On the nature of digital reading, ebooks and enhanced* texts

*Whatever that means

OK, caveats first. My background is in non-fiction publishing, and predominantly illustrated non-fiction at that. I have worked on both digital (app and ebook) and conventional print projects. I have never edited or worked on fiction in any shape or form. So please be aware that I may be talking out of my hat, and furthermore that the views expressed are entirely my own.

I was inspired to write this following this post. I recommend you read it and the one by Martyn Daniels that inspired it.

Daniels argues strongly against the present trend of publishers presenting their ebooks as little more than a digital approximation of the printed edition:

Whatever the route taken [by publishers] the stupid thing would be to continue to merely pour the same content into a digital container. This logic is flawed as it not only creates competition [with the printed book] where competition is not needed and can be counter-productive, but it fails to understand the technology, the cultural changes that are happening and the opportunities that are available for the two that matter — the author and the reader.

Daniels essentially argues that it is perhaps understandable that publishers do not enhance electronic texts ‘as many fingers got burnt’ in the 90s and ‘eink [sic] technology didn’t exactly encourage content enhancement’ but he complains that now publishers are failing to grasp the technology now available and the ‘obvious’ — the short form.

(He omits to mention those publishers who participated in the ‘Great Apps Rush’ after the launch of the iPad who got their fingers burned with overly-complex and expensive apps that did not recoup their inital investment. He also seems to imply that publishing=fiction… *sigh*)

I do agree with Daniels that the new technology brings new opportunities that could lead to startling innovation, but I would caution that one size does not fit all. The ‘enhance text’ option may be there for publishers, but they are finding sales without such perceived risky investment, as Eoin Purcell argues:

readers and writers have found these crippled tools to be “good enough”. And they think them so “good enough” that they account for 30% of the market. That’s a pretty compelling argument for viewing ebooks as the right technology at the right time.

Similarly, Philip Jones wrote in his FutureBook blog:

E-book publishing had largely become a replica business, and in truth there is good money in them there replicas.

Why have unenhanced ebooks been so successful, if they are so flawed? There are many answers, but one clearly is that ebooks have solved a inherent supply problem in the old printed book distribution model. Given the choice between no text and unenhanced text, significant numbers of readers want the latter; that they would prefer enhanced text is unproven.

Who leads?

I take strong issue with Daniels’ seeming implication that innovation in text enhancement should be publisher-led. For fiction, at least, the author should be the primary driver and the publisher should act as facilitator. If the publisher leads, there is a danger that enhancement will be imposed either merely because it is possible or — more dangerously — because there is a budget for it.

Peter Meyers wrote these cautionary words in his A New Kind of Book blog about enhancing text as long ago as July 2012[!]:

It’s time to stop thinking about what our devices make possible and instead focus on what readers need.

Meyers highlights in his blog a number of cases where text could benefit from enhancement, but tellingly the majority of examples he quotes are for non-fiction content or critical analysis of text — they are not enhancements that advance an author’s story or improve its telling.

By keeping a simple question in mind regarding any enhancement — what’s it for? — I think we can create digital books that are superior to print in some really tangible ways.

[It’s worth reading the recent Porter Anderson meets Peter Meyers blog published in the Bookseller.]

At present the majority of enhancements being done are those that I would term the most obvious — straightforward additions such as text pop-ups or video clips— but this is changing, I suspect, as publishers’ digital departments mature and grow. These new digital books are superior to print — even such a simple enhancement as zooming in to a high resolution photograph or map to see details that are difficult to make out in the equivalent print edition. (The differences between enhanced fiction and enhanced non-fiction will have to wait for another blog post…)

A means of transport

A book [in the medium sense] is a means of transporting the author’s words to the reader through the act of reading. An ebook in the straight ‘replica’ form that Daniels decries is merely an alternative — and perhaps more convenient or accessible — electronic form of transport for those words to the reader than a printed volume.

My argument is that for these readers, enhancement is not necessary, particularly when the original text was written in a pre-digital age. There are risks involved in enhancing previously published materials. For the majority of publishers wishing to publish enhanced material, it is better to begin afresh with new content. Maureen Johnson, m.d. of Hachette’s Children’s Books, noted in the 2014 PA Yearbook:

It is interesting to see that the bestselling [UK] children’s apps come not from books, but from newly created products that make best use of app technology.

There is also the question of reader expectation. Do ebook readers actually want enhancement of their texts? I would argue that the verdict here for the majority is ‘not proven’. That there is a community of fervent digital readers wanting enhanced fiction is not in doubt; sadly, neither is the (current) small size of that community — as I suspect Enhanced Editions would testify.

To quote Purcell again:

one wonders just how much can be done to change reading before it becomes not reading, but something else and whether given the “good enough” nature of ebooks for so many, we need to do so.

Are we even addressing the same markets with unenhanced and enhanced texts? At what point does an enhanced text become a website, or a film, or a computer game, rather than a book? [I will not go further down this rabbithole today — suffice to say I don’t think this blurring of media lines is something for publishers to be afraid of, and that to their credit many are showing that they are not...] Why not different approaches for different audiences? A publisher’s knowledge of their market(s) must be their guide here.

I do believe that enhanced digital publishing has much to offer publisher, author and reader. I have no doubt that enhanced texts will grow in number organically and with increasingly rapidity. Already we are seeing areas of publishing where digital enhancements are breathing new life into genres— travel and educational publishing, for example — appropriately enough, as we have much still to discover and learn.