose Your Own Adventure/Pick a Path).

Despite researching many of the options available I did not adopt any of them. In the end I settled on the only technique I could see that would work across all the digital reading platforms: a simple hyperlink.

Whether you are reading with a Kindle or an iPad, a hyperlink will work to direct readers to one part or another of the book. It’s not the complex layering I had in mind, but it did give me an opportunity to give the reader a chance to make his or her own choices about the order in which they received the information, and from which character.

That a good old hyperlink was my best – and most affordable – choice for digital enhancement when I started writing in 2012, and it probably still is today, surprises me – particularly when you consider that the hyperlink has been in use for electronic/digital writing for nearly 30 years, with programs such as Storyspace. But maybe I missed something! I am keen to hear other ideas authors have adopted in order to enhance their ebooks. And despite the limitations there is still plenty of scope for experimentation, a fact we should be celebrating.

This is the first of a series of articles on digital publishing from an author’s perspective by J.J. Gadd.

12 thoughts on “Enhancing Ebooks: An Author Perspective

  1. Olivia

    JJ, thank you so much for a thoughtful article about eBook enhancement. I couldn’t agree more that we’re at a weird and interesting place in the development of eBooks. We have technologists who are doing interesting experiments, and authors who are writing stories that are rife with opportunities for new and different storytelling methods, but the bridge between the two is imperfect. Sometimes the coolest ideas are either too cost-prohibitive to be marketable, or go too far into \cool technology experiment\ and lose sight of the author and the text. I do think that we’re edging closer to better, more functional, more scaleable solutions. Overall, I think the more authors and technologists have meaningful conversations about what we want eBooks to be and where we want them to go in the future, the more promising the landscape of eBook reading becomes.

    Full disclosure, I am biased! I work for an eBook enhancement company, but I’m also a voracious reader. I’ve seen eBook enhancements I’ve loved, and I’ve seen eBook enhancements I’ve hated, but at the end of the day, I’m just thrilled that people are trying, experimenting, failing, succeeding, and in the process making digital reading better.

    If hyperlinks are something you feel comfortable with, I would absolutely encourage you to check out Beneath the Ink. We’re an eBook enhancement service but from the outset, we’ve tried to keep user simplicity in mind. We want authors to be able to use our technology even if they don’t consider themselves technologists, and we still want readers to enjoy the prose-based experience they love, just with a bit more delight, information, and interaction at their fingertips.

  2. JJ Gadd

    Thanks Olivia, I hadn’t heard of Beneath The Ink – looks exciting – I’ve downloaded a couple of your enhanced books to see the end result, and will give it a try…

  3. Michael W. Perry

    Don’t forget one of the best ways to create multiple book formats from a single, all-you-ever-need-to-edit document. That’s the wonder of InDesign. With it you can create excellent print, reflowable epub and fixed-format epub. The last format is perfect for any book with graphics or complex formatting, including textbooks, cookbooks and children’s story books. Your digital version will look identical to the print version.

    That takes care of virtually every ebook market but holdout Amazon with its proprietary ebook formats. Even there, Amazon accepts reflowable epub 3.0 out of InDesign for conversion to its own formats. The one hitch is Amazon’s non-standard fixed layout formats. If you’re doing comic books or really simple children’s story books, Amazon has a specialized app you can use. But that entails the added labor of recreating a book just for one publication channel. That’s wasted time.

    Amazon’s only answer to those who create books in non-Amazon apps is to send them to pricey third-party companies. InDesign’s strong support for industry-standard epub may force Amazon to rethink its go-it-alone policy.

    In the past, Amazon benefited from making it expensive for authors and publishers to create an ebook, particularly an enhanced ebook. Since Amazon dominates the market, they felt they had to create the Amazon digital version first and often that left them with no money for digital versions for anyone else (Apple, Nook or Kobo).

    The latest version of InDesign has flipped that dynamic around. Creating both reflowable and fixed-layout ebooks from an existing print edition is so easy–merely minutes–that ebooks for every retailer but Amazon become a sure thing. It’s now Amazon that’s standing at the back of the line hoping a savvy but budget-constrained author or publisher will decide to create an Amazon ebook edition despite the added expense and labor. Hopefully that means that, like it or not, Amazon will help Adobe add Kindle export to InDesign. That’d be a near perfect workflow.

    Shifting to publishing with InDesign isn’t that expensive. $20 a month will get you a single-app account with Creative Cloud and that includes access to a host of Typekit fonts and a Behance-hosted website. I might add that, while the learning curve for InDesign is steep, it beats the learning curve for a string of different apps, each specialized in one ebook platform (i.e iBooks Author for Apple, other apps for Amazon, etc.). And Adobe places no restrictions on what you can do with your output, unlike Amazon and Apple.

    My own writing workflow is to create and edit in Scrivener until a book will see no more major changes. Then I import it into InDesign for all the layout, editing, exporting that single document to all the various formats.

