Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mitch Ratcliffe: eBooks

eBooks: The first step of a long change
However, we are at precisely the same stage in the digital book reader device market as when Audible saw the first challengers to its portable digital audio player emerge, in 1998. Music had not changed—that is, it hadn’t been unbundled from the concept of an “album”—and did not change until the iPod appeared.

I don't want to wait ten years.

This market evolution needs some speedup, dammit.
More than 30 formats vie for adoption by device and eBook software developers, authors, publishers and, most importantly, readers. You cannot buy an eBook and expect it to work on a particular device, unless you buy it through the developer of your reader. This means we have a bunch of sites trying to be iTunes, the provider of titles and the interface for reading, rather than a lot of standards-based titles competing for the reader’s attention, which is analogous to the MP3-based music market that has shattered the music business.

I'll take his word on the thirty, but I think most people are immediately familiar with these formats:

1) PDF
2) eReader
3) MobiPocket
4) Sony Reader BBeB
5) Kindle format (bastardized MobiPocket)
6) ePub
7) DRMed ePub (Adobe bastardized ePub)

(Note that only the Sony Reader can do more than one file format: PDF, BBeB, ePub, DRMed ePub. And when I cite PDF, I mean text reflow PDF.) (And that list isn't supposed to be in any order, but subconsciously probably is, based on my perception of their current popularity. Although 6 & 7 should really be swapped then. And I don't count TXT or Palm DOC because of lack of type attributes [bold, italic, etc].)
The market needs a robust standard format, which the ePub format appears poised to deliver, especially when the DTBook XML vocabulary is implemented to preserve page location in a form that can be used to cite page and edition for a highlight, note or copied text.

This is the first time I've heard of the DTBook XML vocabulary. As a writer who wants to be able to easily create his own eBooks, I bang my head on my desk over yet another complexification. Just Make It Work!
To date, the format wars in eBooks have undermined the most important feature of a paper book, the ability to point to a part of the text on a certain page of a specific edition, which is the basis of academic and professional citation, which is the key to dialogue taking place through books. Without support for citations without losing one’s location because the reader software/device has reflowed the text for a particular device, eBooks are less than paper books. That’s the biggest barrier to wider use today, because even authors cannot use electronic versions to refer to another work.

I understand that point, but can we first get fiction going, then worry about non-fiction citations later?

It's a very good article -- aside from not acknowledging the popularity of the Sony Reader -- and should be read by everyone interested in eBooks. It looks like he intends to do some kind of series.

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