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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What I Am Learning About Ebooks, Enhanced EBooks, and Apps; and some Convention Notes

This semester I have been teaching a course in the MLIS program at Rutgers on digital books and apps for K-12 libraries. “Teaching” is not really the right word, more like being ring-master, talk show host. Because each week we are visited by a creator, publisher, reviewer, distributor, or librarian already working in the field — and we take notes, ask questions, experiment, and begin to draw conclusions. The most obvious conclusion — which matches the theme of this blog — is that the field of NF is wide, wide, open — which is another way of saying, has generally been ignored. In terms of pure ebooks, or even enhanced ebooks, as many of you know the display of images desisgned to flow with text — spreads designed as spreads — is only now being solved. But if we leave that aside for the moment, that brings us to apps.

Right now what we are seeing are two broad categories. All too many of the apps repeat the same basic functions — the app will read a word or sentence to a child, has music, and there is some form of embedded game, as well as clickable hot spots. That general formula is applied to existing classics or new creations. The other category are purpose built apps which re-think what the entire story-telling experience should be in an app. But so far we have not seen that second level of thinking applied to NF — we have heard tell of great products coming, and of interesting projects shelved because the technology is not there yet. But we have not seen much.

So tell us — have you seen anything in ebook, enhanced ebook, or app land that is a NF killer app? A game changer? An opportunity fully explored?

On another front — I will be at NCTE next week — on Friday I’ll be on a panel with Andrea Davis Pickney, and Eric Valasquez, then various other events and signings; then at NCSS in DC giving a couple of talks on Friday December 2. If any of you attend either conference, please come up and visit. I was just planning one NCSS talk with my co-panelists, Dr. Jesus Garcia — former president of NCSS and Dr. Jason O-Brien of University of Alabama — and it should be quite cool. Dr. Cappiello and I are doing the second one — and she is cooking up all sorts of interactive treats as well.


  1. Daryl Grabarek says:

    There are a few apps out there that are worth a look. Have you seen ‘Journey into the Deep?’ (Lerner). Fluid scrolling between chapters, direct links from bibliographic citations to websites, and dare I say— images of undersea life that look better on a screen than in the book?

    I would also recommend ‘Gems and Jewels’ (Touch Press), and ‘Journey to the Exoplanets’ (Farrar); these apps are pushing boundaries. And while not strictly nonfiction, there are a number of apps that deliver lots of information via story, such as ‘March of the Dinosaurs’ (Touch Press). That said, I agree, I’d like to see more quality nonfiction in the medium.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I have seen Journey in the Deep — and while I find it impressive as a digital book — and agree with your sense of the quality of the images on screen — it hardly seems like an app, more a successful upload of print into a digital space — I look forward to exploring the other two, thanks for the suggestions.

  3. Spot on post. My agent and I are exploring how to pitch these sorts of ideas to publishers. It seems like in many houses there is still a disconnect between editors, who acquire books, and those people in the basement, who do apps.

  4. Do a search on Google for enhanced ebooks and you will find that there’s a divergence of opinion on them. The main critique falls into three areas.

    The first opinion states that enhanced ebooks with embedded video, sound and graphics, takes away from the enjoyment of the book because the enhanced ebook intrudes on the reader’s ability to imagine the story in his mind. The very popular Harry Potter books loved by children are used as a prime example.

    This opinion states that any attempt to add greater dimensions to the Harry Potter story telling like the movies takes away from the imagination of the children. But that’s a false argument.

    Sure, when a child reads a Harry Potter book, he or she congers up a vivid picture in their mind of the characters and environment in the book. Those critics hold that the movies made from those books somehow take away from that imagination process.

    But if that were true, how do you account form the hundreds of millions of dollars each book in the series has generated as a movie? And most of the audience for these movies are the children that read the Harry Potter book. The children enjoyed both versions of the story telling and it did little to take way their imagination of the story.

    Of course, the professional handling of the book material by the movie studio did the story justice. As in anything creative – it has bee done well.

    The second critique of enhanced ebooks comes from those that say the imbedded multimedia and extended material interrupts the reading experience. They claim, rightfully so, that the embedded video, audio and links to the Internet within the text interrupts the reading of the book. But Trapdoor Books has recognized this problem and placed its multimedia and outside links in what is called the ‘marginalia’ that sits along the outside column of the text. This marginalia can be totally turned off and the reader can read just text.

    The third critique has nothing to do with the reading experience. It has to do with economics — the cost of producing enhanced ebooks. This is a valid critique. It does cost more to produce an enhanced book. Thus the retail cost of the ebook is higher than the traditional ebook.

    But Trapdoor Books has found a solution to that. Their enhanced books are FREE. They are advertising supported and that revenue pays for the production of the ebook.

    So, Trapdoor Books has found the way to meet the objections of the enhanced book skeptics.

    Download a free enhanced digital ebook at

    See the technology at

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    while in general I do not approve of comments or posts to this blog that are selling products, and including this post does not imply my endorsement, I think it is worth passing along this information.