10/20/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Video in Enhanced Ebooks: How? Why?

Enhanced ebooks have been a cause of much excitement over the past few years -- and with good reason. One of the things that an ebook can do that a paper-and-ink book can't is to add embedded video and sound. (There are many other ways to enhance an ebook -- but those are the most common enhancements.) Here's a chance to make the book something truly new!

At Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, we have a group of members led by a long-time digital publisher, Joe Sinclair, that is meeting regularly and discussing the nuts and bolts of enhanced ebooks. One of the members of that group recently shot me an email recently asking about how long a video she could reasonably add to an ebook -- two minutes? Five minutes?

It was a specific, technical question that got me thinking about the larger question of where we are with enhanced ebooks. Here's my answer:

Thanks for the question!

Starting with the understanding that only a few of the major outlets -- notably Apple and Kobo -- take ebooks with video, the answer is, whatever length you want -- but obviously, you need to think about the size of the file.

The longer the video, the higher the resolution of the frame , the less compressed the video file, the more unwieldy the ebook. The biggest one I've ever uploaded was 100MB -- it included three or four very short (30-40 second) videos. A 640×480 (aka Standard Definition, VGA, or 480p) video encoded as an MP4 file (the encoding that Apple requires) at a standard bitrate of about 1400kbps is about 40MB a minute. It adds up fast. I believe that Apple will turn down ebooks that are much bigger than 200MB. (Bigger than that and they become a pain to download and take up too much room on an iPhone/iPad.)

So five minutes is probably pushing it.

There are ways to shrink the video file size. You can use shorter clips. You can use a smaller frame size. You can compress the video by using a lower bitrate -- just as you can squeeze a JPEG image by using higher compression/lower quality. But recognize that you're making the video less watchable. They start looking like the old 3GP videos that folks used to shoot on flip phones.

A couple of additional things to consider: only include the video if it actually improves the book -- not just because you think it would be cool. And recognize that -- for now and for the foreseeable future -- you won't be able to upload the enhanced ebook to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or a number of the other outlets. And that none of those outlets will currently allow a book much bigger than 20MB.

A possible workaround: embedding YouTube or other online videos within the ebook as a "widget" -- you hit the play triangle, and the ebook accesses the web, streaming the video from the cloud. In that case, it can be as long as you want it to be.

Now, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the others do kind of allow video -- but it's severely limited, and it's only available to large commercial publishers.

And if you want to go another route, you can try to create the enhanced ebook as an app -- though Apple has been strongly discouraging publishers from creating book apps that are more book than app.

In any case, here's the thing: enhanced ebooks are still a technology in search of content and a market. We've had a lot of ideas about how to take advantage of the opportunities that the new technology offers, but readers have, for the most part, not been interested. Part of the problem, as I mentioned above and Digital Book World has pointed out, is that publishers can't distribute the same content to different markets. And part of it is that, beyond the "Wow, that's cool" effect, we're still trying to figure out how best to leverage multimedia and scripting (adding small programs that can change the way that a book displays depending, for example, on a choice that the reader has made, or on changes in outside circumstances -- the weather, the stock market, etc.). Outside of the the textbook market and children's picture books, no one has really been able to get the readers to pay for the extra work that enhancing an ebook requires.

Enhanced ebooks aren't going away; the technology is compelling, as are the opportunities it offers for new kinds of books -- for stretching the very definition of what we mean by "book." But as happened with television, which Philo Farnsworth invented in the 1930s (in a San Francisco neighborhood that's now home to dozens of tech startups) but that didn't take off until the 1950s, it may be a while until we have the content and the audience to make them worth producing.

Mirrored from Stillpoint Blogs