December 4, 2014

Are Multimedia Books a “Game Changer”?

Green light in a tunnel with text: Is Multimedia the Future of Books?

While I was deep in NaNoWriMo and running guest posts, a story circulated about how the release of a multimedia fiction ebook was a “game changer.” (Full disclosure: I tend to roll my eyes at such breathless headlines. *smile*) But beyond my eye-rolling, I want to talk about whether multimedia ebooks could be the wave of the future for fiction.

In any profession, we have to stay on top of industry changes, and publishing is no different. Authors have had to adjust to the rise of self-publishing and the opportunities that option brings us. We’ve had to adjust to the increasing importance of branding and taking on more marketing responsibilities. And we’ve had to adjust to the social media tools available for reaching readers directly.

So it’s in our best interest to have a conversation about whether storytelling will evolve into multimedia ebooks as the primary medium. Let’s take a closer look…

The Background: What Is a Multimedia Ebook?

The terms “interactive” and “multimedia” usually refer to ebooks that include elements such as:

  • images and maps
  • “extended editions” or deleted scenes (like DVDs)
  • embedded audio/video
  • in-book glossary/encyclopedia entries, etc.

Despite the breathless press, the story lauded as the “game changer,” Find Me I’m Yours, by Hillary Carlip, wasn’t the first interactive, multimedia ebook. Different platforms have included interactive and multimedia aspects for children’s books for at least a decade, and I bought my first interactive “choose your own adventure” style Kindle book almost three years ago.

However, this ebook is the first to embrace this path to such a large extent, with custom videos, images, original artwork, 33 websites, etc. (You can scroll through the Amazon Look Inside free sample to get an idea of its scope.)

Is this the future for all books? Some say yes. But is it really?

Obstacle #1: Who Has the Ability to Develop All of That?

Writing a book is already a heck of a lot of work. Adding multimedia pieces just adds that much more work and would take time and skills that we might not have.

How many of us would have the ability to create custom fictional websites to fit our story world—and be able to maintain them? Or the ability to find and photograph or record the people or places to embed in the story?

Now I could see some genres, such as fantasy, including the maps that the author already made for their own notes. Ditto for “deleted scenes” and the like. But while many of us have Pinterest boards for inspiration, we don’t have the rights to publish those images in a book.

In other words, it’s one thing to share elements we’ve already developed. It’s another thing to create and develop elements in addition to what we needed for our storytelling process. And if we don’t have the time or ability to develop multimedia elements, we’d have to pay someone to do it for us.

Obstacle #2: Who Can Afford to Develop All of That?

In the case of this “game changer,” Hillary and her entertainment company spent $400,000 to develop all of the custom elements. What author has that kind of money? Or what author wouldn’t rather their publisher spent that money on an advance? *smile*

Hillary and her company financed the development work by negotiating payment for product placement in the story. The company behind an artificial sweetener paid $1.3 million for the right to have positive information about their product included in the story and to sponsor one of the websites. The story includes many other brand names, and the author’s entertainment company is in negotiations with other companies, presumably for the inevitable sequel.

Obstacle #3: Wait, Our Stories Become a Commercial?

In other words, negotiating this payment for funding the multimedia development isn’t something most authors could do—even if we wanted to. Many have already weighed in with their thoughts about the ethics of product placement and the commercialization of storytelling.

In this case, even though the main character quotes company-provided research statistics for health claims about the artificial sweetener product, the book doesn’t reveal the payment connection in footnotes or a mention on the copyright page. Needless to say, arrangements for product placement leave a bad taste in the mouth of many authors and readers, and without that financing, we’re back to the problems listed in #1 and #2 above.

So if we don’t have the money, clout, connections, time, skills, resources, etc. to create multimedia ebooks, should we be worried? Will we be be left behind in the future?

Obstacle #4: Most Stories Don’t Fit the Multimedia Structure

In the story mentioned above, the storytelling structure itself was changed to accommodate the multimedia elements. The story wouldn’t make sense if printed, or even if read on an older ereader. Some stories will work with a multimedia structure, but most won’t.

