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Are Enhanced E-books Actually “Readable”?

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s lead story looks at the popularity of enhanced e-books in Germany.

Much of the real potential for e-books, so the pundits believe, lies in their potential for delivering multimedia options to readers. Some call this the “enhanced” e-book, one that comes with “extras” like you might find on a DVD. This could include additional chapters, interviews with the author, background material, video features, online interactivity and other sundries. The idea is that you can “read, watch, and listen to an e-book at the the same time,” in the parlance of Penguin’s marketing materials in support of their “amplified” e-books, which have included classics and backlist bestsellers, such as Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, which featured 88 video excerpts that were released in conjunction with the US screening of a made-for-TV adaptation of the book. It comes in, by the way, at nearly two gigabytes in size -– meaning it’s likely to eat up a significant chunk of your video-enabled e-reader’s memory.

The question is, with your reading experience “enhanced” with video, Web pop-ups and other interactions, is the enhanced e-book actually “readable?” Or do we need another way of describing the experience? “Interactive” strikes me a wrong, since the technological enhancements are largely pushed at you — it’s a one way transaction. How should we describe the experience?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted October 20, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the last thing a fiction writer wants (at least the last thing this one wants) is content that distracts from the writing and mood the writer has labored so long to craft.

    I’d rather put a note upfront in the book: “Want to see some cool videos that help to bring the story to visual life? Check out this website!”

    Repeatedly stopping to view a video or listen to an audio clip is like having repeated interruptions while you’re trying to read. You usually find yourself having to back up a paragraph or page to get back into the flow of the narrative.

    Maybe we should call these mixed-media efforts, “interruptive reading.”

  2. Posted October 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I support what Walt Shiel says above, but I think the problem is that enhanced ebooks are too new, and a literary form of enhanced ebook is yet to be born. The current approach to producing them all too often seems to be based on the principle “let’s grab anything that has to do with it, video, music, interviews, games etc and throw it all in the bag”. And that might work to sell the book – people figure that for the same price they’re getting extras – but in the long run it won’t really work. It will be like movies on DVD will all those extra interviews and other information material. I don’t know about you, but I never look at all that extra stuff!

    What is required is something else: an “integrated” enhanced e-book. By integrated, I mean the story the writer tells should have several dimensions that mesh into each other flawlessly, without retarding the plot or story telling. For example, dialogue could become video scenes, then when it’s over, the plot goes on in written form. Or high action could become video clips dropped right into the text, and you’d have the option to either read about it or watch it. Or suppose your main character is a musician: in the scenes where he plays the piano or composes, you could have the option to hear the music or see him at play…

    This of course would require another, different approach to story building, one that would keep in mind the enhanced ebook as the final product.

  3. Posted October 20, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Having access to additional materials while one reads is intriguing but I would think it should be at the readers direction. For example, the ability to immediately look up the definition for an unfamiliar word or to keep track of characters in a work like “War and Peace”. Even then I would find the break in the narrative distracting.

    Reading, involves removing oneself from the physical world and entering a world created by the writer. The words, are what transport us to the time and place inhabited by the characters about which we read. The joy of a book is this interaction that takes place between the reader and the author, and every relationship is different because it depends on the previous experience, imagination, mood, and level of involvement the reader is willing to give the relationship.

    By interjecting video and other “enhancements” this one-on-one relationship is disturbed. At times it may be helpful and perhaps more entertaining but I question if it is actually reading. I would see it as a mix between movie, video game, audio book, annotation and story. But the very essence of reading is lost when the narrative is interrupted with extraneous information, no matter how interesting or informative.

    As reading becomes more dependent on the stimulation to be gained from video and audio, and as we do more and more reading online via blogs, forums, and other interactive sources, I find it increasingly difficult to enter that private zone where a good author can speak directly to me, and that I find myself utterly transported to another time and place. My ability to concentrate and focus without becoming distracted lessens, the more I engage in digital media. Giving in to this tendency by developing increasingly variable and sense driven messages may be a good marketing move but will it improve our ability to engage with the written word on an intellectual level? I don’t know the answer.

    To answer the question that the article poses, I would include entertainment in my description. Multimedia entertainment with narrative, but not reading in the true sense of the word.

    But, am I showing my age? Probably so.

  4. Posted October 20, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    As we are working to bring our backlist to ebook format, enhancement types are often the focus of conversations. As a publisher trying to figure out what readers want and work within the capability of the technology available on ereaders. I think the first question is what technology is currently available.

    It would be great to have a built in dictionary as part of an ereader. It would be great if there were color and media options. If readers had the ability to zoom in on pictures, play video, and listen to sound, but other than the ipad, ereaders aren’t built to handle multimedia. One thing that is, in my opinion, very important, the reader should have absolute control over the device – the order in which they read the book, view video files, listen to sound or any other choice the ebook offers.

    I would also like to make the note that while you may not watch the extra dvd that came with your movie – you might go online and search for information on your favorite actor.

  5. Jen
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I already find the un-enhanced e-readers distracting. The fact that there are no natural borders around the text, the way the page goes negative before turning, and that I can pop out and read something else just because I feel like it…all of it is distracting. I can’t get used to it. I sent mine back. I like the printed page, plain and simple. If I want to see a film, I’ll see a film. If I want to listen to it, I’ll go hear the author or buy the CD.

    I’m just not sold on the ereader as it is and I sincerely hope that this new technology gives rise to the small booksellers once again!

  6. Lindy
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Enhancement would be a great boon to student texts — imagine “showing” as well as describing a natural phenomenon, surgical technique or social interaction! The possibilities are endless. When it comes to literature, though, I will always love a Penguin paperback.

  7. Bruce
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    How should we describe the experience?

    ENTERTAINMENT!!

    The future for ebooks is that of Digitally Enhanced Literary Entertainment; it’s a new but expanding niche in publishing opportunities and a competitive overlap with the movie and games industries.

    IT experts will address the issue of file size and functionality as rapidly as they continue to do for all other issues in the IT arena…so we shouldn’t get hung up on the device’s capacity or the delivery mechanisms or any other gliches.
    Imagine the opportunity of bring great writing to life through animation, interaction, audio….how many great books become movies….how many of those movies do not give the the same satisfaction as the book…lots.
    Grab the book, script key scenes, employ movie makers and actors (akin to the music industry response to video clips for songs), embed the product into the digital book file…don’t limit your creative opportunity.
    Build in your author interviews, make it socially networkable, enhance, enhance enhance….the features gain a new readership, one willing to pay premiums on enhanced features….package your product by feature and set variable price points. This alone can break the price strangulation nexus of major ebook distributors that are draining profits from the publishing sector and author pockets.
    Same principles can be applied to eduction books, cookery books, journals, etc…think of the potential life left in your back lists…Wow!!

  8. Posted October 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Like the Atom Bomb, this one has both positive and negative aspect. Can we control it? Can we keep it out of the hands of the terrorizing conglomerates?

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