Still Awaiting the Next Big Thing in eBook Platforms

There is a bit of a debate going on right now about whether ebook sales are falling, or still rising, whether ebooks are a good development for publishers, or a dead-end. That the debate is going on at all is a reflection of the fact that the industry is being as badly led as that of the newspaper and magazine industries.

No, ebook sales are not falling, they are just falling for the group of major publishers who have increased the price of their ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a good thing as it makes more books available to more readers and without the cost of printing and distribution.


But the publishing industry is being ill-served by their trade associations, their trade magazines and by those in the technology area responsible for improving digital publications.

Take ebook publishing platforms. The advancement of ePub3 is taking place at a glacial pace, while the device platform creators such as Apple, Amazon and Google are doing nothing to create cross-platform standards that will lead to better ebooks.

Most ebooks, those that represent the vast majority of sales, are pretty bad. But because they are mostly plain text, fonts can be adjusted so that reading is at least not as painful as the typical digital magazine or e-newspaper. Advancements are slow, so slow that many of those who thought they would by now only be reading ebooks have returned to discover the joy of print. And why not, print is great, having 576 years to have perfected the medium.

It is possible to create a great ebook, of course. I always point to The Mozart Project and The World Atlas of Wine as examples of good digital publishing. Both use the iBook Author platform but unless one is reading on a standard size iPad or a Mac, both with have their reading experience degraded by the fact that the publishing platform is less than ideal for creating equally great ebooks for reading on an iPhone, and not at all for reading on a Kindle.

It is hard to see where the big breakthrough is going to come from. Apple, under the leadership of CEO Tim Cook, feels far less interested in intellectual pursuits such as publishing, the pressures of meeting earnings forecasts being paramount. Amazon has a vested interest in maintaining its position as the number one retail outlet for both print and digital books, why would they want to create a platform that improves the medium on its competitor’s devices?

That leaves Google who has the Android platform and has proven to be an excellent app maker – most of its iOS apps are better than the equivalent app made by Apple. (How many of your Apple apps are stored away in an Apple folder so they don’t take up room on your home screen?)

Yesterday Google issued an update for Google Play Books, the default book reading app on its own Android devices, but an app that has little traction on iOS. Unlike the company’s other apps, Google Play Books gets fairly poor marks from users and some of the strangest reviews inside iTunes. The most recent review says “Very interesting older editions for the Catholic who relishes visiting in the last century; the theology of the Churches as to how it was, is now and every shall be…!” If you know what that means let me know.

The new update adds a feature that at first sounds of value, but isn’t: the ability to go full width while in landscape mode. This simply takes the page on the left side and expands it to full screen, though because the page would have been designed for portrait it ends up cutting off the bottom half. It is really a faster way to pinch-to-zoom, a feature not available in standard ebooks. So, yes, it is nice, but what it really does is compensate for the fact that ebooks (and in particular digital comics) are poorly designed for their digital devices when the page design is more complex than plain text.

I still await Google getting serious about digital publishing because I cannot see who else will move things forward.

Google also issued iOS app updates for Hangouts and its YouTube apps.

reposted with permission from Talking New Media


D. B. Hebbard

View posts by D. B. Hebbard
Douglas Hebbard (or if you are using D.B. Hebbard use that) is a 30+ year veteran of the newspaper and magazine publishing business, and has been publisher of the digital publishing website Talking New Media since 2010.


  1. Mark Ritchie1 December, 2015

    It’s pretty clear what the Google Books reviewer means, anyway. He/she is not reviewing the app, they are reveling in the fact that Google Books has thousands of facsimiles of older books from 100 years or more ago. It’s like visiting an ancient library that has everything. This old Protestant is just as happy about that as the Catholic reviewer you quoted.

  2. puzzled1 December, 2015

    Or, being a typical Apple user, the review is for a book, but was posted in the reader’s review section.

    1. Nate Hoffelder1 December, 2015

      @ Puzzled

      That actually happens a lot. Go check out the iTunes listing for Yelp, for example.

  3. Max1 December, 2015

    My main complaint with commercial epubs is that the images (charts, graphs, photos) are often low resolution. I don’t know why they do that.

  4. Chris Meadows1 December, 2015

    And you’ll go right on waiting, because there’s no incentive for anyone to make the kinds of changes this guy wants. Given that such changes would only benefit non-fiction e-books, which most people don’t even read anyway.

    Funny that everyone makes so much noise about needing to “improve” the e-book, while the people actually reading e-books just carry right on without even noticing.

  5. fahirsch1 December, 2015

    What bothers me of bought eBooks, that are e-reprints, or even new, are typos. I have complained on several occasions to Amazon, but apparently publishing houses don’t consider correcting eBooks is their job, even when they have contracted with third parties to do the scanning.

  6. Dude1 December, 2015

    RE: the lo-res pics, that is an iBooks restriction so far as I am aware.

    PS I read a non-fiction ebooks and I appreciate well laid out maps and graphs!

  7. Muratcan Simsek2 December, 2015

    I don’t about English speaking world, but Google Play Books is big outside them. It is usually our only option to but ebooks in English barring publishers like Baen.

    So, it already made a change for many people by opening their doors wide.

  8. Mike4 December, 2015

    Time to get rid of ebooks altogether and switch to offline web pages.


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