Egregious Nonsense Regarding eBook Standards

Garbate 100It takes something truly ridiculous to make me write an out and out rant. Still, every now and then I read something that I can’t avoid responding to, because of the degree to which it misrepresents reality in an area I both care about and am knowledgeable in. Yesterday I had that experience when I read an article contending that proprietary eBook formats are good rather than bad, and that while “someday” we may have a truly interoperable eBook format, for now we should just sit back and appreciate proprietary formats in this area.

What rubbish.

This is the same nonsense that has been propounded in every single media format that has ever been created where there is a dominant vendor that wants to stay that way. It’s what Microsoft has contended for decades about desktop software formats that underlie its Office productivity suite, and what we also saw in the early days of digital music. In each case, vendors (or, in this case, sales and distribution channels) have sought to gain, or retain, monopolist control and lock in their customers by fighting the creation and universal adoption of a standard that would allow freedom of movement and true competition in the marketplace.

Here’s the article I’m referring to, and here’s the membership list at the website of, the organization that develops the ePub standard that Amazon doesn’t support.  On it you’ll find a very impressive list of over 360 member companies from around the world. But you won’t find Amazon, which uses its own proprietary standard instead of ePub, although you will find Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google and Kobo on that list. And here’s the member list for Readium, an open source project that develops and maintains a reference system for rendering EPUB 3 publications (disclosure: I represent Readium). You won’t find Amazon or Barnes & Noble on that list, either, although you will find Apple, Google and Kobo.

The other side of playing this game is to make sure that everyone can still use your products, whether or not you’ve implemented the industry standard. Amazon does that by offering free downloads of its Kindle software for the Microsoft PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and so on, so that no matter what reader you use, you can still buy your book at Amazon. Or just read it in the Cloud. Want to read your Barnes & Noble or Kobo book on your Kindle, though? No dice.

That’s the same strategy Microsoft employed when it knocked WordPerfect and Lotus out of their preferred positions thirty years ago, making it possible to seamlessly import documents created under those programs, but making sure that exporting them back again met with less than perfect results. For the last ten years, Microsoft has fought an ongoing battle against the OpenDocument Format (ODF) to try and keep it that way, something I’ve written hundreds of blog posts about here.

Also like Microsoft, which dramatically reduced updating Office after it wiped out the competition (as it also did with Internet Explorer, after it wiped out Netscape, until it was once again challenged by Firefox), Amazon continues to provide an extremely mediocre presentation of actual books on devices. Only recently has it announced something as basic as new fonts, many years after the initial release of the Kindle. It has, however innovated vigorously and successfully on its family of Kindle devices, in order to win over as many customers as possible to its proprietary platform.

Joshua Tallent, the author of the article I’m referring to, rightly points out that other platform vendors, like Barnes & Noble and Apple have also engaged in proprietary activity. But at least both are members of And to say that current vendors are using proprietary formats simply, “because proprietary formats just work” is at best a semantic dodge. By my definition, “works” means “works on any device I choose to buy.”

Making products work on one device is easy. Making it possible for true competition to be active in the marketplace and give true freedom of purchase and movement to customers takes more work – and the results are far better. And where vendors decide that it’s in their economic interest to do this, they do it. With thousands of new standards every year.

That’s why you can buy a phone from any one and call anyone else; buy a tire from anyone and put it on whatever car you own; buy a Wi-Fi router and connect anything to it; and buy just about anything else in the world and use it the way you want to. Except eBooks. There’s a reason for that, and it isn’t technical.

Authors are the victims of this nonsense at both ends of the supply chain, because Microsoft still controls the desktop (I’ve written about the consequences of that reality here), and Amazon still controls the distribution channel to most readers. That means that instead of being able to simply create a book in your favorite word processor and publish it directly to every Internet bookstore with a few keystrokes, you’re stuck with a miserable experience preparing your files, and then uploading them multiple times at multiple sites with multiple issues to deal with at each.

