Real eBooks: Are We Still in the Stone Age?

So when will we start to see REAL ebooks appear on the market? You know the ebooks that take advantage of their digital environment. Ebooks that have been rendered to improve the reader’s ebook experience. As the number of ebook devices explodes into the book reader’s world, the readers are going to expect more. This statement is especially true with the younger generation whose world seems to center around instant access.

I just completed a study of twenty newly released ebooks just to see how far the art of ebook publishing has advanced in the last year. I choose ebooks from well-known authors, from self-publishing authors, some novels, some technical books. I wanted a variety for my study. I would like to share my observations and suggestions for their improvement.

My contention is that REAL ebooks should be a different product than their paper counterparts. They should be formatted differently; sections arranged differently and in some cases they should have different covers. In short, to be a REAL ebook, they should not be just a copy of the traditional book version.

The following is a list of certain areas that I feel need improvement; areas that you must consider when you create your ebook.

REAL ebooks Links
Rendering your ebook with links is a major step in the right direction in creating a REAL book. What items MUST have links?

1. The Table of Contents must have links to the chapter headings. Most are doing this now.
2. Author’s References – the ebook must include links to the author’s website, email address, blogs, online profiles and social networking connections (Facebook/Twitter). You need this to get your reader/audience involved.
3. Author’s Other Books – there should be links to the buy pages for other books created by the author. Why miss this marketing opportunity.

For example, in my study two of the ebooks were written by top 10 authors and published by traditional publishers. Both had a list of their other titles, provided credits for the book creation and the usual publisher information. Neither used links to assist the reader in buying other titles or helping their co-developers secure new business. One did have a link to the publisher’s web site. There was no links to the author’s website, blog, email address or social network information.

4. In book Links – the REAL ebook should have links in the content to footnotes (held in appendix), to word and term definitions and to references. For example, one project I recently worked on was a pictorial about Omaha Beach with over 50 original pictures inserted in the content. With the picture, its title and the picture credits, the content became very difficult to read. The solution was to have a link from the picture title to the picture’s credits in the back of the ebook. If the reader wanted to check out the source they could follow the link and then hit the back key on the ebook device. If the reader didn’t, they could ignore the link and continue without interrupting the reading experience.

Another example in my survey was a technical book about the publishing industry. It was a well written book with lots of good information and references. But there were no links. None! It contained lots of hard coded website addresses and email contact information. All I had to do was re-enter the URL into my web browser and I could find the source.

Actually this is a missed opportunity. One of the problems that traditional books have that REAL ebooks can solve is the maintenance of links in the books. As we know we live in an ever changing world. Web and email addresses change on a daily basis, it seems. So there I am with a link to some interesting information and the link is no good. A broken link, if you will

If the REAL ebook is managed properly, you can avoid or limit this problem. You can create an online directory of links for your ebook. Then you setup a link monitoring process and a link maintenance routine and maintain a valid list of links in the directory. I call this the Goodlinks concept. Just include a link to the online directory in your ebook and you won’t lose your audience.

In fact you can draw the reader to your site and market other products and services. Of course, the beauty of the REAL ebook is you can republish it at any time with the updated links and information.

I believe the REAL ebook can help solve the read-back problems that all readers are faced with at one time or another. I watched a reader the other day try to deal with a novel that was riddled with acronyms and abbreviations. It was getting to be such a problem that half way through the ebook, she actually started writing them down on a separate piece of paper to reference later. Here is an example. “He called USAMRIID for advice.” I give up.

Other Considerations to Ponder
Sometimes the traditional book cover doesn’t work for the ebook. In this case, size does matter. That great book cover that you had designed is going to go small. On-line distributors try to catch the eye of would-be readers with thumbnail covers. The problem is that sometimes colors get in the way, the type size and face doesn’t look good small and the art gets distorted. A professional designer can solve this problem. You need one that can make the cover work in both environments. Check with our host for this site, Joel Friedlander.

One of the other cover issues is with the effort to get the prospective reader to view a sample of the ebook; some distributors will put a label over the right hand corner of the thumbnail which obscures that portion of the cover. A good designed cover will keep important information viewable like the author’s name or even the title of the book. I saw that in my study.

REAL ebooks should include, with their copyright notice, the page number source document for the ebook, especially if the book has various editions. This is relatively a new process but it helps readers coordinate content between the paper version and ebook. This is increasingly important in the educational environment. Students using both hardbound and the ebook versions need a reference point sometimes.

One of the current ebook marketing strategies is to allow the prospective reader to read a sample of the ebook before buying. All distributors seem to go at this sample process differently but at the end of the day they want to provide the prospective buyer with something that can help with the buying decision. Most of them use a percentage basis.

