By David Kudler
I get asked a lot about adding video, audio, and other bells and whistles to ebooks. I’ll answer those questions — but they’re not always the answers the questioners want to hear.
One of the most exciting things about ebooks is that they’re not confined to the capabilities of print. Color is free; type sizes and styles can been changed by the readers to suit their needs and preferences. But that’s the least of it. Back when the ebook boom was first taking off, with the introduction of the Kindle and the iPad, there was a lot of excitement about creating enhanced ebooks — ebooks containing media and scripting —
- dynamic widgets that pull data from the internet
- game-like scripts that allow readers to make choices and change the narrative….
A lot of us in the business told ourselves, Here’s a chance to make the book something truly new!
Well, the chance came. It’s still there. But honestly? When you’re dealing with an ebook you’re going to sell through a commercial retailer like Amazon or Apple or Kobo or the rest, the options for adding this kind of enhancement are limited and, ultimately, may not be worth the trouble.
There are basically three reasons:
- Not all retailers accept enhanced ebooks.
- Those that do don’t accept the same kinds.
- The market for enhanced ebooks hasn’t turned up — at least, not where we expected.
No room at the shop
The irony is that many of the retailers add some kind of scripting to ebooks downloaded from their stores; it’s how they track what page the reader is on, so that if the reader wants to switch to a different device, they can easily find their place. Hmm.
That leaves video and audio.
While most of the major US retailers sell video- and/or audio-enhanced ebooks in one form or another, only Kobo and Apple make it possible to submit them through the normal channels. Google doesn’t accept them at all, and Barnes and Noble only accepts them from major publishers. Amazon kind of accepts them — but not through KDP. You can add audio and/or video through the Kindle Create app — but only for fixed-format book. (More on those next time out.) You can’t add audio or video to reflowable ebooks.
More to the point, those added media files will count toward KDP’s notorious $0.15/megabyte “transport fee.” And audio and — especially — video files are big. When I added the read-along soundtrack to my children’s picture book, for example (about ten minutes of narration), I ended up with a 77MB KPF ebook file. In any case, according to KDP, if I went with the preferred 70% royalty rate, the delivery cost of my 36-page children’s picture book (with read-along) would be $11.00. Since that’s already an exorbitant price for an independently published children’s ebook, I would have to go with the 35% royalty rate. No delivery cost, but also a lot harder to make any money.
Two more problems with creating an enhanced ebook with Kindle Creator:
- The PDF is optimized — but the text is part of the image; that means not only that it’s not searchable, but that it looks lousy.
- You can’t easily convert a KPF file for sale on other platforms. (Okay — you can use Calibre; but the resulting file is non-standard fixed-format ePub and probably wouldn’t clear validation at Apple or Kobo.)
When I created my first enhanced ebook, Howard Rheingold’s Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind, I included some wonderful video clips that he’d compiled that enriched the text. We’re talking perhaps a combined fifteen minutes of video — and the original ebook weighed in at well over 200MB, and at the time even Apple wouldn’t take it.
1 minute of standard definition (640×480) video compressed to the MP4 standard will be about 40MB. Yeah. It gets really big really fast.
I used every compression trick I could glean — and the file was still over 66MB.
Eventually, I simply resorted to including screen shots of the videos and hyperlinking the images to the matching video on Howard’s YouTube channel. Not elegant, but the ebook is now 3.3MB.
So not only don’t all of the retailers take enhanced ebooks from indie publishers, even when they do, it isn’t always easy to make it financially worthwhile.
We don’t serve your kind
As you’ll have noted above, the second problem facing a publisher of enhanced ebooks is that you can’t get the different retailers to take the same file.
Apple takes enhanced ebooks in the .ibooks format created by their iBooks Author app. Both Apple and Kobo will (usually) take an enhanced ebook that’s a valid ePub3 file. But Amazon will only take a KPF file. Unfortunately, there’s no easy conversion tool from ePub3 to KPF, and the file created by conversion from KPF to ePub is ugly. It certainly wouldn’t pass validation.
So you’re left with a not-very-fun choice: either stick to a single retailer, or create multiple versions of your ebook. And I have to tell you: the practical realities are that creating multiple versions of your ebook — each of which requires a fair amount of work — is unlikely to be worth your time.
There’s no there there
I’ve had enhanced ebooks on the market since 2012. They were lovingly created and — I think — beautifully crafted.
And they haven’t sold very well at all.
And my experience wasn’t unique.
Back in the early days of the ebook boom, there were a lot of excited publishers creating beautiful books with animation and audio narration and all sorts of wonderful enhancements that allowed their book to expand the boundaries of what constitutes a book. The market never embraced them.
As Digital Book World pointed out in 2014, enhanced ebooks have never really found a market. This has been true for a number of reasons.
As we discovered above, publishers can’t distribute the same content to different markets, which makes them expensive to produce.
And part of the problem is that, beyond the “Wow, that’s cool” effect, we’re still trying to figure out how best to leverage multimedia and scripting (adding small programs that can change the way that a book displays depending, for example, on a choice that the reader has made, or on changes in outside circumstances — the weather, the stock market, etc.). Outside of the the textbook market and children’s picture books, no one has really been able to get the readers to pay for the extra work that enhancing an ebook requires.
Enhanced ebooks aren’t going away; the technology is compelling, as are the opportunities it offers for new kinds of books. But as happened with television, which Philo Farnsworth invented (in a San Francisco neighborhood that’s now home to dozens of tech startups) twenty years before there was a market for it, it may be a while until we have the content and the audience to make them worth producing.