It’s bad enough that this is the situation we’re stuck with, but it’s intolerable to have to read someone contending that we’re better off this way.

What rubbish.

Coming in late June: the sequel to The Alexandria Project! It’s called:

The Lafayette Campaign,

a Tale of Deception and Elections

About Andrew Updegrove

I'm a cybersecurity thriller author/attorney that has been representing technology companies for more than thirty years. I work with many of the organizations seeking to thwart cyber-attacks before they occur.
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36 Responses to Egregious Nonsense Regarding eBook Standards

  1. Masoud says:

    Wow. Very well said. Thanks for elaborating it so nicely. I will share this everywhere I can.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Masoud.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julia Lund says:

    In the words of Eliza Doolittle, ” Oh, wouldn’t it be luv-er-ly”. As it is, it takes me long enough to upload to one platform, so I hold my hands up that, for a life-less- complicated, I only use Amazon …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The sad thing is, that’s exactly what Amazon hopes we’ll all do. We can’t ignore Amazon, so we’ll all put our books there. And since their market share gets larger and larger, the temptation gets greater and greater to let it go at that. The result is that eventually there’s no competition (just like Microsoft and Word), and Amazon can do whatever it wants to (like lower the royalty rate) and has no incentive at all to keep innovating.

    You can see that latter effect at work indirectly, too, if you take a look at GoodReads, which hasn’t changed a bit since Amazon bought it. The most obvious reason for buying it was to keep it from becoming a competitor, or making it easy to buy books from a competitor.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Here’s the article I’m referring to, and here’s the membership list at the website of, the organization that develops the ePub standard that Amazon doesn’t support. On it you’ll find a very impressive list of over 360 member companies from around the world. But you won’t find Amazon, which uses its own proprietary standard instead of ePub, although you will find Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google and Kobo on that list.

    IDPF adopted ePub as their standard in September 2007, just two months before Amazon released the first Kindle, but two years after Amazon had bought Mobipocket and its ebook creation software, which itself came after Adobe announced it wasn’t going to be doing ebook software anymore. Amazon has, in addition, made those files easy to create.

    I mean, I’m sure it’s great those 360 companies talk to each other about standards, but meanwhile Amazon is busy innovating and making things easier and better, for both readers and authors.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. davidelang says:

    Amazon started using .mobi before .epub was defined as a standard (.azw is .mobi with DRM options) Blaming them for not using something that didn’t exist when the first products shipped (let alone when it was being developed) is questionable.

    if the .epub uses DRM, it’s no longer portable. If the Amazon book uses DRM it’s not portable. Tie game here. Note that Amazon doesn’t require publishers use DRM, a couple don’t (Baen has never used DRM since they started publishing e-books in the late ’90s, Tor recently stopped using DRM)

    If the the publisher doesn’t require Amazon use DRM, the resulting book can be transparently and reliably converted to .epub (and .epub books without DRM can be converted to .mobi and used on Amazon devices/software) The free Calibre software does this with the default configuration (no tweaking needed)

    Microsoft file formats were a big problem because Microsoft changed them with every release and didn’t document them (even the eventual documentation includes things like “handle dates like Excel 95” with no explanation of what that actually means)

    Amazon’s file format is the documented .mobi format with very few and straightforward changes to support DRM, and it has not changed over time (the oldest readers still read the newest books without software updates)

    All this being said, I think that there should be pressure to get the companies running e-book stores to define APIs that allow ANY e-reader to access the store to buy/download books. But this applies equally to B&N, the Kobo store, and Amazon. It’s independent of the file format ‘problem’

    David Lang

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Will and David, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. Let me try and cover both of them together, but first let me provide some context for my point of view.

    Over the last 30 years, I’ve helped set up and then represent more than 140 standards consortia, and more recently open source foundations. I’ve also served for many years on the Board of Directors, and then Executive Committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), served on a National Academies of Science committee on standards commissioned by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Commission, testified on standards matters before state and federal legislative hearings and before regulatory agencies, and I could keep going on. I’ve also created and maintain this web site, which contains several resources that are the most complete of their kind in the world:

    I say this not to brag, but to lay the ground work for why I feel entitled to have strong opinions on the topic of standards, and why I feel like I’ve seen enough over the years to tell what’s possible and what’s not, and why companies do and do not make things easy for consumers, and when.

