Sunday, February 28, 2010

Enhanced e-Books: What's All the Hubbub!?

This week I attended the Tools of Change conference (TOC) in Times Square, NYC. If you're not familiar with this event, it's a gathering of publishing and technology pros who come together to discuss the current and possible future of books and reading habits. Overall, I thought it was a very good show and was glad I had the opportunity to be there. In addition, I was a speaker taking part in a presentation called "Ten Secrets of Digital Publishing (They Won't Tell You About)", which was given to about 250 people. It was great to see so many folks in the room.

There were several sessions going on simultaneously covering important issues currently facing book publishers such as e-Book formatting, digital printing, social media marketing, etc., bookended by a number of morning and afternoon Keynotes. Some were good, some not-so-good, but each seemed to have one hot topic connecting them in one way or another. And that burning curiosity on the minds of just about everyone there was e-Books, e-Books, e-Books, or more specifically: Enhanced e-Books.

So what exactly is an enhanced e-book? Well, that depends on who you talk to, but generally, it's a reading experience that includes additional bells & whistles such as video, audio, images, and added functionality like the ability to shake, zoom, and more, depending what digital device you're viewing the book on. At the moment, devices using E-Ink technology like the Kindle, Nook, and all Sony Readers, cannot include video. However, these e-readers can display black & white photos, play audio, and also include features like being able to look up the definition of just about any word within the text, which is pretty cool. Obviously you can't do this with a physical book, so even on a basic level, text read on a monochromatic device capable of such a feature is in fact "enhanced." However most, or more likely none, of the titles available from Amazon, B&N, Sony, and others, allow publishers to add things like an exclusive audio of an author reading, or say a photo gallery of locations mentioned in the storyline, which is too bad, because this would emphasize how even reading a book in shades of black can offer more. You can listen to audiobooks on all these devices and the Kindle does use something called text-to-speech technology, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I believe small but effective enhancements like these that don't cost an arm and a leg to incorporate would be appealing to readers and possibly enough to be perceived as adding value.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the idea of developing enhanced products like Apps that offer a vast array of multimedia features, but overall, there really isn't any strong proof that the average consumer wants all this extra stuff. Can it be that people just don't realize they want it? Maybe. No-one really knows but we publishers are spending a good amount of cash to find out. There are lots of products available now in the App store produced by companies like Vook, Enhanced Editions, KiwiTech, and many, many others created in conjunction with the publishing house, or in some cases directly with an author, and it's all very interesting to watch. I've been involved in putting together a few Apps: one meant to be a fun, free marketing vehicle, the other a work of fiction by David Morrell called The Spy Who Came for Christmas that includes a book trailer, video interview, audio interview, radio spot, complete audiobook synched with the text, as well as the complete text of an earlier work by the author, all for $15.95, the price of the tradepaper edition. The other I had the pleasure of demonstrating during the TOC conference is called Cathy's Book by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, an intense, content-rich App for teen girls, that's kinda difficult to describe, but here's a video that demonstrates all that it does. And though it's terrific fun and artistically rewarding to work on projects like these, we as publishers need to ask ourselves whether or not the amount of money spent to create books with such interactivity is worth it. In other words...will we make back what we invest?

I can tell you first hand that it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to make a really great App chock-full of good content. By the time you plan, conceive, gather assets, edit, program, and triple-check your work for quality assurance, 6 to 8 months may have quickly gone by. Plus at the end of all the blood, sweat, and tears there could be a $20K (or more) price tag still to be paid. Honestly, this process has given me pause. And for me the three days I spent at TOC confirmed the most important thing we should do as publishers is to make sure our e-Book files, whether they be .pdf,.ePub, or whatever, are formatted properly, meaning they look as close as possible to the way they do in print. I know of a number of publishers that already take this to heart, but plenty don't, and it's not for lack of concern, but more about lack of awareness. The thing is, if we don't make the basic act of reading digitally a pleasure, why would consumers believe an enhanced version will be any better?

But this isn't easy to do and just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

We're talking about having to focus our efforts on delivering fully formatted files so we know in advance exactly how they will appear on each popular e-reader in the marketplace. We cannot depend on the e-retailers to do this for us. Note I said "popular" e-readers because I've yet to see one person in the real world using a Cool-er, iRex Reader, Alex, or Que, and don't expect to anytime soon, so the immediate need is generally about preparing files for Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader. But even with just these three main players we're still facing procedures that are extremely time consuming, require additional resources, not to mention production staff members with real editorial sensibilities. Unfortunately sending the exact same .ePub file to B&N (Nook), Sony (Pocket, Touch, Daily Edition), Apple (iPad), isn't going to resolve the issue because each device has it's own way of interpreting the file and most times the text just doesn't look as originally intended. It's enough to make you want to run out of the room screaming! Be that as it may, we have no choice but to address this head on if we expect to build a new digital future for books, whether the landscape be dynamic or monochromatic.

