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The slow pace of ebook innovation

The Android ecosystem shares some of the same obstacles

I love this comment from Dave Bricker regarding an earlier post, EPUB 3 facts and forecasts:

Ebook vendors enjoy a closed loop ecosystem. They have millions of reader/customers who are satisfied with EPUB 2 display capabilities and devices. Amazon readers, for example, are largely content with the offerings in the proprietary Kindle store; they’re not lining up with torches and pitchforks to push for improvements. While publishers wait for eReader device manufacturers to add new features and EPUB 3 support, eBooksellers are just as happy to wait.

The best way to promote EPUB 3 right now is to bypass it in favor of delivering ultra-innovative books through the web and app-based distribution. When we can give eReader device makers a compelling reason to bring eReaders into parity with apps and webkit browsers, they’ll put their mouths where our money is. Until eBookstores know they’re losing sales to alternative/open channels, they’re going to sit pretty, stall, and make money doing what they’re doing.

Who’s pushing for innovation in the ebook space? Publishers? No, they’re fairly content with quick-and-dirty p-to-e conversions and they’re risk averse when it comes to making big investments in richer content formats. Retailers? Nope. If retailers were motivated we’d see much broader adoption of EPUB 3 in the various readers and apps out there.

This reminds me of the Android challenge. It’s widely known that new versions of the Android OS don’t get adopted as rapidly as new versions of Apple’s iOS do. That’s because the carriers (e.g., AT&T) and handset makers (e.g., Samsung) have no incentive to update all the existing devices. They’d prefer to force you into a new phone rather than give you a quick OS update with all the new features.

This is one area that Apple really understands and gets right. When they come out with a new version of iOS they have it pushed out to as many customers as possible (assuming their devices can support it). Apple knows there’s so much sex appeal for each new device they don’t have to starve existing device owners from the new OS features.

Will an ebook vendor ever follow Apple’s iOS model and lead the industry to a more accelerated pace of innovation? Or is Dave Bricker right that web delivery is the best way forward?

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Comments: 24

  1. Is there any explanation anywhere of what’s in ePub3 for the readers? More DRM? Features that only some eBook readers support? More vendor lock-in? (The situation’s bad enough as it is.) 

    • The capabilities are obviously up to the author/publisher. Richer content is what’s possible though. The DRM impact is probably neutral…neither better nor worse. Same for vendor lock-in, although you could argue that the same richer EPUB 3 content could be distributed by multiple vendors.

      • But my question is, what is meant by this “richer content”?

        • More than simply written words on the screen. Video and audio are the obvious answers but I think web integration is key as well. So what features of the web (or websites themselves) would be valuable elements of a book? This clearly isn’t for all types of content but some could really lend themselves to a much richer experience. To use a different metaphor…think horses vs. today’s automobile. Better yet, think the Model T vs. today’s automobile. My point is we’re not pushing the envelope on what’s possible and, to quote Henry Ford, “if I would have listened to my customers I would have built a faster horse.” A faster horse isn’t going to move this market along.

          • I can see richer content 

          • It seems to me that a lot of this discussion isn’t about making better books – it’s about avoiding making books at all, and making a movie or a game instead. Which may be exactly what the customers want, and may be what will move the market along, but it’s got nothing to do with publishers or books.

            I can see the value of this for some textbooks, but in many others I can only see that this ruins the book by trying to make it into something that it simply is not. I’m willing to change my opinion once I see what can be done, but at the moment it seems that most people are happy with their horses because they like horses. Cars might be great, but… we actually like horses.

  2. What I have in mind is something like Wolfram’s CDF ( http://www.wolfram.com/cdf/ ) but open-source, or at least openly supported the way PDF tends to be.  There’s no reason we can’t have a technical manual with examples than run, upon demand, on a Kindle-class platform.  This will considerably enhance technical texts, but also be a boon for children’s books, games, and reference books.

    • Great example, Ted. And it answers Edward Bear’s question below about what rich content is.

      • Joe, I think that O’Reilly should take a lead in this, perhaps initially developing requirements that match current (or nearby projected) platform capabilities;  Tim should try to partner with someone on the platform side and perhaps experienced open-source folks to make this happen. 

        • Ted, are you talking about O’Reilly developing requirements for an existing retailer’s ecosystem like B&N or are you suggesting the focus should be on web delivery?

  3. Do any of the *current* rich/interactive bits work on the cheaper versions of hardware readers? Probably not, so we’re already taking buyer-market-breadth out of the equation.

    So if I were an author with an idea for something rich like this I’d probably focus on HTML5/JS, build a paid-member website, then talk to the browser-based-ereader folks about what constraints to work within to create a packageable version.

  4. You ask “Who’s pushing for innovation in the ebook space?” My answer is no-one. My question back to you is “Why do you _want_ innovation in the _ebook_ space?”

