Unusually Clever People

Subtext–A Whole New Way to Think About eBooks

Subtext from Subtext Video on Vimeo.

When my publisher asked me if I'd like to participate in the launch of a new interactive ebook platform, I jumped at the chance.  It's an interesting time for digital books, to say the least. 

Susan Harris' post this summer raised many interesting questions about digital books in general and digital garden books in particular.  Susan made the point that garden books (and travel books, and cookbooks, and other how-to books) can really benefit from a technological update.  Photo galleries, videos, audio features, links–imagine the possibilities! A cookbook with videos demonstrating key techniques.  A garden book with photographs of every plant, or of the garden at every point in the season.  Imagine travel books that can link to maps and offer reader reviews, more photos, faster updates as hotels open and restaurants change hands.

This is all very exciting, and I'm glad to be a writer at this moment, when so much is possible.  But guess what?  Publishers are really scrambling to figure it all out. They're hiring programmers, contracting with startups, and wondering how much they can invest and what the return on that investment will be.   Authors who want to leap into the digital world are turning to their publishers for the tools–but the tools aren't all there yet.

So–into all this comes Subtext.  The beauty of Subtext is that it requires no extra technical know-how. The author and the publisher just have to create a beautiful book, as they have always done, and anyone who can send an email or post to Facebook has the skills to add extra digital content. No programming required.  Repeat:  No. Programming. Required.

Here's how it works.  Note that they are still in launch mode, and only a select few titles are feature-rich right now.  But overall, this is the idea.

Splash-SubtextGirl_LFirst, you download the free Subtext app to your iPad. (Yes, it currently only works on the iPad.  It's just getting going, so give it some time and I think we'll see it on other tablet/reader platforms.)

Second, you buy an ebook through the Google eBookstore. This is one of many places that ebooks are sold.  Millions of books are available there, including new releases.  Independent bookstores have a deal where they can sell ebooks to their customers via the Google eBookstore site.   (Yes, you might prefer to buy your ebooks from some other source.  Again, Subtext is just getting going, so who knows where it might go next? I believe it also works with Kobo and a few other sites, but they started with Google.)

Third, you open up Subtext, sign in, and your ebooks are there on your Subtext bookshelf.  You can read your books, comment on them, and discuss them with other readers, sort of like how you might post and comment on Facebook.  Or you can choose not to, and just read.  Up to you. Also, you can invite your friends to join you in a Subtext discussion of a particular book.  Yes, this imagines a world where everybody has an iPad and reads ebooks on them, but again, we've got to start somewhere.

Fourth–and this is what I'm getting at--the author can go in and fully annotate their book.  The author (or, for the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of the world, their staff) can add pictures, video, links to relevant websites or news stories, audio commentary, or just written commentary.  Extras.  Of all kinds.  The author can also answer reader's questions.  Maybe host a little discussion, right there in the book.  Keep updating it as time goes on.  All that stuff. 

It's an annotated, interactive ebook that requires no special programming.  Anyone can do it.

So–they're only launching with a few books.  The idea is to test it, kick the tires, get a large crowd of people talking about a few books to really test the interactive features.  And one of those books is Wicked Bugs.

Wicked Bugs in Subtext

What I've done in Subtext with Wicked Bugs is to link to sources, experts, videos, and photographs that offer a deeper look into each bug (sometimes literally.)  I'm also linking to relevant news stories and useful references.  And I've added my own personal reactions to some of these bugs, as well as the reactions of other people I've met since the book came out, from drive-time DJs to victims of bug attacks.

I also worked with the artist, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, to help illuminate the process she undertook to create the copperplate etchings that illustrate the book.  We created two videos about the art, and I linked to her full-color illustrations and other bits and pieces about her and her work.

It was great fun to participate in the launch.  In all, I uploaded over 150 comments, links, videos, and other extras that I hope will enhance the book–for those who want their books enhanced, that is.

Now, a couple of caveats for those of you who might want to nit-pick (to use a Wicked Bugs term!)

Caveat #1:  Like I said, at the moment it's only available on the iPad, with the Google eBookstore, and they are starting with a limited "bookshelf" of books that are highly annotated and being discussed.

Caveat #2:  Right now, Subtext can only "read" and allow comments on the "plain text" or "flowing text" version of the book.  eBooks also come in a "scanned pages" version, which is exactly what it sounds like–a PDF-type view of the book exactly as it appears in print–with color, graphics, fancy typefaces, etc.  The plain text or "flowing text" version is fine for novels, where art, layout, and design are not as big a deal. In fact, the "flowing text" version is better with a novel, because you can re-size the type and even choose your own font.   But when it comes to highly designed and illustrated books, you want the "scanned pages" version that looks as beautiful as the real deal. They tell me that's coming, so hang in there. 

Caveat #3:  Right now, all of the author's comments appear as little icons on the side of the page that you click to read.  I would love to someday see a scrollbar type thing along the side or bottom of the screen that previewed those author comments, pictures, video, etc, so that you don't have to click every one to see what's there.  I don't know if they have something like that planned or not, but given the progress I've seen as they've worked on this thing all summer, I imagine more enhancements are in the works.

