When ebooks first began to grow in popularity in 2007 after Amazon introduced the first generation of its Kindle, widespread debate ensued about which was better: print or ebooks. Since then, the debate has largely petered out, with it becoming clear that while the two systems are different, neither can be said to be inherently better than the other. According to American Libraries Magazine, at their high point in 2014, ebooks made up a quarter of the sales of trade books, and currently they account for about 20 percent of sales. In other words, ebooks have more than proven their worth.
And yet, in February 2018, Arnaud Nourry, CEO of Hachette Livre, put the debate about the merits of ebooks in the spotlight again. He argued that the number of sales was only going to continue to decline, because “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.” According to Nourry, attempts to add other forms of content to ebooks have failed. “We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks—didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content—we have one or two successes among a hundred failures.” Though he concludes there is hope for creating new digital forms of reading, he argues that those technologies will come from industries outside of publishing and by “[going] beyond the ebook on digital.”
Despite Nourry’s claims, there actually is a growing number of enhanced ebooks on the market already. Enhanced ebooks make use of elements such as audio, video, interactivity, and animations to do precisely what the name implies, enhance the reading experience. PC Magazine calls out eight examples from a variety of genres, which show the possibilities that exist for enhanced ebooks. Dusk World is a graphic novel that makes use of interactivity to create a choose your own adventure story. Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy features eight and a half hours worth of interviews with Jacqueline. The novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe features “video, audio, photos, linked content, footnotes, [and] diagrams” to allow readers to interact with the story. Children’s books, cookbooks, and self-help books are also featured in the article, each making use of various enhancements to create a new experience for readers.
Perhaps, then, it isn’t that enhanced ebooks have failed. Did the enhanced ebook become a must-have phenomenon overnight as publishers hoped? No. But it is gaining popularity and will continue to do so if only publishers are willing to keep demonstrating the possibilities of enhanced ebooks. As the market for enhanced ebooks continues to grow, so does readers’ interest in these new ways of experiencing stories. Enhanced ebooks are not a failed experiment yet, and to treat them as such would be to ignore the new content and innovations already hitting the market.