On the Dastardly Evil of Proprietary eBook Formats and the Inherent Righteousness of Industry Standard Formats
If there is anything that the digital publishing industry loves more than complaining about
Amazon invading small African countries Amazon’s business practices, it is decrying Amazon’s continued use of a proprietary ebook format.
This topic has been going around for at least six years that I know of, and it most recently came across my desk again last week. Joshua Tallent sparked this latest round of the debate last week when he explained over on DBW why proprietary formats are sometimes better:
Why do these companies choose to use proprietary formats instead of (or in addition to) the open source EPUB standard?
Because proprietary formats just work.
When an ebook retailer builds its own ebook format, it steps beyond controlling just the reading system or device to actually controlling the code that is loaded into that reading system. That level of control brings with it a level of certainty about what the retailer can expect to receive, in turn giving it more control over features, functionality, and—importantly—the quality of the reading experience.
He’s not wrong; this is exactly why Kobo, Apple, and Google each use their own proprietary ebook format internally while maintaining support for Epubs loaded externally (in the case of Google, this is just a fig leaf).
Tallent’s post is so obviously true that it is effectively unassailable. Nevertheless, someone managed to come up with a counter argument.
Andrew Updegrove responded to Tallent on Thursday with a post which twists Tallent’s argument in such a way that it gave Updegrove a chance to rail at Amazon with an argument that I believe is fundamentally incorrect on several different technical details:
This is the same nonsense that has been propounded in every single media format that has ever been created where there is a dominant vendor that wants to stay that way. It’s what Microsoft has contended for decades about desktop software formats that underlie its Office productivity suite, and what we also saw in the early days of digital music. In each case, vendors (or, in this case, sales and distribution channels) have sought to gain, or retain, monopolist control and lock in their customers by fighting the creation and universal adoption of a standard that would allow freedom of movement and true competition in the marketplace.
Authors are the victims of this nonsense at both ends of the supply chain, because Microsoft still controls the desktop (I’ve written about the consequences of that reality here), and Amazon still controls the distribution channel to most readers. That means that instead of being able to simply create a book in your favorite word processor and publish it directly to every Internet bookstore with a few keystrokes, you’re stuck with a miserable experience preparing your files, and then uploading them multiple times at multiple sites with multiple issues to deal with at each.
It’s bad enough that this is the situation we’re stuck with, but it’s intolerable to have to read someone contending that we’re better off this way.
I see two fundamental problems with Updegrove’s arguments, and I will take them in reverse order.
Updegrove blames the fragmentation of the ebook market on Amazon’s insistence on using their own ebook format. Apparently the Kindle platform is solely responsible for Apple, Google, Kobo, et al each having their own upload requirements and platform quirks. (Yes, Jeff Bezos really is that powerful.)
That argument is obviously insane, but it is also fundamentally false on a technical level. It ignores the fact that one can upload an Epub file almost anywhere, the existence of tools like Sigil which can make that Epub, and the several ebook distributors like Draft2Digital and BookBaby which will upload the ebook for you.
Updegrove also misses the point that this debate is just as much about DRM as it is about ebook formats (though he does dismiss this point when it was raised in the comment section of his post). Should Amazon switch to Epub tomorrow, we would still have 3 walled gardens dividing the ebook market.
Those 3 walled gardens are controlled by the dominant DRM vendors: Amazon, Apple, and Adobe. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m ignoring the quirks in B&N’s DRM and other lesser details.) Two of the walled gardens use DRM which is both exclusive and proprietary, while the third (Adobe) is equally proprietary but is also available to license – for an expensive fee, of course.
Updegrove thinks that Amazon adopting Epub would "allow freedom of movement and true competition in the marketplace", but he neglects to take DRM into account.
Apple will not allow ebooks out of its walled garden (oh, and they’re sold in a proprietary format), and Adobe charges app developers, device makers, and ebook sellers an admission fee (making the garden expensive to enter).
If Amazon adopted Epub today we would still have those two walls dividing the market, thus rendering his desired goal moot.
Furthermore, should Amazon give up the Kindle format as well as the Kindle DRM, I suspect that little would change in the ebook market. As Chris Meadows points out at Teleread, many Kindle users aren’t interested in mastering the technical skills involved in loading ebooks on to the Kindle:
The thing is, though, that for many Kindle users, even the process of sideloading e-books is beyond their expertise or even their comprehension. Even leaving aside user-unfriendly conduit software like Calibre, they have to plug stuff in, and open windows on their computer and drag and drop—it’s a nightmare! Hence, I have my doubts that many people would take advantage of “easy” interoperability even if it existed.
Just look at Baen. Baen has sold DRM-free e-books for a decade and a half, but even when it was allowed to email the books directly to people’s Kindles, that was apparently still too hard for most of its would-be customers. Baen kept getting asked why its e-books weren’t “on the Kindle” yet. It finally had to resort to making sweeping changes to how its e-book store worked in order to get its titles on Amazon’s Kindle store—because that was where all the customers were.
And finally, folks, allow me to end this post with the argument which trumps all others. As Will Entrkin reminds us in the comment section of Updegrove’s post:
The marketplace had already chosen a standard. It’s mobi and Amazon’s derivatives thereof. That the marketplace’s standard is different from one a consortium has agreed to might be something the consortium should look more closely at.
I agree, consumers have the final say. They decided that Sony’s proprietary Blu-Ray was better than HD-DVD, they’ve decided that Mobi works well enough for their purposes.
Standards may be great and wonderful things, but so long as consumers choose not to adopt the industry-approved standard, we might as well be mice voting to bell the cat.