The eBook’s next chapter

Sometimes words just aren't enough. And with that in mind, the publishing industry is evolving in tandem with the rise of electronic books and the groundbreaking platforms upon which they're read. Its latest moves in the digital space revolve around a new crop of augmented eBooks that are so fresh they have yet to receive an official name.
October 22, 2010

Sometimes words just aren’t enough. And with that in mind, the publishing industry is evolving in tandem with the rise of electronic books and the groundbreaking platforms upon which they’re read. Its latest moves in the digital space revolve around a new crop of augmented eBooks. So fresh that they have yet to receive an official name, these enhanced (or enriched) eBooks are embedding audio and video within their texts to create an interactive multimedia reading experience. Targeting their young, techno-savvy demo, media powerhouses like Disney and Random House Children’s Books are at the forefront of this trend, banking on the power of TV and film to make reading more fun.

In becoming the first TV network to create an enhanced interactive eBook, ABC Family collaborated with fellow Disney subsidiary Hyperion to make The Secret Diary of Ashley Juergens available for download on Apple’s iBookstore. As the first enhanced book based on a TV series to join the tens of thousands of books on the store’s virtual shelves, Ashley Juergens is augmented by the inclusion of video footage from the first season of ABC Family’s number-one original series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, now in its third season.

While eBook enhancements have been top-of-mind for the publishing industry, it was the inception of the Apple iPad, launched in April, and new developments with Amazon’s Kindle that produced a branded app for the iPad, that have allowed seamless multimedia integration to come to fruition.

‘When the iPad came out it was a no-brainer. There’s been a huge leap in terms of how young people are consuming media. We are in the business of telling heartfelt stories and interacting with young adults, and this technology allows us to do that,’ says Naz Haider, VP of business management for ABC Family and the one at the helm of the enhanced eBook project. ‘This is a game-changing platform…and we wanted to be the frontrunner.’

For Haider and his team, getting ahead of the pack meant acting quickly. In less than two months, the ABC Family digital team collaborated with Hyperion to develop integrated video from the TV series that is viewable in a player box embedded inside the electronic pages of Ashley Juergens. The 10 x two-minute virtual scenes from The Secret Life of the American Teenager are dispersed throughout the eBook, with the corresponding passages in the diary being recounted aloud by Ashley Juergens. (She’s the 13-year-old younger sister of the show’s pregnant protagonist, 15-year-old Amy Juergens.) Under the Disney/ABC Television Group (DATG) umbrella, Hyperion provided the book and produced the electronic text format while ABC Family delivered the video clips and organized copyright permissions. The final product, retailing at US$12.99, is included in the iBooks app that’s readable on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

This fusion of pre-existing multimedia assets is already striking a chord with its intended tween and teen audience, which seems willing to spend the extra dollars to buy an enhanced eBook. Within weeks of its July release, the interactive version of Ashley Juergens was selling at a rate four times greater than the original, unembellished eBook version of the same story.

‘We’re constantly looking at kids as future readers and watching ways they view and access content on platforms. We need to build content with multiple layers to live up to their expectations of what’s enjoyable,’ says Hyperion’s VP of marketing and digital media Mindy Stockfield. ‘If we don’t start moving in the direction where kids already are, we are going to lose out on key readers.’ As former senior director of marketing at Cartoon Network and VP of digital media for Disney Channel, Stockfield has witnessed technology transform the way kids consume media first-hand.

Stockfield believes enhanced eBooks are a foreseeable springboard for more social integration within electronic reading materials that will allow kids to host discussions and share content all in one place. ‘I don’t think gaming integration in eBooks would be a stretch, either,’ she suggests.

Still, Stockfield says, the technological and social enhancements aren’t worth anything if the content itself isn’t worth selling. She and ABC’s Haider credit The Secret Life of the American Teenager‘s dramatic storyline as being conducive to sideline video interpretations of the text. ‘It’s all about the content and the right storyline in the fiction world,’ says Stockfield, contending that publishers shouldn’t jump to replicate or enhance existing eBooks without considering the time and expense that go into the production of original audio and video. If existing video and audio are being utilized, then proper legal clearances also need to be made.

With the rate of consumer uptake on the new Ashley Juergens title, ABC Family is looking to explore the release of several additional enhanced eBooks built around the Secret Life franchise and extending to retail channels beyond Apple’s iBookstore. While Apple devices like the iPad and iPod Touch are the only platforms that support the augmented books right now, eReaders like the Amazon Kindle – iPad’s largest competitor and current leader in the eReader space – are developing their own apps to serve as conduits to these multimedia reading experiences.

Until recently, iBooks and Kindle apps for the iPad and other devices couldn’t support audio and visual components, so Till Wirth, manager of digital content and product development at Random House Children’s Books (RHCB), says the enhanced eBook revolution is still in its infancy with no set path established. ‘All publishers are experimenting with different titles and content. It’s not clear yet what’s the best route,’ he says. ‘But we’ll find out.’

RHCB’s foray into the enhanced eBook space is not unlike that of ABC Family-Hyperion’s, except its multimedia product has been built around film content and is accessible only via the Amazon Kindle app for Apple devices. (The publishing house has openly refrained from selling content on Apple’s iBookstore platform due to objections to its pricing model.)

Aimed at kids 10 and up and readable through the Kindle app, Flipped (US$14.99) is a movie tie-in enhanced eBook based on the film derived from Wendelin Van Draanen’s 2001 teen romance novel of the same name. (The new title strategically launched alongside Castle Rock Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures’ nationwide release of the film in August.)

In fact, it was Amazon’s launch of its enhanced Kindle app at the end of June that propelled discussions between RHCB and Warner Bros. to commission the Random House digital production team, which has churned out some 15,000 eBooks to date, to create something new. The end-result is the original eBook packed with the film’s behind-the-scenes video footage as well as three original songs written and recorded by Van Draanen. It also incorporates eight movie scenes, 16 color photos and interviews with the author, which Random House produced independently.

Wirth says RHCB, as the world’s largest English-language children’s book publisher, is experimenting with a wide range of these digital products that will continue to roll out over the next few months. ‘We have plans to publish a number of enhanced eBooks with audio and video extras this fall and will continue to build our new picture eBook program, which we launched in May,’ says Wirth. He adds that the possibilities for picture book development enabled by the new and soon-to-be-launched color devices are vast. Similarly, ABC Family’s Haider notes, ‘Once the genie is out of bottle everyone will do it. It will become standard.’

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