Enhanced E-books and the Future of Publishing

The combination of text, video, and archival media is the perfect medium for the new Jacqueline Kennedy volume 


The country's best selling nonfiction book recently has been Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. Published by Hyperion at a retail price of $60, the book includes eight CDs, plus transcripts of the eight and a half hours of interviews, archival photographs, and original contributions from Caroline Kennedy and Michael Beschloss, the eminent presidential biographer, on the background of the project. The interviews were conducted in 1964 by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., already a celebrated Harvard history professor and Kennedy aide, only a few months after the president's assassination, with a commitment that they not be published until after Mrs. Kennedy's death, which was in 1994. The book reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list both in print and on the combined print and e-book survey, which indicates an exceptionally brisk digital sale.

The interviews are fascinating for their insights into Mrs. Kennedy's reflections in the months immediately after her husband's death, described by Caroline Kennedy as "the extreme stages of grief." To the credit of all concerned, the material has not been edited to make it more politically palatable in today's terms. Major figures of the era, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Charles DeGaulle, among others, are unflatteringly portrayed. Mrs. Kennedy's depiction of her marriage and the personalities of the president and herself are now strikingly dated and yet authentic to the extent that they seem to provide as much in the way of revelation as the young widow could bring herself to voice at that time. As a member of the generation that came of age with the Kennedy administration and a fan of oral histories, I went in search of the best bargain available, intending to read and listen to this unique package.

So, what turned out to be the best deal? It is an enhanced e-book, available through Apple's iBooks for $19.99, including all the interview audios, videos, photographs, text, and transcripts. There are other digital options on offer, but as nearly as I could tell from samples and Internet chat-room comments, only this iPad version qualifies as a fully functional version of the book. Downloading took about ten minutes (maybe a bit longer), but what was striking to me was how well the extra material worked in conjunction with the text of the book. The book version sold over 48,000 copies in its early days, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which covers about 75 percent of the market, but as I've written lately, these numbers do not include digital sales. To have reached the top of the New York Times print and e-book lists suggests that the enhanced e-book launched with what may well be the briskest sales of its kind in the short history of the format.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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