Doing More With eBooks

from the hey,-look-at-what-the-technology-allows dept

While I can understand some of the interest in ebooks, one of the things I haven’t quite understood was the effort to focus on making ebooks more like regular books. In the history of “killer apps,” the one thing that tends to stand out is that they show up when the new technology allows something new that couldn’t be done before. Simply mimicking the old on a new platform isn’t a recipe for widespread success. And, sure, ebooks can let you store a lot of books on a single device, or take notes, but they haven’t really taken advantage of what the technology could enable.

David Thomson points us to an interesting ebook experiment involving singer and novelist Nick Cave, who has created an ebook for the iPhone, that involves a whole lot more. Beyond just the text, there are both the audio and video versions of Cave reading along — and that includes some music that goes with the book as well. Plus, it includes a “news feed” though it’s not clear what’s in it. The pricing still seems a bit expensive ($25), but it’s great to at least see some experimenting with what the technology should allow.

One other interesting tidbit: it wasn’t Cave who came up with the idea, but his publisher who really pushed to make the ebook into something more, and roped Cave into agreeing to add the extra stuff. It’s nice to see that at least some of the middlemen providers are looking to step up and take charge, rather than just leaving it all to the content creators.

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Comments on “Doing More With eBooks”

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Richard says:

The new thing just does what the old thing did...

Reminds me of my past work in the simulator industry.
A company we bought made an anti-aircraft missile system trainer. It consisted of a dome with a special movable projector inside it (rather like the thing in the middle of a planetarium. The aircraft images for the projector came from a filmstrip so the flight path of the aircraft was pretty much completely pre-programmed (you could change the overall direction but that was about it).

Anyway in the late 80’s CGI and video projection was the new thing and the military customer wanted “the new thing”.

Of course CGI+video projection would allow a completely free choice of aircraft flight pattern. It could be reprogrammable in real time – obviously a great advantage gained by paying an extra million pounds for the system.

Except that the military didn’t want to actually use this capability. They were happy to stick to to old pre-programmed sequences. The extra money bought no real benefits. In fact it was a downgrade because the old filmstrip projectors had more light and a sharper image.

They just wanted to “have the new technology”.

Bob V (profile) says:

$25 for an audiobook isn’t very expensive. I’m an avid reader and I cna’t say that i find just the author reading along with me very compelling. Now if they did a version much like the directors commentary in a dvd I would pay extra for that for my favorite authors.

I know a couple fantasy authors who also do music for their books. That would also be interesting to add in, I’m not sure if that would be as compelling to me as a commentary but I’m sure there would be a market for it.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Not going to read War and Peace on iphone

one of the things I haven’t quite understood was the effort to focus on making ebooks more like regular books

While I agree it may be best to consider ideas very different than the implementation of dead-tree books, I disagree that an iPhone or a traditional monitor (LCD/CRT) is an adequate platform for extended reading.

The ‘killer app’ that will actually replace books must include both the technology and a form that can replace the ease of use (readability), and transportability of real books. If the implementation cannot fill the requirements met so well by books, there is absolutely no impetus to replace real-world books.

In my opinion, e-reader software on a computer or iphone is excellent for use on reference research and shorter white paper type reading. However I find the ergonomics of a PC, or notebook, or especially the iphone are not only difficuly to read over long periods, but actually inhibit vision and imagination. The last thing I want to see when I’m fully engrossed in a book is a god damned Facebook alert.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not going to read War and Peace on iphone

Preferences are held by what you grew up with. We grew up with dead trees in hand so we tend to prefer the dead trees. As time goes on kids will grow up reading things on a screen and dead tree books will fall to the way side. One would imagine you can disable non critical alerts appearing while you are reading an ebook, so I don’t know why you are concerned about facebook alerts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not going to read War and Peace on iphone

Sounds like what you want is a dedicated e-book device. There are quite a few on the market already. With the usage of e-ink displays, they look remarkably similar to an actual book, as well as having all sorts of other advantages. I own a Kindle 2 and love the thing. The screen on it is about the same size as an average paperback, and as a whole it’s lighter than one. They still need a bit more adoption to bring the price down further, but if you read a lot it could definitely be worth it to you.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Making books multimedia

I actually had a couple of ideas similar to this on how to make eBooks stand out. Some might even call it transformative, but the idea overall is to change the eBook from replicating its paper cousin and turning it into something of a multimedia experience.

The first thought is relatively simple: the essential difference between a paperback book and an eBook is the screen. So what can we do with it that we can’t do on paper?

For non-fiction it’s simple: interactive and non-interactive media dealing with the topics written about. Animated graphical data, video applicable to the topic, other multimedia. For books on history or languages, you can have audio of speeches or speech, zoomable pictures of documents, animated battle graphics showing troop movements in battles on a map with simulations of what might have happened if the user chooses to alter the battle.

