Oct 142010

Enchanced E-Books Combine Print and Video

A hot-button topic in the e-book world is the idea of enhanced e-books, books that combine text with pictures, hyperlinks, and videos. Certainly, this would be similar to the Internet, where people routinely read articles with a video embedded at the top, photos in the middle, and hyperlinks throughout to other articles or information. But is that what readers want in a book?

I think there are certain areas where enhanced e-books might make sense: educational reference books or textbooks, with diagrams or videos of the subject matter; cookbooks, with videos showing how to cook the dish and links to buy ingredients or cookware; or history books that include photos or videos of famous events. But what about for fiction?

Publishers seem interested in bringing “enhancements” to fiction books, by adding videos of author interviews, links to online content, photos, or other “bonus material.” I think publishers are seeking to create “special edition” e-books that they can sell for more money to replace their hardcover business model.

But is that what readers want in their fiction e-books? I, for one, am not really interested, especially if those bonus features (which will cost something to create) are used to justify hardcover-like e-book prices of $20 to $25. I read books for their words, and don’t want videos interrupting my reading. If I liked an author enough to want to see extra content and interviews, I’d just hop over to their website, where I’d expect to find photos and that sort of thing for free.

It reminds me of the “CD-ROM” craze of the 1990s, when publishers spent a lot of effort and money trying to bring enhanced versions of books and bring bonus video and features to games, music, and other products. It turned out that customers didn’t really want those enhancements, at least not enough to pay extra for them.

This discussion also highlights the current state of technology in e-book readers and highlights the differences between black and white e-Ink (that’s easy on the eyes) and color LCD screens (that can show video and such), and the difference between a Kindle and a tablet computer like the iPad. Kindles are really just focused on displaying text: they can’t show color photos or videos, and, while they can connect to the Internet, it’s not a great experience. The iPad, on the other hand, seems designed for interactive, enhanced e-books, as it can play video, show color photos, and easily link to the Internet. For enhanced e-books, something like the iPad would be the way to go. But is that what we need for the majority of fiction novels?

I suppose I can see some places where “enhancements” might arguably be useful. A nice photo of a map in a fantasy novel, for example (although Kindles handle black-and-white photos just fine). Links back to the author’s website or Amazon to buy the next book in a series (which the Kindle also handles OK). What about links peppered throughout the book? What if a character’s name were hyperlinked to a web page about them, with photos, a description, maybe even other short stories about them? What if that info wasn’t online, but was embedded directly in the book (maybe a new window pops up, and you go back to your book when you’re done)? Would that be useful, or just distracting?

Certainly, I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that just because books exist a certain way today, that’s the best possible way for them to exist. Those enhancements didn’t exist before because technology didn’t permit them, not necessarily because they were a bad idea or unwanted by readers. For example, we didn’t have e-books before, but I enjoy their added convenience, cost savings, and features. Would the same be true of videos and links and other e-book enhancements?

I tend to think not. The difference is that e-books still allow readers to immerse themselves in the author’s words, which, to me, is the essential part of the book-reading experience. I was never swayed by the argument that the physical object is what’s important, and I never “missed” the smell of glue or the “feel” of paper. My Kindle gives me the same words, but in any font size I want, with a built-in dictionary, and I can get new books in 60 seconds, save money, and carry an entire library with me. And there aren’t any extraneous distractions like movies, animations, or Facebook alerts. Enhanced e-books would interrupt the reading experience that I enjoy — the act of getting lost in a world of imagination based only on words — and that’s not something I’m interested in.

But what do you think? Are you interested in seeing videos and links in your fiction e-books? Do you want extra “bonus features,” even realizing that they’re not free and would increase the cost of e-books? Would you find an embedded video or link to extra content useful, or distracting? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments, below….

What Are They Thinking?

 Posted by at 12:57 AM  Tagged with: ,
May 222010

What a deal!

There have been numerous complaints from readers about unreasonably high e-book prices. Consumers rightfully feel that e-books, which have zero printing, storage, shipping, or returns costs, should cost less than printed books. Publishers have responded by claiming that all those costs only add up to 10% of the total cost of a book (which raises the question why we’re being charged 10x that amount, and why $2.50 hardcovers are sold for $25?). Even if we believe that 10% figure, the e-book should still cost less than the cheapest printed version (and most e-books do), no matter what kind of creative math publishers try to use.

However, a distressing number of e-books are priced at the same price as the paperback equivalents, or are often discounted from the hardcover price, but cost the same or more than the available paperback version. Also, publishers like to compare e-book prices to hardcover list prices, which almost no one pays (that $25 hardcover costs $9-$12 at Amazon, Costco, or Walmart, and even B&N offers 30% or 40% off bestsellers).

However, I recently came across an absolute abomination of pricing, one that shows just how badly the big publishers don’t get it. The book is the “authorized” sequel to Douglas Adams’ hilarious Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s called And Another Thing, by Eoin Colfer. The book was OK, but I was a little disappointed by it (true, Adams is a tough act to follow).

