An eBook Standards Carol Part 2: The Open Standard Phantom

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  1. That chart freaks me out. From an ebook producer POV, I look at it and all I see are landmines and tiger pits. A bazillion and one ways for any of them to take any little goof I might make and render my end product a mess or even unreadable. My objection with parts of the article was the implication that Amazon is responsible for DRM. Yes, they do offer DRM, but it’s optional. It’s publishers who think they can protect their works from piracy who use DRM. But in the big scheme of things, that’s a minor quibble.

    I do, however, see where Amazon made a big mistake by coming up with a proprietary format for the Kindle. It wasn’t necessary.

    Anyhow, I have stretched my understanding of the underlying problems to the limit. So all I have to say is this: Dear Computer People, Please get it together. Come to some agreement. There are people, like me, who just want stuff to work.

    Terrific article, Jonathan. Thanks!

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Yeah, that bothered me, too. That’s part of why I saved the DRM conversation for another post, as the publishers are far more at issue there than the distributors, not to mention that I absolutely loathe DRM and could rant at some length about it.

      Hah, I think we can agree on that, though. I wish I could program the sort of thing I envision, but I’m just not that guy. And thank you!

  2. William Ockham

    They left off the Kindle Fire Format (“KF8”).

    • Jonathan D Allen

      So they did, I’m going to have to research that one. I didn’t realize there was a difference, but that makes it even more confusing.

  3. Thanks for the article and especially for this –

    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.

    I am not a developer or programmer, but I have been involved in designing websites and publishing on the web since the nineties. For some reason, I can’t get this out of my mind:

    Why can’t I design an html slash css doc for my book and grant people access through their ereader wireless using a paypal/iptracker/password type solution?? That way the design opens right up and the content could be quite spectacular in the long run once ereader r&D and manufacturers catch up.

    I mean, I know I can’t *do* that right now, but perhaps in the future. Right now, I expect to publish my novel within the next 6-8 months on Amazon like everyone else, but I am just wondering about the future and the possibilites of cutting out the current middle man (Amazon) entirely. In this scenario, sites would crop up similar to Amazon, but there wouldn’t be any downloading involved. It would merely be an agent type site devoted to specific genres etc, that people come to trust for quality books. Of course authors would pay a small fee per transaction to facilitate the business end of the listing/advertising service, but it would be quite small, say 50 cents.

    I think most authors by then (in this future scenariou I’m dreaming up) would have their books on a server that could handle the traffic at the standard fees one pays for a website, say 60-100 bux a year).

    Does any of this make sense to you? I’ve been mentioning my improv idea bout this for some time on posts here and there and haven’t really gotten a good response. I just wonder if I’m out in left field or making sense.

  4. Jonathan D Allen

    Hi Bree,
    I wanted to make sure I gave this one some thought, because I really love the idea, but I’m not sure if it would be feasible unless you had some serious cash to get it off of the ground. I see a few problems with the idea:

    1. eReader manufacturers currently own the ecosystem. I had considered whether an iPad app might work, but even there you’re either expressly forbidden to offer a store on your app or have to share a big cut of the profits with Apple. I’m not sure I’d see a compelling business reason for any of them to surrender their stranglehold on their ecosystems, even if we assume the “pressure” scenario described above that could drive adoption of an industry-wide standard. Jailbroken devices could handle what you’re talking about, but then you’re looking at fragmentation of your market. This leads to

    2. Visibility and convenience issues. Let’s say you get a new tablet/eReader up and going that can support this (and I’m not poo-pooing the idea, I think there is a middle ground between Android and Apple that’s not being served at the moment); you’re going up against two giants in the industry, either the Kindle/Fire or the iPad. Unfortunately, the landscape is littered with the corpses of tablets and eReaders that couldn’t get noticed – even good ones.

    3. Royalties. With the agency system, you’ll be getting even less than you’re getting now from Amazon and other distributors when you add in the fees associated with using something like PayPal. Let’s assume that the new company takes a conservative 25% (that’s 5% less than Amazon’s best rate, but they’re not stuck with some of Amazon’s issues, so they can charge less), and you go with PayPal standard, which charges you 2.9% + .30 a transaction (this is gross, too, so it comes out of your price, not the amount after the distributor takes their cut). With Amazon, a 99-cent book currently earns right around .35. With this model, your 99-cent book nets you .44 cents, which isn’t too bad until you calculate your infrastructure costs. My current webhosting solution costs me about $15.00 a month, so figure that has to come out as well. Let’s say you have a 100-copy month, which I’d kill for, and now your book has only netted you .29 cents. Fewer sales and things get hairier. Looking at it from cost/benefit, I’m not sure it works.

    4. Fragmentation. You or I might be able to make this system work, but there are a lot of folks out there who either don’t have the chops to do it or just don’t want to bother. This could lead to a continuing erosion in the already-shaky standards as some folks just do “good enough” work.

    That said, I see a LOT of positives to it, as well. I dream of having that kind of control over my works, and I’ve tried to create my own web store here to varying degrees of success to do the same thing. I think the best way to convince people would be getting a business model and demo together. I’d personally love to see it in action!

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  6. Jonathan: Thank-you for taking the time to consider the idea and all the feedback. I know I haven’t researched this enough, but at least now I have a better idea of feasability.

    1. I was thinking along the lines of excluding ‘them’. The idea I have is: since these tablets have wifi – and can go to a url, why not market your book directly to the world and basically just say go here on your tablet. The trick then of course is getting it formatted for all the tablets. That’s a can of worms to be sure.

    2. I see visibility as being thrown on the shoulders of the writers now as we speak, and in the future, writers will adopt a marketing strategy attitude from the get go. So when someone decides to write a novel, they begin marketing immediately (which is what I did). At the same time, there’s no reason why you can’t hop onto the majors and let them have their pound of flesh, and USE them for a change; if people can find it cheaper elsewhere, as in the author’s site which also = higher quality / inter-activeness / and multimedia possibilities… what will happen is, by word of mouth people will say, “I just read this great book, but get it on the author’s website, cuz of this and this and this…

    3. I see the PayPal % as a cost of doing business, and royalties for advertising your book on any site, same thing. It costs money to make money. If you have a good product, then you can win, period. If you don’t, go home and build a better mousetrap. Also, this brings up the point that if people had to actually invest in their book instead of just dashing it off and throwing it up on Amazon, it would filter out a lot of crap and stop all the plagiarists and nasty floggers of garbage.

    4. People will learn these things by attrition; more and more people are becoming app and programming friendly as time goes on, apps like Dreamweaver will become easier to use, and will have ebook features and plugins etc. At the present if one were to go forward with an idea like mine, but didn’t have the chops, they’d have to incur another cost, yes.

    Anyway, thanks again for taking the time: I still see the future of the web as being in the hands of the people. It doesn’t matter how hard guys like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon etc. try, the pandora’s box was already opened, and no matter how hard they backpedal, proprietary standards aren’t going to work in the long run. That’s my take: maybe I’m a dreamer!!!

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