Skip to main content

Poynter Laments About the "Unfulfilled Promise of eBooks", But Misses the Point

2757078549_0f20624dd5[1]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 – $500 and up, 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.

expanded books screen shot

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

Similar Articles


Anne September 16, 2013 um 2:55 pm

The sky has fallen! I agree with Shatzkin. That just proves there is a first time for everything.

fjtorres September 16, 2013 um 3:58 pm

Nate, remember Vook?
How many enhanced ebooks have they brought to market since 2009?
That enhanced ebooks have not taken off is not for lack of trying; the market simply has no great interest in enhanced ebooks at this point in time.

Nate Hoffelder September 16, 2013 um 4:06 pm

I know about Vook. I was still thinking about how to mention them without bashing them.

fjtorres September 16, 2013 um 5:51 pm

They are migrating to a new business model, aren’t they?
I vaguely remember the press release that they adding plain epub publishing services.

Nate Hoffelder September 16, 2013 um 6:03 pm

They did that a long time ago. I added a section on Vook and how they pivoted twice.

Al the Great and Powerful September 16, 2013 um 4:51 pm

I agree with the parent – I don’t WANT the enhanced books.

Furthermore, perhaps somebody should clue this Adair guy in. If I want to read pages with integrated media, I open a browser window and I’m there – text, video, music, interactivity. No need to shovel that into book format as well, when the browser does it already. And that’s on my phone and my Nexus tablet.

If he wants to complain that his device will not do this, that’s another complaint. Shoot, my Kindle DX won’t do it either. So what? Not every tool does every job (a screwdriver is usually a piss-poor hammer).

Nigel September 16, 2013 um 5:08 pm

This is an issue dear to us as well – we’re in the kids' market, and some folks just expect that any library app aimed at kids needs interactive books. We don’t buy that – building motivation for 'traditional' literacy skills is more important than ever right now.

Shatzkin’s quote and your 3rd last graph say it well – 'interactive books' are an interesting new medium, but they’re not necessary to prove that eBooks are fulfilling a demand. eBooks already have some unique advantages in terms of ease of discovery, distribution and access – requiring the content of the books to change as well seems like gilding the lily. Netflix didn’t need to make movies interactive; nor did Spotify need to reimagine the content in music. It’s always been interesting to me that books seem to get more 'pressure to transform' than these other media (or am I biased?).

Interactive books are also often orders of magnitude more expensive to produce well, requiring multimedia designers. This naturally bottlenecks the amount of content available, and makes it more expensive, both of which seem at odds with the advantages of digital distribution models.

Rebecca Allen September 16, 2013 um 9:51 pm

I would add more problems with "enhanced" books. If you are reading slowly, and attending to the sound of the language (for example while reading poetry), anything audible will tend to interfere. If you are reading quickly, for content, then anything audible — even music — can interfere. It’s very difficult for me to find a pace where I can read and listen to something at the same time. A biography of a singer is an instance where it might be worth stopping to listen to what is being described — assuming you aren’t already playing it in your head because you memorized it decades ago. Still pictures exist in paper books; I don’t see a real difference in having those in e-books, altho they tend to bloat what may otherwise be a very small data file. Video, on the other hand, always frustrates me on the web, as do podcasts: I’d far rather read a transcript than listen to people talk, with extremely rare exceptions, and video of people talking when I could just read what they had to say (ideally edited so I don’t have to deal with all their ums and ahs and likes and literallys) is even worse. If I were reading a book about sports (not likely to happen, but you never know — I did read a great book about muscles, once), video could add value. But again, how often does that happen?

The Rodent September 16, 2013 um 11:35 pm

Not to mention copyright hell for authors/suppliers trying to get clearance and (haha) pay royalties so they can add anything they don’t already "own" to an enhanced e-book…

(Aside from that, yeah, if I’m reading, I want to read, not be distracted by extraneous sound and motion.)

Destination Infinity September 17, 2013 um 1:27 am

First of all, let’s admit that the majority of 'consumers' do not use books/eBooks for consuming content. TV, Movies, Internet & lately smart-phones have taken charge long ago. There is only a small section of people who read books/eBooks – Can you refuse this?

Targeting the enhanced eBooks (or whatever that can be classified as such) to the existing eBook reader market will, of course, fail. Enhanced eBooks are for people who don’t have any intention to return to books/news-papers for consuming content.

Because, let’s admit, not everyone has the time or patience.

Secondly, all those independently produced movies/videos in Youtube actually represent enhanced eBooks of this generation. And they are free.

In effect, 'enhanced ebooks' make a lot of sense but their delivery/target audience/business model needs a re-look.

Paul Taylor September 17, 2013 um 9:01 am

Absolutely agree. To read the quote, one would think he envisages a future where if you just want the text, you’ll have to find a print copy somewhere – if such still exists. That’s nonsense. For hundreds of years, printed books have supported illustrations – black and white AND colour, no less! – and yet the vast majority of books remain text only. That surely tells you something about what’s most often important in a book.

SteveH September 17, 2013 um 1:37 pm

Oh…and there is the pure dollars & sense angle for this too from a publishers standpoint. Kindle’s KF8 format can do video/audio in a book, but then the file size goes up quite a bit for that book. The economics of doing that in in a 2.99 to 9.99 price point MINUS the .15 a Mb delivery fees is a losing battle. Better to link to a YouTube video from the book – until Amazon changes their biz model to encourage this type of 'enhanced' book (mostly non-fiction applicable I would think).
For Apple this may make more sense as they do not charge for delivery like Amazon does, but that means a special Apple version(extra costs to develop separately).

David Gaughran May 28, 2014 um 3:59 am

I think there are 4 issues of escalating importance:

(1) Limitations of many popular devices. There are still many, many e-readers in circulation which can’t display audio or video.

(2) Enhanced ebooks are more expensive to produce. Self-publishers and small publishers have little interest in producing them.

(3) Large publishers, who can afford to produce enhanced ebooks, often don’t have the rights to produce them and absolutely don’t want to go back to authors/agents to renegotiate contracts on content they have already locked down.

But by far the most important of all:

(4) Demand simply isn’t there. And I don’t think it will ever be there for most books. I can see the attraction for kids' books and certain kinds of non-fiction, but I absolutely don’t want my fiction "enhanced" as all that stuff will ruin the immersive reading experience. Every reader I talk to is the same.

Besides, if people want an interactive storytelling experience with audio/video/gaming elements, all they have to do is play a game.

This discussion in the publishing world tends to ignore the giant strides made in interactive storytelling experiences by games like The Walking Dead. Interactive storytelling is already happening, and popular, but it’s not being produced by publishers and probably won’t be in any meaningful commercial sense either, aside from licensing IPs to gaming companies who do have the knowledge.

Caleb Mason May 28, 2014 um 6:51 am

Games make sense as one way to learn, straight texts make sense for absorbed reading. I wish publishers spent more time editing the words they sell, as those are the reading interruptions that wreck the experience for me. As in sports, get back to the fundamentals and do them well. Whether the content is digital, on paper, or on a stone: invest in developmental editing and copyediting for those who enjoy careful reading of words.

eBooks May be Selling Well, But eBook Apps Are Doomed | The Digital Reader December 12, 2015 um 5:17 pm

[…] NYTimes isn't the first to gush over the unfulfilled possibilities of  enhanced ebooks, and they're also not the first to miss the fact that this field has a twenty […]

Write a Comment