A year ago I had no idea what enhanced eBooks were or how transmedia documentation could supplement my work. Today Last Bus Out sells on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks with over 75 photos and 25 links to newscasts, videos, and animated satellite images. My journey began the moment this summer that I saw my daughter's new iPad and realized its potential for the non-fiction narrative I'd just written. I immediately began researching various media for photos, websites, videos, and articles that would help me tell the story of Courtney Miles, the boy from the projects who stole a bus in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and drove over 300 people to safety.
There were several issues I had to resolve in order to produce this book. The first was copyright. No one really knows exactly how copyright laws will translate in this new publishing model, but I got lucky. I discovered that government photos are public domain, so I was able to use NASA, FEMA, and NOAA photos and videos without fear of getting sued. Also, I decided that if the other videos and websites I used were linked instead of embedded, I'd be okay. I'd have preferred to embed them to facilitate a more seamless use by readers, especially since silly Apple refuses to acknowledge Flash so some of them don't open on Apple devices, but that seemed risky – whereas hyperlinking simply directs more people to a site already posted on the web. How could anyone object to that?
The other important issues were quantity and placement. There were so many devastatingly beautiful scenes from Katrina (God bless the FEMA photogs!) that it was tough to choose from among them, but I knew I had to be very selective. Which ones best told the story I wanted to tell? I'd written about people who lost everything, but that photo of a few meager coffee mugs and picture frames rescued from the devastated home in the background really brings home the efficiency of Katrina's greed. Readers will read about Courtney's dawning understanding of the ineffectiveness of local government officials; then they'll click on the link to Mayor Nagin's famous radio interview begging desperately for help. Transmedia documentation in Last Bus Out allows the reader to follow the actual weather bulletins as the storm moves into the city, then view the animated satellite image of its monstrous proportions as it made landfall and visit the interactive graphic showing its impact in each area of the city. These enhancements bring the story to life.
I discovered also with this project that placement was critical. It was impossible to insert photos and links into the manuscript without, to some degree, breaking up the flow of the narrative. For this reason, I sometimes used three or four photos in quick succession and left many pages of uninterrupted text so the reader wouldn't become derailed by too many distractions. It was really gratifying to realize how well the documentation fit the story; it made me feel I'd done my job as a writer when all the text was already there. I think I added maybe two sentences to the entire book to accommodate particular photos I wanted to use.
As soon as I finished the enhancements, I sent the new file to my agent, Alex Glass at Trident Media, who really liked what I'd done. Unfortunately, by that time, publishers had circled the wagons, hiding behind their already published authors and lobbing big chunks of money from the safety of the campfire at rock stars and teen idols (Hillary Duffstoevsky, God help us) Okay, I can't say I totally blame them for not eagerly embracing debut writers right now; these are scary economic times we're livin' in, and for publishing types, there's even more uncertainty with the digital shift looming and so many questions unanswered.
I can't wait to see what YA non-fiction writers like Marc Aronson will do with this technology, but I have to admit I'm not convinced of its relevance for fiction. Maybe someone will do something soon to change my mind. I've seen author interviews and book trailers added, but that just seems like marketing to me - not something the customer should have to pay for. Chat rooms for readers? Links to the author's Facebook and Twitter will appeal to some hardcore fans, I guess.
Meanwhile I'm still deciding between the Kindle and iPad (while happily reading on my iPhone), but I'm pleased with the way my first transmedia project looks on both. Check out the free samples available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble (downloadable to your computer or phone if you don't have a device,) and maybe you'll decide to research the feasibility of the new technology for your next book.