The Ebook Will Evolve. So Should Authors. / by J.C. Hutchins

Note: This post originally appeared on the website E2BU. E2BU, aka the Enhanced Ebook University, educates authors and publishers on the creative and business potential of enhanced ebooks -- electronic books that transcend traditional reading experiences by incorporating video, online links and other multimedia elements into the narrative. Enhanced ebooks are an emerging storytelling form. I've yet to see an enhanced ebook that captures my vision for the platform's incredible narrative potential. I hope this post, which was originally written for authors and publishers, gets readers and creators thinking about the platform's potential.


Here's some enhanced e-book wisdom for my author colleagues: It all starts with you.

I'm approaching this from a fiction writer's perspective, though non-fiction writers can benefit from this advice. Prepare your work's enhanced ebook experience from the very beginning, as you conceive your book. As you plot and write, always remember that you’re now armed with countless opportunities to push your narrative beyond words. Take advantage of that, and the many emotionally-resonant strengths other media have over text.

Presently, enhanced content is often an afterthought, tacked on at the end of a production process as a blingy differentiator. We are now in an age of storytelling where that model is practically insulting to a reader. These days, there are few good reasons for creators to ignore the potential of integrating resonant multimedia elements into their stories.

From my perspective as an online- and transmedia-savvy creator, "enhanced" content should make a meaningful narrative contribution to the main story.  Consider the narrative impact of experiencing fictional family photo albums, sci-fi computer dossiers, fake newspaper clippings, video blogs from your characters, etc.  Every genre can benefit from this story-centric approach, and can move readers in new ways.

Make this content mission-critical to the narrative experience. Cleverly devise ways to structure your story so that photographs you choose to fleetingly describe in text (for instance) are visible via the enhanced ebook. Inject visual clues/foreshadowing into those photos that will pay off later in the story; savvy readers will be delighted. If you’re an indie creator rolling your own enhanced ebooks, take advantage of the cheap and free online tools at your disposal. Get free phone numbers via Google Voice and use them in your stories -- readers can leave voicemails to their favorite characters. Is there a crime scene video that's heating up your cop thriller? Include it in your enhanced experience.

Tightly integrate these transmedia opportunities into your stories. Don’t do what publishers are doing now. Don’t create a so-called enhanced experience that plays merely like a novel with some multimedia elements wedged into the narrative for the sake of spiffiness. Readers are smart, and they’ll smell that rat a mile away. They'll probably feel like they’ve wasted their money. That's bad storytelling, and bad for business.

Avoid self-congratulatory behind the scenes content such as author bios, old drafts of your manuscripts and the like. Only longtime/hardcore fans are into that stuff ... and most authors don’t have longtime/hardcode fans. There's very little value in this content; certainly not enough to charge the premium most enhanced ebooks command. Give people what they want: world-enhancing, emotionally-resonant fiction in various media.

Speaking from experience: If your funds and production capabilities are limited and you fear your enhanced elements appear amateurish, slyly manage audience expectations in your text by referring to it as feeling home-brewed. The Blair Witch Project did this to great effect. This way, the videos you shoot with an affordable Flip cam or cell phone don't feel cheap -- they feel authentic. Same goes for photos, and audio recordings.

If you self-publish an enhanced ebook and it becomes a viral or sales hit, know that a mainstream publisher will come a-callin'. An editor will wave a check under your nose, and you'll probably be appropriately wooed. Awesome. But as part of your negotiations, make certain to insist that the publisher create "more professional" versions of that enhanced content, if you have concerns about its quality. Make it a deal-breaker if you have to. Remember, you're doing the publisher a favor by signing on the dotted line, not vice-versa.

We've yet to see a truly resonant enhanced e-novel experience, but this is probably mostly due to ever-conservative publishers being unwilling to pony up cash to get experimental -- and authors embracing the self-defeating notion that they "can only write books." The former is short-sighted. The latter is preposterous, and insulting to one's creative abilities.

Embracing multiple narrative media ensures that you're not just building "enhanced" content -- you're learning new creative and artistic skills, which will improve your life and work.

I believe a killing can be made in this space, but it requires resources -- measured either in publisher dollars or indie creator sweat equity -- a lot of beyond-the-page creative thinking, and a willingness to embrace risk.

Are publishers willing to pull the trigger? They've been pretty gun-shy so far. As with most evolutions in storytelling and entertainment, it'll probably require an indie creator to prove the model works ... or a publisher identifying a qualified creator or two, paying them, and making a business leap of faith.