The Problem with Enhanced Ebooks

by | May 18, 2020

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 —

  • sound
  • video
  • 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:

  1. Not all retailers accept enhanced ebooks.
  2. Those that do don’t accept the same kinds.
  3. The market for enhanced ebooks hasn’t turned up — at least, not where we expected.

No room at the shop

First of all, none of the retailers will accept ebooks with javascript added. It turns out javascript creates a huge privacy problem for ebooks. Apple will accept ebooks that have had widgets added in its proprietary iBooks Author app — but you are limited to the widgets they make available, and you can only sell the resulting ebook on Apple.

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:

  1. 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.
     
  2. 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.

Because…

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.

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Photo: BigStockPhoto

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15 Comments

  1. Michael W. Perry, medical writer

    Would you go to a Chinese restaurant for a French dining experience? Of course not. And the same it true of books, digital or print. People go to them for the reading experience. They’re not looking for audio or video and see those as distractions. What they don’t like, they don’t buy.

    This is nothing new. When CD-ROMs came around, I was on the fringes of an effort at Microsoft to create enhanced books. Even in an area that seemed to make sense, music appreciation, the idea bombed.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Well, no — there’s nothing new. But as technology shifts, entertainment constantly shifts with it, and there’s no way to know what’s possible in a multimedia reading experience until you try to create it.

      I am confident that, at some point, a market for these kinds of “books” will develop further than it has to this point. But when? I have no idea.

      Reply
  2. Richard Hershberger

    I can think of a few sorts of books that would benefit from this treatment. Most are nonfiction. A book of music criticism with clips embedded is an obvious example. It is akin to a book of art criticism that reproduces the works being described. Any book where the enhancements are what the book is about would benefit. A biography of Martin Luther King with clips of his speeches, for example. But in the general case, the enhancements sound more like fluffy distractions.

    Reply
  3. Jill

    I have always thought the ral problem is that when people want to read, they want to read. If they want to watch a video, they’d be watching a video.

    Reading is a quiet place away from the hyperlink and the motion and the volume control.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      I think you may very well be on to something — I think too that we as creators haven’t figured out how to provide a multi-media experience that enriches the reader’s interaction with the book, rather than distracting from it. But the technology is still promising!

      Reply
  4. Linda Labbo

    Adding to a perspective on young children’s engagements with Features off enhanced books Is how they comprehend or make meaning of the story. I published a case in point that reveals how features/enhance vets my be considerate (contributing to comprehension by inviting kids to step into the story) or inconsiderate (getting lost in bells and whistles). Check out – Labbo & Kuhn (2000).?weaving chains Of affect and cognition: a young child’s Understanding oh cd-rom talking books. Journal of literacy research, 32(2). 187-210.
    It’s still relevant because it dives into how children make sense of the story on interactive screen!!!

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Fascinating! Thank you for sharing that info.

      Reply
  5. Ernie Zelinski

    I never did consider enhanced ebooks and never will. It comes down to these words of wisdom:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
    — Michael Korda, former Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Honestly? My interest in enhanced ebooks had more to do with craft and art than with dollars and sense. I was really curious about what a book could be if it had access to all of these additional wonderful doo-dads. Have a sound track that changes from scene to scene. Have an economics textbook that shows current exchange rates, rather than those nine months before publication. Have a text that allowed complex, game-like branching based on the reader’s choices….

      Unfortunately, the limitations of the marketplace have meant that you can only do so much, and that much, as I said, isn’t often worth doing.

      Reply
      • Andrew Mills

        What about streaming MP3 files from a server (instead of embedding them)?

        Is that allowed on any of the eBook stores?

        Reply
        • David Kudler

          It depends on what you mean by streaming.

          If you mean to drop the SoundCloud widget into your ebook, no — that requires javascript, which none of the retailers allow natively. And that is streaming, after all!

          If you mean can you use an <audio> tag and point to an external URL rather than one within the file structure of the ebook… Hmm. I’m not sure about that. The ePub 3 standard does allow for calling such resources. I’m not sure if Amazon, Apple, etc. would have any objection.

          There’s one significant downside to this approach: you can’t assume that your reader will always have or want a connection to the internet. They might be annoyed to push the triangular “play” button and get no response. And cell phone users, for example, might object to having their data usage dinged as they’re reading a book.

          Still, it might be one possible approach.

          Reply
  6. Sue Campbell

    I created an enhanced children’s book using a great tool: Pubcoder, and it IS super cool. I did it as an experiment, and had I charged for the time to put it together it would have cost in the neighborhood of 8-10K just for my labor to modify the artwork, create the animations, and sync the read-aloud, etc. (Part of that time was in learning the software and the best way to do the thing.)

    The author was thrilled. I was excited. It was a the first book in a series where the print books have done pretty well, and are in their third or fourth printings. It is available on Apple books and has sold exactly three copies. 3.

    Admittedly, he didn’t really promote it, but he continues to sell bucket loads of the print books.

    As book designers we’re continually told by Adobe (and others) how we can produce super cool enhanced ebooks, fixed layout, ebooks, etc. And believe me, as designers this excited us! Wow! we can change the ebook world with our flashy, well designed and INTERACTIVE books (mine had coloring pages, and quizzes too!). But when they get to the one or two sellers who accept them—crickets.

    Disney can maybe sell them, but I wonder, do they really sell many?

    As much as I enjoyed the challenge I doubt I’ll be doing that again. Sadly.

    BTW it’s on Apple books and is called: Deputy Dorkface: How Stinkville Got Cleaned Up. Heck, maybe it’ll sell one more copy.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      That sounds so cool!

      You just made me go look. In the seven and a half years since Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind came out, the enhanced ebook (available only on Apple’s Books Store) has sold… 9 copies. And yeah — I did it as a learning experience and published it through my own imprint. If I’d billed Howard for it, I’d say $8000–$10000 sounds about right. Whew.

      Now, the “non-enhanced” ebook has sold just fine. But this is a good example of exactly the kinds of market pressures that I was talking about above.

      The enhanced edition of my children’s picture book, The Seven Gods of Luck, has sold maybe a hundred copies across three retailers, while the vanilla ebook has sold many more. I can say that I was able to make my read-aloud from that book available as an audiobook, which has also paid me for some of the time that I’ve spent.

      Still, until there’s a market, I haven’t been able to be enthusiastic about trying to sell them.

      I didn’t mention this in the article, but a number of “books” that have been made available as apps through Apple, Google, and Amazon’s app stores. There are even platforms for creating game-like “virtual novels” that can be sold through those channels. (I’m even working on adapting one of my novels as a choice-based game while my daughter and I are stuck in lockdown.) But that’s a whole other ball of narrative and technical wax.

      Reply
  7. Michael W. Perry, medical writer

    Add to the problems the fact that, if you can’t use your own voice, creating the audio will cost more than it adds in value and any video that isn’t dreadful will be costly. I once watched a video team create a simple 30 second political commercial. It took all day and costs thousands of dollars. You’re not going to add scenes to your book that way. The only audio/video options that can be done for a reasonable cost are author interviews distributed by some means other than with the book.

    What does make sense is the ability to enhance books with pop-up maps, pictures, accordion text, and comments. That ought to be simple. Just give ebooks the features we regard as normal for webpages.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Very true, Michael! Thanks.

      As I said, ebook retailers are loathe to allow ePubs that include scripting, because it can turn those ebooks into potential trojan horses. And all of the features that you’re describing are enabled on websites through javascript.

      Reply

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