By design and neglect

I am continuing to build on a summary of Baldur Bjarnason's call to "make eBooks worth it". Last week, I looked at what Bjarnason calls "the ability to enable new modes of learning and skills development". In this post, I'd like to consider his argument for "democratised tools of publishing".

In his original post Bjarnason added, "It’s still too difficult to create good looking ebooks and distribute them widely." This reality has been shaped in part by design, and in part by neglect.

Let's start with the designed component. In the early land grab for eBook market share, Amazon and then Barnes & Noble used proprietary DRM schemes to make sure that the books in the Kindle or Nook ecosystems could be read only where they had been purchased. With iBooks, Apple has followed suit. For these larger digital platforms, interoperability isn't a feature; it's a bug.

Multiple platforms, with multiple formats, negate the value of standards. Sure, publishers can supply a single format to Amazon, B&N, Apple and others. But there's no guarantee that the end result will offer the design and features included in the source file. And, there's an absolute guarantee that an eBook bought on one platform will not be read on any other platform, unless your hacking skills are much better than your reading comprehension.

As for neglect, I look at publishers and their suppliers. In the early- and mid-2000s, there was a moment in time when the industry could have readily coalesced around the implementation of a single format. Because eBook sales at the time were measured in tenths of a percent of total book sales, publishers were largely absent and those discussions went nowhere.

The result: the books we are able to read, and the functionality those books can provide, depend entirely on what platform owners care about. Sure, there's an EPUB3 standard, and it should support app-like behavior for published content. But making that actually happen across competing formats is enough to "make kittens cry" (with a nod to Hugh McGuire, whose efforts to display PressBooks content across these various platforms have seen many kittens cry).

It's simply unacceptable to have formats and functionality vary by platform. Imagine how television, movie and video producers would react if every television manufacturer had different standards for what would work on their displays. That would be chaos, and among consumers, it would create uncertainty, shrinking the market.

This is why we have video standards like Blu-Ray. Sure, there are DMCA tie-ins that make me wary of Blu-Ray, but at least I know that anything sold to me in that format will work on any of the screens in my home.

This isn't a technical problem. It's an industry problem. Until publishers and their suppliers are willing to put their provider power on the table and argue for a uniform standard, Bjarnason's "democratised tools" will remain at the mercy of platform owners for whom lock-in trumps functionality.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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