Enhanced eBooks: Why They Haven’t Taken Off, How They Could, and Whether They Should

If you buy an ebook today, odds are you won’t find much that you couldn’t find in the print copy. During my current eBook internship with an academic publisher, while creating eBooks for publication, I primarily work on creating working hyperlinks and footnotes/endnotes; incorporating figures, tables, and boxes; fixing the CSS (styles) template; and creating separate guides for Epub and Mobi formats. With a trade fiction publisher, I have no doubt that my job would be less complicated.

If you know about the cool capabilities of ePub3, you might be surprised that publishers aren’t doing more to enhance eBooks to make them distinct from their print products; you might even attribute this dearth of experimentation with conservative thinking or lazy complacency. But the true reason stems from the same problem that most publishing issues come from these days: Amazon. Specifically, its use of the Mobi (.prc), AZW, and KF8 formats for ebooks.

What can these formats do with ebooks? Reflowable content, fixed width layout, indexing, and some reader-interactive features like annotations and bookmarks (see here for more). Most important for Amazon’s purposes, these formats can only be read on Kindles, Kindle Fire, or Kindle Previewer, and they can be compressed better than regular epubs—something probably very important for saving on server space when you’re selling millions upon millions of eBooks.

Yet they can’t support embedded audio such as music or narration, video, animation, and interactive elements. Apple’s ePub3 format supports all of these features, and as such many books, particularly children’s books, have enhanced ebook features or are even sold as interactive apps on Apple’s App Store. But because the majority of publishers’ ebooks sell on Amazon while a small minority buy iBooks—I’m having trouble tracking down the specific statistics, but my e-publishing professor at Emerson estimated Amazon’s portion at 75–85% and Apple at less than 10%—it does not make much monetary sense to develop enhanced features when so many of your readers are on gen-1 Kindles, Paperwhites, or other e-ink devices.

The Potential for Change?

According to one TechRadar author, the Kindle Fire Phone could spell the beginning of changes to Amazon’s low-tech policy. The majority of 18-34 year olds own an ereader, but 32% of young adults feel that reading digital books on a tablet is just as good as reading on dedicated ereaders. For this author, the next step seems to be moving from tablets to the large (4.7 inch) screens of smartphones, where it makes sense to add exciting new enhancements to books, such that they compete with the other interactive apps on your phone.

But can ebooks still do just fine on phones without these enhancements, so long as they’re easy to access?

One of the first companies to jump on the smartphone-as-reader idea was Oyster, the “Netflix for Books,” which received a ton of attention and accolades from the beginning. This Wired piece goes into loving detail about the thoughtfully designed Oyster interface, which “is a distinctly digital experience, and yet, it doesn’t feel soulless or straining in the way reading on a screen often can be.” Now the company has moved on to desktop apps, where their goal is reportedly to make books appear more like “reading a blog post, or an article from the New York Times or Medium,” according to Oyster’s CEO.

On the one hand, blog posts and articles rely on features like interactivity, hyperlinks, embedded videos, etc., so the comparison might leave an opening for enhanced ebooks to make a splash just as they might fit in with smartphones. On the other hand, regular ebooks seem to also be doing just fine on desktops, as readers probably don’t expect bells and whistles with their ebooks at this point. Instead, Oyster relies on a cool, understated presentation to make it easier for the reader to immerse himself or herself into the text.

Should Publishers Try to Improve On What A Book Is?

The ultimate question is, should publishers do more to make ebooks better, now that ebooks are plateauing in sales after years of explosive growth? Or would adding this interactivity undermine the principle of immersing oneself into a fictional world or a famous person’s life story, turning books from a unique experience into just another app competing for one’s time? Has that transition already happened?

I personally love to immerse myself in literature, and I can’t express the negative effects and limited returns on enhancements better than this blog post does, as the author notes that books should not be treated as movies with DVD extras when all that matters is the narrative. And ereader devices are actually enabling positive reading habits, according to the above Techradar article: “those who read both physical and ebooks get through about 50% more than those who only use one format rather than both – about 27 books a year on average versus 18.” So by this logic, we should not rock the boat by making ebooks into something they’re not.