Anyway, check out the following price points of this book, which I bought in hardcover from a bargain bin a few months ago for just $4.48 at B&N.

  • Hardcover, new, from Amazon: $9.87
  • Paperback, new, from Amazon: $10.19
  • E-Book (Kindle version), from Amazon: $14.29

Now, let me get this straight: the e-book, which you don’t have to print or ship anywhere, costs almost 50% more than the hardcover, over $4 more than the paperback, and more than triple what I paid for the hardcover in a bookstore? (By the way, the prices are similar over at B&N and elsewhere, so it’s not just Amazon that’s wonky here.) If this isn’t proof that some large publishers are trying their best to kill e-books before e-books kill them, I don’t know what could be.

My question to the publisher (Hyperion), with all due respect, is: What the hell are you thinking??

May 062010

No such thing as a free lunch

The enticing title of this post refers to a phrase created to distinguish between two meanings of the word “free.” There is “free as in beer,” meaning free of charge, and sometimes referred to as “gratis” (from the Latin). This is contrasted with “free as in speech,” meaning free from restriction or censorship, and also referred to as “libre.” (As one who loves language, the conflation of two separate ideas into one word strikes me as an odd quirk and a fascinating bit of inefficiency in English, but I digress.)

Sadly, we’re not talking about beer today. What we’re talking about is the commonly-held idea that information on the Internet “should” be free — free as in beer. (Most of us reading this from outside the halls of the capitol at Pyongyang would agree that most information and news should be libre: free as in speech.) Visit any forum or online discussion about digital content (such as e-books, TV shows like Hulu, online newspapers, etc.), and dozens of people will tell you that information “wants” to be free, “needs” to be free, or “should” be free on the Internet. They will point out that hosting a website and transmitting data across the globe is a relatively trivial expense — and they’re right.

What many fail to realize is that producing quality content (whether it’s a well-written and well-edited novel or a well-researched news story) takes plenty of human labor, and that content is worth more than just the cost of the paper and ink to print it. Let’s look at newspapers for a moment. Newspapers everywhere are struggling. For about a decade now, most newspapers have spent a great deal of time, money, and effort developing slick websites to bring you all the news from their print versions — with additional perks like videos, more color pictures, and discussion forums — in order to enable their customers to stop paying for newspaper subscriptions. (Sure, you could argue this wasn’t the best business model, but hindsight is 20/20.) The idea was to make enough money on online advertising to recoup the lost subscription revenue plus pay for the additional web design and hosting costs they incur.

That idea has failed. Ad revenue is not enough to keep newspapers running right now. Internet advertising is just not very effective anymore, and advertisers are paying less and less per impression (how many of us totally ignore web banners and block pop-up windows?). Newspapers are taking big losses, laying off editors and reporters (which reduces the quality), and going out of business.

Of course, it’s a vicious cycle. Newspapers lose money, reduce the pay of journalists, lay off editors, stop sending reporters on fact-finding missions, and the quality of their writing goes down to the point that many are just regurgitating articles from the Associated Press — which we can get for free at dozens of places online, so why would I pay for access to The Miami Herald’s website? Now that newspapers have trained Internet users that information should be free (as in beer), it is proving very difficult to convince anyone to pay for online or digital content. Especially so long as other avenues keep giving it away for free. (Note that the continued chorus of Internet users in support of the “free” model is based on the fact that 95% of Internet users are content consumers and maybe 5% are content producers trying to pay rent. It’s kinda like having 9 wolves and a sheep vote on what’s for dinner.)

The problem is that quality, well-researched, neutral, accurate information is worth paying for. Good writing, good editing, investigative journalism, flying reporters to locations to uncover stories — that’s worth paying for. What some random blogger thinks about something he may or may not know anything about — that should be free. 🙂

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal (to pick one example) seems to be making the same mistake LOTS of digital media (news, books, music, movies, etc.) producers are: overcharging. Customers know that it costs less to stream a TV show than create, package, and ship a DVD. It costs less to email an e-book than to print and ship a hardcover. And the WSJ’s costs go down if they can get rid of their printing presses and stop buying paper and ink by the ton.

Digital media producers are very slow in understanding that the marginal cost of selling 1 more digital download is close to zero. So it’s better to sell 5x as many (e-books, subscriptions, streaming movies) at 1/2 the cost. It’s a win-win. But, when I can get a DVD for $1 from Redbox, I’m not gonna pay $5 to stream it online. When the library is free and bargain books are a few bucks, I won’t pay over $10 for fiction e-books. When a print mag is $2 an issue, why am I paying $5 for a digital download? And why does a $3.99/week iPad WSJ subscription cost more than a $2.99/week print newspaper (that takes paper and ink and trucks and delivery people)? People aren’t stupid. I like my iPad, but I didn’t all of a sudden forget basic math.

There is a middle ground: free is an unsustainable model if you want quality content, and overcharging will kill the model just as quickly. Higher volume at lower prices is the great opportunity of digital content.

Now, if only things worked the same way for beer ….