Enhanced E-Books: A Boon for Readers, a Headache for Agents


For hundreds of thousands of excited customers who pre-ordered Apple's (AAPL) much-hyped iPad, D-Day (April 3) is drawing near. And as it does, one word we're hearing a whole lot of lately is "enhanced." After all, with the price of new electronic books settling north of $9.99, and with book-related applications for mobile devices more popular than games, publishers are convinced they need to add value to make a sale (or lots of sales).

But when the definition of what is a book or an e-book expands to include all manner of enrichment, that also opens the door for an assortment of headaches about rights and contracts -- making a complex situation even more fraught. And the prospect of navigating the rights issues of these enhanced e-books is confounding literary agents in New York and London.

David Baldacci, Enriched Edition

One author who already sells novels in massive quantities is the thriller writer David Baldacci, but that isn't stopping his publisher, Grand Central -- a division of Lagardere's (LGDDY) Hachette Book Group -- from tricking out the e-book edition of his new Deliver Us From Evil when it's released on April 20, along with the hardcover and a standard e-book edition. This "enriched" version will include passages cut from the final text, research photos, an audio interview, and video footage of Baldacci at work, according to the Associated Press -- and at $15.99, it will cost a dollar more than the standard text-only e-book. (The price of the enhanced edition will drop to $12.99 after a few months.)

Baldacci thinks the choice is clear: "Based on my hundreds of book tours and thousands of questions we get on our web site, I know that readers are looking for exactly what is on the enriched eBook," he told publishing blogGalleyCat.

The enhanced Baldacci e-book is one of several projects Hachette will release over the coming weeks, including a NASCAR-oriented app, a synchronized text/audio edition of Michael Connelly's crime novel Echo Park, and a standalone app version of David Foster Wallace's thousand-page magnum opus Infinite Jest. "One reason the book is so famous is because of the footnotes," says Maja Thomas, senior VP of Hachette Digital. "We thought, wouldn't it be great if, when a footnote appears, there's a symbol in the e-version of the text, and if you tap on it, you can go right to the footnote, and then tap back into the text at any time."

Book Buyers and DVD Buyers

A proliferation of enhanced editions poses bigger questions about the market for e-books with extra material. As with DVDs, the idea behind enhanced e-books seems to be that some consumers will prefer the bare-bones edition.

And literary agents on both sides of the Atlantic are gnashing their teeth over the prospect of enhanced e-book editions being a separate right from standard e-books. If standard and enhanced e-books are classified separately, the battle will begin again over whether authors can hang onto those rights -- and whether publishers even have the rights to the enhanced editions at all.

British publishing trade magazine The Bookseller outlined the quandary this week. Some publishers, like the independent Canongate, negotiate deals individually. Others, like Hachette's U.K. arm, prefer to keep all digital rights. But agents are shaking their heads over the idea of equivalency between a text-only e-book and a more sophisticated edition enriched with audio and video.

An enhanced e-book, United Agents's Jim Gill told The Bookseller, "seems to us an all-encompassing category that some publishers are seeking to throw a rope around at the moment, potentially covering anything from incidental music with an e-book edition or author interviews, right out to highly designed and produced iPhone applications." His agency, Gill said, would "no sooner naturally sell those rights to a book publisher than we'd sell them film rights."

Conflicts With Hollywood?

And it's not just a case of making a mountain out of a digital-book molehill: U.S. agents have similar qualms. One agent familiar with the situation described a Hachette presentation to a consortium of agents last week as a pitch for the publisher getting the full rights to enhanced editions. "Film companies are likely to view these rights as part of the multimedia rights, which they often try to 'freeze,' or acquire when they option or purchase film rights," the agent says. "And so these kinds of books might conflict with a movie deal."

Hachette's Thomas doesn't see a conflict. "All the things we do are based on the book," she says. "We're not trying to create characters, scenes -- anything that's beyond the book." If an author wants to give Hachette additional material, as Baldacci did with maps and locations for Deliver us From Evil, they're free to do so, she says. "Almost all [our] agents and authors have been absolutely delighted," Thomas says. "This is not something we charge off into the sunset and do on our own."

'Not a Zero-Sum Game'

Brad Inman, CEO of Vook, a San Francisco-based startup that has produced multimedia-enhanced books for such publishers as Atria, doesn't see this potential conflict as a problem. "Industries going through gut-wrenching change have all kinds of fears," says Inman, whose company received $2.5 million in seed money late last year. "We have heard this, but it has not stopped anyone from working with us. Only a handful of books are made into movies."

So far, Vook has concentrated primarily on adapting properties whose rights may not conflict with movie options already in the works: genres like self-help, non-fiction, and novellas by bestselling authors like Anne Rice. "In the end, this is not a problem for us at all," Inman says. "This is not a zero-sum game. It is about expansive opportunities."

As publishers invest more time and money to create enhanced editions, the need for specific contractual terms becomes more necessary. And however the discussions go between publishers and agents -- and book and film executives -- at least there's a sense that the understandable difficulty could ultimately pay off.

Originally published