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Yes, the Success of the "American Sniper" Enhanced Edition is a One-Off

8676257604_82c200815d_m[1]Many startups have made a go of producing enhanced ebooks, and so far no one has had much luck in creating a real market. But  Clare Swanson , writing for Publishers Weekly, thinks that HarperCollins has found a way forward.

Swanson is pointing at the success of the enhanced version of Chris Kyle’s novel*, American Sniper, and asking whether it’s a sign that the time of enhanced ebooks has come:

For the first three weeks of the new year, the enhanced edition of Chris Kyle’s memoir,American Sniper, led Apple’s iBooks bestseller list, consistently landing several spots above the title’s standard e-book. Its hot streak was a rare victory for enhanced e-books (especially over their unenhanced counterparts). On the whole, sales of enhanced e-books have fallen short of expectations since publishers began investing in the format, which incorporates video and other interactive features, roughly five years ago.

Is American Sniper’s place at the top of Apple’s chart a one-off occurrence, owing to the popularity of the film adaptation (which raked in six Oscar nominations), or is it a harbinger of good things to come for enhanced e-books—pointing to a new trend, enhancing titles with TV and film adaptations, that may help publishers sell what has been a historically difficult format to market?

I was going to add that article to the Monday morning links post, but then I got interested in the idea and decided to answer the question.

It took me about 10 minutes.

In short, yes, this is a one-off success and not a bellwether for a new market, and I have a simple explanation as to why.

Swanson failed to mention one important detail in her article: price.


The enhanced version of American Sniper is selling in iBooks and the Kindle Store for $5.99 and $5.86, respectively. That is far cheaper than most enhanced ebooks, so until it is possible to sell most (all?) enhanced ebooks that cheaply, this work is an outlier and not a forerunner for a rising market.

What’s more, given that the audio and video added to enhanced ebooks have a higher production cost than your average ebook, we also need to ask whether HarperCollins is making much of a profit on this title. (This ebook has 12 video interviews of the late author.) I don’t think they’d sell it for $6 if they were losing money, but I also don’t think they’re earning a whole lot.

And since HC has reported that they’ve sold 166,000 copies, I think it’s safe to assume that (at best) this is not a huge money maker which has justified the initial investment.

And so the success of this title is not something to get excited over. That is regrettable; I think enhanced ebooks are cool on a technical level. I’d like to see a market for them, but I just don’t expect that to happen.

P.S. In July of last year the Kyle estate lost a $1.8 million libel lawsuit brought by Jesse Ventura, thus proving that Chris Kyle is a very colorful storyteller and that this work is not biographical.

P.P.S. Coincidentally, the enhanced edition ranked higher in iBooks than in the Kindle Store following the release of the movie. Remember how Keith Moerer, the Apple Director of iBooks, said at the DBW conference last month that Apple did well with cross-promoting movies, music, and ebooks? I think we have an example to show what he meant.

images by melenita2012clasesdeperiodismo

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Gary February 16, 2015 um 4:15 pm

Note that my comments apply to fiction.

I can easily see that video clips could be an enhancement to "Car Repair for Dummies" or to a history or a biography. I can not, however, think of a situation in which adding a video clip might "enhance" a novel.

This is arguing about definitions, which is more-or-less futile, but here goes.

For me, an enhancement is something that makes the experience of absorbing the entertainment richer and deeper. When mono sound recordings were replaced by stereo sound recordings in the 1950s, it was an enhancement. You could listen to recorded music in mono, and enjoy it, but listening to the same orchestra play the same music in stereo was just plain better.

Adding interviews with the author, or book club questions or anything else to a novel is simply irrelevant to me. You have to stop reading the story in order to access these add-ons. Therefore, they do not "enhance" anything; rather they interrupt reading the story and for me they take away from the experience.

I can only think of two true "enhancements" to an e-book novel.

First are visual improvements such as a higher screen resolution, better contrast, better paragraph layout, nicer fonts, and other aspects of book layout and design. It would, however, take a very bold PR department to publicly claim that better layout and typography justify saying that a book is "enhanced".

