Short answer: nobody knows.
Longer answer: the magic elixir publishers are injecting into ebooks in hopes they will entice people to pay higher prices.
As you might guess, I am a bit of an “enhancement” skeptic. I have a few reasons. First, they feel like an attempt to skip the walking phase. Right now ebooks are crawling, technical quality-wise, and enhanced ebooks will be (theoretically) leaping and pirouetting. Second, what is being proposed in some publisher statements sounds a lot like standard print material (reader guides) and marketing fluff. Finally, I’m not sure readers are clamoring for enhanced ebooks as much as they’d like publishers to rethink what a “book” is.
First, let’s talk about the technical quality. We could debate the quality of content and editing until the cows come home. We could restart the debate when the cows go wherever cows go when they’re not home. And so on. I believe publishers too readily dismiss reader comments about bad books, value, and price; it hurts the publisher argument because it’s not the job of readers to make the right format and pricing decisions. That’s a discussion for another day.
What I’m talking about is the actual ebook. How it looks, how it flows, how it works for readers.
Right now, most commercial ebooks are treated as exact (but not really exact, which is a problem when it comes to value perception) replica of the print version. Right down to nonsensical elements like references to page numbers within the digital text. The process of taking the final print layout and converting it to an ebook ignores the basics of ebook creation. It cheapens the product sold to readers.
It seems that publishers have been seduced by outsourcing and are neglecting the basic production tasks that are required for ebooks to actually become working books. Readers lack the visual clues of print to guide them; it’s the job of publishers to figure out how digital books can be presented, from better, more logical tables of content and indices to content flow that makes sense (we really don’t need all those breathless press clips about how great the author is…since we’ve already bought the book).
Basics. Get those right first.
Then comes the “enhancements” that really aren’t. Way back in December of last year — oh so long ago! — Macmillan announced a genius plan to sell enhanced ebooks. Naturally, being a publishing company, this meant selling ebooks for higher prices than the hardcover print books:
The special editions, which will include author interviews and other material, such as reading guides, will carry a list price slightly higher than the hardcover edition.
Sigh. Big fat sigh. So silly additional materials of questionable value, materials that are commonly included in the trade paperback version of books will now be added to ebooks and the price will go up? I can only imagine the gleeful rubbing of hands and diabolical cackles that accompanied this announcement. “Take that, Amazon! We’ll add crazy value to those ebooks. People will go nuts for…reading guides!”
These are not enhancements. These are marketing materials. If you, the publisher, cannot distinguish between the two, it makes my heart hurt. Remember point one about the basics? Go back, review that, take notes, ask yourself how you can make the actual ebooks you’re publishing today achieve the same level of quality as the print books.
Note: stop pretending print is the “real” version of the book. That kind of thinking doesn’t help you. Especially as we move into point three.
Finally — and setting my overall skepticism aside — we come to Unicorn. Yesterday, the Internets were abuzz with word that HarperCollins was talking to Apple about…something (By the way, if publishers weren’t talking to Apple, that would be news. It’s fracking January 2010.). What were they discussing? Oh right, this:
Brian Murray, the chief executive of HarperCollins, said in December that e-books enhanced with video, author interviews and social-networking applications could command higher retail prices for publishers than current e-books.
What would be more interesting, truly interesting, would be if Murray had said something along the lines of, “We are taking a hard look at how we package and sell our products, and will be rethinking how we publish certain types of books.” Setting aside the fact that we already have the technology to do amazing things with video, author interviews, and social networking applications — it’s called the “web” — there are many books that could easily command higher digital prices by providing more consumer value.
(I am speaking on this very topic at next week’s Digital Book World, with real-world examples!)
Publishers Lunch reports that what is actually emerging from the Big Six negotiations* is an “agency model” which allows publishers to set their own prices while Apple takes a commission (reg. required for link). It sounds a lot like the ebook version of scan based trading, where retailers don’t actually purchase inventory, taking a cut only at point of sale.
(I’m going to say this approach, in theory, is a good thing for all retailers; it makes no sense to “buy” an ebook, hold it in virtual inventory, then “sell” it.)
This may change tomorrow, the situation is apparently very fluid, and it’s not going to significantly impact the market shares of other book retailers, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, unless the publishers offer a superior experience to their customers. The existing retail leaders have the advantage of multiplatform strategies.
Done right, video and other elements can be great complements to books, but it has to be done right. The Publishers Lunch article linked above expands on Brian’s Murray’s comments, suggesting at least one publisher is taking a hard look at the value proposition, using real-time updates and information to expand the work. This would only work for certain books; Murray speculates about the possibilities for a book like Game Change, saying, “In my opinion, this type of consumer experience has value equal to or close to the value of a hardcover book – or more than twice the consumer price of current ebook bestsellers.”
A few months ago, I suggested that had Twelve released a truly enhanced edition of True Compass, taking advantage of a multimedia approach to tell the story of Ted Kennedy, the possibility for charging more than hardcover price existed. Granted, some licensing fees for the media would change the economics, but the idea of making the digital book more than a replica of the print is where the value aspect will take hold. Michael Cairns of Personanondata offers his own take on this concept.
Still the other aspects of the digital book have to be done right. Did I mention the importance of focusing on the basics? I’d feel so much better about these propositions if the foundation of ebooks were more solid.
Bottom line is that we already have the technology to “enhance” books and publishers aren’t using it. I am not sanguine about the idea that millions of people are going to shell out a purported $1,000 merely to read books. They’ll be purchasing a new type of multimedia machine, and reading books will certainly be done on the Unicorn. The device is a tool, not a cure-all. Targeting the, take a breath, iPod/iTouch/iPhone/Unicorn consumer is, well, targeting a niche. Whatever happens in the world of enhanced ebooks, it has to happen in the world of Android. On the real web. In the entire mobile space.
And it has to be truly valuable, not some marketing person’s notion of value.
* – Nice of six companies to try to set the table for everyone else, no?