Poynter Laments About the "Unfulfilled Promise of eBooks", But Misses the Point
Did you catch Bill Adair’s article over on Poynter last week?
He wrote about the ebooks he read on vacation and commented upon the fact that they could have been so much more than simply text. Unfortunately he also missed the realities of the ebook market which would have explained why those ebooks were simply text.
I read e-book versions of “Bruce,” a Springsteen biography by Peter Ames Carlin, and Dan Brown’s bestselling novel “Inferno.” Both had great potential for extra audio and video that could have created a much richer experience. But the e-books offered no more than the ink-on-paper versions.
My disappointing experience offers a lesson for news organizations that are considering selling e-books because its shows how legacy media is still thinking like … legacy media. Book publishers still have an old-school mentality — like many newspaper editors.
E-books offer great opportunities for magazine and newspaper editors because the digital versions can include video, audio and other content that will enrich a story. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing e-books because they can bring in extra revenue and new audiences. Consumers are accustomed to paying for books, and there are established stores (Amazon and Apple’s iBooks) that will market and sell them. But to do e-books right, editors and book publishers should take advantage of their multimedia features.
Mr Adair goes on to point out how these 2 titles could have been enhanced with audio/video in one case and annotations in the other. He’s entirely correct on the details about how these ebooks can be improved, but I care less about that then the fact that he fails to ask why more enhanced ebooks are not being produced.
Enhanced ebooks have been around, in one form or another, for over 20 years. They’re not "in their infancy", as Mr. Adair described them, and yet enhanced ebooks are the exception and not the rule.
In today’s market enhanced ebooks are generally only found in certain market segments like kid’s books and technical nonfiction, with only a sprinkling of popular and mainstream titles being released as enhanced ebooks.
There are a number of reasons why they’ve stayed the exception, but the short answer is that it comes down to platform costs and limited sales. Let me show you a couple examples of past attempts at enhanced ebooks.
The Sony Data Discman, which was made from around 1990 to 2000, could play an enhanced format with audio. This device was available in a variety of models, but it was only marginally successful because the hardware was expensive – , and that is what they were charging 20 years ago.
And then there’s Voyager Books and the Expanded Books which they produced in the 1990s. Those ebooks had all the fancy features that Mr. Adair wants to see in current ebooks, including audio, video, animation, and more.
Unfortunately the market was still rather limited. Due to the ebooks being based on Apple’s proprietary tech, they could only be read on Macs, which of course limited sales. The Expanded eBooks were also expensive to produce, far more so than what the average indie author spends today.
Or if you want a more current example, consider Vook. This company launched in 2009 with the goal of publishing enhanced ebooks for the iPhone. They quickly expanded their efforts to include the iPad and the Kindle apps for iOS, but based on their later business decisions I don’t think they had much success. By mid-2011 this startup pivoted from publishing their own titles to producing enhanced ebooks as a service. And then they pivoted again to focus more on distribution and other services as much as production.
But those are just a few examples that show that enhanced ebooks haven’t taken off; now let’s look at why.
I have a couple alternate theories. I think the current market is too divided, but one expert I asked thinks customers aren’t interested.
As anyone in publishing will tell you, the current ebook market is fragmented among a variety of hardware and software platforms. Yes, Amazon does have the largest segment, but even there the feature support is fragmented between the ereaders, tablets, and apps (not all of which can support media enhancements).
While hardware cost have dropped significantly over the past few years the decrease brought a number of constraints. For example, we have cheap ereaders now, but most have an E-ink screen which cannot support the media enhancements that Mr. Adair wants.
We do also have cheap tablets and smartphones to read on, but some of those aren’t up to playing media-rich ebooks. And while a lot of smartphones and tablets can play audio and video, the ebook formats and video resolutions they support vary from one manufacturer to the next. And there there is the variety of reading apps, not all of which can support all the enhancements Mr. Adair wants.
A significant part of the potential customer base isn’t going to buy enhanced ebooks because they simply cannot. That limits sales and as a result drives up the price.
And even when a consumer can buy an enhanced ebook, they might not want to. Mike Shatzkin believes that enhanced ebooks offer features that most consumers don’t want:
I have a simple view about why enhanced ebooks haven’t worked commercially: most consumers (despite the opinion of the person who wrote that article) don’t want them. MOST people aren’t going to ebooks for a new experience; they’re going to ebooks for a more convenient (and in some ways functionally-improved) version of the old experience. So, built-in dictionaries and accessible footnotes and ability to mark passages — things that people often did with books — make sense. Adding audio and video and interactive elements don’t, nearly as much. And to top it off, those additional elements come with costs and rights issues and design challenges that add hugely to the cost of delivering the product. The math usually won’t work.
That certainly fits with my personal experience. I own any number of enhanced ebooks (I can usually get them for free), but I can’t tell you the last time I viewed the enhancements. I’ve read some of the ebooks, yes, but I often skipped the enhancements so I could have the reading experience that I was used to. Admittedly, I have played with some ebooks that were closer to being games than ebooks, but I also didn’t regard that as reading. I was playing a game with a literary theme.
All in all, Mr. Adair’s position less resembles a list of ways that publishers are failing and more closely resembles the arguments an advocate of flying cars would make if they tried to convince us that Ford should make one.
In both cases the tech exists (or it can be developed) to make the desired product; what doesn’t exist is any sizable market for said product. And I don’t see any signs of that changing any time soon.
image by Matt From London