The REAL ebook concept can help with this process but there has to be a rearranging of the book’s sections if the process is automated like most of them are.

Let me start with an example. I reviewed the buy page on Amazon for each book in my study. I choose one ebook in my study and downloaded the sample, comparing it to the full length version. Here’s what I found.

The ebook sample was in the same section sequence as the paper version. I know there is a traditional way to setup a book. This sample was no exception. It started with the cover followed by the title page, the table of contents, the dedication, the copyright page and a list of the writer’s other works.

So you ask what’s wrong with this. If this sample was going to help sell my ebook, it probably failed. The sample was 80 device pages long but the viewer had to page through 24 pages before they could start reading the book to make a decision.

I believe if you are going to use the sample as a sales tool, there are some slight changes you can make. I would include the cover and the title page with an abbreviated TOC up front along with the author’s other books with buy links. Also I would include upfront the author’s website and contact information. Move the copyright page, dedications and credits to the end of the ebook.

If you get to setup your own sample, keep this in mind. REAL ebooks and their samples should give the prospect what they need to make a decision and only that. A sample doesn’t need a complete table of content. This ebook had 80 chapters which took up four complete device pages and the kicker was; the links to the last 76 chapters were no good. Make the sample simple. Get the reader to your content as quickly as possible.

Bring on the REAL ebook
In most cases, ebooks are still just copies of the paper version but there is a huge opportunity to improve the ebook reading experience. Creative book design and digital links can help us move the ebook experience forward in acceptance.

Currently we have a problem. Let’s face it. Until traditional publishers start to treat ebooks as separate products with different properties and requirements, we have not taken advantage of the digital product. Their approach is simple but self-serving. Get it out the door. Get the copy into an ebook format, charge a higher price than needed and watch the money fall to their bottom line.

The advantage should go to the self-publisher because they control the process. They have the ability to correct the problems easily and make something really special.

Seek a professional to help you through the process if you’re really serious about marketing your ebook.

What do you think about the REAL ebook concept? Is adding links to an already completed product just too much work or would it move your book to the leading edge of ebook world and improve the readers enjoyment?

View my website: HBSystems Publications
Specializing in the ebook experience
Or EMAIL at: jrm@hbspub.com
Or go to my blog: The eBook Author’s Corner
LinkedIn Profile: James Moushon
Author: Call Off The Dogs, a rendered eBook

This blog was first published at the The Book Designer by Joel Friedlander.

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author and book designer who blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com. He’s also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

It was posted again on the Passive Voice blog hosted by the Passive Guy.
Together the two have generated over 100 comments.

  • The biggest roadblock to James’s proposal is the huge gap between the capabilities of the various ebook readers. The utter lack of an industry standard–and the fact that no one appears to be working toward even the mere concept of an industry standard–leaves the ebook publisher with a choice between standardizing ebooks on a least-common-denominator layout or creating multiple internal structures to maximize the (really quite pitiful) differences each reader offers. The one leads to underutilization of possible capabilities and the other leads to a huge investment in time for no real gain.

    Topping all other considerations is that (a) Amazon Kindle outsells its nearest competitors–Nook and iPad–by around 10:1, month in and month out; and (b) the vastly underperforming iPad offers the best platform for execution of working the farthest out of the box. I wouldn’t invest an extra dime or minute to plus-up an ebook design for an iPad on two counts: Apple isn’t selling enough books for a payoff, and most books read on an iPad are Kindle editions utilizing the Kindle for iPad app, which kind of brings us back around to not worth it.

    HTML5 appears to offer some relief, but long, long experience with computers leaves me cold toward chasing this year’s panacea, whatever it is, whatever road to riches it offers. I’ve had a box of one sort or another on my desk since 1979 and, along the way, have acquired skills I could no longer use within a year or so of absolutely needing them. As a matter of policy, I’m not going to waste time learning today’s panacea as a step toward scrapping it in service of tomorrow’s.

    As a group with an interest and a stake in outcomes, we really ought to begin voicing our demands for a set of standards we (a) can help define and (b) will help control as the amorphous present winds its way into a more substantial future. What we are now are slaves to a system in which the sellers control both input from us and output for consumers. Their clumsy proprietary ebook readers hold us and our ultimate consumers hostage to corporate greed and corporate shortsightedness. Believe me, as I report from my fifth decade in book writing and publishing, we are only trading one set of unimaginative asshats for another. We’re the creative componant, not Amazon, Apple, or B&N. Turn us loose with platforms that invite and execute creative ebook publishing, and we’ll be the ones to push it as far as it can go while demanding a steadily advancing creative horizon only we can truly exploit.