But for fiction it’s even better. I was thinking about two things. First, remembering Crichton and how he enjoyed putting news articles, transcripts of speeches, and/or accounts of TV newscasts in his works, why not put short multimedia snippets/versions of these embedded IN the eBook? SHOW the newscast, then we can continue on reading. You don’t want to turn the whole book into multimedia, but for the parts in the story that ARE multimedia in the fiction, why not?

Secondly, on a more juevenille level, eBooks need to be used to bring back “Choose Your Own Adventures”, preferably in both child and adult versions. No more annoyingly flipping through the pages in order to find where you’re supposed to go, accidentally stumbling upon an ending to the story, etc.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Having read something like 50 complete novels in my old Palm TX, I must disagree with you.

Wow! I salute you.

Also a good point about having a backlight at night. Now if only the screen were a bit larger, and less straining on the eyes for moles like me. Sure you can adjust the text size, but that’s a lot of paging for my own taste.

Mischa says:

Re: Re:

It is the backlight itself that causes most of the eyestrain. Especially at night when the dim setting is still too bright. The other main eyestrain is too small text.

I much prefer my Sony’s eReader. It uses the 3.5″ x 4.75″ e-ink screen instead of an LCD which means it is very easy to read on a bright sunny day and if the font is too small, you can easily increase it up to a bigger size. I have 153 books on it right now and I’ve read most of them.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Thank you! Someone else who gets it. There is no need to add all this multimedia stuff to books, because it only limits the imagination and weakens the story’s hold on you. If you need audiovisual accompaniment to a book, then either it is poorly written, or you’re not a very good reader.”

I’m sorry, but as someone who spends time writing fiction, I don’t understand this sentiment at all. Why does visual or audio multimedia detract from the writing in any way? Great writing is great writing, no matter what other material is next to it. And if the writer is properly describing settings, then an additional picture or video or audio clip will only enhance the experience, not detract.

One mild example is the illustrated version of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. His writing is decent, but the experience of the novel was made all the better when I could SEE the paintings he was talking about, LOOK at the architectural detail of the settings, etc.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I also spend time writing fiction, as well as reading a LOT of it.

First, I am not anti-illustration, as long as it is non-intrusive. The paintings in The Davinci Code worked as a supplement, not a distraction, and could be referenced (or ignored) at the reader’s leisure. I, however, read the non-illustrated version, and I don’t feel that I missed a thing. The descriptions of the paintings were actually the rare examples of decent writing in the book.

What I referred to, specifically, was audio-visual media, which has been frequently mentioned (and tried) as a way to “enhance” e-books through technology. Unfortunately, sounds and moving pictures ARE distracting, and place limits on the reader’s imagination. As an OUTSIDE supplement, fine. But as part of the ebook, it is an intrusion to any well-written fiction. And as a supplement, it is as easy to include with a paper book than an ebook.

I guess my point is that you can include all the supplements you want. The BOOK part, however, will always be booklike because words are words. There is really no good way to improved their presentation over what we already have (printed books).

diabolic (profile) says:

Ok, but is there a secondary market for this eBook? I hate the loss of control of the goods that comes with eBooks. I’m sure everyone reading this site has borrowed or lent a book. I finished reading an eBook I paid retail price for, why can’t I lend it, sell it or give it to someone else?

The value proposition is out of balance with eBooks, until that is corrected they will never take off, even if they come with sound and video or whatever.

Vince M. (profile) says:

You say that ebook readers should do things that “couldn’t be done before,” but nothing you describe is really new. Multimedia, hyperlinks, “news feeds”; all of these things have been around for some time, even on handheld devices. The point isn’t to blur the line between ebook readers and desktop computers; we’re already inundated by multimedia. I agree that ebook readers can do more, but as some of the comments have pointed out, there is something intrinsically enjoyable about reading a novel without hyperlinks, music and other distractions. Do things that haven’t been done before, but remember, it’s a book we’re dealing with here. All media experiences are not to be lumped into one.

fogbugzd says:

What ebooks need

I read a lot of ebooks on my Android phone. My eyesight is less that perfect, but I find it no more difficult than reading a paper book.

The problem with ebooks, in my opinion, is that the platforms are not open, and the people controlling the platforms think small and in terms of milking every penny they can from their devices. In the process they do not give me what I am willing to spend money on, and I content myself with the many free books that are available. (If I was so inclined, I could get almost any book because books are pirated almost as much as music.) If they will give me what I want, I will spend money on dedicated readers and on publications. Until then I will make do with what I have.

