Resuscitating Enhanced Ebooks

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

There has been some debate recently regarding the time of death of enhanced ebooks. While the distribution of books has changed enormously over time, from the invention of the printing press to e-readers, tablets and mobile phones, how we read remains much the same as it did 2,000 years ago. Despite frequent and vocal arguments to the contrary, enhanced ebooks still give publishers a chance to disrupt the model, keeping reading relevant for the Twitter and Instagram generation.

Not many people would debate the merits of having video or other enhanced content in nonfiction educational or instructional ebooks. The ability to hear a famous speech while studying history, for example, or watch a golf swing rather than just read about it, has great value. But as J.J. Gadd pointed out in an essay last week, few authors or publishers have managed to enhance works of fiction very meaningfully, in a way that improves not just the entertainment value of reading but also boosts readers’ engagement and retention of text. And still fewer believe there’s a compelling business motivation for doing so.

If enhanced ebooks are to grow beyond their infancy and succeed in the marketplace, there are three points that we need to consider:

  1. The text must come first.
  2. The enhanced experience must be consistent.
  3. The enhanced ebook business model must be viable.

The Text Must Come First

When books went digital, publishers and authors rushed to include new entertainment experiences: games, videos and animation. Unfortunately, these enhancements all distract the reader from the story, pulling them away from the reading experience and disrupting the imaginative process. The most powerful thing about reading fiction is getting lost in the story, allowing you to access parts of your imagination that only reading makes possible. Great enhanced ebooks must find a way to provide the benefits of a relevant enhanced reading experience that still allows the author’s world to take over. In other words, seamlessness is key.

This is something that we at Booktrack have made our focus since day one. Booktrack is not a traditional enhanced ebook platform because it has always offered a smooth, consistent reading experience. It doesn’t take you out of the experience and then try to fit you back in. It is the only enhancement to reading that’s delivered while you read.

The Enhanced Experience Must Be Consistent

When you buy a product, you expect a certain outcome. When you buy an enhanced ebook, you can never be sure of the experience you are going to receive until after the point of purchase. There is no consistency with most enhanced ebook experiences, and this is one of the main contributing factors to the format’s lack of uptake.

To fix this issue, it is important for enhanced ebook publishers to provide platforms and brands that deliver repeatable and consistent results so that readers understand the quality and experience before they purchase. When you buy a Kindle ebook, an Audible audiobook or a Booktrack title, you know the type of experience you are going to get. With other enhanced ebooks, you might be able to preview a sample chapter or watch a video trailer, but you can never be sure of the end experience until after you’ve spent the money.

The Enhanced Ebook Business Model Must Be Viable

Ultimately, neither of the first two considerations matter if they don’t lead to a solid return on investment for authors and publishers.

For enhanced ebooks to succeed, companies need to produce not just bespoke titles, but also complete end-to-end platforms that deliver repeatable and consistent results. They need to open up their creation toolsets for others to use, establishing new, enhanced ebook categories with an existing user base that authors and publishers can reach by creating ebooks for these new categories. This isn’t easy or cheap, which is why most publishers and digital content developers have proved reluctant to do so. But by instituting new enhanced ebook business models, we will bring new readers to the ecosystem and not compete with existing revenue streams.

At Booktrack we have achieved this by opening up our creation tool and distribution platform for all to access free of charge. Authors and publishers can create Booktrack titles and publish instantly to reach a new audience of millions of new readers, such as musicians, audio engineers, music fans and gamers. Reading was once the only mainstream entertainment media without synchronized sound–until Booktrack redefined the genre.

“Blue Sky” Future

The world has changed. We used to read in silence, and only the wealthy owned libraries. Today, you can carry an entire library around in your back pocket, and people regularly read wearing headphones during their morning commutes. We need to adapt and determine how reading can engage a new audience in this modern, multimedia, highly sensory world. Creating new enhanced reading experiences will grow the reading market for everyone without cannibalizing existing publishing sales streams.

H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, was famously quoted in 1927 as saying, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” The key with enhanced ebooks is not to give up on them, but to explore what will work for today’s modern reader. We need to work out how to compete with other entertainment offerings so that every now and then Netflix gets turned off and the good old-fashioned (but now digitally enhanced) book is picked up instead.