    First, regarding timing, in the great majority of cases, products come first and standards second, so there is nothing unusual about the eBook situation. And yet ultimately, the marketplace will usually end up with a common standard. Moreover, one of the reasons that companies join standards organizations is so that they can design, or redesign, their products around the standard as it is being developed, so that they can get a jump on the market.

    Companies also join standards organizations to try and persuade other companies to adopt their technology as the basis for a common standard. So the fact that Amazon did not participate in while it was designing the Kindle is an example of the fact that, right from the beginning, they rejected the opportunity to work to a common standard, and go a proprietary road instead. And here we are eight years later, and they are still refusing to get on the bus.

    The fact that files can be converted is of little comfort to the average user, who never even learns how to load a pdf file to her Kindle, let alone try and change and transfer files elsewhere. Nor would they want to download and learn how to use Calibre or one of the other available tools. We don’t expect to do that when we buy music, or a Wi-Fi router, or anything else. We want effortless “plug and play” interoperability and portability. And we’re used to getting it with other products and services.

    I do agree that the API approach could also be a solution, as well as the fact that the other eBook vendors have not been as proactive as they should be to achieve seamless portability. Instead, all of the vendors are pursuing their independent proprietary strategies, and the customer be damned.

    The central point is that companies can and often do decide that it is in their best interests to make it as easy and seamless as possible for their customers. This is particularly true where they seek “network effects,” so that many people will buy many products even as early adopters. Wi-Fi is an excellent example, but it goes all the way back to railroads. Here is an example of how things are working for another client of mine, which is trying to make it easy for the “Internet of Things” to come into existence, so that collectively the over 150 members can ultimately make trillions of dollars (yes, trillions), provided that their customers never have to think about interoperabilty: When the market opportunity is large and the opportunity to compete on top of the level of standardization, there’s no limit to what the largest vendors can do, working together.

    And then we have eBooks. Why don’t we have the same seamless ability? It’s not because of DRM, because the customer could be given a key. It’s because the main players dont think that it is in their best interests to make it easy for any user to use any products other than their own. That could change any time the vendors (the publishers) and the distributors (Amazon, B&N, Apple, Google, etc.) wanted to.

    Unfortunately, so far they haven’t, even after eight years. And that, I continue to contend, is rubbish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidelang says:

      I’m familiar with your efforts on standards and do appreciate them (I;ve been at a few of your standards briefing updates at Usenix for example)

      One aspect here that you don’t see in the other examples you give is that even the oldest kindle e-readers are still in use, and so switching to a format that would be incompatible with them would anger customers.

      The ease of conversion (and the problems caused by the DRM lockdowns) is less a matter of consumers doing the conversions as it is a matter of how easy it would be for the product vendors to do the conversions, accept either type of document.

      While I don’t like that Amazon doesn’t auto-convert .epub documents, my condemnation of them is muted by the fact that their competition makes it even harder to side-load anything onto their devices (nothing as convenient as the e-mail-to-kindle option). Even if you stick with things in the .epub format, the DRM schemes are not the same across the different brands, so if DRM is involved you are restricted even if you are using the ‘standard’ format. The customer could be given the key, but the stores go out of their way to avoid doing so or doing _anything_ to acknowledge that there are other stores/devices. B&N made it much harder to download the .epub from their website, trying to force you to only access it via their software/devices for example. Calibre has plugins that deal with the DRM is about as user friendly a manner as you can get (once you do the google hunting for the unofficial plugin)

      The conversion process is cheap enough that even the low powered devices could do it. There is no technical reason why the stores couldn’t offer all e-books in multiple formats, or why the devices/software couldn’t auto-convert the foreign format to their native one at download time. The fact that this doesn’t happen and that you can only connect to each e-book store with their software is the problem.

