Ebook: Survival of the Fittest

Feb 16, 2010

Ebooks are a hot topic right now, thanks in part to two big companies. Amazon and Apple are going head-to-head in the battle for the ebook supremacy, which may just prove to be a boon for consumers.

First, Amazon announced that its Kindle ebook reading device was the "most gifted item" this past holiday season, and that on Christmas day 2009, for the first time in its history, ebooks outsold traditional books. These two facts alone were enough to get the publishing industry excited about ebook profits.

However, the Amazon sales propaganda--which did not include actual retail numbers on how many Kindle devices the company actually sold--was nothing compared to excitement created by the amazing marketing machine at Apple. Steve Jobs and crew managed to create demand, and significant media attention, for a device that existed only as an urban legend until late January. A carefully executed media circus ensued when the company announced its iPad wireless, touchscreen device and its eCommerce companion, the iBook Store, an iTunes-like online shopping mall for ebooks, on January 27.

Apple says the iPad will revolutionize the way people use mobile computing devices and purchase, read and interact with ebooks. With the undeniable success of the iPod and the iPhone, there's not much doubt that the company is likely to succeed. Apple says it's not positioning itself as a competitor of traditional book publishers, but instead, as a sort of online purveyor of digital entertainment goodies--music, movies, television shows, and now, ebooks. In other words, it's just another place for publishers to sell ebooks.

While this is bad news for ebookellers like Barnes & Noble, Border's, and Amazon, competition in the marketplace will be good for both publishers and consumers alike. Publishers will benefit by being able to sell their ebooks in the iBook Store to Apple's large and brand-loyal audience--and, in some instances, at a higher price point. Consumers will benefit from the convenience of one-stop online entertainment shopping (iTunes and iBook Store will no doubt be linked) as well as an improved reading experience, as publishers learn to create interactive, multi-media rich eBook products. One example is R&B singer Tyrese Gibson's Mayhem that marries voice-over talent, sound effects, and a soundtrack to create a totally new comic book experience.

But, there are still two major hurdles in the way of the Holy Ebook Grail.

First, publishing processes are still largely print-based. This means that they are not optimized to take advantage of the benefits digital publishing provides. One of the most important benefits being the ability to create multiple versions of books (e.g. print, web, iPhone, Kindle, etc.) simultaneously, with the click of a mouse. Most publishers aren't anywhere near being able to do so because they still use outdated desktop publishing approaches. These methods are slow, inefficient, error-prone, and loaded with manual processes that should be automated. What's needed is for publishers to re-engineer their content production processes and adopt a more flexible, efficient, and cost-effective XML publishing approach. By doing so, they'll be able to benefit from the many advantages XML publishing provides, including the ability to react quickly to threats from the competition, get to market faster, reuse content across imprints and divisions, and create innovative new publications for use on any device type, with minimal effort.

The second challenge publishers must address is related to the first. It's the need to adopt an open standard eBook creation format. The most promising is the EPUB standard, maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum. Ebooks created to EPUB specifications are "reflowable," meaning the content automatically adjusts to the size of the screen of the eBook reading device being used; text is re-sized and auto-wrapped around images, making the eBook content largely device independent.

While the EPUB format is a good solution for publishers of text-centric content, it's not as good for some magazines and technical publications that require extremely precise layout and design, or that have advanced formatting needs. EPUB also lacks standardized support for linking between, into, and within ebooks, making it less interactive than a typical web browsing experience. But, as the standard is a work in progress, analysts expect these and other challenges to be addressed in future iterations of the EPUB standard.

The need for a standard ebook format is important for numerous reasons, the most important of which is to minimize the number of output formats publishers need to support. Today, in order to sell ebooks on Amazon, publishers must output their books to a proprietary Kindle format. While XML publishing can help publishers create both Kindle and EPUB versions with minimal effort, consumers will not like the fact that they cannot read their Kindle ebooks on other devices, nor can they read ebooks created to the EPUB standard on their Kindle device.

Experience has shown that these battles of the standards will end with one clear victor. Remember Betamax versus VHS? In this case, Amazon will have to drop its proprietary format or risk being left behind. If Amazon, that bookselling behemoth, doesn't learn to adapt quickly it could go the way of the dodo, the dinosaur, and the compact disc.

(www.amazon.com, www.apple.com/ipad)