Enhanced eBooks: The Transmedia Platform of Choice?

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Transmedia authors need to take a serious look at what enhanced ebooks can do for their projects. Tablet- and smartphone-based stories have the potential to overcome a significant number of usability issues facing transmedia narrative designers.

While enhanced ebooks are not entirely new, they aren’t yet part of the mainstream in book publishing. The path forward has its share of detours, pitfalls, and uncertainties, which is typical of any endeavor involving an emerging and rapidly changing technology.

In mid-2011, the use of enhanced ebooks for storytelling was declared DOA (dead on arrival).

“Enhanced [ebooks] will have an incredibly big future in education, but the idea of innovation in the narrative reading process is just a non-starter,” said Evan Schnittman, Bloombury’s managing director of sales and marketing. (See Is the Enhanced Ebook Really Dead?)

This is certainly not a ringing endorsement of a new platform for transmedia storytellers. But the doomsayers are not necessarily right, said Henry Volans, head of digital publishing at Faber and Faber.

“Apps are a phenomenon of our age and are here to stay,” Volans said.

Okay…that’s a little more encouraging.

Some publishers have made a long-term commitment to developing enhanced ebooks. Penguin, for example, in 2010 (shortly after the emergence of the Apple iPad in April, 2010) began publishing the first in a comprehensive line of ebooks targeting young readers with remakes of classics like The Little Engine that Could and Peter Rabbit. Since then, many classic and contemporary books like The Chronicles of Egg: Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey (sold as either a hardcover book or ebook for iPad, Kindle, or Nook) and the Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon have been added.

There are questions about what kind of enhanced ebooks will be published. The focus of publishers is currently on providing electronic versions of standard all-text books   like novels, nonfiction books (textbooks, for example) that include some graphics, or illustrated books focused primarily at the children’s market.

“Every year, we say this is going to be the year of the enhanced ebook. But in the second half of this year (2013) you’re going to see a significant number of titles with robust interactivity in areas like test prep and other non-fiction categories,” said Peter Dalis, Wiley’s director of digital business development. (See DBW’s “Ten Bold Predictions for Ebooks and Digital Publishing in 2013” for more details.)

At this point I would consider the steps toward fully enhanced fictional works to be tentative.

The current business environment is tough. Mainstream publishers like Penguin, St. Martin’s Press, and Simon & Schuster are finding themselves forced to compete not only with each other, but with small publishers and individual authors who are flocking to self-publish ebooks.

Developing enhanced ebooks can be major undertaking involving a significant investment in time and effort. Cognito Comics CIA: Operation Ajax enhanced ebook took two years to develop. Enhanced ebook development can also be a costly proposition with some projects running upwards of $100,000, said Lorena Jones, the publishing director for Chronicle Books‘ digital initiatives. (See Wired’s “Publishers Hustle to Make E-Books More Immersive“.)

Despite these challenges,  the potential market for ebooks of all types is growing rapidly. The number of adults in the United States who owned a tablet computer increased from 5% in November, 2010 to 10% in December, 2011. It doubled again to just under 20% over the holiday 2011 holiday season. (See Pew Internet & American Life Project)

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As of September, 2012 about 25% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a tablet and another 18% owned an ebook reader. About 45% owned a smartphone, which typically can also be used as ebook readers.

The growth of tablet ownership is not unique to the United States. Almost 30% of English-speaking Canadians owned a tablet in early 2013, more than double the number from late 2011 and more than seven times the 2010 figure, according to a Canadian Press report.

The number of tablets sold globally is expected to exceed sales of notebook computers in 2013 by more than 33 millions units. Driving this trend is higher resolution screens, increased processing power, and more sophisticated apps couples with falling costs for tablets.

So where does all this leave enhanced ebooks and transmedia storytelling?

Over the past decade transmedia stories have been scattered across a wide variety of platforms, among them television, films, books (the paper kind), websites, blogs and social media, telephones, and live events.

Unfortunately, moving from one platform to another creates what transmedia developer Robert Pratten terms “friction” – the resistance that occurs when a reader needs to transition from, for example, reading a hardcopy book to using a computer to read a blog post or tweet from a key character.

For transmedia authors, ebooks provide an opportunity to bring together the various elements of a transmedia story on one easy-to-use platform. Text, graphics, links to the web, video clips, and other story elements can be seamlessly integrated and displayed so that moving from the text in an ebook to an online website is a simple touch on the tablet’s screen.

Designing enhanced e-books, however, is not a trivial task. A set of technical skills combined with design approach that embraces the principles of transmedia is essential. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of today’s enhanced ebooks have major design flaws that limit their full potential.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll look at some examples of enhanced ebooks that failed to deliver and how applying some relatively simple transmedia design principles would have improved them considerably. I’ll also delve into some of the technical issues that can affect design decisions for enhanced ebooks.

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