      Amazon is no better than anyone else in this area, but they aren’t any worse either.

      But it’s hard for me to say that Amazon’s use of the .mobi format is really any worse than the other vendors claiming that they support the “standard e-book format” but then preventing their books from working anywhere else and preventing anyone else’s e-books from loading on their devices. If anything, these other vendors seem worse as they take what is supposed to be an open standard and make it effectively proprietary.

      You are correct that they could change this at pretty much any time (at least going forward), and I think you are correct to flame away on the topic. I just think you need to blast everyone, not just Amazon. I think that if any of the big players started offering their stuff in multiple formats (and the publishers allowed them to do so as far as DRM goes), the rest of the industry would fall into line fairly quickly.

      But with the exception of Baen (who has always supported all formats of readers) and Tor (who sell through all stores, but without DRM), the publishers are trying to lock down the books if not kill off e-books as a passing fad.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David,

        Your points are well taken, and I agree that there’s ample blame to be spread around on almost all sides (the exceptions being those you note). It’s probably also fair to say that there has been a good deal of technical cluelessness as well, with some (like the publishers) being totally out of their element, and not predisposed to innovate about anything to begin with. New entrants to technology are also not likely to know much, if anything, about standards.

        Another thing that bugs me about the situation is that there’s so little reward for the proprietary dfferentiation. It’s not that different players are being different because they are providing novel and interesting features, or that they’re pushing the envelope, or trying to make more appealing presentations. By far and away the largest percentage of eBooks don’t include anything more ambitious than the first pages of chapters and some poorly rendered pictures. And the table of contents pages are so incredibly ugly that I can’t bear to look at them.

        Sadly, I’m not personally aware of any efforts or market forces that are likely to improve the situation in the eBook space, which is a shame, because the sector could benefit from making it easier for new publishers, authors, and on-line platforms to enter into the marketplace and be successful. If your aware of any initiatives that I’m not, I’d love to hear about them.

        – Andy

        Liked by 1 person

      • davidelang says:

        hmm, nesting may be causing me to not be able to reply to you, so I’m replying to myself in the hope it appears below your reply

        The “reward” isn’t for proprietary differentiation in the format, there’s no technical advantage of one format over the other. The only value of the formats in that the devices sold to work with that store work with that format and the lock-in that this results in (but you have to note that the same lock-in exists on stores that use .epub, so switching formats would not ‘fix’ this problem)

        Switching formats would have a very significant cost and would have no noticeable technical advantage. Changing the default format would break old devices that nobody is interested in doing more development for (this is the same if you are talking about the original Kindle or Nook)

        Until there is pressure to allow one brand of devices to access another brand’s books, I don’t see any market pressure that’s likely to change anything. The most likely cause of the need to have one brand of devices access another brand of books that I see would be if B&N were to abandon the Nook (which they’ve already tried to sell off) and the outcry and lawsuits from people who can no longer access the books they paid for could force B&N to open their store (and the existing books in accounts) to other devices. IF that were to happen, I would expect to see everyone (including Amazon) make their devices able to access the B&N content, including dealing with the DRM involved.

        The only other thing I could see was some sort of regulatory pressure forcing Amazon to open up. But that would either require some sort of quid-pro-quo on the part of the other stores, or some anti-trust finding that Amazon is not only a Monopoly, but has abused it’s Monopoly position. While Amazon’s opponents like to make these claims today, they really don’t have any evidence that they can use (especially after the Apple/Publisher conspiracy)

        Almost all third party sellers offer both .mobi and .epub (and commonly some other formats as well), so they aren’t a help. Amazon is making some moves that make it harder for third party sellers (banning them from using the e-mail to kindle feature), but since none of the other stores offer a similar feature, it’s hard to accurately call that an abuse of any monopoly power they may have.