    I like to read books: static displays of characters (ink or pixels) set on a contrasting background. I am one of the people described in the quote above: “Amazon readers, for example, are largely content with the offerings in the proprietary Kindle store; they’re not lining up with torches and pitchforks to push for improvements.” Except for (possibly) text books and instruction manuals I don’t want a jazzed up ebook with embedded video, or a sound track, or any other type of “richer content.”

    I might be interested in a new type of story-telling medium, that has video elements (but isn’t a movie) and has interactive elements (but isn’t a computer game) and has textual elements (but isn’t a book). Just to make discussion easier, I’ll call this new story format a ‘flashy.’

    Sooner or later some very creative person will make a ‘flashy’ that catches the attention of the world. At that time, a new medium will have been created. This new medium, however, may be a development of movies or video games. It doesn’t have to be born out of book publishing.

    Developing an entertainment industry from the first hit ‘flashy’ will take years, just as it took years for the movie industry and the video game industry to develop.

    Don’t bother creating “enhanced ebooks.” customers like me don’t want them.

    If you are a really creative and original individual, and you want to experiment with new ways of telling stories, go for it. Just don’t call the end result an ebook.

    • Hi Gary. I’m sure some types of content will always be fine when delivered as static, written words. That doesn’t mean all content needs to exist this way though. I couldn’t help but think of that Henry Ford quote on “faster horses” when I read your comment. Sometimes we have to also realize something that has yet to be invented might really appeal to us. I believe there will be plenty of creativity applied to publishing in the coming years and the results will include products we never even imagined but turn out to be very appealing.

      • I don’t think that the Henry Ford quote really fits the situation for today’s fiction ebooks, although it may for textbooks and manuals. When people said that they wanted ‘faster horses’ I think that they were really saying that they wanted and needed faster transportation. And Henry Ford gave them what they wanted, albeit with a mechanical ‘horse’ instead of an organic one.

        I see the current drive for “enhanced” fiction ebooks as being more akin to automobile design at Ford or Chrysler or GM in the 50s, where they seemed to focus on adding more chrome trim and bigger fins to the family sedan. These add-ons didn’t do anything useful, or satisfy any real customer demand. They did help sales of new cars by making the 1956 model look different than the 1955 model.

        As I said in my original post, however, if and when some creative individual wants to tell a story in a new way, using all kinds of enriched content, then great. If that enriched content really adds something to the story I’m all for it. If you know of some such story please let me know about it, and I’ll check it out.

        While I’m waiting for the development of this new type of story, however, please don’t load up simple text novels with today’s equivalent of wider fins and chrome doo-dads. Unless these ‘added features’ do something to help tell the story I don’t want them.

        The only add-on to a typical text novel that I can think of, that I really want, is a way to zoom in on any attached map or illustration, with additional detail appearing as you zoom in. That is, something like the way Google maps works. In an ebook reader it would display the map or family tree or illustration that comes with the book, and you could zoom in or out and pan in any direction.

  5. This does hit the nail on the head, many publishers aren’t pushing for innovation, no more then kindle has done until recently. The biggest push that kindle received was when people wanted to have a color cover, amazon couldn’t deliver that unless via an app for ipad or desktop/laptop. 

    If anyone is leading or pushing the change for publishing in enhanced, not even sure the right word, maybe more stylized approach to eBooks and publishing it is apple. They are pushing the envelope with support in iBooks, much further then others. 

    In reply to Gary asking why you want innovation? Because not innovating isn’t always the best choice for everyone. We have to remember, not every eBook type needs the bells and whistles, but some out there benefit from it quite nicely. Not everybody will like them, many will, some won’t care one way or another, it all comes back to your reading environment. Take kindle for example, no support for read aloud or video and audio, some ask why that matters, well, think kids books.  

    The challenge with the web based approach is you don’t know exactly how someone is using the web on their end. Settings, browser type, mac, pc, add-ons, plugins, etc. Sure you can try and accomodate for it, but not 100%, which means it’s still challenging. In some sense the design for ibooks, nook, kindle is fine, you are creating content for a specific environment which takes advantage of the features & abilities. 

    In a way asking who wants the enhancements and saying not me is like saying I’m fine with this boring old car, who needs something sporty or fun. While another person says, keep your fiesta, I want the audi. There are audiences for all types of content. In the end, it’s just that content, how you sell it, use it, present it can and should vary, why not go with multiple avenues and try different approaches, beauty of digital is it offers flexibility.

    • Your “keep your Fiesta, I want the Audi” comment is a great example of what I’m taking about. Let’s face it. Quite a few people would rather read the book than see the movie despite all the special effects the latter has to offer. That will be true for ebooks as well, I’m sure. Sometimes simply reading the static words on a page/screen will be more appealing than consuming a richer presentation of the story.

      • I like my Fiesta. Show me an Audi and I’ll buy one. Show me the improved, 2013 model Fiesta (which is the same as the older model except that it has chrome plated door knobs and a vinyl steering wheel cover) and I won’t buy the new “enhanced” Fiesta.

