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history professor and Kennedy aide, only a few months after the president's assassination, with a commitment that they not be published until after Mrs.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.

Enhanced e-books are thought to be the next major threshold in the digital book universe. We are still in the very early stages of the development and availability of these books, which contain audio and video features. An informal count of enhanced e-books, according to a publishing executive who is following the field closely, numbered about one thousand available on a variety of devices. Not surprisingly, given that enhanced books are still in what could be fairly characterized as an experimental period, publishers are reluctant to discuss the details of how they are being made. But based on Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, the cost of creating an enhanced book does not have to add significantly to the price. The discounted price for the print book via online retailers is around $33, a substantial saving over the cover price, but at $19.99 with all the same features as the book plus video clips, the enhanced e-book seems well worth the tab.

What is essential to the process of producing an enhanced e-book such as Jacqueline Kennedy is having full access to the relevant archival material. Creation of altogether new content just for enhanced e-books like these would be a major expense. The Perseus Books Group (of which PublicAffairs, where I am editor-at-large, is a member) has produced enhanced e-books by arrangement with NBC News through its Running Press and Vanguard imprints. Vanguard Books is now the print publisher of Alex Haley's classic Roots, and with the cooperation of the Haley estate and NBC News produced an enhanced e-book last winter that includes extensive privately held family material as well as documentary footage and archival interviews. At $15.99, the full text of the book is included, plus the multimedia supplements.

Until now, enhanced e-books have really been the domain of iPads. But with Amazon's announcement last week of the Kindle Fire, a seven-inch touchscreen tablet at a price that is substantially less than half the iPad, the competition between these major companies will quickly add millions of consumers to the potential audience and drive the pricing for devices and the content on them in the months ahead, particularly as we head into the holiday season. Assuming that forthcoming enhanced e-books are comparable in quality to the best of those already in circulation, they will add a major new element to the digital market, which has already surged by over 150 percent in the past year. In the meantime, the success of the Kennedy book has set a meaningful bar for bestsellers in the enhanced format. Based on my initial experience, books in multimedia presentation are an exciting prospect.