        In the long run, we are going to end up facing the inheritance scandal on all cloud-based digital media. It will take several years before we have large numbers of people who ‘own’ such content dieing and have their heirs see the ‘purchased’ content disappear on them. But the aftermath of that will also result in more people with content on multiple services but unable to easily access it all.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Coincidentally, I too feel entitled to strong opinions, and on a variety of topics. I’m sure many feel so entitled.

      I suppose that what I was getting at was less about timing and more about intention. You say companies join in standardization so they can design or redesign their products around standards–why would they? They already had a jump on the market because they were doing work while everyone else– hundreds of companies, apparently–were busy in meetings trying to agree to make everyone at the table happy without really ever considering the customer. Amazon didn’t really need to get on any bus; they built one they can drive and maintain as they, as a business, see fit.

      The marketplace had already chosen a standard. It’s mobi and Amazon’s derivatives thereof. That the marketplace’s standard is different from one a consortium has agreed to might be something the consortium should look more closely at.

      Because I’ve worked with both formats, and ePub is, to borrow your phase, rubbish.


      • Will,

        Just to clarify, I’m not technically competent to favor one format (or approach) over another, which I think is typical of any customer, as compared to a vendor or other entity making a living out of participating in the supply chain. What I do appreciate is an absence of proprietary choke and friction points, however that is achieved at the technical level. So long as the approach taken facilitates choice, favors competition, and defaults to innovation, the goal has been achieved. Today, we don’t really have any of those three key factors.

        I appreciate your continuing to take the time to continue the dialogue and develop the theme.

        – Andy


  8. David,

    Yes, WordPress is a little weird in how they lay out the comment threads (as you can see, I had to enter a new comment as well, as the comment-specific “reply” option disappeared for me as well.

    I don’t see much hope on the regulatory front in the U.S., nor, strictly speaking, in the EU, either. a few Individual countries in the EU (like France), however, have not been shy about passing new legislation, and interpreting existing laws (e.g., relating to severely limiting price discounting), to favor publishers, brick and mortar stores and competition (or, more cynically, to limit the incursion of Yankee companies like Amazon). What remains to be seen is whether European vendors/publishers/distributors will come up with any new and interesting solutions using the breaching space that the legislators are giving them.

    Thanks for the continuing thoughts.

    – Andy


    • davidelang says:

      I really don’t think there’s real justification (at this time) for regulatory intervention. Amazon is not a monopoly (it has a large market share, but that’s not all that’s required), and they have made very few moves that could be interpreted as abusing a monopoly, even if they had one.

      I see more potential in consumer outrage (either from a store going away and taking the content with it, or the inheritance issue) demanding that all stores open up. But it will be ugly whatever happens.

      I also don’t think that it’s a given that .epub will win.

      I think that Amazon could do a lot to eliminate the effectiveness of the monopoly charge if they were to publish their format (making it a de-facto standard) and allowed devices from other manufacturers to talk to their store. There would be cries about how this is just a ploy, but “Chinese” device manufacturers would jump on the chance to make kindle clones, while still able to access other stores. Given the Amazon stance of “everything is an API and available to the public”, this isn’t even that outrageous an idea. But there would probably need to be some significant political/marketing advantage to trigger the change.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The best thing that Amazon could do for the reader, the author and the future would be to contribute the Mobi specification to a standards consortium (new or existing) and allow everyone to decide where it would go in the future. As things are now, if Amazon (or, to make this less personal), some future company to which Amazon decided to sell its Kindle business to were to want to change the standard to make all existing Mobi-based books unreadable, they could do that.

        Impossible? Well, consider this. Ten years ago, Microsoft told everyone it would be ridiculous to adopt ODF instead of OOXML, their proposed format, because of the “billions and billions” of documents that had already been created in Word, which had to continue to be supported. Seven years later, after it won the standards battle, guess what?

        It abandoned those “billions and billions of documents” that had to be supported.

        Or look at it this way: how long does a typical electronic device last? How long do we need books to last? How old is the Gutenberg Bible? Do we really want to buy books we buy now to remain accessible?