I mentioned the iPad and as you might imagine it was the reading gadget that most everyone wanted to talk about at TOC simply because of all the amazing things publishers are expecting it to do. And with the promise of this incredible tablet looming, one presentation given by inventor, futurist, and author Ray Kurzweil, that really resonated was all about Blio, an eReader software program that displays books three dimensionally and with plenty of enhancements (if desired). But even sans multimedia, this 3D experience developed by the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, is sure to look great on all tablet computers and may end being one of the best ways to present enhanced e-Books, since Blio can also be used on desktop computers, laptops/netbooks, and mobile devices like the iPhone. Keep your eye on this. It's poised to get a tremendous amount of attention by consumers and the academic community.

I could go on and on and will be revisiting this topic, but in summing up:

1. Publishers need to make sure "straight" (aka vanilla) text e-Book files are properly formatted for ALL e-readers.
2. With great "vanilla" e-Books we can then begin to explore pushing the boundaries of E-Ink devices.
3. Leave the bells & whistles like video, audio, graphics, etc., for Apps and channels like Blio and Zinio.

What do you think?

P.S. - There's another great industry conference that took place this past January called Digital Book World, and if you haven't heard of it, then I recommend you check it out. Much of the above was covered there as well, plus I had the pleasure of being a guest panelist to discuss the ins and outs of online marketing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The e-Book Revolution Will Be Quiet, Slow, and Integrated

I'm a Google fan and like most, use it as my primary source for information when I search. I also use Google products like Gmail, Docs, YouTube, Maps, News, AdWords, and Chrome on a regular basis. Hell, I'm using Blogger for this Blog! And we all know millions from around the globe engage with other great Google services like Picasa, Earth, Voice, Etc., everyday.

Now Google Buzz, one of their latest efforts to break into the world of social networking, seems to be off to a rocky start, but regardless we're all paying close attention. Why? Because the Google name, like Apple, suggests innovation and the possible introduction of a new tool that'll enhance how we connect within one another. I mean it's Google so there must be something to it right? Especially since Buzz was released with such fanfare. But we'll just have to see how things develop 'cos Buzz is either going to be a terrific new addition to Gmail or it might go the way of Orkut, Knol, and Gears, which never really seemed to catch on with a wide audience.

BUT one thing coming this June that's expected to release in typical Google fashion, (meaning with quiet integration), is called Google Editions, and many folks in Publishing, including industry heavies like Evan Schnittman and Mike Shatzkin feel it's going to have a significant impact, and I couldn't agree more. Other than Apple's upcoming entry into e-bookselling next month, Google's emergence into this space will be the most competitive challenger to Amazon's Kindle Store and as a marketing guy who promotes digital content, I'm pretty excited about this.

If you like to read about the latest in technology or the book industry then you're fully aware of the controversy that's been brewing for years, and continues to, around the Google Books program. But I'd like to focus on what Google's entry into the marketplace as e-bookseller will most likely mean for current owners of dedicated e-reading devices and also the publishing industry as a whole.

Let me start by pointing out that I've always supported the participation by publishers and authors in what was originally called Google Print, now Google Books, because of the incredible discoverability of new, and more importantly, older titles within Google's core search. I've reviewed the results week after week for the past five years in reports provided by Google listing the books that come up in search results relating to people's entries and the number of times someone "discovers" a title by The Perseus Books Group is consistently impressive. We're talking about titles that are usually several years old that would not likely be found on bookstore shelves. So Google Books is prolonging the life of these volumes in a way previously unimaginable. Soon Google Editions will begin selling those same titles and making them instantly available to read on any electronic device with a Web browser. Note I didn't say "available to download" because there will be no downloading since purchases are stored for you on a virtual bookshelf. In other words, sitting in a cloud courtesy of Google. This sort of thing tends to make people nervous, but let's not forget, e-books purchased from Amazon and downloaded in their proprietary format also live in a cloud for instant access or in case you lose your Kindle. Personally I'm fine with this scenario. We could debate what it means to really "own" a book, etc., etc., but I don't want to get into that here right now. Instead, let's focus on the fact that a Google Edition means reading e-books on tablets like the iPad, JooJoo, or HP Slate; smartphones like the iPhone, Droid, or Storm; plus netbooks, laptops, and even the iPod Touch. In other words, with a device like any one of these and a Google account, you'll be reading in a snap!