Learn more: Join Paul Cameron at Digital Book World 2015, where he’ll be speaking about the future of e-reading and digital publishing.

5 thoughts on “Resuscitating Enhanced Ebooks

  1. Michael W. Perry

    I’m glad to see some of the gush and giggle go out of the enhanced ebook market and this article is (for once) a sober assessment of the situation, recognizing that people who want to read want to read.

    Problems remain though, perhaps best illustrated by this remark: ‘Not many people would debate the merits of having video or other enhanced content in nonfiction educational or instructional ebooks.’

    ‘In’ is the key problem. ‘Alongside’ would be better. With the exception of holdout Amazon, standards are developing for ebooks, including a fixed-format epub that should be great for those nonfictional educational or instructional ebooks, particularly since InDesign now gives it excellent support.

    But building all but the most basic enhanced content into ebooks does them double harm. It creates a dreadful hardware dependency for an ebook that could otherwise be sold for years and across multiple platforms. It also makes no sense financially. Why, for instance, should a physics or astronomy textbook build in star and planet ‘enhanced content’ when users can buy these:

    Star Walk for $2.99

    Solar Walk for $2.99

    Both are fabulous teaching tools, far better than anything a publisher is likely to develop. Both cost almost nothing. Both can be use for a host of other purposes outside the classroom.

    And why bloat out an ebook with apps like those (Solar walk is 256 MB) or with videos that’ll be watched once. It makes far more sense not to enhance that ebook, but to send readers to other resources, both apps and videos.

    What I’d love would be for publishers to link, at the start of an ebook, to a video in which the author is interviewed and offers and introduction to it that doesn’t include any spoilers. And at the end, the ebook might also offer a recap in which the author looks back at the book. That’s helpful and isn’t likely to cost that much to create.

    But notice I said ‘link.’ Virtually every tablet that can display multi-media such as video can also call up a browser that can display video. Don’t put those videos ‘in’ an ebook where they create bloat. Pace them ‘alongside’ it.

    There are other practical steps that could be made to epub specs. Complex stories often leave readers confused about which character is which. It’d be great if those books could have a tiny people icon on each page that would jump to a character reference list. And in some stories maps play a key role. It’d be great if, in some parts of a book, a tiny map icon could appear that’d link to the map relevant at that part of the story.

    The same could be true of pictures of historical figures. For a biography of Churchill, at the point in the narrative where he gives his blood, sweat, tears speech, it could link to a picture of him at the time. That’d help with the messiness of page breaks in books with reflowable content.

    That’s an enhanced ebook that really enhancing the experience without forcing needless distractions on readers. All too many enhancement schemes seem to irritate more than they help.

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

  2. William Ash

    This is good except one point–“text must come first.” This is actually the biggest problem in developing effective enhanced ebooks, the assumption that books are just about reading. If that is the case, then text only books are the answer. I have many photography books–books showing photography, not about photography–where text is not the point. If the enhancements are just secondary, you just have text-based books with bells and whistles. The enhancements must be central to the work, not just add-on to text.

    1. Douglas Hebbard

      I think William’s point is important. There is, unfortunately, all too often an assumption that all books are like fiction – just about the text. If the publisher believes that by creating an interactive eBook they can provide appropriate content that can not be included in a printed book, then they have created a brand new work. This same concept works with digital magazines and newspapers, as well.

      1. Paul Cameron

        Michael and Douglas, you both raise good points that some enhanced books are about experiences other than reading – I include them under “nonfiction educational or instructional ebooks”, but you are correct in that it is broader than that. You may be interested to know that in the near future we will add the technology to allow picture books with a soundtrack, so that will open up our product a lot more to non-fiction titles that are more design or photo-based.

  3. carmen webster buxton

    What about the X-Ray feature on the Kindle? All it requires is an additional file of place ad character names and descriptions. The feature allows the reader who loses track of a character to figure out who that character is, and see how important they are in the story. I don’t use it on every book but for some books it’s really handy.



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