CLIENT: EMMA BOLING, AUTHOR
Emma Boling is a journalist and author based in Melbourne, Australia. Her first novel, called Riding High and published in 2009, focused on the world of international horse racing, a natural fit for someone who bred and raced thoroughbred horses. But for her follow-up literary project, Boling turned to her love of history, specifically Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and King Henry II of France. While still writing Mistress of France, Boling began to wonder how advancements in e-reading technology could enhance her readers' experience with her novel.
From the experience of publishing her first book with the Penguin Group Australia, Boling had firsthand knowledge of the disruption underway in traditional publishing. "I knew, with this book, that I wanted to start from a spot ahead of the curve from a technical standpoint," Boling says. Historical fiction, she believes, is a perfect genre for allowing readers to enrich their reading experience by referring to maps, character biographies, photos, and drawings. But Boling was adamant about not allowing those enhancements to interrupt the flow of the story. "I thought a lot about how I could use technology developments to provide a great reader experience, something that would provide seamless integration between the story and the technology," she says.
VENDOR OF CHOICE: BENEATH THE INK
Beneath the Ink is a startup based in Boulder, Colo., that developed a platform allowing authors to add genre-neutral, device-agnostic enhancements to their work. The enhanced files can be read through an array of reading devices for a small setup fee, plus a revenue share arrangement.
CEO and co-founder Sherisse Hawkins says, "When you think of ‘ebook enhancements,' you mostly think of audio and video. But as readers ourselves, we knew those can be distracting to the experience of reading a book. It's like whiplash when you put a video in the middle of a work." Together with technical co-founder Alex Milewski, Hawkins sought to create a solution that would enhance the reading experience without pulling the reader out of the world of prose.
THE PROBLEM IN-DEPTH
If you've ever read a weighty work of historical fiction or nonfiction, you've probably pondered questions such as: Which Philippe is this one again? Where does the Danube River sit in relation to the troop movement? How is the Emperor related to that one cousin whose name keeps coming up? Boling knew, as she prepared to embark on her novel about Renaissance-era France, that she wanted to make it easy for readers to find those answers. "I didn't want them jumping out in the middle of the story to look something up on Wikipedia," Boling says. Besides ruining the flow of the story, Boling felt that part of her job as an author was to develop the reader's trust that she would provide the information he needed, when he needed it.
So in the spring of 2013, Boling says, "I was writing about Renaissance France and thinking about 21st-century publishing." Specifically, she began thinking about how advancements in e-reader technology could enrich the reader's experience with Mistress of France.
It so happened that Beneath the Ink's two founders, Hawkins and Milewski, were in Adelaide, Australia, together as part of a startup incubator program. They'd developed the basis of Beneath the Ink technology, which gives authors complete control of their "Binks" (Beneath the Ink Links). Any word linked to a Bink-which the author fills with character bios, word pronunciation, maps, and photos, etc.-is highlighted, but done subtly to avoid disrupting the reader's rhythm. And if the reader does decide to click open a Bink, he can do so without leaving the page and losing his place.
Hawkins and Milewski needed an author to help them kick the tires and think through the finer details. In a moment of serendipity, a mutual Australian friend introduced them to Boling, and everything fell into place.
Milewski and Hawkins flew to Melbourne, Australia, to meet their beta author in person. "Emma's was the first opinion that really mattered," Hawkins says. The trio brainstormed about the Beneath the Ink technology for 2 days in person, then continued to refine features through regular Skype sessions after the Beneath the Ink team returned to the U.S.
One feature that got attention was the character cloud, which enables authors to type in a short bio that is accessible whenever that character's name appears in the book. "In historical fiction, there are lots of similar names," Boling says, citing "Francois" as one that appeared repeatedly in hers. Initially, the character cloud autopopulated every name, which meant Boling had to go through manually to make sure the right bio for the right Francois showed up in the right spot-no small feat for a 146,000-word novel. Based on Boling's feedback, the character cloud is more flexible now. "And in my next book, everyone will have nicknames," Boling laughs.
Hawkins says the process of working with Boling to complete the Beneath the Ink version of the book involved open, honest, and candid conversations. "I thought a lot about how many Binks were in each chapter to make sure they were evenly distributed," says Boling, who kept spreadsheets to track the density of the enhancements in her book. "There's a rhythm to reading, and you don't want to be Binking the emotional peaks and breaking the reader's flow." Boling says that allowing authors to have complete control means less risk that a book will become a Wiki version of itself.
"Our product goes back to the heart of why we read, which is story," Hawkins says. "What drives us is how we put story first, let the author connect to the reader. If we do that right, then the technology falls away."
Before Mistress of France was released in November 2013, Beneath the Ink had only a handful of out-of-copyright titles, such as several Sherlock Holmes novels, with which to demonstrate its technology. But a major sign that they were on the right track came quickly, when Mistress of France won the 2014 Digital Book Award for Ebook Fixed Format/Enhanced-Adult Fiction, only 2 months after publication. "It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders when I heard the news," says Boling.
No surprise, then, that when asked if she would ever release a title without enhancements, Boling is quick to say no. "You can still have an unenhanced print book, alongside the enhanced ebook version. I love my print books, but it's a very different experience to read the two versions." She sees applications for Beneath the Ink's technology far beyond fiction. "Legal documents, annual reports-Binks give you a way to layer in-depth, and you don't need an IT person to it." Hawkins says her organization is working on ways to broaden the use of the technology, from licensing to white labeling and beyond.
Boling says readers have been responding in an overwhelmingly positive way to the enhanced books. "I've had people say that they're more willing to read historical fiction in this format because they're not worried about getting lost," she says. "So it's helping me reach a broader audience."
She also sees parallels between the Renaissance she wrote about and what is taking place in the world of digital publishing now. "The Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries was defined by the rediscovery and translation of books from the classical periods of Greece and Rome. Through innovation in printing techniques, books were, for the first time, available to a wider audience and knowledge and philosophy became the cornerstones of politics, culture, and society," Boling says. "Perhaps it makes you braver to innovate when you have the Renaissance as a point of reference."