        This was the reason I campaigned so hard for ODF – because formats, and any other standards essential to keep public and private documents accessible, are too important to leave in proprietary hands.

        – Andy


  9. Robotech_Master says:

    The thing that gets me is, I’m not sure anyone even really WANTS e-book interoperability, except for the activists. The e-book vendors themselves don’t—but the vast majority of actual customers don’t seem to want it either. They like being able to buy their e-books by tapping one place on their screen.

    Even Baen, who sold e-books DRM-free for a decade and a half, and who had an email-this-to-my-Kindle function until Amazon just now told them they couldn’t, had to make big changes to their e-book store so they could get their e-books onto Amazon because that was where all the customers were. Because buying anywhere that you had to do something more than tap a button was apparently too technical for the vast majority of their would-be customers.

    I’m not inclined to say, “Yay, proprietary formats!” like Joshua Tallent, but I don’t think anyone except the activists really cares if they are or not, either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a bit puzzled why you’re suggesting that you can’t have interoperable books and one click shopping? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I think that when it comes to books, the arguments against DRM have really become moot as well, since your books are up there in the cloud all the time, and you can read them anywhere, any time, on any device. On the other hand, the piracy has become rather breath taking, so I’d say the problem isn’t that there is DRM on books, but that the DRM on books doesn’t work.

      It’s also wrong to conclude that eBook standards don’t matter because only “activists” care about them. That’s always been true about just about anything that matters. A few people throw the tea in the harbor, or march to Selma, or stage sit ins against a war. The fact that others stand aside doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t matter. It just means that they don’t understand or care well enough to get on board.

      – Andy

      Liked by 1 person

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  14. Old tech may be outdated but at least in the days of VHS, when I bought a videotape of a movie, I could watch it on a Sony VCR, a Magnavox VCR, or whatever VCR.

    The digital age is great in many respects but these companies have a tendency to reel you in – once you’ve bought enough media through one company, it just becomes easier to stick with that company forever because the media you bought from there won’t transfer to another company.

    If you start out as an Apple person, it’s hard to switch up to Droid and vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Absolutely. And the reason you could switch VCRs was because they were all built to the same standard. When that’s the case, you can switch vendors and there’s more competition, innovation and choice. But once you’re “locked in,” then there’s no choice without a lot of hassles. Sometimes, it’s even worse, because due to the hassles, people often migrate to one proprietary platform (like Microsoft Word) so that they can exchange documents without losing formatting and fidelity.

    Once that happens, the only innovation you get is what the company with monopoly power wants to give you, which will usually not be much, because innovation costs money.

    This is my big concern about eBooks and Amazon. I don’t think that Amazon has used dirty tricks or abused the marketplace to get where it is today – Bezos took huge chances, showed incredible determination to hang on to his strategy, and basically created the eBook marketplace almost single-handedly. That’s all good, and my hat’s off to him.

    But what isn’t good is if we are left with a marketplace that one company owns – in this case, Amazon – not because they’ll necessarily start doing evil things, but because they won’t have any incentive to continue to do great things.

    I’d like to see innovation and competition continue, and I don’t see that happening unless there’s a robust standard that is adopted by everyone.


    • davidelang says:

      “the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from” 😉

      with e-books, the biggest problem is access to the stores, not access to the content after it’s been downloaded (with music and movies it’s similar, with the added rent-seeking of codec “licensors”). DRM breaks things even if the different stores use the same ‘standard format’

      The VHS/Beta split was a big hassle because it wasn’t possible to convert between them. With e-books (again, allowing for DRM) the conversion is simple and lossless, so you don’t have the same technical barrier in place.

      Focus your effort on the DRM and the stores rather than on the format.


  16. When you’re talking about consumer goods like books and music, people don’t want to be bothered having to convert anything – they want to be able to just push a button and play, watch or read. And they should be able to.

    if every vendor accepted the same file and didn’t change it, even without having a standard, everyone could download and use it on any device. So the problem doesn’t start with the file, or the file format, but what the vendor does with it next. If they all agreed to do the same things (again, even without a formal standard), again, you’d get the same result on any device that was configured to display the same type of file.

