Friday, May 23, 2014

The Real Reason Enhanced eBooks Haven't Taken Off (Or, Evan Schnittman Was Right... For the Most Part)

Originally published on Digital Book World

According to a recent article on the Futurebook blog, so far no publisher has proven that Evan Schnittman, industry thought-leader and current executive vice president and chief marketing and sales officer of Hachette Book Group, was wrong when he declared enhanced ebooks and apps essentially dead and a non-starter for publishers during a presentation at London Book Fair in 2011 (he was with Bloomsbury at the time). Further, with Book Expo 2014 coming up, the topic of enhanced ebooks is conspicuously missing from the agenda. Though there are one or two such panels scheduled during the IDPF Digital Book conference, what does it mean when there are no general sessions planned to address this subject? Does it signal that most publishers have given up on spending the time and resources on developing interactive reading experiences? Have they simply determined there's no real market for these kinds of digital products? Was Evan Schnittman correct? Overall, I'd venture to say, for the most part, the answer is a resounding yes.

Despite plenty of debate as to whether or not enhanced ebooks have merit, not enough attention has been paid to the real reason digital books featuring embedded video, audio, and other forms of interactivity haven't resonated with readers:

The main problem is that the market as it currently exists does not allow publishers to deliver the same enhanced product across all current digital platforms, whether it be Apple's iPad, Amazon's Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble's Nook, or Kobo's Arc. And when you stop and think about it, no other content creator is faced with this conundrum.

We often compare publishing to the music industry, and yes, record companies have been dealing with fast moving changes of their own over the years, but regardless of the medium, if you and I are standing in line at Starbucks and I ask if you've heard Beck's new album and liked this song or that, you will know what I'm talking about because regardless of how you ultimately heard the tracks, whether by CD, vinyl, or download, we both heard the songs the way the artist intended. And the same goes for most other forms of media. For example: Did you binge watch all seven seasons of Breaking Bad? Well so did I, but you rented the DVDs while I streamed episodes on my iPad during my commute on the train. Played Call of Duty with your gaming buddies over the weekend? I did too and we're able to enthusiastically share our first-person shooter experiences even though you have an Xbox and I've got a Playstation. And that's how it's pretty much always been with print editions of books as well, whether bought from a brick and mortar store, online, or checked out of the local library. Like music, TV shows, games, movies, etc., the hardcover or trade paperback delivered the same content in the same format no matter what shelf it was pulled from.

Seems obvious that this is the way things should be because it's a more unified experience for consumers. 

But here's the thing -- that's just not the case when it comes to ebooks of any type, but especially when describing ones enhanced with audio, video, and other interactive features.

While I was at NBCUniversal we produced a number of highly interactive projects using Apple's proprietary iBooks Author ebook platform in support of television programs, films, and corporate initiatives. The most popular was Grimm: The Essential Guide, which was a big hit with fans of the show, reaching upwards of 250,000 downloads. In addition to reading about the series, the ebook offered unique options to view 3D models of Wesen (the monsters); get a 360 degree view inside Rosalie's Spice Shop; use a palette to draw a favorite character, and much more. All cool, fun stuff for iBookstore customers to enjoy, right? Well, yes and no, because even within an Apple-centric universe there were boatloads of Grimm fans that were eager to experience this digital companion only to learn they couldn't because they owned iPhones and iPods, but not iPads. And the reason? Because ebooks created using iBooks Author can only be viewed on iPad; disappointed viewers wanted to know why. And if that wasn't frustrating enough, when Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet users downloaded this free, awesome ebook they saw promoted on TV or social media, those versions didn’t even include any of these features since neither device, at least at the time, could support them. In other words, we had to release a simpler, flatter, more traditional book-like product, which was a compromise of our original vision.

And therein lies the rub.

If publishers can't widely distribute enhanced ebooks across all channels then they will simply never gain traction by word of mouth, reviews, or with promotions (and I mean ones that don’t require the necessary asterisk to explain in fine print that the iBooks version features this, the Kindle version features that, and the Google Play version features neither). Those in the trenches of day-to-day ebook development at Disney, HarperCollins, Workman, Wiley, S&S, Random House, DK, Atavist, and others know exactly what I'm talking about and are nodding their heads.

So, am I suggesting we throw in the towel and stop pushing the digital storytelling envelope? My answer is not just no, but a resounding one at that!

