E-books push deeper into interactive territory

If there’s already a tablet in your house — an iPad or an Android-driven one — then this fall, e-books will be all about interactivity. If you don’t have a tablet yet, keep your eye on Amazon.

Industry watchers have been predicting that Amazon will introduce a tablet later this year — if so, it stands to be a big hit. In August, the technology and market analysis firm Forrester Research said that Amazon could sell between 3 million and 5 million tablets in the last quarter of this year, if the company prices the (not-yet-announced) device at $300 or less.

Amazon proved it could transform the publishing landscape by introducing its Kindle e-reader in November 2007. Before that, e-books were an oddity, and e-readers strange, unloved creatures. After Amazon put the Kindle in front of book buyers, everything changed; readers embraced the device. Last summer, the online bookseller saw e-book sales overtake its print book sales. During the first half of this year, Random House, the world’s biggest publisher, saw more than 20% of its U.S. revenue come from e-books.

Now there are many e-readers on which to consume those e-books: Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Kobo, the long-standing Sony e-Reader and a multitude of others. Most compete with Amazon’s Kindle; a tablet from Amazon would be designed to compete with Apple’s iPad.


The iPad can function as an e-reader — it has the native iBooks application — but its real appeal, book-wise, has been in apps. Other tablets, many of which run on the Android operating system, can run apps too, but Apple got a head start. Since the iPad’s debut in April 2010, it’s been a Wild West of app development, with companies small and large creating apps that allow books to move and more.

One of those lets you create an animated children’s e-book starring your own son or daughter. JibJab Media, the online animation house with its roots in political satire, launched JibJab Jr. on Sept. 1 with a free e-book, “The Biggest Pizza Ever.” After two simple steps — selecting a gender and adding your child’s photo — the story commences with your child’s face included in the page-by-page animation. Future books coming out this fall are about the alphabet and the ocean, and these cost $3.99 for an individual version or $7.99 to customize for more than one child.

Some apps debuting this fall are far out. Take Booktrack, whose announcement party in New York featured models in neon-pink wigs demonstrating enhanced e-books to Salman Rushdie, filmmaker Paul Haggis and James Frey. Enhanced with what? Music and a soundtrack. The app tracks along at your reading speed, so when a door closes in a Sherlock Holmes story, there’s a slam, and when things get scary in “Hansel and Gretel,” the music swells. The chief investor in Booktrack is Peter Thiel, chief executive of Paypal; and Sony Music is a partner. Upcoming Booktracks, which cost a few dollars more than their non-enhanced counterparts, include short stories by Rushdie and Jay McInerney.

Publishers are still trying to figure out how to best make e-books people want. You might buy one that comes with a video interview from the author, or a code to scan with your smartphone to access online extras, or find that Lee Child and Stephen King have short stories available only as e-books. Random House has partnered with Politico to publish real-time e-book coverage of the 2012 presidential election, with the first releases planned for this fall. Also look for an e-book from David Sedaris and the e-book version of previously unreleased interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Despite all the buzz about devices, the Internet hasn’t gone away: It remains a destination. One quiet project, Small Demons, won’t be unveiled until October but it promises to mix books and online in new, innovative ways. And online is the focus of the high-profile Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s official interactive website for all things Harry Potter. It will open up for public access in October; reviews from users who’ve had early access have been strong. So far, the Harry Potter series has not been released as e-books but with any luck, Rowling will have that set up before the holidays.