    The purpose of having a standard would be so that they COULD do something else without breaking interoperability, and so that competition and innovation could occur above the layer of standardization, like brighter backgrounds, or more font choices, the ability to mix content, and so on (although for some of these things the standard would have to become more robust).

    I personally don’t have much sympathy on the DRM front, now that anyone can read anything in the Cloud. In other words, the argument that “I paid for this, I should be able to read it anywhere, anytime, and the fact that I pad $2.99 is more important than the author’s right to protect herself against piracy” doesn’t have any meaning anymore, because they already can read their book, anywhere. If Google and Apple and Kobo (and, for that matter, Books-a-Million) want to put out an app that lets you read content on an Apple/Android/MS device, then no one should object to DRM.

    So the problem with DRM today isn’t that it’s a bad thing, but that it doesn’t work. Anyone can download a free tool to break a DRM-protected book, so no one is benefiting, and no one is protected from DRM existing at all in its current form.


  17. davidelang says:

    > if every vendor accepted the same file and didn’t change it, even without having a standard, everyone could download and use it on any device. So the problem doesn’t start with the file, or the file format, but what the vendor does with it next.

    similarly, if every vendor accepted the file and transparently converted it to their preferred format there wouldn’t be a problem. This is possible today (excluding DRM)

    Even if everyone used .epub, they would not be able to access books from the ‘wrong’ devices/software because the DRM schemes used by the different stores are not compatible with each other. I agree that the DRM also doesn’t work, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping most of the publishers from demanding it.

    But no, the Internet is not continually available in all locations to the point where everything can be accessed from the cloud (flying, boating, camping, or just living in a rural area).

    > If Google and Apple and Kobo (and, for that matter, Books-a-Million) want to put out an app that lets you read content on an Apple/Android/MS device, then no one should object to DRM.

    Well then, nobody should object to the Amazon file format either. They do put out an app that let’s you read the content on all those devices. 🙂

    But limiting access to a work to a particular app means that there is no ability to compete on the layer above the content like you say you want to be able to do.


  18. Bear in mind that the DRM can be part of the standard (I believe with ePub it already is, isn’t it?), which would allow any reader to be used, and/or a keychest model can be adopted, if properly configured.

    The central point remains that if the parties involved wanted to work together, through a variety of means they could give customers a read anywhere, on any device (as Amazon already does). The problem is that they’ve decided not to.


  19. davidelang says:

    > Bear in mind that the DRM can be part of the standard

    It could be, but unless the keys for the DRM are available it won’t help any. From what I understand about the use of .epub is that the DRM used by different stores is not compatible.

    > The central point remains that if the parties involved wanted to work together, through a variety of means they could give customers a read anywhere, on any device (as Amazon already does). The problem is that they’ve decided not to.

    I agree that the problem is that they’ve decided not to.

    Almost every store (except Apple) allows people to read the content on any device. They all provide their own app that you can use. For you to single out Amazon like you did in this article (especially around file formats) is attacking the wrong target and the wrong part of the problem. If you want to attack someone for device lock-in, go after Apple. If you want to attack the problem of incompatibility between stores and the resulting network effect limiting competition, then you need to go after the store APIs and DRM, not the fact that Amazon uses one format and B&N uses a different one.

    Note that there are some publishers who do make their e-books available in multiple formats and without DRM. But with very few exceptions, they only sell their own titles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m’ confused by one point you’re making. When you refer to “stores,” what do you have in mind? Do you mean the small number of publishers that are trying to sell direct?


      • davidelang says:

        I mean that the DRM from the ibooks store, the google play store, B&N, the kobo store are not compatible with each other, even though they all use .epub.

        The small publishers selling books themselves generally don’t use DRM.


  20. Got it. I was wondering whether that was it, but was confused because Amazon would be a “store” as well. Anyway, I agree that all of the players are to blame.

