The Future of the eBook: Riffling Pages, Plugging In, and Giving Readers More.

The Virgin Birth of Sharks -- Click to preview it now!

The Virgin Birth of Sharks — Click to preview it now!

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the future of the book in the age of the ebook. Journalists, publishers, authors, readers, and others are asking questions like:

  • What business model (if any) will allow publishers to survive?
  • How can authors (like musicians) make a living with a product that’s easily copied?
  • What will the next stage be in the technical evolution of the ebook?

Some of the proposed answers are nostalgic nonsense, while other approaches amount to little more than utopian hand-waving. Most of this unproductive “debate,” in which people with different positions frequently talk past one another rather than actually engaging with each other’s arguments, comes in response to the first two questions.

Jonathan Franzen: An amazing writer talking nonsense about ebooks.

Jonathan Franzen: An amazing writer who should know better talking utter nonsense about ebooks.

Where the answers get a little bit of traction is on the third question.

If the best business strategies remain uncertain and the application of ethics to newfound technologies is still hotly debated, at least the technology of delivering stories is something concrete we can get a grip on. So here are a few answers (for books in general, as well as for my own books in particular) to the question of what lies ahead for the book.

Riffling Pages

First, the enhanced (but still purely digital) book. The video below will give you an idea of what lies ahead for readers using tablets, smart phones, and similar portable devices to read.

Before you watch it, ask yourself:

  • Do you miss the good old days when you could riffle through the pages of a book by running your thumb along the edge?
  • Do you wish that ebooks would allow you to hold your page with a finger while flipping ahead or back, the way a paper book used to do?
  • Do you sometimes wish you could jump ahead in your ebook by several pages at once without having to scroll through the intervening pages or having to exit into a separate interface?
The scroll, the codex, and now the ebook.

The convenience of riffling the pages of a codex.

Well, fear not.

When carmudgeons start ragging on ebooks for the things they can’t do, remember that today’s ebooks are the Model Ts of the ebook world.

They’re functional in a basic kind of way, but they’ll be embellished with plenty of cool stuff as the technology develops — the equivalents of air conditioning and power steering.  And at least some of that cool stuff will self-consciously reproduce the best aspects of the bound paper book, grafting its virtues onto the ebook.

Take a look.


Plugging In

I personally favor the purely digital approach to enhanced ebooks, as in the video above, but there are competing models of the future book and it may well be that more than one model will find a niche.

Here’s a different conception of the future of ebooks. Instead of grafting the virtues of the codex onto the ebook, it transplants the best aspects of the ebook into a codex. You take a bound book with paper pages — one that also contains artfully concealed wiring and circuitry — and plug that into your computer.

When you turn the pages of the book, your computer display advances, showing material that supplements the content of the book, or perhaps showing the same content with added functionality. Hell, you can trace your finger across the paper pages to manipulate the information displayed on your monitor.

Like any prototype this book is handcrafted (a process you get to watch in the video), but there’s no reason to think that its production couldn’t be automated.


Giving Readers More

At this point the enhanced ebooks in the videos aren’t commercially available, and even once they are there will be a period where the technology is too expensive for small publishers and indie authors to access. So how is the little guy to keep up?

Maybe you have an answer of your own. My answer is: use your imagination and give readers more for their money.

Here’s what I’ve done so far.

(1) Bonus content in the book: Several of my books has a bonus section at the back called Facts in the Fiction that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the real world facts behind the fictional story. Soon all of them will have it.

These sections are not a quick afterthought. I do a lot of research when I write a novel, novelette, or even a short story, and I spend extra time above and beyond that researching and writing FITF. Plus, if a reader is interested in any particular issue, each topic has multiple links to relevant web pages, PDF documents, and videos.

For instance, my novelette The Virgin Birth of Sharks has a FITF section in eight parts, dealing with topics ranging from the titular issue of sharks procreating without mating, to a section on the bandits in India known as dacoits, to a look at the rules for keeping a great white shark as a pet in Toronto.

A view from two different Fact in the Fiction sections. On the left is FITF from The Virgin Birth of Sharks, with links to web pages and PDFs in blue. On the right is FITF from Luck & Death, showing an illustration from the section on Alan Turing.

A view from two different Facts in the Fiction sections. On the left is FITF from The Virgin Birth of Sharks, with links to web pages and PDFs in blue. On the right is FITF from Luck and Death at the Edge of the World, showing an illustration from the section on Alan Turing. (Click to enlarge.)

(2) Bonus content online: Each of my books also has its own companion web site. The sites have a couple of functions.

For people who don’t yet own the book, it provides sample chapters from the story, as well as a sample from the Facts in the Fiction section for that book. Sure Amazon and other sites let readers “look inside,” but their previews:

  • cut off at an arbitrary point, sometimes in the middle of a chapter
  • are too short, and
  • can’t include both the beginning of the story and a sample from the FITF at the back of the book.

The site solves all of these problems.

A screenshot from the Virgin Birth of Sharks web page. (Click to go to the page).

A screenshot from the Virgin Birth of Sharks web page. (Click to go to the page).

For readers who already own the book, the site allows me to provide updates on the factual sections as new information becomes available without issuing a new edition every few months.

It also lets me provide a volume of material that I could never pack into the ebook.

For example, in the prologue to Luck and Death I said that the novel was written on a steady diet of Mexican music, both current and traditional, which suited the book since a large part of it is set in Mexico City. But in the ebook I couldn’t play that music for readers. The site, on the other hand, has a jukebox of embedded videos.

The Luck and Death site also has a video of a reading of the first chapter of the book (the audio can also be downloaded as an MP3).

Screenshot showing the Luck and Death site with video and MP3. (Click to go to the site.)

Screenshot showing the Luck and Death site with video and MP3. (Click to go to the site.)

One more bonus available online is a library of free PDF reading material. This is a feature of both the Luck and Death site and the site for Siren Songs in Deep Time.

I’ll continue to build and add to all of these sites into the foreseeable future.

(3) Bonus Content that keeps on giving: Finally, not only are the web sites updated from time to time, but a day will come when I do issue a new edition of one or all of the books. This already happened with Luck & Death, which was originally published without a FITF section.

If readers choose to, they can subscribe to any given title by email. They send in a copy of their receipt for any book of mine, along with their preference of ebook format, and when a new edition is published it will be emailed to them free.

And when I issue free material, as I plan to do now and then, that will be sent out to all subscribers, no matter what title they’ve bought.

What all this means is that each book is an ongoing multimedia experience. With each title you get to:

  • read the book,
  • read the FITF to get a look behind the scenes,
  • use the links in the FITF to tour through curated online material
  • go to the specific web site for the book to find free PDFs and audio and video material
  • subscribe to the book, so that you’ll get any new editions sent to you free, automatically, and
  • receive free unrelated material from time to time if you’re a subscriber to any title.

As much as I love an old-fashioned paper book, that’s a package I could never have delivered between the covers of a codex.

I may not be able to make the pages riffle just yet, but I can give you a whole lot of bang for your buck.

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