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether enhanced ebooks would create enough of a return on their investment. For better or worse, readers have become used to a lower price point with ebooks than with print books, with the argument being made that they should be cheaper do the lack of overhead costs that come from print books. If publishers begin to create enhanced ebooks and charge higher prices for them, there is a very real possibility that sales would drop due to readers being uninterested in paying for extra features. Just as DVD sales for movies are dropping as viewers move to subscription services, publishers need to be careful that they don’t drive all of their readers to renting books with Oyster and Amazon instead of purchasing them.

When Enhancements Might Be Relevant or Exciting to Readers: Pros and Cons

Despite the many problems with the enhanced ebook model and the comforting notion that staying the course is best for the industry, I believe that publishers should be constantly searching for new avenues of innovation. For this reason, I’m going to spitball some candidates for enhanced ebooks and weigh the pros and cons of my terrible ideas. 

Public domain and classic titles: When you buy (in print) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare or the Norton Critical Edition of Alice in Wonderland, you buy them with the assumption that you’ll be getting detailed footnotes, biographical information, analytical essays, and other supplementary materials: the original enhanced books. Still, most students today turn to Sparknotes or equivalent sites instead, when publishers could try to keep readers in-book with supplementary material embedded into their ebooks: explanations and analysis of key/confusing scenes, author interviews if available or relevant, hyperlinks to online essays, and so forth.

  • Pros: Public domain titles means no author advance or royalties. A large demand for these titles from students/schools guarantees a return on investment. A wealth of academic material from which to choose. Academic material like this doesn’t usually allow for much immersion anyway, so the enhancements don’t hurt the reading experience for most.
  • Cons: Plenty of competitors who could release an ebook without enhancements for a cheaper price. Teachers who want their kids to only buy print limiting the cost-effectiveness of this effort.

New editions of major bestsellers: When publishers reprint successful titles, it’s a no-brainer. They slap a new cover design on top, maybe make one or two editorial tweaks at the author’s behest, and add a new introduction to the front explaining why the book is so amazing/ a cultural phenomenon. And maybe that’s all they need to do to consistently sell the book on their backlist. But maybe some readers will be interested in “DVD Extras” after all for major titles like Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Add embedded author interviews or old drafts showing the different fates of characters or original plot points (i.e. Did you know that Arthur Weasley was supposed to die in the snake scene of Order of the Pheonix?). Take those book club questions you find at the end of some books and intersperse them throughout the text, while inviting readers to use the Amazon Public Note function to express their views on key scenes. Make it more of a text for diehard community fans to revisit the franchise and get a behind-the-scenes look of the author’s writing process. Or, with nonfiction bestsellers, add real-life interviews and videos of relevant events.

  • Pros: Getting passionate readers to re-invest in the book (series) and encouraging fandom. Creates interesting tidbits for would-be authors and fan fiction writers to explore. Again, guaranteed sales due to the book’s proven popularity, and no fears of ruining the immersion for those who have already experienced the narrative.
  • Cons: People don’t buy books twice; the people buying the enhanced edition won’t want this information as they are reading it for the first time. Fandoms have their own sites for discussing the book (Tumblr, etc.). As Mr. Bjarnason mention above, people don’t want book extras in their books; they want them on author websites, and dedicated fans will find these tidbits there on their own.

Choose Your Own Adventure Books: Why should some of the coolest enhancements like interactivity, embedded videos, and Easter Eggs be reserved for children’s books, where enhanced ebooks have made the most headway? I would love to see CYOA books make a resurgence by taking advantage of ebook capabilities to augment the experience of stepping into dangerous worlds. Imagine making a terrible choice and watching your own grisly death to accompany the text? Or, when the text shows you coming to a fork in the road, you choose based on an illustration of the landscape and tap your finger on the picture of your path rather than on a hyperlink? If you don’t want to invest in writing a bunch of new CYOA books, simply acquire the hundreds of books written in the last few decades and find artists and programmers to supplement the old material.

  • Pros: Avoiding editorial costs with a wealth of material to choose from to market to new readers. A subgenre that lends itself to visualization as a means of immersing oneself in strange new worlds or terrifying scenarios.
  • Cons: Books are about visualizing the world for yourself, not about having it drawn or shown to you; you can always go watch a sci-fi/horror movie for that. The potential that these enhancements would be very expensive to implement or troubleshoot.