Throughout the coming year we'll see tablet computers running on the Android platform from well-known companies like Dell, but it's hard to imagine that Google isn't planning to produce an incredible tablet of their own expanding on the impressive O/S behind the Nexus One smartphone. At the right price a Google tablet could be a real alternative to the Apple iPad and the device that takes advantage of everything Google has to offer and more. Plus Google has an opportunity to rapidly grow its Apps store and organize it in a way that allows true browsing. I love iTunes, but its App store is unwieldy and not necessarily strong on introducing new content beyond the initial splash pages.

But the key to everything is how Google Editions will continue to match book content with people's interests while searching a multitude of subjects, presenting opportunity after opportunity for titles to be discovered, bought, and accessed anytime from just about anywhere. This will be especially powerful for non-fiction. I relish this approach and believe it'll be enthusiastically embraced by the general public resulting in a wave of new readers who previously hadn't considered buying e-books in the past because they didn't want to shell out the money for a dedicated e-reader such as the Kindle, Sony Reader, Que, Skiff, or Nook. And if you already bought a dedicated device then you won't be attending the Google Editions party anytime soon. With this in mind doesn't it make sense that the dedicated e-reader option will lose it's appeal? Clearly this is why the teams at Kindle, B&N, Kobo, and Zinio made the wise decision to introduce Apps and software for the smartphones and computers as well as to secure a presence on devices like the iPad. Will Sony soon follow suite? Maybe, but will either of them ever be nimble enough to sell enhanced e-books (with video, audio, etc.), book content in portions (aka "snacks"), or mash-ups (customized products) anyway? It's to soon to tell, but this is where I believe Google Editions can truly distinguish itself from the pack.

I have no idea whether or not the Google Books team is thinking along these lines. Perhaps it's initially too complicated to even consider ideas like these due to all the licensing/rights issues, title availability, technical challenges, and whatever else might make it possible for such diversity. But I do know shortly after Google Books was first launched improvements have been introduced about every 6 to 8 months, small and large, resulting in a better user experience. So I'm convinced they'll strive to ensure the act of purchasing e-books will be a good one and that any kinks will be addressed rapidly. This might be "uberly" optimistic, but I'm hoping by December 2010 I can search for information on say, Teddy Roosevelt, discover a number of available biographies, and either buy one in full or have the choice in determining that chapter five is all I need...and then buy it; or that I have the option to buy chapters "one through three" from one biography and "four through six" from another to create my own customized e-book on the life and times of TR. Once I've gotten the content my way I'll be reading it on my iPad while commuting on the train, continue reading on my iPhone while standing on line at the post office, and later that week access my Google Editions account from my brother's computer to show him the book I've been reading. Unless I'm mistaken, I'll also be able to let him use my account so he can read the book too. And because it won't matter what type of gadget he'll use to access my account, his reading experience will be the same as mine. Talk about really lending a title to someone you trust with minimal hassle. Yes!...I'm fully expecting Google to innovate here by introducing this and additional new ways of consuming e-content relating to books that haven't been considered before.

And there's something else worth mentioning. Using a simple string of code, any website or Blog will be able to embed a Google Editions widget, which will essentially give anyone the opportunity to easily sell e-books. This will contribute to the growth, branding, and consumer awareness of Google Editions, just as we've seen previously with Google AdSense, Books, and more.

It's great to see services like Kobo already getting people familiar with the multiple device concept and Amazon as well as B&N, both with strong brand recognition, are doing what they can to give customers the ability to read books, magazines, and newspapers beyond the Kindle and Nook. But will their Amazon customers stay loyal and patiently wait for a color, touchscreen Kindle that will deliver rich content like Apple's iPad? Perhaps at first, but over time, I'd be surprised. And will B&N even consider going beyond E-Ink and invest in a next generation Nook? It must be acknowledged that Amazon has done a very good job avoiding tech talk whenever possible by making e-book purchases as easy as they could. This is extremely important because we have to get past talking about ePub, DRM, and Operating Systems to the average consumer since they don't care about such things, nor should they have to. Reading digitally has to replicate the ease of renting a movie-on-demand from the cable companies. There's no explanation about the nitty-gritty of how it's being delivered, because all anyone wants is for the movie to begin so we can sit down with our bowl of popcorn and enjoy it. I anticipate Google Editions will deliver a signature experience and surpass all other e-booksellers by making reading on devices the best it can possibly be. Let's just hope they do a better job with customer service issues then they reportedly did supporting the Nexus One! ;-)

What's your opinion?