Enhanced ebooks

Apparently, the near-simultaneous birth and death of enhanced ebooks is being heralded by some at the London Book Fair (which I am not at, so all of this is reflecting on articles written on the talks there, not first-hand experience). At The Digital Reader the managing director of Bloomsbury is quoted as having said:

“Enhanced will have an incredibly big future in education, but the idea of innovation in the narrative reading process is just a non-starter, I’ve been smug about this, and now I’m even smugger.”

And here I was just starting to get excited about them. The article this quote is taken from, at The Bookseller, has a few good counterpoints from other publishers: apps are part of the marketplace, and do publishers really want to be left behind? When color printing was made affordable, we didn’t start printing each word in a different color. The point is, the technology is there and people are going to use it. The point isn’t whether or not it’s used (because it will be) but how smartly, interestingly and innovatively it can be used. And I don’t know about you but when I think innovation I think textbook publishers.

But seriously, how can it be that a serious publisher seriously thinks that there can be no innovation in narrative? I suspected the answer might be in the catalog, and sure enough it’s chock-full of titles like How to Crack an Egg with One Hand: A pocketbook for the new mother and Wild Romance: The True Story of a Victorian Scandal. Not, shall we say, the most innovative books imaginable. Ok, so perhaps in mainstream, self-help and historical romance, there isn’t much room for innovative reading experiences, much less narrative approaches. Perhaps. But I can name you half a dozen books that, with the proper resources, could develop incredible enhanced ebook reading experiences.

A few weeks ago at The Millions Emily St. John Mandel imagined her ideal e-reader. One that could, for example, play directed sound, or create a ‘cone of silence’ for readers in noisy spaces. This is just one way an enhanced ebook could change, reinvent and innovate the narrative reading experience.

But what I suspect the nay-sayer of Bloomsbury is referring to is not really what I think of when I think of enhancing digital readers. This article from Jaunuary 2010 at BookSquare gets it exactly right. Publishers haven’t even mastered the basics of ebooks, still think of print as the ‘real’ version of the book, and are so worried about charging more for ebooks that they try to ‘enhance’ books with marketing materials. Its not that the narrative experience can’t be enhanced, its that the publishers can’t seem to wrap their market-value saturated heads around what genuinely enhancing a reading experience would be like. They are disconnected from the readers, and apparently from the authors as well. So how can Bloomsbury be sounding the death knell for something that hasn’t even really been done yet?

Part of it is that publishers are looking for a ‘model’ of enhancement – a checklist of things they can add that will allow them to charge more money for the book. This is as absurd as it is short-sighted. An innovative reading experience will be developed on a per-book basis. The enhancements have to suit their context, and be developed alongside them. So just as a book goes through an editorial process, so it could go through an imaginative enhancement process. Having access to resources to contract other media artists to create companion pieces, animation, music, film, interactive augmented reality, etc. would have to be part of it. The idea must be to create a multi-dimensional experience of the book, and that kind of genuine creation has to be done by the author, publisher and other creators in sync. It can’t be tacked on interviews and links to Twitter and Facebook.

The problem is of course the combination of vision and resources. The companies with resources to really innovate are scared to because it’s a risk. The artists, authors, and publishers who could conceivably create real innovation don’t have the resources at hand.  Give me a few thousand dollars and a programmer and I’ll give you innovation in narrative.

And, perhaps for another time, why is the assumption that narrative is the only form of ebook so prevalent? As I wrote at the end of another post (Ebooks have no style) we’re still only just seeing the beginnings of what e-poetry can be.

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