Jacob L. Wright wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Digital Campus supplement of 25 April, 2014, about his experience creating an enhanced e-book of his book published conventionally in a slightly different form by Cambridge University Press. Read the article here. You can download a free sample of King David and his reign revisited to iBooks. Just go to the iBooks store (go to iTunes and click on the Books tab), enter the author’s name then click on the image of the book. Below the $10.99 price you’ll see the button allowing you to download a sample. Not that the sample gives much away — it basically consists of instructions on how to read the book on your iPad. The author does start with the claim that this is the first enhanced e-book in the humanities — who am I to disagree — though in the on-line comments Sandy Thatcher reminds us that the ALCS Humanities Ebook Project and Gutenberg-e Project have been doing enhanced e-books for about ten years already. Another commenter suggests using BookOnPublish (also sold as FlexiPub) rather than the iBooks Author software the author used. On the evidence provided in the sample it is rather less exciting than I had hoped — maybe $10.99 would be more impressive. I did play around with the iBooks Author software and found it infuriating. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I think sticking pictures everywhere in a book signals “trivial” — iBooks Author appears to be forcing you to put pictures all over the place! Text seems almost an afterthought. For those who wonder what an enhanced e-book might actually be eBook Architects provide a useful list of what these enhancements consist of.

Frankly the whole push to embellish (serious) books seems misguided to me. Even an entertainment (trade) book tricked out with some kind of electronic bells and whistles strikes me more as a digital film show with a book smashed into the same package, rather than a book with added features. You read a book one word at a time. Once you’ve read one page you (tend to) want to find out what’s on the next page. Being invited to see a video of excavations in the Holy Land seems to me to add nothing other than distraction. If I wanted to see such a video I’d want to do it later, and maybe a list of such sources in the back of the book, a sort of e-bibliography would be useful. But when I am reading a printed book a footnote referring me to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall does not cause me to break off, stop reading the book I’m in the middle of, and start reading Gibbon; so when I get a mixed media link, I am conditioned to ignore it. But who knows? Maybe there’s a new medium struggling to be born here.

Another immense, but blithely ignored problem, with such projects is that of future technical change. How today do you access that pioneering hypertext fiction, Afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce, published in 1990? The answer, according to Digital Book World, is that “you don’t, unless you are still operating on OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or Windows 7. Originally distributed on floppy disc, the work was reproduced up until quite recently on CD. But it hasn’t been updated in a number of years, and its availability for future generations will rely on continued efforts of digital preservation.” Now such problems can of course be taken care of by updating, but as the case of Afternoon shows, there comes a time when it’s not worth the cost. I own this work, in floppy disk form. I keep it as a memento mori. (This updating problem does of course apply to ordinary e-books as well, but as they are probably a bit easier to keep up-to-date, the end date for them may be a year or two further out. But it will of course come: and the prospect of grandad’s magnum opus being inaccessible should cause concern for eager heirs hoping to live off royalty income.)

This Digital Reader piece, from 12 December last year, turns its nose up at the enhanced e-book in response to a puffy New York Times article. I suspect that publishers who are pursuing apps and other means of “enhancing” their books are publishers who have lost faith in their product. They probably all want to get jobs in Hollywood or Silicone Valley: they should.