So.  What do you think?   As an author, do you like the idea of going in and "enhancing" your book, rather than waiting around for your publisher to figure out how to do it?  As a reader, do you like the idea of an enhanced ebook that includes video extras, reader discussions, author commentary, etc etc?

Posted by on November 2, 2011 at 3:15 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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23 Responses to “Subtext–A Whole New Way to Think About eBooks”

  1. Jen. says:

    I would love this, but wish it would be applicable to purchased hard-copy books! Those with reality-based libraries are missing out on all the fun!

  2. naomi says:

    Sounds pretty cool. Though I haven’t seen nor tried it, I think I prefer the icons which must be clicked. When I read a book with footnotes at the back, before I begin a chapter I scan through the footnotes. If any seem more than a citation, I check the number so I’ll read it when I get to it. I think if the comments “pop” out, it would affect the flow of the text. Just saying.

  3. vicki says:

    The possibilities are staggering and very tempting/exciting, etc. But i am deeply concerned about the “kleenex” attitude that is spreading like kudzu with all of these electronic “goodies.” What happens to all of those “old” ipads and tablets, etc (not to mention cell phones) when a person discards their last purchase for the latest version? The process of recycling electronics is way, WAY behind the process of recycling paper. As usual, we (the ones who spend the money on products and therefore influence the market) are so eager/excited, etc we forget to consider the consequences/broader picture. It’s an issue that publishers and writers should be concerned with, too…at least in my opinion.

  4. Loretta DeMarco says:

    Electronics can easily be recycled and/or sold at Gazelle.com. I’ve used them and have been very satisfied.

  5. John says:

    I’ve dreamed of the day when books become interactive. I will probably wait to buy any device until they work out all the kinks (no ‘first adapter’ here). I spend all day glued to a ‘pooter and can barely stand to watch tv when I get off work. When I’m home, I’m in the garden working til sundown. Things will have to change in my working world before I start buying anything for home.

    One of my concerns is how much money are you being paid to continue the dialog with readers after the original book is published? I don’t like to work for free and don’t expect anyone else to either.

    Is your hard work and that of your illustrator protected beyond basic copyright laws so that someone can’t cut and paste text or artwork off the files?

  6. Amy Stewart says:

    John–Yes, all my annotations, etc. are owned by me. I retain the copyright. (This is true, by the way, of anything that any of us write or post. This comment is copyrighted by me. That’s the way copyright law works.)

    As for whether I got paid–I get paid whenever a copy of my book sells. For authors, the idea is that this level of enhancement would sell more books. In my case, I get a higher royalty on ebooks than I do on print books, so I have an incentive to work harder to sell ebooks.

  7. UrsulaV says:

    I do kid’s books through Dial, (which is part of Penguin) and they’ve jumped whole hog on this whole “enhanced reading” thing. They want to do an “enhanced” version of one of my books, which are a sort of graphic novel/chapter book hybrid, although when they told me the money they lay out to get somebody to do all that, I had to go lay down with a cold cloth on my eyes for a few hours. We’d have to see more copies than God to make it cost effective…but hey, if they think it’s a good idea, s’not my money.

    For kid’s books, you’re looking at sound effects when they touch the illustrations, little animations, some very simple interactive games (help Danny clean his room before we turn the page, for example.) and a read-aloud version. Being that I’m middle grade, I suspect I’m right on the cusp when kids won’t think it’s cool–I mean, my demographic is often playing on the Xbox or PS3, and helping Danny clean his room probably won’t thrill them–but I’m eager to see how it all plays out.

  8. This certainly is neat–esp once it grows up. However, I both hate and love the idea of the author adding stuff. Already, we are amidst the full shift where presses expect authors to do their own marketing, for free. Where does the time come from that? And who has $ to hire a publicist? On the flipside, something like this gives your more artistic control, and more options to connect in all sorta of was. But imagine it’s very time consuming–and to add videos? Those would have to look pretty darn professional, and that takes time and money, too. Can’t just upload a youtibe from your desktops vid camera.

  9. Amy Stewart says:

    Benjamin–You could certainly create your own videos, or, just as you might do on Facebook, you could share anyone’s YouTube video. I linked to / embedded many interesting National Geographic-type videos of my bugs doing their thing. You could link to a relevant NYT article or a Flickr set.

    Not all authors will want to invest the time, and not all books need annotation. But it can be a great way to add back in all those little bits that got left on the cutting-room floor or just didn’t fit the narrative. A novelist could link to real-life places that inspired the book, maybe.

    Or imagine you wrote, say, a garden-themed travel guide to North America, and your goal in life was to be the expert on garden-related travel. Wouldn’t it be cool to continually update your book–might that give readers an incentive to buy the iPad edition?

