One only had to read the first sentence in the “Deluxe Reading Group Edition” ebook of Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, based on the love affair between Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley, to come across a striking example of the promise and pitfalls of electronic publishing.
“Though I often looked for one,” reads the opening sentence, “I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.” The last word appears in blue. Tapping the word with a finger, the reader is transported to a five-paragraph essay about Hemingway’s arrival in Paris and what the city was like at the time. Two pages (actually, two finger swipes) later, the words “cafés of Montparnasse” also appear in blue. Tapping here, one learns about the famed Paris neighborhood, along with how Hemingway included scenes from its iconic cafés in The Sun Also Rises.
The blue links are now part of the textual landscape in many ebooks. “Digital reading platforms provide writers, storytellers and producers with the opportunity to enrich, enliven and deepen the reading experience,” writes David Wilk, a longtime veteran of the publishing industry turned digital guru, in a post on www.digitalbookworld.com.But publishers are not merely content to include textual links. They are adding audio, video, and pop-up graphics such as maps as well. In the hands of the designers, ordinary ebooks seem as static as, well, books.
In its first foray into “enhanced” ebooks, Simon & Schuster issued a version of Rick Perlstein’s remarkable Nixonland with more than two dozen CBS News video segments and an interview with the author. Penguin brought out what it calls an “Amplified Edition” of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that features original manuscript pages, audio clips of the author, and an easy way to post quotes from the book on social media. The company also produced a special electronic edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice complete with a filmography, a guide to etiquette and dancing in Austen’s day, and instruction on making tea. Children’s books have also become a frequent target of the enhancers. The electronic edition of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore includes sheet music and a keyboard to play “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
It’s not clear that the reading world has yet developed a taste for these whizbang additions to books. So far, enhanced ebooks have not sold well. When Stephen King’s 2012 novel 11/22/63 arrived in stores, the publisher also brought out an enhanced version that included a 13-minute film written and narrated by the author. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the hardcover version had sold nearly a million copies, the plain ebook almost 300,000 copies and the enhanced version only 45,000 copies.
To be fair, most technology is not a success in its earliest iterations. Think back to the early years of large clumsy cellphones and car phones. The fragmented ebook market, with readers using different types of machines and software, pose enormous challenge to the designers of enhanced ebooks.
Nonetheless, even in their earliest incarnation, enhanced ebooks are promising to alter the reading landscape in a way that could profoundly change the narrative art. Take for instance, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. The National Book Award winner is available in an enhanced version with photos and videos and photos that the author shot during her three years of research, as well as commentary. The print version was widely praised for its prose and portrayal of the residents of Mumbai. “It’s a stunning style, and it makes the narrative immersive in a way first-person journalism can’t touch,” reports Nico Vreeland in his review on the blog Chamber Four (www.chamberfour.com). Might readers find the enhancement unnecessary, perhaps even distracting from the compelling prose? Not so, according to Vreeland. “It’s such a powerful narrative, with such well-defined characters, that I often forgot that it was all true. Until, that is, I hit the first video.” He found it “an elegant use of ereading’s capabilities.”
Others, particularly authors, are not so convinced of the virtues of these enhancements. Biographer Carl Rollyson is among the wary. “I always thought that, say a biography of Marilyn Monroe, would be cool if I could include video clips,” he says. “Aside from the legal and financial problems entailed in try to use video in an ebook, it seems that many readers find video attached to text simply annoying. They want to read.”
But the choice between enhanced and plain vanilla reading poses a further challenge to reading as we know it. For example, researchers in New York recently gave print editions and enhanced ebook versions of the same book to 32 sets of parents with 3- to 6-year-old children. They found that the children who got the ebooks were distracted by the enhancements and remembered fewer narrative details than those who read the print editions. So far, adults have not been subjected to a similar experiment, but anecdotal evidence suggests a similar possibility. As the Prospero blog of the venerable Economist noted, “with literature, especially, many readers remain rightly sceptical of narrative intrusions that disrupt the creation of what Robert Olen Butler, an American novelist, calls ‘the cinema of the mind.’ ”
Ian Karr, a filmmaker and producer of ebooks apps, thinks too much is being made of the distractibility issue. “I’m of the belief that any kind of prompt that encourages more exploration and discovery isn’t bad,” he told a Forbes writer. “People are constantly interrupted by the phone, by the doorbell, by kids screaming — but they keep coming back to their book. Giving a richer experience is really the key.”
In short, some are asking whether enhanced ebooks remains books, items which require a cultivated skill on the part of readers. Perhaps they are so altered by the introduction of film, audio, and gadgetry that they are rather some kind of multimedia entertainment device. To purposefully mix my metaphors, stay tuned — another chapter is yet to be written. ◀