What should an Enhanced Digital Book [for adults] do? This is a question that all enhanced book developers ask themselves, but as an industry we've tended to lean toward a different question: What can we do that people think is cool? These are very different questions as the first asks how we can readers benefit from an enhanced book and the other question asks how will they be entertained?
In my opinion, nearly every enhanced book for adults to date has focused on the entertainment aspect. As book app developers we spend our time trying to "wow" the reader with neat effects but there is a much more powerful vector for success of the enhanced book. Utility.
What utilities can we add beyond the normal eBook features that would make for a better fiction reading experience. This is an area I'm interested in but like everyone I am also interested in the "cool" factor of creating entertaining material. Still, if I had to focus on only utility these are the things I would spend my time on in no particular order.
- Pronunciation Guides
- Character, Place, and Thing Cards
- Location Maps
- Relationship Maps
The names for these features are just made up on the spot; there are probably better names but these are what I came up with. Regardless of what you call them I think you'll agree that each of these features are separate and useful.
One of the things that really irritates me is when I encounter a name or a word that is unfamiliar. I can look up the definition of most common use words using a built in eReader dictionary (that's expected) but I'm not always sure how unusual words or names are pronounced. The ability to tap on a word and hear an audio pronunciation would go a long way toward improving the reading experience for any book.
Character, Place and Thing Cards
This is a concept that we are implemented in Steampunk Holmes, the novella my company just published. The idea is simple. You can tap any name of a character, place or thing and get a pop-up card that reminds you who that person, place or thing is. This would have been especially useful when reading A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), Dune or Lord of the Rings where there are literally dozens of characters (e.g. 13 dwarves that travel with Bilbo) to keep track of not to mention places (the dozen or so planets mentioned in Dune), or things (magical artifacts, or mechanical devices). The cards would only reveal what we already know about the character, place or thing or what can be revealed without spoiling the rest of the book.
Most fiction stories have the characters traveling about a town, a country, or the world. It's always confusing to me in Lord of the Rings, for example, when they start talking about where the characters are or are going to. Yes there is a map at the beginning of the book but that doesn't always help. What I would prefer is a map that you can pull up at any time which shows exactly were the characters are on the map at any given point in the book. It might also highlight areas of interest or places mentioned in that part of the book. We did this with Steampunk Holmes and it worked beautifully and is often sited as one of coolest features.
These are not maps of places but maps of relationships. For example, in Dune it gets confusing keep track of the various Houses and how they are related and who is from what house. This is also a problem with A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones). Relationship maps can also clarify organizations be they Houses of the Landsraad in Dune or the different Kingdoms of Elves in Lord of the Rings or Houses in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Illustrations and Animations
Have you ever read a passage in a book that explains what something looks like or how it works and no matter how many times you read it, it still doesn't make sense? This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. For example, I've been reading Neal Stephenson Anathem a truly wonderful book. In the book Neal Stephenson explains what the architecture is like and while I can kind of picture it from the description it would be a lot easier to understand if there was a sketch. The same is true of the complex clock words employed in the book. Neal Stephenson goes to great length to explain how they work, but an illustration along with the description would really allow me to appreciate the engineering.
These five features (Pronunciation Guides, Person-Place-Thing Cards, Location Maps, Relationship Maps, and Illustrations) are pretty essential elements for any good book app be it fiction or non-fication.
There will always be a market for entertaining interactions, but it is utilitarian features like those describe above combined with an attractive aesthetic that will push book apps into the mainstream because they provide real value beyond an initial "wow" reaction.