Stories that don’t lend themselves to a multimedia structure won’t disappear, just as the “choose your own adventure” structure didn’t banish traditional storytelling. Multimedia-driven stories can only become an option, not a requirement.

Far more likely is that normal stories would offer multimedia bonuses. Fantasy stories might include a link to a map. Science fiction stories might include a schematic of the spaceship. Mystery stories might include copies of the clues so the reader can try to solve the case along with the detective. But are bonuses really a game changer?

Obstacle #5: Do Readers Even Want Multimedia Ebooks?

As a reader, I read stories to become immersed. Anything that pulls me out of the story is a bad thing.

For me, that includes storytelling issues, poor writing craft, and obvious product placement, but it also includes multimedia elements. When, exactly, is a reader supposed to explore these multimedia bonuses?

Am I supposed to interrupt my reading of the story to check out this website or that song or video? Will I have to look at this map or that schematic to follow along because the author was lazy and decided to skip the written description? If so, I’ve lost immersion into the story.

Or would these multimedia aspects be explored after the story (like the deleted scenes on a DVD)? In that case, I don’t think multimedia becomes a game changer because all that’s doing is including the bonuses we’d usually see on an author’s website within the book itself. Eh. Whatever.

My Verdict? Not a Game Changer

I can see a few, select styles of stories embracing multimedia to the fullest extent, but I don’t ever see multimedia becoming the dominant storytelling structure. There are too many stories in the world that won’t lend themselves to the multimedia structure, and those stories won’t go untold.

Storytelling has existed forever—since caveman days—and our brains are far more wired to relate to stories than anything else. Written language didn’t kill verbal storytelling, and multimedia isn’t a bigger game changer than writing itself. So multimedia can’t make all other forms of storytelling obsolete.

Multimedia is a storytelling option now and in the future, but it’s not “the future of storytelling” or the direction that all storytelling will go. Developing multimedia elements in addition to what the author naturally creates takes too much time, costs too much money, and too often doesn’t make sense from a storytelling perspective.

If we take the “Ooo, shiny” technological terms out of the description, multimedia stories are essentially listening to a storyteller who constantly interrupts themselves with tangents. If a friend started telling us about an important thing that happened during their trip to the beach, and they interrupted themselves to show us a map of the boardwalk and play music they’d recorded from a beach-side club patio, we’d want them to get on with the story: “Yes, but what happened?” In other words, in real life, I’d want to smack a storyteller who acted this way. *smile*

Right now, there is an “Ooo, shiny” aspect to multimedia, and readers are excitedly exploring the possibilities just as much as authors. However, multimedia won’t be accepted long-term unless it seamlessly enhances the storytelling itself. In other words, the multimedia elements must serve the storytelling, not the other way around.

Whether we choose to incorporate multimedia or not, storytelling itself doesn’t change. As long as we’re able to tell a good story, the medium doesn’t matter. *smile*

A cranky, old-school reader who wants to remain immersed in the story, no matter how it’s told… *grin*

How much do multimedia books interest you? Do some kinds of multimedia ebooks interest you more than others, and if so, why? Can you think of other obstacles for incorporating multimedia into books? How do you feel about using product placement to finance multimedia development for ebooks? Do you agree or disagree with my theory of storytelling and how multimedia won’t be a game changer for the evolution of all books?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Anne R. Allen

You’ve put this very well, Jami! I’ve had the same feeling, but I’m older, so I thought maybe it was just me. But I want to live inside a book, not be yanked out every few minutes to go fritter with tech stuff. So thanks for your vote for “not a game-changer”. Add mine to that too.