    At the other end of the supply chain, Amazon and Apple are worse. An author needs a different file for Amazon than for the others, and (for Pete’s sake) a IOS device to upload your file to Apple.


    • davidelang says:

      > An author needs a different file for Amazon than for the others
      Not necessarily, you can upload the same file and have the stores do the conversion themselves. There are companies like Smashwords that will upload your books to multiple different stores in the different formats for you.

      For anyone doing the work themselves, the hassle of dealing with the different uploading mechanism dwarfs the effort to add a conversion step into the pipeline.

      It’s not as if the different format requires human interaction. It’s just a matter of running your source through the formatting software. From what I’ve heard from Authors and Publishers doing this, there are some gotcha’s between the different .epub stores as well, so it’s not Amazon vs everyone else.

      > and (for Pete’s sake) a IOS device to upload your file to Apple.

      Yep, this is the where I would be upset. Apple doesn’t let you read the books you’ve purchased on anything other than an Apple device as far as I know. All the other big stores have apps that run on Apple devices, but Apple tries to put a one-way gate on things.


  21. For better or worse, I’m trying uploading the files on my own this time just to see what it’s like. Wish me luck. The upload is another labyrinth; Smashwords will do it for most sites but not Amazon, and not (I believe) with DRM, if that’s what the author wanted; LighningSource has an author upload site, but it’s supposed to be a pain; there are lots of file conversion outfits on line, but the most I found was one that would “help” you upload files; all the others only deliver the files to you, unless you go to one of the high price package shops, most of whom won’t do ala carte services like this, as far as I can tell.

    In a perfect world with everything rationalized, there’s be a single upload site, like for college applications. Yes, Smashwords in a way is that site, but see above.

    All in all, it’s astonishing how many hundreds of thousands of self-published authors there are out there, and no wonder how many publish only on Amazon. Which, of course, continues to consolidate the market, this time at the supply end. Not Amazon’s fault as such, since everyone is playing the same game. But they won.


    • davidelang says:

      DRM is applied by the store. Your only part in it is the checkbox “do I want DRM” that Amazon gives you (I don’t know if the other stores give you the option if you aren’t a bigish publisher)

      for file conversion, the one I keep seeing people talk about is Calibre. I’ve asked for specific suggestions from folks over at The Passive Voice and will relay them along.


    • davidelang says:

      By the way, I disagree that there should be one site to upload to every store. That would give that one place too much power as a gatekeeper. The upload process needs to get much more standardized so that the tools to do so are as varied as the tools needed to access a website currently are (as bad as that has gotten)


  22. Calibre is certainly the one I hear mentioned the most as well, although I’ve also heard people complain about its complexity. The problem with writing programs is the developer is trapped between the customers that want more functionality and those that want a simple experience. I’d be a fan of a program that offered two modes – one for the average author that at most wants to format a nice chapter page layout and perhaps add a couple of pictures, and another that would enable tables and all the other bells and whistles. I’ll look forward to reading what you find out on the current best picks.

    I agree on the upload site. I didn’t mean to imply only one site, but the ability to upload to everywhere from only one site – the more sites that would provide that service the better, and particularly if they competed to make it as easy as possible. They could also sell single ISBN numbers for those that wanted one, and provide other ancillary, valued services.

    Right now, authors are handicapped by how scattered the marketplace is. There are thousands of proofreaders and editors, but it’s hard to know who is really good (I’ve just paid a lot of money for the second time for a recommended proofreader who missed lots of typos). Then again, there are lots of services, but they may not be bundled the way you want them to. There are cheap prices, but often at a cost – poor quality, or (understandably) by requiring authors to communicate by email only to avoid over-exploition of the service providers time. And so on. We’re all pretty much stumbling in the dark, because the sort of market metastructure hasn’t evolved yet that provides reliable ranking as a service. Of course, that’s bad for the good service providers as well.

    So there is the existence of an enormous range of service providers, but a very inefficient (to non-existent) way to for those that are really good to be discovered.

    Kind of like self-published books.


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