Cookbooks: Why buy a cookbook, especially an e-cookbook, when you can just go on Allrecipes.com or some equivalent for instant access? What if these ebooks come with audio, where the famous chef/author of the cookbook reads the recipe to you as you make your preparations? A lot of children’s books have audio to help kids read along with the text, while cookbooks could benefit from a hands-free experience. Perhaps the e-cookbook could also come with embedded videos of the recipes being prepared.

  • Pros: A way of revitalizing cookbooks and taking advantage of the talented cook you have representing the book to improve the experience.
  • Cons: It would be very expensive to videotape and narrate the cookbook along with all the other fact-checking and testing recipes that has to happen, so I don’t know if this is feasible. It could also make the cookbook too much like other websites where people don’t have to pay in the first place, inviting unflattering comparisons.

Conclusions

I don’t know if some of these ideas have already been implemented, or if some have been tested and proven to be too difficult or costly, or if these ideas show innovative thinking or just ignorance. But I do think it’s both enjoyable and important to test out new ideas that can draw more people into the reading community, while also remaining wary of diluting the immersive reading experience.

Do you think books need to evolve to survive, or just the platforms we read them on? Do you think publishers should be experimenting or sticking with profitable, easy-to-make ebooks? Feel free to throw your two cents into the comments, and thanks for reading!

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With ALA approaching, how will libraries compete in the ebook market?

A recent PW article outlined a recent breakfast meeting between librarians and publishers at Random House, where speakers discussed the next step for libraries now that all major trade publishers have begun “participating in the library e-book market.”

Yet librarians know they need to do more to make their services competitive, whether with subscription services like Oyster, regular retailers like Amazon and B&N, self-publishing, and even pirating. At the upcoming ALA meeting, they will discuss whether the solution falls with a better user interface or with improved publisher cooperation.

The above PW article summarizes best the positions of the parties involved, but for those who don’t want to tear themselves away, here’s a quick summary:

  • Many librarians say that the largest demands of patrons is for recent frontlist titles, and publishers have notoriously put limits on the number of times books can be lent or the number allowed to be checked out at once without paying for another e-copy; thus, they want publishers to provide better terms for these books so that patrons don’t see the long wait for new books and decide to immediately go elsewhere. In other words, they want to improve on the current system.
  • Biblioboard founder Mitchell Davis argued that, “Instead of spending money on a limited number of frontlist e-book titles, generating long waits in hold queues and patron dissatisfaction, why not concentrate limited resources on building a better user experience, based on the library’s ‘long tail’ collections?” He feels that librarians should adopt a model for users that have gotten used to Netflix-style systems: one with “unlimited, multiuser access to backlist works” that would in turn lead to more frontlist sales of the latest sequels.

Libraries are one of the last guaranteed avenues for print book sales, and publishers know this, which is ostensibly why they have begun to engage more with libraries to sustain their success. But librarians can easily make the case that their support is too conservative, and that their partnership must expand for both sides to truly benefit. Libraries need to go digital in order to maintain its legitimacy and its funding, and eBook support from publishers is a vital cornerstone of the future of libraries. But opinions are divided on where that support should go.

In terms of the above arguments, I would first note that there is already a “Netflix for books” in Oyster,  a monthly subscription service that has partnerships with HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Perseus Books Group, Wiley, Chronicle, and others for a total of over 500,000 titles, according to PW. The service has attained the cooperation of publishers by promising them what they need most, and what most distributors like Amazon keep tightly secret: data. Oyster can tell publishers about the likes, dislikes, and reading habits of their consumers, including reading speed, when, where, and how often they read, and what type of device they prefer to read on.

Libraries can provide that same information. Or more specifically, the third party applications like Axis 360, Blio, and BiblioBoard that libraries rely on to distribute eBooks and audiobooks to their patrons. Major publishers will likely make more of their backlist titles freely available to libraries if they had assurances from these providers that user data would be made available to them, just as Oyster provides it. I am uncertain whether it would be publishers or librarians who would pay for this enhanced access, or if the digital providers would be willing to disclose the information at all.

