The Enhanced Ebook Schtick and Ideas in Profile

Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publisher, Profile Books

I first started working with ‘enhanced ebooks’, whatever it really means, back in 2007. It was a more innocent time. They seemed like a fantastic, new, original idea – we would embellish fantasy and SF books with extra content, flesh out the world with images, audio and video, give shape and colour to the imaginative force of the books. The limits of the enhancements were the limits of imagination itself. It seemed bewildering why editors and publishers weren’t chomping at the bit to push back new creative and commercial frontiers. It’s no grave understatement to say that, far from embracing enhanced ebooks, the editorial elite regarded them with outright distaste. At best.

Anyway, enhanced ebooks. Exciting. Or so I thought. Only the whole business soon started to go wrong. Firstly was the name itself. How clunky, how unnecessary, how confused – no wonder editorial weren’t keen. If ‘ebook’ sounded outré, enhanced ebook just sound faddish and faintly ridiculous from Day 1. Then there was the complexity of putting them together. Files are more fiddly than most people assume, and adding in the material, itself often difficult and expensive to assemble, wasn’t obvious in an era when devices were basically crap. Moreover you couldn’t charge more for the titles – people simply weren’t going to pay £2 extra just for some illustrations or character profiles. Readers expected this to be free on the Internet if, that is, they wanted it at all.

Enhanced ebooks went out of fashion. Straightforward linear text narrative was what worked.

To some extent the mass adoption of iPads and the like reversed this situation. Some time ago there was a mini enhanced ebook boom, spurred amongst other things by the much more attractive and useable potential of iBooks Author (and of course apps, although I tend to regard them as a different category). There was a wave of deluxe, often beautiful and content rich enhanced ebooks. Yet again I think the boom turned to bust for much the same reasons as before – the commercials didn’t stack up for most people. Evan Schnittman, now of Hachette USA, famously declared them dead in 2011.

While boringly easy to produce romance ebooks flew off the metaphorical shelves, most enhanced ebooks, sitting on considerable piles of sunk costs, stagnated in the far reaches of boutique ebook stores, safely cossetted from the magic of Discoverability.

For the past couple of years I have spoken to plenty of publishers who have experimented, sometimes at great time, cost and expectation, with enhanced ebooks. In none of these conversations have I heard about an unmitigated success. So, let’s be honest: enhanced ebooks have an annoying name and the costs usually outweigh the benefits. So, why, you might ask, are we at Profile doing a whole series of them, Ideas in Profile?

Well, because they are not enhanced ebooks. Let’s stop calling them that. These are both print and digital works. The print books are beautiful and illustrated; the ebooks, where they can, contain video and animation. That’s it. This isn’t about enhancing anything, it’s just about making great products that work in the best way possible for the format a reader chooses to buy them in.

The goal of the series is to bring important ideas alive through engaging writing and brilliant images. It just so happens they move, as they should, in digital contexts. Our partners on the animation, Cognitive, understand how to produce visual representations of complex ideas and arguments; our writers understand complex ideas and arguments. We make the package or what I call the frame. We know there is a market for this content as the RSA Animates series from Cognitive, which animates lectures, has millions upon millions of views on Youtube. We are just adapting this kind of content for a different audience. The first book, POLITICS by the superlative political theorist and writer David Runciman will be an excellent showcase for what we are trying to do – not rewrite the rules, just give people quality experiences and hopefully make money at the same time.

So, whenever people say we are launching a new series of enhanced ebooks, I smile ruefully, having worked through two rounds of boom and bust. No we’re not, I say. This is just about great content and, I hope, great publishing. It’s definitely not about enhanced ebooks. It’s no more simple or complex than that.

POLITICS by David Runciman is published by Profile books. Enhanced eBook: 9781782831358 | £4.99Trade paperback: 9781781252574 | £8.99

Other IDEAS IN PROFILE titles to be published in 2015: CRITICISM by Catherine Belsey, ART HISTORY by Martin Kemp and SHAKESPEARE by Paul Edmonson

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