Tuesday, February 16, 2010

E-book formatting and why it’s important

On the surface, there are certainly a lot more important things to discuss about the new frontiers facing authors in the electronic age than this somewhat obscure topic. But looks can be, well, you know...

Remember stereo LP records? Mono LP? 78s? Edison cylinders? They’re all obsolete technology. Okay, I’ve never heard an Edison cylinder either, but that’s where recorded music began. Now we’re on the cusp of getting Hi-Def music discs and they’re going to make CDs obsolete. All that money you spent on CDs? Well, if you want to move on with technology, you’re going to have to spend it again. And you’ll be forced because in 20 years time, it’s going to be impossible (or expensive) to buy CD players. If you don’t believe me, try to find a new VHS machine to play all your video cassettes.

Sure, new technology is great. (If we didn’t have the explosion of personal computers over the past twenty years, I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now.) A new product comes along, proves to be better and the public snaps it up, bringing huge financial benefits to the people (manufacturers, distributors, retailers) who sell them to you.

Then back in the ’70s, corporations discovered something: the ultimate way to control the marketplace is to control the format of the technological advance. If you can take over a particular marketplace with your product’s particular “way of doing things”, ie formatting, then everyone has to come to you.

The most obvious place to look at the consequences of formatting is computers. Once you commit to a format (Windows, Apple OS, Unix, Linux), they have you. You have become a captive audience. Obviously, corporations love this. They don’t like processes they have to license in order to do business.

So, when you want to manufacture an electronic book reader and take over the marketplace, you come up with your own proprietary format, one that will only run on your product. This is what Amazon is trying to do with Kindle and Apple with their iPad. It’s like the Beta versus VHS videotape battle back in the ’70s.

Ever wonder why all cell phones operate off the same basic system? That’s because they have to. Otherwise their manufacturers would be forced to build their own delivery network. Cell phone makers are too smart to get involved in the delivery of service for their products.

Unfortunately, publishers are at the mercy of the people who are delivering their product, be it e-books or paper volumes, and that means that authors are also at the mercy of retailers.

Here’s a really novel suggestion: if everyone at our end (authors, publishers, agents, etc.) got together and decided that electronic book distribution would be formatted using , then Apple, Amazon, Sony, would have no choice but to adopt that process to operate on their readers and the marketplace would be determined by whose reader operates better, provides more of what customers want, are more reliable, whatever.

Instantly, the marketplace would be more equitable and e-books could move forward to supplant paper books, find their niche, whatever is to become their fate. Publishers would be happy, we authors would at least know where we stand and the reading public wouldn’t have to guess whose product (and its required format) would take over the world.

But then, we’re too [add your own pejorative here] to take the bull by the horns and do this. It would mean everyone working together for the common good, and business is not particularly adept at this sort of thing.

The makers of e-book readers know this and so they’re free to go their way, a way that could potentially make them a lot of money — and that’s why they’re playing this dangerous and expensive game of chicken.

Unfortunately, we’re the ones being held for ransom.


Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

We should band together on more than just ebook formatting. The Author's Guild is the closest thing to a writers' organization that fights the big boys. That reminds me, I need to pay my dues. It's probably the most important group I can support. Good post, Rick.

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