Davonne Burns

I have to agree, not a game changer. There is a reason why deleted scenes are deleted and why DVD extra’s are available after you watch the movie. The producers know that you need to be immersed in the story, everything else is filler. Yes, it’s fun and yes I’m one of the ones who loves deleted scenes, outtakes, and other extras but in the end they are not crucial to my enjoyment of the story. If the movie doesn’t hold my attention by having a good, well told story line and interesting characters why will I care about how many bells and whistles are included on the DVD? The same will most likely hold true for multi-media books.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Hi Jami, haven’t been around as much, like you November was crazy, for varying reasons, and I had to speak to this- I know a lot of people say “The medium is NOT the message” typically when we have the debate about ebooks vs. print books (whether or not multimedia’s involved), but while there’s truth to that, sometimes the medium is PART of the message, not all that matters, but A PART all the same. That’s what I think will separate the stories that use multimedia well to those that don’t. That said, I’m glad you mentioned the financial barriers to entry when you don’t have the publisher or have the funds upfront yourself, and while crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo can help, they’re not always the right move for a given project. In my case, I do use multimedia, partly because I don’t yet have my work in print or have the finances to do ebooks at a pro level, but I also find it’s a great way to stretch my creative muscles and get people invested in a particular character (Children’s author-illustrator Sam Garton does this with his character “Otter” really well, and of course she’s on Twitter, too [@i_am_otter]) , I still struggle with balancing between quality and quantity (i.e. building a back-list) but I do think it will be worth for me in the long run, it’s just the short term’s that’s really tense. I used to be wary of Twitter, and now it’s my…  — Read More »


I agree. There are many multimedia books already out there. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books had maps and many, many books have illustrations. It used to be common to have a list of the “Cast of Characters.” Does anyone find these things to needed in every book? No. Secondly, I’m with you, Jami. Taking me out of the flow of reading would be like stopping a movie in the middle to show the “Bonus Features.” Again, no. While some books can be enhanced with some additional information as you say, this sub-sub- genre could lead to chimera like creatures. Too many things put together – Novel, Coffee table photo book, atlas, music box, scent-sprayer, etc – unlikely to attract an audience of any size. (When they come out with an erotic pop-up book, let me know.) As for being a “game changer,” wasn’t 3D supposed to do that for movies, added videos for music, book trailers for books? Finally, though, while I don’t see a revolution, there well could be evolution occurring. If some of these added features were seamless, I COULD be interested. I like having dictionaries and Wikipedia built into every book. Footnotes that are easy to access would also be nice. Readers of long, involved fantasy novel might enjoy maps and illustrations available at a touch. (I’m looking at you Brandon Sanderson.) Some of these types of enhancements could and possibly should come from non-fiction books. DIY and cooking ebooks could be significantly improved…  — Read More »

Janet B
Janet B

I purchased some of Courtney Milan’s books and she explains it here how and why.

Janet B
Janet B
Jennifer Rose

Agreed. Not deserving of the hefty title, “game changer.”

I think a slight ‘game changer’ is the app Booktrack where you create a soundtrack that plays long with your novel. That’s pretty creative and I plan on exploring more in the future.

I agree that readers desire an ‘immersion’ experience while reading. That’s why ‘choose your adventure books’ are not bestsellers. I think it would be fun to right one some day because I always have multiple ideas for one story, but that is later!

And, I would SO be willing to do product placement in my novel – especially if it got me over a million dollars. Do you think I could get BMW to back their placement on the first page of my novel? I don’t think one or two placements in 100k words is that detrimental, as long as its tackful and the reader is not aware its product placement.

Jennifer Rose

I just can’t get over them spending 400k on that. ON A BOOK.


Rolling my eyes right along with you.
Maps in a Fantasy novel, yes. Spaceship schematic in a sci fi novel, ok, sure (if it Matters…) But these items should be included at the beginning, or at the end of the text. Not midstream where they jerk me out of the story.

And then… disturbed… product placement is one thing – but citing health statistics provided by the company? Um, NO. It sounds like an example of the corporate attempt to manipulate the narrative in the public discourse to match their message.
Not having seen the science of the specific studies cited, I must reserve judgement. However, I know that by careful selection of the sample population, the definition of “significant” and a few other factors, companies (or any unethical scientist) can skew the results of a study such that they are no longer meaningful, or at least so that the results don’t actually represent what they are implied to.
To then give themthe opportunity to plant these words in the mouth of the protagonist? That’s only one step away from having a personal friend tell each reader these “facts.”
I usually enjoy your blog a lot Jami. Less fun reading today – more disturbing. But thanks for an interesting read. 🙂

Kathryn Goldman


Maybe multimedia is not a game changer for books, but it might be a game changer for storytelling. Movies were a game changer for storytelling, evolving to talkies, then Technicolor.

