Will you take advantage of ebook’s opportunity for innovative storytelling, content presentation?

All too often, writers see ebooks as an afterthought to their paper book, as an “Oh yeah, some people prefer digital books, so to maximize sales, I better sell my book on Kindle or Nook, too.” While that attitude may be fine for books published prior to the widespread use of ereaders, such flippancy fails to acknowledge potentially innovative new ways of storytelling or presenting information.

In short, readers acquire information differently from ebooks than they do from paper books; in fact, ebooks are as different from paper books as television is from radio. Just as the first television programs merely were radio programs shown live, so today’s ebooks are just paper books presented on a computer screen – but that likely will change in the years ahead.

Indeed, we’re only beginning to develop the ebook’s true potential for storytelling and information presentation. I don’t propose to know what those new innovations might be any more than the recording engineer who developed a system for multiple track recordings knew what songs the Beatles might create in the studio once they got hold of the equipment. I’m not even the recording engineer who developed the equipment. But just looking at the basic differences between the old and the new equipment – whether it be music studio electronics in the 1960s or ereaders in the 2010s – clearly shows that great opportunities for innovation exist.

Among those basic differences between ebooks and paper books are:
• Page numbers – Ebooks don’t use them. In response, many writers create a table of contents that allow readers to go directly to the chapter’s beginning in the text, but that’s just a nod to the way paper books are constructed. Rather than rely on the traditional table of contents and index, how can the lack of page numbers truly change the way readers navigate an ebook?
• Content – The small screen, limited typography, and excessive “page turning” to the next screen encourages shorter, article-like pieces. How does this affect the way authors can structure and and present information in ebooks?
• Interactivity – Ebooks can connect to other ebooks, website pages, or pages within the ebook. This means the ebook’s content is not limited to the text and illustrations that make up the “core” text. How does this affect the way readers use ebooks to find content and thus the way authors will present that content?
• Price – Ebooks invariably can be less expensive because they do not have the overhead costs of paper and ink for printing, warehousing and transportation for distribution, and labor costs involved in these and paper book sales. How does the lower price affect the amount of information a writer might include in a book? Will the lower price dissuade writers from being innovative, as there is a likely low return on investment for the labor put into creating a highly interactive book?

Noting some ebook limitations also is of value, here. Of course, if writing fiction, the basic elements of a good story remain the same despite the format it’s presented in: on stage, scroll, folio, bound volume (or novel), radio, television, ebook. But each platform itself offers certain advantages over the others, and so stories that best match that platform thrive in it. Hence, James Joyce works great in a novel, but his stories would have to be radically restructured to work on stage or radio; and as so many readers have discovered, a great motion picture isn’t necessarily a great novel. Another limitation is that ebooks are horrible as picture books and poetry anthologies because the small screens result in cut-off or small photos and bad line breaks. This is something software engineers may need to address.

Still, despite these limitations, writers have the opportunity to create innovative new stories and nonfiction texts. Just as writers took advantage of Gutenberg’s printing press centuries ago – indeed, the novel didn’t exist before that time nor was reading widely learned in part because the dearth of books made the skill of reading “irrelevant” – perhaps you will be one of those innovators and create a name for yourself in history.