        The main problems I have with with the abstract concept of an “enhanced eBook” are:

        – There aren’t any to look at. We are unfortunately suffering from a lack of genius on the part of content creators. If and when some genius comes up with an “enhanced” anything that really is better at telling a story, then there will be a market and customer demand for those things, and publishers (or other content providers) will supply them.

        – In the absence of any real, substantial improvement in story telling quality, various marketing departments at various publishers are pushing “enhancements” that in my opinion don’t enhance anything, except their marketing hype. In the case of ebooks, I’ll trust the author. Let the author decide if the “enhancement” really makes his/her story better. If the author thinks that the enhancement is worth having, then I’ll try it to see if I agree or not.

        – You can only “enhance” a book so far, before it isn’t a book any more. I like movies. I like television shows. Movies and TV shows, however, aren’t books. At some point, an “enhanced ebook” becomes a new storytelling medium. That’s fine, and I hope that this new thing is created soon, but it is the reason why I originally asked why we are discussing “innovation in the _ebook_ space.” I am much more interested in innovation in the _story telling_ space.

  6. Joe, “following Apple’s iOS model” isn’t going to get eBooks where they need to go. eBooks built with Apple’s model will use proprietary tools, proprietary extensions to EPUB and proprietary DRM–all of which Apple uses today for its own eBooks. As for EPUB3, it’s like trying to put together a puzzle with half of the pieces missing:

    * The EPUB3 editors that are in the market now are rudimentary.
    * EPUB3 has so many options and boundary cases that it’s virtually impossible to write an EPUB3 reader that supports everything that’s possible under the standard.
    * To my knowledge, there’s no “standard subset” of EPUB3 that all eReaders must support–everything is ad hoc.
    * The IDPF has no power to enforce compliance with any portion of the EPUB3 spec, so EPUB3 is really a suggestion, not a standard. That’s why Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo all have their own incompatible, proprietary EPUB 2.X extensions.

    As a result, publishers don’t know what features will be supported by most eReader developers, eReader developers are looking for direction from publishers, and EPUB3 adoption is moving at a snail’s pace.

    In my opinion, the bandwagon that eBooks should be on is HTML5 and CSS3, not a subset like EPUB3 or Kindle Format 8. The standard for implementation should be which HTML5 and CSS3 features are supported by the most popular modern mobile and desktop browsers, rather than waiting for the industry to settle on a standard EPUB3 subset (which, by definition, will be a subset of a subset of HTML5.)

    • Len, sorry that I wasn’t more clear in the original article. When I asked if anyone would follow Apple’s model I wasn’t asking for a closed system. Rather, I was suggesting that we need a player who will push for adoption of new standards that will lead to the faster adoption of innovative techniques. I’m not very optimistic this will happen though, so I’m in total agreement with your last paragraph about HTML5/CSS3.

    • Hi Len, in total agreement with what you say. Our HTML5 eReader for technical publications http://www.tekreader.com (in my own opinion) is close, and getting closer, to EPUB3 compliance with respect to functionality. Our data layer uses as much of the EPUB3 standard as possible. What the EPUB3 standard does not currently support, or the combination of browser incompatibility, we then transform to our own structure that tekReader then consumes and displays. As EPUB3 improves we can then take out the transformation layers that assists with the rendering.

  7. I attend book fairs and writers’ conferences frequently. The innovations abound by the dozen. What planet are you living on?

  8. Publishers can (and should) get beyond the book and start designing for the post-book era.  Let’s start casting book content in new containers.   The proliferation of tablets and their concomitant reliance on interface and interaction design affords us the opportunity to create new meaningful experiences with legacy content (not to mention new content).  Not pBook, not eBook, but Post-book.

  9. “When we can give eReader device makers a compelling reason to bring eReaders into parity with apps and webkit browsers”

    Webkit browsers? Is that a euphemism for Chrome? I have a lot of friends at Mozilla and I much prefer Firefox for a variety of reasons. Google with their seemingly infinite resources may yet bury Firefox, but until they do I am not willing to publish a document or field an app that doesn’t work in Firefox, Chrome and the browser in iOS.

  10. Joe: 

    We just this week published Alexandra Chasin’s ‘app-novel’, Brief.  Designed to incorporate the medium (iPad tablet) as an integral part of the message, the story chronicles the formation of an art vandal charged with defacing a masterpiece of modern art.  Chasin’s collaborator Scott Peterman designed the ‘app-novel’ using openFrameworks. The application randomly locates images from a cache of over 700 and then wraps the text around them. Shaking the iPad or swiping the screen forward or backward changes the images.  This provides a wildly different experience for each reader, as every screen of Brief is unique, generating new combinations and meanings.  Peterman will be making the open-source code available in a repository provided by Jaded Ibis Productions.   Important: The images don’t serve to illustrate the text rather to evoke the novel’s time period, probing the question of cause and effect in history.

    We will be publishing increasingly more literary works designed specifically as apps that integrate the medium into the narrative.  We’re looking beyond this, too, but are not yet in a position to publicly discuss.

    Debra Di Blasi, Publisher-in-Chief, Jaded Ibis Productions.com

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