Submitted by: The Two Sides Team May 11, 2012
Actually, this isn’t an environmental story – it’s about a sustainable business model – but I thought interesting. My conclusion is that a physical book still offers the best of all worlds! Read on…….
Ebooks will be obsolete within five years, claims Jani Patokallio
Kindly reproduced from the Bookseller and Publisher, Thursday, 3 May 2012, from an original blog by the author. Link at bottom of this story. A thoughtfully argued piece.
Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, Patokallio argues
ebooks are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.
On the web, the very idea that the right to read a website would vary from country to country seems patently absurd. But in the print publishing industry, publishing rights for different countries and languages are both standard practice and a big deal. Printed books have to be moved around on pallets in trucks, and since micromanaging physical distribution in the UK would be hard and expensive for a publisher in the US, it make a lot of sense for the US publisher to cut a deal with a UK counterpart.
So when ebooks rolled along with the promise to obliterate barriers to distribution, the publishing industry was faced with either changing everything they do, or sticking to what they’ve always done. Naturally, they opted to circle wagons, stick their fingers in their ears and pretend digital is print.
Digital makes copying free. Reaction: Try to block digital copying by imposing DRM.
Digital eliminates the constraints of geography from distribution. Reaction: Try to preserve regional publishing monopolies by imposing artificial geographical limits on digital distribution.
General-purpose web browsers change rapidly and allow the user full control. Reaction: Build single-purpose ‘e-readers’ that only allow reading ebooks, preferably tightly locked into a monopoly vendor’s authorized distribution channel.
Digital formats on the web are wild, woolly and evolve unpredictably. Reaction: Try to make ebooks resemble physical books by kneecapping them with incompatible ‘standards’ like ePub, created by the publishing industry to serve its own interests.
ePub is an instructive case. The current de facto standard, version 2, is essentially XHTML 1.1, a W3C standard dating to 2001, with a sprinkle of limited CSS2 (1998) and layers of proprietary cruft added on top. This means most ebooks are using technology that was cutting edge fourteen years ago, and thus lack even rudimentary features like absolute positioning, which allows making pages look the same on all devices.
Anointed successor ePub 3 was released in late 2011, now encapsulating HTML5 instead, if with a long list of incompatible ‘extensions, enhancements, deviations and constraints’.
However, nobody’s using it yet, because there are no devices on the market that support it and, ebook readers being single-purpose hardware, you can’t just update them to the latest Firefox to get support. The only device out there with something like it is Amazon’s Kindle Fire, whose proprietaryKF8 format is kinda-sorta-but-not-really in line with ePub 3, so publishers have to repackage everything twice. Remember the Internet Explorer vs Netscape ‘browser wars’ back in 1995 or so? That’s where ebook formats are today.
Let’s recap. Customers today are expected to buy into a format that locks down their content into a silo, limits their purchasing choices based on where their credit card happens to have been registered, is designed to work best on devices that are rapidly becoming obsolete, and support only a tiny subset of the functionality available on any modern website. Nonetheless, publishers are seeing their ebook sales skyrocket and congratulate themselves on a job well done. How come?
Because right now, they have no choice. If I want to read a digital copy of Country Driving today, my options are to either bend over to HarperCollins or to go pound sand. But once publishers start breaking ranks (as they are already doing) and major authors start to self-publish (as they are already doing), the illusion of ebooks being a necessary simulacrum of printed books will start to dissipate.
What will replace them? The same medium that already killed off the encyclopedia, the telephone directory and the atlas: the web. For your regular linear fiction novel, or even readable tomes of nonfiction, ano-frills PDF does the job just fine and Lonely Planet has been selling its travel guidebooks and phrasebooks a chapter at a time, no DRM or
other silliness, as PDFs for years now. For more complicated, interactive, web-like stuff, throw away the artificial shackles of ePub and embrace the full scope of HTML5, already supported by all major browsers and usable right now by several billion people. (Check out the Financial Times web app for a sneak preview of what’s already possible.) Chuck in offline support, an embryonic but increasingly usable core part of HTML5, and you can even read the ‘book’ (website) offline.
The shift will not be instant, and there’s still a good couple of years of life left in the ebook market before the alternatives work out the kinks of presentation, distribution and retailing. But e-readers will be obsolete in a few years, and once they’re gone, the sole weak advantage an ebook has over its future replacements will be gone. Any publisher banking on ebooks being around five years from now is in for a rude surprise.
Jani Patokallio is publishing platform architect at Lonely Planet. This is an edited extract from Patokallio’s original post here: