By Alan J. Porter

Yesterday I posted on Twitter a couple of figures from the Association of American Publishers report of November 2009 book sales. The good news was that sales overall had in fact increased by 10.9%, but what really stood out was that in November of last year the sales of eBooks exploded showing a 199.9% increase and that they now account for about 2.5% of the revenue generated by book publishing. When you consider that most eBooks are cheaper than their paper equivalents, then the market share based on actual sales numbers is going to be even higher.

I’m not sure why I was surprised as the industry figures in some way reflect my own recent experience. Back in September of last year I took the step of offering my biography of the Beatles’ teenage years, “Before They Were Beatles”, as an electronic book on the Kindle. As I no longer had to worry about covering print costs, carrying inventory, processing orders or shipping, I posted the book at a greatly reduced price. Sales of the electronic version have been growing each month, and on average in the last five months sales of the electronic version have out paced hard copy sales by a factor of 4:1.

All this sounds great doesn’t it? – On the surface it is, BUT it could be so much more.

When I look at my book on the Kindle, or on my iPhone, I am frankly disappointed in it. The reason? eBooks and eBook readers today are little more than simple electronic page turners.

But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think what they could be like. My book references lots of early recordings of various incarnations of the group that would become The Beatles – wouldn’t it be great to click on a link and actually hear those recordings, or even compare early versions with later versions recorded at the height of their fame. How about when I mention their encounters with other musicians? It would be cool to be able to click on a name and get a snapshot biography, links to books about them and access their music catalog. How about accessing photographs of 1950s Liverpool street scenes, or being able to tour the Fab Four’s childhood homes?

And it’s not only non-fiction where I see these sort of enhancements, imagine reading your favorite novelist, and when a character mentions a location being able to click through to the Google street view, or when they eat at a nice restaurant being able to access the recipe. Ever wanted to know exactly how to make the type of vodka martini that is best served shaken, not stirred? It could be just a click away.

There is no technical reason why this sort of interactive book couldn’t be done today.

As well as being an author of books on various aspects of pop-culture that are published in the traditional model, I’ve also been active in the technical publishing industry for more years than I care to count.

Where eBooks and platforms like the Kindle, the Nook, etc. are now is where the technical documentation industry was 15 years ago – simple electronic page turners.

But take a look at what large engineering companies, the military, and others are doing with their technical documentation today – they are delivering IETMS (Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals), books with links in the text that can jump you to the related part on an illustration, call up part numbers (even do the automatic ordering of that part for you), or call up animations, video and a whole plethora of supporting information.

How is that achieved? Through the use of mark-up languages, and XML (eXtensible Markup Language) in particular. Using XML allows us to tag the content in such a way that the display devices can create links, or so information can be extracted and passed from one system to another.

With XML you can not only format the text to look how you want, without having to rewrite or reformat the source each time, but you can use it to automatically generate navigation aids like table of contents, lists of items in the content, indexes, plus all the hyperlinking that adds real value.

Over the last few years I’ve offered to write a few books using XML markup, but the publishers have always politely declined, preferring to stick to a system they know. A process that has changed little since the days of the typewriter – yes the tools have changed, but the process is still fundamentally the same; largely because traditional publishers still see the physical book as the product, and not the content.

But today content is king, and we need to make that content available across all platforms, and to be able to add value to it, and that means mark-up.

About the Author

Alan J. Porter is an industry-leading Content Strategist. Author of “The Content Pool,” and regular conference speaker, workshop leader, and writer on Content Marketing, Content Strategy, Customer Experience, Brand Management, and Content and Localization Strategy.

Alan is noted as an industry thought leader and a catalyst for change with a strong track record in developing new ideas, embracing emerging technologies, and introducing operational improvements.

His latest book, “WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit” was be published by XML Press in 2010.