Welcome to Part 2 of an eBook Standards Carol. You can find Part 1: Ghosts of Formats Past here. You can also find JW Manus’s post on the same topic here. Let’s pick up from where I left off yesterday. I saw a comment on Jaye’s blog that bears some repeating and ultimately drives to the point of this whole exercise for me: the last HTML specification that came out of the W3C came in 1999, with HTML 4.01 (created, in part, in reaction to what I discussed yesterday). This was right around the time that Cascading Style Sheets V2, or CSS V2, appeared on the scene and brought more flexibility to what you could do with your site.
HTML5 has been in development for quite some time, and still hasn’t been passed, and yet there has been considerable advances in standardizing HTML and you see a lot less divergence in sites. Though it’s still a concern, those little logos about your site being optimized for this browser or that has died out. Sure, now and again you find sites that work better in one browser or another, but in general the problem has gotten a lot better. Why? Because a concerned group of developers got together to start the Web Standards Project, which called for cross-platform solutions from the people making web sites, even if the companies weren’t going to support them natively. For awhile, we had relative peace, though mobile browsing is getting the whole thing going again. Our discussion of that ends here, though. If you’re interested in learning more, entire books have been written about the subject, and I urge you to check them out. By necessity, a lot of this is vastly simplified, but enough to get the job done.
So we finally get to eBook “standards”. As I said yesterday, we have a lot of them out there, and they’re not all created alike. Here is a screenshot that shows you just how frustrating it can be:
This is from Wikipedia, and you can go there to check it out. It’s frustrating and confusing; hell, I have 13 years of document formatting and conversion experience and while I have a foolproof system for the Kindle, some of those other formats continue to elude me.
I’ve also deliberately ignored the arcane DRM systems that are in place right now because that’s a WHOLE other kettle of fish that I’m going to talk about at some point – in that case, it’s far more instructive to examine the “progress” of the music industry. For now, I’ll let my Authors Against DRM logo speak for itself, but it’s a major consideration in where we’re going as well.
The A List Apart post that I cited yesterday sums up our current situation very well:
At the beginning of the aughts, major record labels weren’t behaving any differently than publishers are now. And for almost a decade, one browser maker held back technical progress in web development by not fully, reliably supporting web standards: this is no different than the Kindle entirely ignoring the recommendations of the International Digital Publishing Forum, despite Amazon being a paying member.
Now, I know my partner blogging partner Jaye here saw an anti-Amazon slant in the post, but this is a fair charge. I love the hell out of Amazon for what they’ve done for writers, but let’s just say it here: the Kindle is today’s Internet Explorer. Kindle’s format is proprietary (hence my own need to use the archaic KindleGen) and doesn’t allow for open evolution of the form. Again, I refer to the List Apart post:
Meanwhile, the IDPF—essentially the W3C equivalent for books—has developed and released the ePub specification. But tools to create ePub efficiently haven’t kept up, there’s no way to semantically develop a book in page layout software, the largest e-reader company doesn’t follow the ePub spec at all, and no e-reader on the market fully supports the latest published spec, ePub 3.0. The IDPF has moved out of sync with the realities of the e-reading market—not unlike when the W3C released XHTML, which was out of step with the realities of the browser market. Publishers have taken to painstakingly developing digital bundles with many different formats, one for each potential e-reader—not unlike when websites were “best viewed in Netscape 4.0 at 800×600 resolution.” What did we learn fourteen years ago, and why are we letting this happen again?
This is what infuriates me, and what drove me to write that Facebook post that I shared with you yesterday.
So we know that the system is screwed up right now. We know how it was handled back then. Where do we go, then? How do we stop this insanity? That post suggests that it’s time for creators to take the power back, much as the Web Standards Project did, and I think that’s a great start. Agitating for a change as a collective would be a great start, and might spur on one of the three divergent paths that I could see us taking:
- The distributors band together to either embrace ePub or a similar format, bowing to creator demand in the interest of better business. I see this requiring a major sea change in publisher thinking.
- A major player enters the market that embraces open standards. This isn’t as unlikely as you think. iTunes had a stranglehold on the market for a long time and featured some pretty asinine DRM, but soon services like eMusic started popping up offering DRM-free music. It became clear that the market wanted that, and Amazon also went in that direction with its MP3 service. Soon iTunes followed suit. It can happen, no matter how big the Amazon juggernaut seems right now.
- Someone develops a cross-platform solution. Frankly, I’m pretty stunned that this hasn’t happened yet. There’s a market here, and only one real solution, Calibre. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no real solution, either, as it’s a ramshackle collection of kludges that outputs some ugly code. I wish I had the chops, because I can envision how the thing would work internally, but I’m just not the person to do it.
I don’t just think that those are the most likely outcomes; I think that at least one of those is going to become reality within the next three years. I can’t predict which, however. There is a possible fourth scenario, one in which users create a new standard, but that’s a real pie-in-the-sky exercise that I might discuss in another post.
For now, I’m interested in seeing how it plays out and hope that it plays out soon, because my current solution is incredibly unelegant and frustrating at times.
So how about you? How do you see this whole thing playing out? Let me know in the comments.