And that's because eventually Apple will most likely figure out how to make IBA projects viewable on iPhones and iPods and for all I know it could be as soon as tomorrow. And Amazon's recent purchase of Comixology suggests it has plans to make interactive reading more dynamic on the Kindle Fire, which would be great since ebook sales from the Kindle store represents the lion's share of the market.

Schnittman's bold stance didn't surprise me because in January 2011, just a few months before the London Book Fair, we had a similar conversation over drinks in Paris while participating in an international publishing exchange. Ultimately, I agreed with his point in regards to fiction, or immersive reading, after sharing my experience developing the iPhone app for Cathy's Book, the first young adult transmedia project that paved the way for Scholastic's hit 39 Clues, The Amanda Project, Aisling's Diary, and several others. The influential print edition first published in 2006 was a success, but the app, which came out three years later, not so much. I had to concede such ambitious projects weren't sound investments economically for traditional publishers and that the promotional window, particularly for novels, provided less opportunity to ever recoup the costs of production. This probably remains the case for most publishers, even the large ones. But I don't believe anyone in our industry has ever suggested that all ebooks should be enhanced, and even Schnittman recognized during the London Book Fair the potential for enhancements in "how to" and academia.

Having just wrapped up my role as lead producer of JFK: 50 Days, a 2010 video enhanced project by Perseus Books Group that received a good amount of attention, including from the New York Times -- I felt then, and still do today -- that select non-fiction titles can be even better when paired with curated video/audio/etc. And the more evergreen the topic, the better the chance to re-promote year-after-year or to be discovered repeatedly in Google searches.

The Meet the Press 65th anniversary ebooks I recently had the privilege to produce reaffirmed that belief and serve as great examples of bringing history to life in digital book form. It's one thing to read about an appearance on MTP by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1957, but it's another entirely to actually watch that moment accompanied by a few informative paragraphs that put her comments into historical context.

The Futurebook post concludes that 3.5 years after London Book Fair 2011 we now know people prefer to just read straight text and don't want these enhancements. But given the distribution challenges I described earlier, I think one can not come to such a conclusion with any certainty. Readers can't determine what they do or don't prefer if they aren’t aware of what they’re missing.

Mike Shatzkin, another industry thought-leader, wrote a blog post more than a year ago asking "How far away can it be for the NBC News book on a national election...", which we actually did publish in November of 2012 called Election Night. It’s an insightful read and features terrific archival footage from 1948, the dawn of television, right up until President Obama's re-election to office. During an appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews said to author Stephen Battaglio, "Congratulations on finally justifying having one of these hi-tech books..." and “I don’t think you can not buy this if you’re a true junky like me.” Such coverage resulted in hundreds of people that evening choosing to download the enhanced edition over the standard one when presented with the option.

I'm confident there are audiences equally anxious for well produced digital books featuring enhancements with purpose. This is the key: that interactive ebooks be developed with the long term in mind, with less expectation of being a blockbuster, but instead be elegantly simple in design/functionality, as well as entertaining, educational and utilitarian. Like the enhanced Everything Language series embedded with audio that was released during my time at F+W Media, which in print, includes a CD. Or the Everything Baby Sign Language book, which includes a DVD in the back of the print edition, but the same videos were repurposed and featured within the enhanced eBook. Interactive titles like these make perfect sense in digital form to consumers and become part of the slow burn for publishers that can result in a consistent stream of revenue, year-after-year.

In the late 1990s, Internet pioneer Josh Harris launched an experimental, video-based art project called, Quiet: We Live In Public, which invited 100 volunteers willing to appear on webcam 24/7, capturing their every movement. It was a challenging, technological feat that led the way for reality TV. More than 15 years later such an online endeavor would be a piece-of-cake in our world of YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Facetime, and Pinterest where we’re literally all connected and share everything about our daily lives. I feel we’re in a similar moment in time when it comes to interactive reading and that eventually enhanced ebooks, or whatever they’ll be called years from now, will become more mainstream. And that is why I passionately believe it's more important than ever to keep innovating, to keep redefining reader engagement, and to keep the conversation going with our ebook retail partners until it’s possible to present the same interactive digital product to everyone, everywhere.

Hopefully such discussions will return to Book Expo 2015.

Until then, you can find me in the trenches.

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