I agree with many of your points—who can afford to do it and my old Kindle won’t run it, for example. And maps make sense in multimedia, I love maps and am constantly flipping back to look at maps of the world I’m in at the moment.

But imagine the MC walking into the ballroom and the orchestra music begins unobtrusively while you’re reading the scene. An enhancement to the story that can be done without pulling the reader away. And the story still works even if my Kindle won’t play the music.

It’s all so new we just can’t imagine how to do it properly yet (even with a ton of $$). Multimedia are more tools for the storyteller. Possibilities for enhancing the craft. A touch here, a touch there.

Revolutionary game changer for books? No. Storytelling evolution? Maybe.


Killion Slade

WOW! A lot of naysayers on the post today. 🙂 For the record, I’ll start by saying that multi-media for books isn’t a game changer, but from the interaction I received from our World of Blood website series and from the book reviews, Millennials are truly embracing the Second Screen experience. Think about it – who here watches the Walking Dead? During that show, multi-media second screen has become very interactive with texts on twitter feeds, quizzes during the LIVE show the Talking Dead, opportunities to submit images of your face as a zombie, and much more. The number one rated TV show is doing something right. Is it a game-changer for books, no – but the concept allows for a more immersive experience for “those who want it.” AND that’s the key – for those who want it. Digital marketing analysts demonstrate time and again the cross-tracking devices from computers, to tablets, to mobile phones in finally arrive at a conversion. If a reader enjoyed my book, I want them to have the ability to easily share it across all digital medias in order to spread the wordl of mouth. Bottomline = more sales. There is a fine line to provide multi-media benefits to those who want the second screen experience and for those who don’t. When I write a book for the Exsanguinate series, each book stands alone as a complete reading experience. Period. Embedded at the end of the chapter is a QR code which can then…  — Read More »

Kathryn Goldman


I love that phrase, “second screen experience.” First I’ve heard of it but I do it all the time with Twitter on my laptop while watching something live on TV.

I agree. . . fun, fun, fun.


Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Very interesting topic! Though I’m not into marketing my books (at least I’m not planning to yet), I still like knowing what’s going on out there, so thanks for keeping us updated! 😀 Hmm the only book I self-published (as a paper back, not an ebook) so far would be a multimedia book, because there’s a map and a 70+ page glossary, lol. Many friends found my glossary very useful, and were grateful I made one. Some friends were thankful I provided a map as well. But then, as you said, some stories may need things like maps and glossaries more than others ; my story is a sci fi set in the far far far future, and I do talk about a lot of special technology and social quirks about this world, so it would be hard for readers to remember it all without a glossary, lol. Plus I have a lot of characters (most minor), so that helped a lot of readers too. A map is interesting because it’s on another planet. Nevertheless, I agree with you that the actual telling of a good story is the most important. Good point on how multimedia stuff can pull you out of the story, though I’m still grateful George RRM included a huge glossary of all his characters! Very necessary for him to include it. :O But then again, these maps and glossaries for complex fantasy or sci fi universes completely detached from our own, may simply be useful things…  — Read More »

Julie Musil

I’m not interested in this type of media at all. I just want to read a story without anything interrupting me. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, but for now, I’m just putting words to the page and that’s it! Cool summary, Jami.


I play Choice of Games games and RPGs, but they’re different experiences from just reading a book. When I want to read a book, I want to read a book, not play a game. When I want to pay a game, I don’t particularly want to read a book. This hybridization stuff is ignoring the difference betwixt the mediums.

I expect it’ll have a small subset of readers who love it (particularly as we get a population that’s grown up with it), and some stories/books that are particularly well suited to it, but I doubt it’ll ever replace reading.

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