The iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Color and many other mobile tablets have now made purchasing and reading eBooks very easy. But what's been missing is a consistent format for delivering these eBooks--especially when creating an enhanced eBook with multiple media types and interactivity. This article will survey the current eBook formats, eBook reader apps, and eBooks software as well as uncover the obstacles facing publishers who want to create these enhanced ebooks.
So, you just bought a new iPad and downloaded your favorite Stephen King novel. You're reading it and aside from being able to change the size of the fonts, it's pretty much like the print version just displayed on the iPad. Wonderful. But what you're holding in your hands is a powerful mobile computing device. It's capable of much more and you should demand the same in your eBooks. I realize the idea of a novel is to take you away to another world through the magic of the written text. But, what if you are in a classroom studying a new subject or learning a new skill with a how-to book? Wouldn't it be great to see the illustrations in full color, animate a complicated process, watch a video of someone actually doing what you are learning, interactively quiz your understanding of a topic, or actually hear the call of an eagle? This is how publishers can enhance the reading experience to take full advantage of that wonderful device you spent your hard earned money on.
That's just a sample of what some publishers are now doing with eBooks. Curious where to get them? Well, that's where things start to get complicated. Apple often highlights these books on their Featured page in iBookstore. Right now, they are highlighting enhanced eBooks that were made with their software called iBooks Author. You'll find enhanced eBooks also on Amazon Kindle Store and the Barnes & Noble Nook store. Notice that both the Kindle and Nooks stores describe their enhanced eBooks as "eBooks with audio and video" which is just a subset of what enhancement can be. Apple prefers to refer to these books as Multi-Touch and these can contain some impressive interactive content. This is where technology begins to influence what eBooks can and can't do, which requires a deeper look at eReader apps and file formats.
The technology behind an enhanced eBook
eBooks are delivered to the customer as a digital file, much like a Microsoft Word document, MP3 music file or a JPG picture file. The most common format today is the ePub format. The files are then displayed via an eBook reader/player application that adds functionality to the content such as text/media display, bookmarks, table of contents, etc. Each reader will play on a computer or mobile device and what functionality it supports is different based on which reader and what device it is running on . For example, the Kindle eReader app running on the Kindle Fire supports only a very limited number of features whereas the Kindle App running on the iPad supports more enhanced features. We've been working with these eReaders and devices since they were introduced and so far, here is a table that summarizes some of the features:
As you can see, a customer of an enhanced eBook can't be sure what features they will be getting from eReader to eReader. Apple has a clear advantage in the number of enhanced features that are supported; however, Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook have better book shopping experiences. In the end, the customer will drive the demand. It's much like what happened to movies: First, VHS beat out Beta then DVD dominated digital video and Blu-Ray won the high-def video battle.
How all this affects Publishers
As publishers, we need to be in-step with these new technologies and work to create our content to best maximize what is currently available. It's very expense and difficult to develop enhanced eBooks on a variety of platforms. But since there is no clear standard or winner and there is still a small customer demand, we don't have much choice. Is the quote true from the movie Field of Dreams "if you build it, people will come"? I think so. Many said there wasn't a market for the iPad when it was introduced and millions of units sold later, there is a big market for the device. What publishers must do is continue to work with technology creators and eBook retailers and push for standardization and feature support.
Some enhanced eBook examples
Several years ago, Que launched the Using series which was designed from the ground up to take advantage of the new media and features now available to enhanced eBooks. They include audio sidebars and video tutorials integrated throughout the book. Our authors are now not limited to just text and graphics to teach a certain topic. If it was better to show a quick video of how to do something than using several screenshots and step-by-step instructions, video was inserted into that section of the book.
Screenshot of integrated video in Using WordPress
We have been able to create versions of the Using series titles to be viewed on iPads, Kindles, Nooks, and online via a web browser. However, some of the devices handle enhancements better than others.
In January of 2012, Apple introduced a new eBook file format for its iBooks 2 eReader for the iPad. In addition, it provided a free tool called iBooks Author for publishers and content developers to create these new interactive books. This allowed publishers to go beyond just text, graphics, audio and video and add elements like pan-and-zoom spreads, interactive 3D images, and integrated testing tools to assess the reader's learning. With the addition of allowing programming to be embedded within the book, iBooks Author allows for the content developer to create almost anything else needed to aid the learning process.
Unfortunately, the tool and format does come with some drawbacks. It can only be played on an iPad within the iBooks2 eReader and the eBook can only be sold on Apple's iBookstore accessed within the iBooks application.
Que just released in October 2012 a Multi-Touch version of our perennial bestselling title How Computers Work, 9th Edition. We've taken this unique product with its gorgeous full-color illustrations and detailed breakdown of how technology works and added many new interactive elements that really add to the understanding of the concepts discussed in the book. Here are a few samples of interactive elements in the book:
With pan-and-zoom spreads, the reader can easily zoom in on specific parts of an image to get the most out of the detailed illustrations.
Sample of a pan-and-zoom element in How Computers Work, Multi-Touch Version
3D interactive images
We added 3D models of images within the book that readers can touch and move to see all sides of an object, which gives the reader an incredible view of an object not possible with a 2 dimensional image.
Sample of a 3D image element in How Computers Work, Multi-Touch Version
These images allow the reader to "play" through a sequence to better illustrate a process. This puts playback under the reader's control as they navigate through the process.
Sample of an interactive image element in How Computers Work, Multi-Touch Version
Hands-on interactive elements (using programming)
With the hands-on interactive elements, the reader actually gets to enter directly and influence the process. This allows for some very interesting simulations and cause-and-effect elements. In the sample below, the user creates noise or surges in the electricity line with their finger. The element then process that and demonstrates how the protector would react to such input. The animated process along with the reader's direct interaction really enhances the understanding of the process.
Screenshot of a hands-on interactive element in How Computers Work, Multi-Touch Version
You can buy or sample this Multi-touch version in the Apple iBookstore. It's a great example of what enhanced books can do and the value-add that publishers can create for readers.
There is a lot happening in the world of eBooks. The technology is still evolving and online retailers, publishers and content developers are trying to find the ultimate solution. However, eBook utopia—especially when it comes to enhanced and Multi-Touch versions—is still incomplete. I also wrote about the exciting interactive textbooks being created in our Pearson Schools division.
As eReaders and tablet devices gain more functionality and more features, expect the same from your eBooks. Better yet, demand it!