    I’m for everything James suggests–as a minimum–but where are the WYSIWYG tools that will make them all feasible and upgradeable without tearing everything down and rebuilding every few months? I’m running fifty titles on seven ebook platforms as of right now, and I’m working on more titles at an increasing rate. I know things will not remain the same, but I’m not about to start chasing chimeras or panaceas on the say-so of cloud-dwelling suits at any of the ebook sellers, not even Kindle.

  • Eric:
    I totally agree with your comment. You almost have to write and format to the Amazon standard because that is where the most action is and hope the other versions/platforms stick to the wall someway.

    When I converted and self-published my ebook, Call Off the Dogs, I ended with three different versions of the ebook. All formatted differently to fit the platform. I understand your problem with the 50 titles.

    I go back to 1980. That year I started a custom software company. Our first challenge was that every project we took on, the programming language was different. We went from TRS-80 to Apple II to PC clones to Alpha Micro multiple user systems, all with their own language.

    Finally when the field narrowed to Microsoft and Apple, we could actually start standardizing our programming.

    I am not advocating a Microsoft or Apple to take over but I do agree on the HTML type approach as a solution that you presented in your comment. (Everyone has accepted the Internet and its protocols.)

    I think that software will drive the acceptance of ebooks and their potential.

    However, I don’t know if Amazon will give up that control. The iPad and other Tablets have the power to handle much more than what we are giving them.

    By the way I have a RCA eBooki reader I purchased in 2003 that I would like to donate to someone. If you can find a new battery for it and if it will start up, there are about 20 ebooks on it. Second thought I probably shouldn’t do that. I would be in violation of the ebook agreement.

    Erik, you need to write a blog on your comment. You are right on top on this one.

  • I just went through the (arduous at times…) process of getting my self published book across the ebook platforms as well. I got the impression instantly that no regular Joe (or I should say no self published author that I know) would have an easy time getting their book even formatted correctly for the various conversion processes out there. Only because of my already quite ridiculous obsession with Open Office did I have a pretty smooth sail when it came to converting to the Kindle (as easy as tweaking the entire book formatting, adding my internal links and bookmarks etc. and then saving it as a .HTML file – it also helps that I own a Kindle and was able to check the file along the way) the Nook gave me no trouble either, however, Smashwords for me (because I don’t use Word) was remarkably frustrating and very hit and miss when it came to the conversion process. It seems to me as though we’re dealing with such a “new” thing, that the places and websites we’re having to work with haven’t even yet managed to perfect their own process in this situation and that gives us an even greater handicap. I think the idea of a “Standards” is great but I don’t yet necessarily agree that those standards could be truly achievable for all authors without having to hire someone to do their formatting for them. Just some thoughts 🙂

    • There’s nothing written in stone that requires a self-published author to format a book for seven–or any–publishing platforms. Of the fifty titles my publishing company currently offers, around thirty are my own books, the rest are by friends or friends of friends, all of whom feel better off writing books rather than doing all the things a publisher does. I have also formatted (and edited) books–for pay–that I’m not publishing, because those authors decided to be self publishers without facing the biggest hurdle and hassle self publishers currently face. (Actually, the trick to Kindle formatting is the less formatting the better.)

      Fortunately for us all, the easiest formatting job we face is for Kindle, which all of us require as our main reseller. If even epubs for B&N is too much hassle (it isn’t), you can live pretty well off only Kindle proceeds if your book does even moderately well.

      I think the reason formats and intake varies so sigtnificantly between and among resellers is their laziness and their ignorance going into a new realm of publishing. It will become easier all around as (a) the weak resellers leave and (b) the strong resellers realize that their quirks and unnecessary hurdles are dampening the number of books they are getting from self publishers who are reluctant or unable to master formatting and uploading.

      This business is in early days. Everyone is really still feeling around in the dark. It will mature. The question for us is, do we want it to resemble top-down traditional publishing, or can we start a movement that will have a place at the table as all manner of issues are settled?

    • Tarah:
      Thanks for your comment. I feel that a self-pub ebook author that does not have the expertise to tackle the formatting part of the ebook creation should seek help from a professional. Standards or not it can be daunting task.

      I have talked to authors that just want to write but they find out early on that they need to be able to create the ebook and then market it.

      I think the point you make about checking your work on a Kindle is very important. I check my novels on a Kindle but before I have a completed book, I use Kindle for PC to check my work.

      I use Calibre to create an epub format. Then because I don’t own a Nook, I use Nook for PC software to review the formatting.

  • I can’t add anything to this discussion, but I do want the contributors to it to know how much I appreciate their sharing their knowledge of these matters with someone who very much needs it.