Second is the addition of a subliminal audio sound effects track. That is, use an e-reader’s camera to detect exactly where I am in a story by tracking my eyes and to then synchronise appropriate sound effects to the words on the page. These sounds would be barely audible and might include things such as waves on a beach, or people talking in a restaurant, or cars passing on a busy street, etc. If you don’t like the subliminal sound track, you could just remove your earbuds and read the story normally. With your earbuds inserted you still get the words of the story through your eyes, without interruption, but you also get some extra atmosphere through your ears AT THE SAME TIME.

And, of course, there are probably other things that I would consider to be enhancements but that I haven’t thought of.

So, If and when someone publishes an ebook that has what I think is an enhancement, I will certainly buy it and see if it works for me. In the meantime, I can just ignore the video clips and the book club questions and any other "added features".

Nate Hoffelder February 16, 2015 um 4:34 pm

I was actually snarking when I called it a novel. Kyle’s book is supposedly autobiographical, but there are several disputed sections, including one where he punched out Jesse Ventura. That is why I call it a novel.

Depending on how it’s written, the interviews might add to the book. I haven’t read it, but if the interviews capture the same voice as the text then they’d be worth watching.

Marcus Parsons February 17, 2015 um 1:40 pm


You wrote, "I can easily see that video clips could be an enhancement to “Car Repair for Dummies” or to a history or a biography. I can not, however, think of a situation in which adding a video clip might “enhance” a novel."

I disagree. One humble example: the half-dozen videos in PRELUDE ( No doubt there are other examples, with more to come. Given the immense number of people with a taste for video, audio, high-resolution images, etc., as well as good old words, I expect that enhanced works will become commonplace in every genre.

Gary February 17, 2015 um 4:56 pm

I was unaware of the existence of _Prelude_ until you posted the link. I had a quick look at it, and I will study it in more depth later.

Once again, I have to admit that my argument is mainly about definitions.

I do not think that a movie is an "enhanced book". I don’t think that a stage play is an "enhanced book". And, after a very quick look, I don’t think that _Prelude_ is an "enhanced book".

I think that _Prelude_ is an example of a new and developing form of multi-media story telling, involving text, still images, video, and sound. This new format will be sufficiently different from old fashioned printed books that it will make it own rules and will develop into its own new art form. I think that this new art form deserves its own descriptive name.

If creative people want to tell their stories in this way, that’s great. If the public wants to buy stories that are told in this way, that’s great too. I simply object to calling it an "enhanced book" because I think that it is a fundamental change away from "book" just as movies were a fundamental change away from books.

To change your last sentence slightly, I would agree that: "Given the immense number of people with a taste for video, audio, high-resolution images, etc., as well as good old words, I expect that [multi-media stories] will become commonplace in every genre."

Kevin C February 18, 2015 um 12:17 pm

I could see author interviews being relevant as an enhancement I just would want them either at the front or back of the book not interspersed throughout the text.

I definitely would not want background music or sound effects.

What I do enjoy concerning fiction works are diagrams and maps. Whether it’s an epic fantasy with a map that showing the lay of the land, a diagram of a capital ship in a piece of sci-fi, or a basic plan of attack showing where each spec ops team is and how they’ll attack a warehouse.

For non-fiction I really think enhanced books could make a good size dent in the market for particular subjects. I read many transportation related ( planes, cars, motorcycles, ships etc.) non fiction books and would really enjoy a nice image or better yet an image gallery.

And when it comes to the education market, enhanced books have some advantages but we’re not there yet.

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Tom Chmielewski February 17, 2015 um 9:26 am

Depends on your point of view if this is an outlier. As a stand-alone novel, it may been an outlier, particularly if you attribute all the costs of enhancements to the novel. But all those enhancements, interviews, clips, whatever, were probably already done for the eventual DVD/Blue-Ray edition that will be eventually released. If you look at it as a marketing tool, it’s a marketing effort that probably showed at least a minor profit, and maybe a fairly significant one. Sure, a drop in the bucket compared to movie profits, but not bad.

