Friday, February 17, 2012

The Future of the e-book - Part 2

In Part 1 I took a brief look at the way hardware evolution would affect the e-book as we know it today.  I have since been asked why I see the e-book reader taking on other functions. I realise I did not make this clear in the preceding section; my glass sphere must have been a little foggy. The principal reason I see the e-book reader evolving in this manner is the potential proliferation of devices we now seem to need to ‘survive’ in the twenty-first century. Historically, every time a new gadget has emerged, it has carved a niche for itself, with well-defined boundaries, initially, then gone on to push those limits, invading the terrain of parallel devices. If you are old enough to remember when the first mobile phones hit the streets, i.e. if you are under thirty, this will sound like science fiction, they were hulking boxes, essentially ‘standard’ phone handsets, sitting on a combination radio-transmitter/battery box. They were heavy, awkward, with practically no coverage to speak of. As they became smaller and more portable, their number increased exponentially. I can remember having to carry three different phones at the same time on my person at one point. Then they received a healthy dose of power in the shape of more efficient ‘operating systems’. This efficiency was then exploited by having them do some of the tasks that Personal Digital Assistants, PDA’s, used to perform, such as maintaining a calendar planner. Now PDAs no longer exist, all of their functions having been absorbed into the most basic mobile phone you can purchase today. This is what’s going to happen to the dedicated reader. The e-book reader as a stand-alone device will die, its function being absorbed by a hybrid phone/netbook/e-reader in the short to medium term.

Now in this part of my crystal-ball gazing session, I’m going to concentrate on the more interesting side of the whole issue, at least for me as an author: the content. In order to illustrate the distinct elements I am going to describe, I intend to use my ‘2012’ novel as a reference. I do this purely for convenience, and am fully aware that many other writers have created a holistic environment for their works also.

Currently the ‘2012’ e-book is the main element of a passive immersive experience. Wow! Sounds good, but what in Hades do I mean by that? The book contains the first piece of the journey – a link to my website where a reader can discover an interview with me regarding the writing of this novel; read an anecdotal account of how I researched some of the scenes; read some of the hidden secrets (I call them Winks) contained within the narrative, such as geo-mapping coordinates for places that figure in the book or where some of the characters’ names originated; even check out a book trailer on YouTube. And, of course, find information about forthcoming novels and where to purchase them. All good stuff. The website backup to a novel is fairly standard these days and generally these contain pretty much the same elements. Occasionally you come across other interesting items, such as an analysis of the profanity frequency per novel which one popular writer (John Sanford) has included on his website.

Yet all of this is Passive. The interaction with the reader is one-way.

I see the e-book, enhanced content version (+EC - again you read it here first) having three broad sets of additional content: Passive, Active and Marketing.

Passive Content

When I switch on my reader and select the ‘2012’ novel from my electronic bookshelf for the first time, I will be asked to set a few parameters. This will include the usual stuff (text size etc.) as well as options such as voice activation (“next” to ‘turn’ a page for example), spoken text, and… Show links in text. If I have selected this option, any references to passive support material will be highlighted, giving me the option to follow the link and read the item there and then. If I choose not to select this option, all of this passive material will be available at the end of the book’s narrative text. Now, as a writer who spends time trying to generate a rhythm in the tales I write, I’m not too happy with the idea of readers interrupting my carefully crafted flow to read an external footnote – this is a novel not a white paper, after all. However, the decision will be the readers, not mine.

Additional passive content to that mentioned above, will include video interviews with the author and mini-documentaries. The latter would be fun. An example: recently I read on the web of one of my own favourite authors, Stephen Leather, how he had travelled aboard a cargo ship for three weeks as part of his research for a new novel. The article Stephen wrote was interesting, but just imagine if that had been a short documentary film. Similarly, I enacted my closing scene in ‘2012’ at Lake Baikal in Russia. Now in the ‘2012’ +EC edition, there’s a documentary about the lake and its importance. Yes, if these are reminiscent of ‘the making of…’ then you’ve grasped the idea.

Active Content

Here the main objective is to incite the reader to interact. I am aware of some gimmicky attempts at this by certain authors by writing e-novels where the reader can choose between any of a dozen different endings. This is the old ‘Choose your own adventure’ books concept: If you want John to climb the tree and take the Magic Apple, turn to page 112; If you want John to see this as a trap, turn to page 128. I’m sorry, but this is not a novel in my definition, but a game. Yes it can be entertaining, I suppose, at least once, but… I’m old school, I follow the dictates of the King of Hearts (Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”) “Begin at the Beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”. I craft an ending, not leave it to the whim of the reader.

I see interactive content more along the lines of instant reader feedback, both to the Great Wide World and to the author. Imagine, you have just finished ‘2012’; its controversial ending leaves you thinking and you want to make a comment about this – don’t look for a PC to go online; do it there and then from your reader! You write your thoughts and these are (according to your choice) Tweeted, blogged, F/Booked etc. You feel strongly about the way I ended the book, or just want to say how much you enjoyed it, click on Send to Author, write what you want and send this directly to a special capture area on the WWW where the author can obtain direct reader feedback whenever they wish. Then page down and have a go at one of the competitions based upon the novel you have just read. You could win a free download of “Full Disclosure”, the author’s next novel, a character named after you in a future novel, or a trip to Lake Baikal for dinner with the author! The possibilities are almost endless.

Active content will allow authors to be more in touch with their readers by permitting them to see exactly what the readers like and dislike about their novels and adjust this, if they wish, for future works. After 200,000 requests via “Full Disclosure” +EC edition to bring back Kris and Snow, I might start work on a sequel!

Marketing Content

It is already possible to browse e-books via a reader and then purchase them. So including this feature in this section is a given. But how different would it be where after finishing ‘2012’ +EC, instead of reading an extract from “Full Disclosure”, you also had a video of me reading it! And… access to comments by others who have read this before, an author interview telling you what to expect, snippets of the addition content in the +EC edition, and being able to pre-order, at a special price, ‘the CULL’ six months before it comes out and receive it a month before its official publication date!

Now the sad part

The technology to make all of the above possible exists NOW. It could, without too much effort, be incorporated into e-books for tablets tomorrow. It will take a little longer for the hardware to make mono-functional e-readers capable of handling this, maybe a year or two. And that’s another factor why the dedicated reader will die. But this is just the start.

And the good news

There is repetition of the ‘Extinction of the Dinosaurs’ currently taking place amongst Publishing Houses. As they try their best to ignore the e-book, burying their collective heads deeper in the sand and lamenting the tactics used by Amazon et al, they will die off. This is good news – there’s no place in the future for the barriers the editorial outfits, and old-school literary agents place on the world of publishing. They need to find a new role; to think out of the box. One area they should explore is the Enhanced Content concept. Most writers want to write; not to be SEO wizards, Marketing Gurus, Website designers etc. That stuff is, maybe, fun at first, then boring, then downright onerous. We have neither the time nor inclination, and often nor the funds or expertise, to produce the additional content for our novels. All we want to do is WRITE – that’s where we get our kicks. So a smart publisher needs to beef up its abilities in this area.

As I tweeted last year, all a writer really wants from a publisher today is Editing and Marketing. That’s how you, the Publishers, are going to survive as the e-book takes over, not by licking your wounds and crying “foul!”. It is said that the World’s first three publishing houses in five years will be Amazon, Google and Apple.

The future is written, only those who refuse to read will be taken by surprise.

Now it’s your turn. 

What would you, as a writer and/or reader like to see in the +EC editions of e-books?

Eric at
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