Talking Story

There’s been a lot of debate in the blogosphere lately about the future of digital books. Most of the debates center around price point, format, and distribution channels. Traditional publishers are bemoaning the self-publishing frenzy as the death of good, quality fiction that has at least kissed an editor and proofreader’s desks, and big eBook distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are fighting over formats, traditional vs. wholesale pricing models, and proprietary content. Small imprints and large publishing houses alike are clamoring that Amazon is trying to seduce authors away from them and into the brave, new world of self-publishing, while authors are busy running numbers, looking for the magic option that allows them to make rent next month. It’s all about getting a bigger slice of the digital book pie.

From what I’ve seen, most industry players think of eBooks as digital versions of print on a  page. Out of all the work they do to create a print book—from editing, book design, and marketing—most simply take the final text file and tweak it so it looks good on various eReaders and add a jpeg of the book cover. There are several easy to use and inexpensive software programs that do a reasonable job of creating digital books from text files; it’s no wonder that many authors are now choosing to self-publish. Unfortunately, based on the thousand or so eBooks I’ve read on a variety of devices, “reasonable” is really all you get with a digital book, regardless if published by self-starters or the big boys.

Did I mention most people think in terms of simply translating print on a page to print on a screen?

But as an author and former interactive instructional designer, I think the industry is missing a huge opportunity. While the vast majority of adult and young adult fiction works well as Print on a Screen, I think there is a market in the middle grade, chapter, picture, and non-fiction book arenas for what I call Enhanced Interactive versions.

Beyond the current standard of linking to internal dictionaries, providing the capability for user-specific notes, highlights, and bookmarks, and simple chapter-based menu structures, Enhanced Interactive versions elevate the reading experience to a whole new level. For example, an EI version of a book that explores a foreign culture or science concepts could link to additional information embedded in the digital book (but not included in the print version—differentiating and driving more people to the digital version) or maintained on external websites. In picture or chapter books, young readers could color or embellish illustrations, watch characters come to life through animation, or even add their own drawings to stories or new words to pictures—everything from writing an entirely original narrative to the existing illustrations to adding their own wacky nouns, adverbs, and verbs á la mad libs. Cookbooks linked to the internet could provide an outlet for home cooks to share their adaptations, tips, and photos. EI books could even take a cue from  social media to create virtual book clubs filled with all the minutiae an author knows about his characters, plots, and backstories, along with all the things he writes that never (and often for good reason) make it into the book.  For the rabid fan, too much is never enough.

The possibilities are endless; I could write 20 blogs on how Enhanced Interactive versions of various book types could function and the markets they’d appeal to. In a nutshell, simply think of all the ways we game, learn, communicate, and interact with digital media and embed these features in digital text through icons, color cues, menus, tabs—whatever you can imagine. That’s my vision of Enhanced Interactive digital books.

Of course, not all digital books would make great EI books. But designed, targeted, and marketed to the right audiences, EI books have the potential to revolutionize the publishing industry in ways as profound as Gutenberg’s wonderful moveable type and the Kindle’s digital format.

All of  which should be good news to traditional publishers. Since creating versions of digital books that go beyond print on a screen requires skill sets and deeper pockets most self-publishers possess, this EI market fits squarely into the bailiwick of imprint and large publication houses. Properly managed, publishers could turn their versions of EI digital books into virtual seals of approval, allowing them to quietly reassume their self-appointed gate-keeper roles as guardians of good writing and purveyors of quality product.  The crowd goes wild.

I know just the series to start.

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