  10. TC Conner says:

    There was some discussion on The Business of Garden Writing’s Facebook page regarding QR codes, you’re probably familiar with how they work, kind of like subtext only not as interactive. I would consider adding the subtext feature to my book(s). I see an added benefit especially for self-published authors that need all the help they can get to increase sales of their books. And as you hit on, the changes the publishing industry is going through with all this new technology has them searching for answers, why not allow authors to help them with their questions?

  11. Amy, you’re right of course, with the linking. I suppose an author would have to literally be CONSUMED by the topic every waking minute to keep updating and linking. I feel like, at me age (35) I’m stuck squarely between yeah this is awesome and meh I want my paperback glue.

  12. Susan Cohan says:

    I find it interesting that so many people equate a digital copy of a book or magazine only with their computers…that tablets which are just as portable and in many cases as much or more fun to read on are dismissed as ‘non-books’. They may not be traditional, but they are books and magazines nonetheless. This is the future of publishing for both books and periodicals and is limitless in its possibilities. (or maybe only limited by current technology and budgets) Bravo, I say.

  13. Kat says:

    For the first time EVER, I really want an iPad. Never had the slightest desire for one before, but now I NEEEEEEEEED it.

  14. Rick says:

    I agree with Kat. I never thought of getting an iPad but now I want one badly!

  15. Amy, thanks for your post. It’s thoughtful and energetic… just like you! Your thinking around the display of notes is interesting and duly noted. Also, two quick notes for everyone: 1) We are showcasing a small collection of great books, but you can read any book in Subtext and invite your friends or reading group to join you. 2) We want readers to have a lot of control over the extra content and discussions. As a starting-point, you can choose to see notes from friends, the community and/or authors and experts as you read; you can set them only to appear at the end of each chapter; or you can turn them off all together and circle back to them after finishing the book. In Wicked Bugs, I recommend keeping them on as you go—eek!

  16. John says:

    Amy – I was more concerned with e-books offering copyright infringers easy access to large format digital files. I was wondering if the files are flattened or structured in a way that anyone with PhotoShop, Acrobat or Illustrator skills would be blocked from harvesting text or images from the book.

    As I understand it – there may be copyright laws, but you are the copyright police. You have to find the person infringing and then hire a lawyer and take them to court, and it is very hard to get all the money they made off of your hard work. It is also pretty expensive and authors and illustrators aren’t very well paid.

  17. vicki says:

    Not all of the plastic and components of computers, cell phones, tablets etc are recyclable. A lot still goes into the landfill. And, too many people simply do not want to be bothered using a service like Gazelle–packing up old stuff, paying to send it off, etc–even if we get a little money back in return. Gazelle will not pay for shipping if the item cannot be resold–like a totally broken/unsalvagable laptop.

    These tools are the future, clearly. i love most of them as much as anyone…but…they are becoming a huge problem, too.

    Those who profit the most (Apple, MS, Intel, etc) should be leading the way to a solution to this–since they are the ones feeding the habit/making the huge profits.

    And we, the consumer, should be demanding it of our local recycling centers as well as the manufacturers.

  18. anne says:

    I don’t know, as a reader, the thought of keeping up with all the updates wears me out. I can see the advantages though, especially in gardening and other non-fiction works, since things are always changing.

    A question for authors: since there are only so many hours in a day, would this mean that the time spent updating your books would impinge on time researching and writing new ones? In other words, would you be discouraged from moving forward on a new book because of time spent updating, or feel as though you could accomplish the same goal by working new ideas into an old text, rather than embarking on a new book? Just wondering. Right now it sounds like updating books is mostly a support activity for promoting the actual book sales themselves, but we all know how fast that can change.

    I keep imagining Rembrandt or Picasso being able to go back and add to their paintings whenever they had a new thought about them, rather than painting a new one.

  19. Amy Stewart says:

    Anne–interesting analogy! Painters did (and do) continually update their paintings. There was a great piece on NPR this morning about Degas, and one work in particular that was still in his studio when he died, that he’d been revising and updating for years!

    But I definitely understand your point. Many of us really do want to move on! Someone once said that an author on book tour is an employee of her former self. So true!

  20. anne says:

    Amy, you got me thinking; maybe one of the “add-ons” to an e-book could be a virtual reading/tour, allowing the author to opt out of having to do quite so many tours. After all, you should make the technology work for you!

  21. Amy,

    I’ve been working on an enhanced book for awhile now, so I’m thrilled to read about a program that will allow me to compose right on my iPad. Thanks for this great post!

    BTW, I’d love your readership to know about my 2009 book, “Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love”–please feel free to offer it on your book list. And do check out our iPhone landscape app: Home Outside Design (HOD). We’re continuing to develop it– a fun creative tool for homeowners and designers.

  22. commonweeder says:

    I think this sounds very exciting – albeit with a ton of extra work on the part of the author. Is that work paid work? It does make me worried though whether I will ever get out of one book and on to the next.

  23. Shirley says:

    I would prefer to use the normal book than the eBook because eBook has screen limits, while the normal book is easy to use and you can lie on your bed while reading and you can also just fold and sleep unlike the eBook, you have to turn it of and wait for a second before you go to sleep.

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