But do library users go to public libraries for an Oyster experience, or for recent titles? Jeff Jankowski, VP of Midwest Tape, argued at the BEA that libraries can only provide better services if they discard the outdated “’video store’ model of one user, one copy” that publishers demand with eBooks. Publishers would likely counter with the simple economic truth that eBook sales for frontlist books would drop significantly if readers discovered that all eBooks were available without any delay at libraries. Librarians might counter-argue that these free books will increase sales down the line, and readers could easily pirate eBooks rather than buy them if they can’t be found for free legitimately.

I for one hope that the ALA expands upon the Random House breakfast by discussing experimental plans to keep libraries as a legitimate, profitable sales channel for publishers, ways to improve library UI for eBooks, and the possibility of reader data collection with third party library platforms. Whether or not conservatism or boldness will prevail depends in my mind on whether one of the Big 5 publishers is willing to take the first step of making backlist eBooks freely available, setting an example for others to follow, or at least to watch closely for the economic results.

Do you think any hope for further cooperation is possible, or naive? Do you think publishers are right to be wary, or too conservative to take the necessary course of action? Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!

Should Publishers “Window” Their Products Like Hollywood?

The recent Book Expo America conference in New York was dominated by two discussions: the lack of diversity in publishing and the Amazon-Hachette negotiations. I think publishers were relieved that Amazon’s bullying came into the limelight at the ideal moment to drown out as much talk about their egregious shortcomings in diversity, both at the editorial and authorial level, as possible.

And the mental effort of solving publishing’s economic problems while ignoring its social inequalities has led to some very interesting notions about how to “save” the industry. One I found personally intriguing was the idea that publishers abandon the simultaneous print-ebook release date model that has become ubiquitous for most trade publishers. In a recent Publishers Weekly article, Codex Group CEO Peter Hildick-Smith argues that publishers should “follow the film industry’s successful model of releasing new content in premium format first, followed by discount formats in later releases…as a way to ‘give bricks-and-mortar stores a chance to do what they do best,'” a practice known as “windowing” because of the staggered release windows.

So, in the same way you choose between going to theaters, buying the Blu-Ray, or indulging in both for the latest Marvel movie, consumers would choose between buying the more expensive hard copy immediately or waiting for Amazon’s cheaper Kindle copy (since, let’s be honest, all ebook sales happen there at this point). Publishers would have to step up on marketing for the release dates of both versions, however. And just as movie studios put deleted scenes and cast commentary on their DVDs, publishers would need to step up on enhanced ebook features—hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity—to make them more attractive.

As intriguing an idea as it is, I don’t see it happening. Amazon explicitly bans “windowing” in its contracts with publishers, and the company would know how that kind of contract concession would damage their business. Amazon can sell books and ebooks at a loss so long as it owns the market on tablet e-readers with Kindle, Paperwhite, and Fire. But would you buy the latest Kindle if you knew that the latest books wouldn’t be available? Maybe, maybe not. On the publishing side, pub houses would be loath to raise marketing budgets on an uncertain scheme, and would have to start hiring more programmers to create enhanced ebooks. They haven’t done so yet precisely because Kindles are the worst of all the eReaders in terms of enhancements, and while Apple ebooks can have exciting features, the Apple store just doesn’t provide enough profits to justify the effort.

Having Amazon as the primary e-tail and major print retail sales channel cripples the opportunity for publishers to try new tactics, encouraging a fatalistic conservatism of trying to preserve what little profits remain. Amazon purports to be a Wild West-style landscape where any author with a good story can make millions; the fact that it continues to squeeze the life out of the publishing industry, big houses and small, shows that Amazon only cares about authors that spit out more Kindle Singles. While publishers this week tackled economics to avoid issues of diversity, I believe these issues are irrevocably linked: a rich, thriving publishing industry doesn’t guarantee that opportunities will arise for more writers of color, LGBT+ writers, or female writers, but an industry writhing under the thumb of its distributors all but erases such a possibility.

Until publishers cut themselves off from Amazon and attempt to sell directly to consumers, or else attach themselves to an Amazon retail competitor that is willing to give them a better deal in exchange for exclusives or some other perks, this problem will persist. For this reason, if you want to join this field, it’s important not only to keep yourself apprised of the economic issues of the field, but also become an economist yourself if you can. Although Mr. Hildick-Smith’s plan has some flaws, he’s thinking radically about the kind of changes that publishing needs to make in order to not only survive, but adapt into something new—a profession that inspires pride while still generating a profit.