Can the lessons only be applied to novelizations of movies? That’s a harder question. But for novelizations, other studios/publishers better take a good look at the quality put into this one. Most enhancements put into ebooks by marketing people have been junk. I expect there will be a rash of "me-too" ebooks that will fall far short of this work, and industry types will be quick to say, "See, this doesn’t really work." It would be like scientists who discredit a discovery in the lab because they can’t repeat it, but they don’t use the same procedures or materials in their experiments. Usually, that’s what scientists try very hard not to do.

Rather than thinking for 10 minutes to come up with a conclusion that this a fluke, an "outlier," it might be better to try to find out why the enhanced ebook version of American Sniper" did work and glean lessons that could be applied elsewhere in publishing. This work probably doesn’t show The Way to enhanced novels, but that doesn’t mean that publishers can’t learn some things from the enhanced ebook and build on it.

Nate Hoffelder February 17, 2015 um 9:46 am

This ebook was released in 2012, which means that the 12 interviews were recorded long before the movie was produced and were probably intended for this ebook and not for the DVD. (The movie didn’t get made until 2014.)

Sure, the interviews will probably be included in that DVD, but the initial cost had to be born by this ebook.

And as for taking more than 10 minutes to understand why this book was a success, you’re right in that Swanson should have done that. But she didn’t.

And I chose not to do it because as I see it, demanding that level of analysis is an acknowledgement that there is no overall market for this type of enhanced ebook – just a niche market for very specific types. And that would tend to prove my general position that there is no general market for enhanced ebooks.

Thad McIlroy February 17, 2015 um 4:48 pm

Hi Nate,

When I was researching my new report on Mobile (minimize shameless plug) I looked extensively at the current state of the loosely-defined "enhanced ebook." A couple of data points:

– Amazon doesn’t list “enhanced ebooks” as a category. Searching “enhanced ebooks” on the Kindle store returns only 163 results, including a handful from a publisher called “Enhanced Ebooks.”

– There are 2,150 results for “NOOK Books Enhanced” (out of 3,934,005 results for “NOOK books”). As usual, some books of questionable quality slip into the mix—perhaps best indicated by the inclusion of the 85-megabyte “An Interactive Biography of James Dean for Kids (Enhanced Edition).”

– I found a couple of samples of really obvious books where enhancements were added, including
– "Listen to Bob Marley: The Man, the Music, the Revolution [Kindle Edition With Audio/Video]
– Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy

Still it’s not clear how well these books have performed: "mum’s the word"?

– My conclusion: A broad rule for enhanced ebooks: high-profile titles can sometimes bring in incremental revenue through enhanced versions. For all others, caution is required.

Nate Hoffelder February 17, 2015 um 6:59 pm

Actually, Amazon does list them. The category name is Kindle with audio/video:

I have to find it through Google. Seriously.

That actually brings up a point which Swanson got wrong and I simply accepted without correcting her. There are a few thousand such titles in the Kindle store, including more that a few which cost below $6. This suggests that there is a supply and that costs can be lower than we expect.

It doesn’t tell us anything about the demand, but it does tell us that there is a market worth researching (rather than focusing on a few blockbuster titles).

Thad McIlroy February 17, 2015 um 7:31 pm

And I do, most emphatically, recommend to readers of this column that they search under "Audio/Video Editions" on Amazon and peruse the 2,834 items found.

The fourth title, yours for just $0.99 (or free for Prime!) is "Hot Mom Surrender: Lonely Wife sensual College Student Erotic Romance Love Encounter in the House Short Erotica Sex Story." The enhancements are left to one’s imagination.

Look further and you’ll find a mis-mash off $0.00 come-ons, designed to lure you into the sales pyramid, an assortment of actual video hardware, and a book which has "Digital Video & Audio Editing" in the title, but no enhancements.

Enhanced ebooks: Bah, humbug — the Bloomsbury Classic Series of A Christmas Carol is on sale for $1.99, but, the site advises, this "enhaced ebook" only "works on devices capable of playing audio books."

So, yes I guess there is a market for enhanced ebooks. And it’s your for the taking.

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