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.

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