    One source, many outputs is great. Believe me. I’ve worked in tech writing before. You do not want to get into a situation where each typo fix or plot adjustment means editing several different documents in various apps. Use one speciality app for writing; use another with multi-format export for publishing.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, co-author of Lily’s Ride

    1. JJ Gadd

      Thanks Michael, this is really helpful. I do think InDesign is a steep learning curve for most authors – although I suppose, any new publishing program would be. However I am lucky enough to have used it a lot years ago in my magazine editing days so I will revisit it as a potential option for future publishing ventures – thanks for your insights. Fingers crossed things change with Amazon – hear hear for a near perfect workflow!

  4. Kevin

    I enjoyed this, particularly the differences about what will work on various reading devices. Authors an ebook developers need to be very clear from the beginning which devices they are targeting. Aiming for the widest audience means fewer interactivity options, since some devices in the various families (Nook, Kindle) don’t handle many features. A narrow focus (iPad only, for example) could allow for more options being available. This is best decided before you get too far in!

  5. Bryan Alexander

    The options available have truly expanded.

    We can now create in other venues more easily than ever: audio (podcasts), video (web video), images (digital photography, drawings). Book options have widened, as you accurately mention. New venues offer very different storytelling options, from social media’s wide panoply of platforms to computer gaming.

    As a result audiences have fragmented, with groups each preferring their venues and platforms, often changing those preferences within a lifetime or a single day.

    One response to this new environment is to target a niche. Pick, say, podcasting, and master audio production. Get yourself into the podcasting ecosystem. Take it as far as you can.

    Another is to seek out where your story needs to go. Press the tale to determine if it really wants to split itself into options (a la “Garden of Forking Paths”) or stay unitary. Which medium does it most require? Story is, after all, what we’re all about.

    1. JJ Gadd

      I hadn’t thought about targeting so specifically, but I think you are right. It’s an important lesson for writers – who is your audience, and where is the best place to reach them? – since we tend to focus on just producing the book, as quite often it’s hard to get past the urge to let the words out and on to the page, it can be all-consuming…

  6. Paul Richards

    Hyperlinks are exactly right! I explored all the options too. I noticed that none of them have caught on due to many issues including reader’s desire to calmly read a book, diversity of e-reader device capabilities, lack of standards in design, etc. All of which led me to the same conclusion, that the hyperlink is the best current means of enhancing ebooks. And even hyperlinks are subject to a number of difficulties based on the same factors above. Some devices work better than others. But even if they do not work, failing to follow hyperlinks does not exclude the reader from the essential experience offered in the book. And one can even use a paper and pencil (parish the thought) to write the hyperlink down and look it up later on computer. My conclusion is that hyperlinks have not been sufficiently developed from a design perspective even though they have been around forever. All the fancy tricks of enhanced ebooks and apps have not caught on because this whole new thing is moving a lightening speed and people cannot keep up. One tiny step, like adding hyperlinks, still has a long way to go to realize its potential. So, congratulations for seeing this and hopefully your future columns will add more insights. I look forward to them.

  7. JJ Gadd

    Thanks Paul, I agree, and you may be interest to know I was contacted by one author who read this article to say that the hyperlinks in his book failed on iPad when IOS7 update was introduced… it was resolved, but that means even the simple hyperlink isn’t bulletproof! (and there I thought it was a pretty safe bet!)

  8. Jeany Wolf

    I read your piece with great interest, and I wonder if you’ve looked into the Lithomobilus platform. Designed by a writer who, as you’ve also indicated, was searching for a platform to handle multiple threads and layers of content, Lithomobilus uses HTML5 (EPUB3) at the writing end, and the writing tool is designed to help authors stay focused on writing and organizing content without having to jump through hoops to accommodate the evolving technology.

    As I understand it, Scrivener is extremely useful for research and organization. You can move chunks of content around, outline, and sift until you have something you want to push out to Word or some other tool for polishing before you publish. It is not a tool for creating final output as InDesign is.

    With Lithomobilus you can write in whatever you like, paste content into Litho, check formatting, and Litho takes care of the rest. When the layout formatting is already handled by the tool, it eliminates a lot of work. You don’t have to think about font sizes or leading or any of that. It’s all baked into the style sheet which is used by Zoetic Press (the publishing arm). I should make clear that this is an app for iPad and soon for iPhone. I know this won’t fulfill all your needs, but you might be interested in seeing its capabilities at lithombilus.com. The focus is on more text, not bells and whistles.

    1. JJ Gadd

      Hi Jeany, thanks for putting me on to Lithomobilus – it looks great. I hadn’t heard of it but looks like it’s in the early stages of rolling out? Love the ability to add extra chapters to existing works and to unlock content without leaving the app… Also love the clean presentation, it looks polished and feels good to read in – the presentation is a lot more sophisticated than the way most existing ebooks display (mine included!).

      So Zoetic Press is the publisher and to use the program one must submit and be approved by them, and they handle the output (ie the author submits completed work to ZP for layout and to produce the end file)? And how will people hear about the app… that’s often the tricky bit!



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