I want an open source platform that will let me read my books on whatever device I have at hand. I want to be able to read on a Kindle device when I am home and on my Sony reader on my lunch hour at work. I want to be able to read it on a netbook when I am on a plane, and I want to be able to read on my cell phone when I am stuck waiting somewhere that it isn’t convenient to have either of the other devices with me. If a better device by a different manufacturer comes out, I want to be able to transfer my books to the new device. I want to be able to read the book or have my device transform it to audio when that is more convenient. I want to be able to search and cross reference my books, and I want to take notes. I will accept watermarking or some form of DRM as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my using the book I bought in the manner I want to use it. I want my reader to be flexible enough to use as a web browser in a pinch, and to sync up with things like my Google calendar and email. It would be nice to hook up with other readers of the same book in some type of twittery-bloggie-IMie forum.

Give me portability, and I will probably send the ebook publishers and device manufacturers a lot of money in the form of purchases. Until then I will spend it on other things.

James (user link) says:

Hello from Enhanced Editions

Hey – thanks for the comments. We made Enhanced Editions, and we’re chuffed at the response it’s getting.

In answer to your question, the in-app news feed contains news about the book, reviews and so on, as well as updates about author appearances and signings (because we’re fairly sure a lot of readers would like to meet Nick Cave – although perhaps “signing” the ebook might be a bit difficult) – and even invitations to exclusive events.

This is all made possible because we have a great relationship with the publisher. It also affects the price of course, but as some have (thank you!) pointed out, it’s a lot less than you’d pay for the book and the audiobook separately, even without all the extras we’ve added.

Re: What ebooks need by fogbugzd (and others) – we agree, in part, although we do feel that convergence devices like the iPhone have a brighter future than single-use ones – and at the moment, the iPhone is the only device that lets us do everything we want to do technicaly. You can read our thoughts about DRM and epub on our blog…

Do come check out the site and the trailer at, and thanks again…

hegemon13 says:

Problem-less solutions

To me, ebooks have always seemed like a solution to a problem that did not exist. My hope is that devices like the Kindle will renew interest in reading by attracting non-readers or infrequent readers to the cool new gadget, which will in turn introduce them to a world of content.

However, as technology goes, books are already perfectly suited to their task. Efforts like the ones in this article are cool, but it is not really an ebook. Rather, it is a bundle of media that includes an ebook. The product is different, but the ebook portion of it still needs to have the properties of a book: easy readability, ability to add notations, bookmarking, highlighting, etc. A few recent books have tried to add beyond-the-page content that the reader must seek out to complete the story. However, they have been poorly received as gimmicky and problematic. Such attempts usually take the reader out of a story rather than draw them in.

The beauty of reading is that the imagination takes over. It is, in fact, all the reader has to see, hear, and comprehend the story. This is good because one’s personal imagination tends to be far more powerful and effective than anything someone else can explicitly show you. That’s why we almost always hear, “The book was better than the movie.” The point of good writing is that you don’t NEED all that extraneous media to tell the story. So, again, it is a case where the technology can often be more intrusive and problematic than anything.

Why do ebooks try to be like books? Because unlike tapes, CDs, VHS, DVD, LPs, 8-tracks, etc, etc, the existing technology is better than the would-be replacement.

The smart move to really crack the market would be for ebook reader manufacturers to focus on disposable media: magazines, newspapers, etc. And let subscription packages subsidize the purchase price. For time-limited printed goods, ebook readers are an ideal replacement. For books, which are usually kept and collected, there’s not really a compelling reason to “upgrade.”

Jeanette McLeod (user link) says:

Making eBooks Multi-media

I agree that if you are going to publish an ebook then why would you just want a flat format? Why not use the technology to enhance the reading experience?
We did just that with our ebooks for children. They can watch as the illustrations come to life through animation. They can listen to the story as the words highlight. They can read the book themselves and click on any unfamiliar word to hear it spoken. They can answer a comprehension/recal quiz. It becomes an interactive reading experience. Like a REAL book with more engaging activities.
I don’t see why books for grown-ups cannot add in additional features.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Making eBooks Multi-media

“I don’t see why books for grown-ups cannot add in additional features.”

Because, if we are talking about novels, the additions you refer to make it something other than a novel. “Additional features” have already existed for a long time. Graphic novels are a good example. They’re not better or worse, but they are a completely different art form. Same with audiobooks. Even unabridged ones with the best readers are still performances, which alter the experience of reading the book.

You ask why not. I ask, why? What is missing in a well-written novel that I need to be interrupted by irritating animations or sounds? I really sink into a novel when I am reading. The outside work “dims,” so to speak. Intrusions within the book are not welcome.

“We did just that with our ebooks for children. They can watch as the illustrations come to life through animation. They can listen to the story as the words highlight.”

This sounds like a cool product, but it is not a book. It is closer to a cartoon, or an animated graphic novel. Why animate great artwork? Great artwork is beautiful and enjoyable to admire, even when it is standing still. While I have seen great-quality animation, it is not the same art form as still art, and I have rarely (if ever) seen attempts to “animate” good artwork come off as anything other than cheap or cheesy. Your idea has been done many times already, but it usually appeared in a somewhat less-interactive form on PBS.

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