From format war to sustainability fight

History is repeating itself. The developments we currently see with e-books, are in fact not new. In the early eighties there was a battle between the image carriers Betamax, VHS and Video 2000. VHS won, reportedly because the porn industry embraced this format, even though Betamax had a much better quality. Not long after that, there was a similar battle in the computer world: between the CD-ROM and CD-i. The CD-i lost the battle, because it was too expensive (both the player and the discs), but also because there was a lot more content available on CD-ROM’s. And in more recent history we had, again with the image carriers, the battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray. Blu-ray won, because a majority of the major film companies chose to support this format. Although you could ask yourself if this battle is really over, because the DVD is still quite popular, and streaming video seems to become the real winner in the near future.

And now the book world. When we began to seriously consider to publish our titles as e-books in 2008/2009, we basically had two choices: Mobipocket or EPUB. At that time the 'biggest' players. Because e-books were then pricey to create, publishers awaited and examined for a long time to find out what was the smartest thing to do. When (the largest Dutch online bookseller) announced in the summer of 2009 to start selling e-books in a combination with the Sony Reader, the decision was forced: it became the EPUB format. At this moment in time, you can hardly find any Mobipocket e-books in The Netherlands, everything is EPUB by now. In the US (and other countries where Amazon is dominant in digital reading), this is different. The Kindle format is a derivative of Mobipocket, and is a very different type of e-book than we know (EPUB). But other big players, such as the Nook, Kobo and Apple, do use the EPUB format.

Although it seems that EPUB will eventually win the fight, it still has a long way to go. On the one hand, Amazon has a strong worldwide dominance with their Kindle (and own e-book format). On the other hand, not every EPUB is simply interchangeable with any other platform. An e-book in the iBookstore is slightly different than the same title at for instance Mainly because every retailer (read: major international player) puts its own DRM on it. And that is, that besides the format war, a second major problem: the lack of inter-compatibility. E-books purchased from the one, cannot be transferred/copied to or shared with others.

A problem that finally seems to be taken seriously, now Neelie Kroes expressed she supports a study of the EIBF (European and International Booksellers Federation), which states that there are too many different devices and file formats in Europe (but just as good elsewhere), which gets in the way of the development of e-book sales, and recognizes that this diversity of systems makes e-books non-interchangeable. Consumers who have purchased e-books from Amazon, cannot transfer them to their Kobo reader (for instance when they have decided to continue their digital future with them), and vice versa. Or consumers who have purchased e-books from the iBookstore, cannot transfer them to their Sony Reader (although the reverse is possible in The Netherlands). The study states that every consumer should always be able to transfer its collection of digital books to another retailer. In other words: you should be able to export and import your e-book collection. For now, this is not in the interest of the large gardens with high walls (the ecosystems that listen to names as Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Nook), but in those of the consumer. But I dare to say it should be in interest of the retailers as well, which at this moment try their best to keep the customer within their walls. Because if e-books do become interchangeable, more people would start to read digitally than currently is the case.

And if we take this one step further, and once again draw a parallel with the film industry, then it could be that we end up with a completely different e-book format in the future. And what will happen then with our existing collection? Will it be like with the films on VHS tapes that became obsolete, and which were massively re-purchased on DVD? Or will there be a backwards compatibility built into the e-readers of the future, which ensures that you always you can read your old books in the EPUB format? I already hear some people sigh: well, that’s a problem you don’t have with paper books. But all the joking aside, it is something that should be seriously thought about between all the parties concerned: how can we convert the e-book into a sustainable product?

A step in the right direction for me is EPUB 3. A format that can do much more than EPUB 2 (the currently most popular version), and which does more justice to digital reading than the mere flat digital translation of the paper book we see now. But this should be taken further. Something that is technically feasible within the format, but not yet done at this moment. Make the e-book of the future hybrid. So that an e-book on the latest e-reader or tablet could show wonderful animations, videos and interaction, but works just as well on an older e-reader. Custom functionality which the specific device can handle. This way, authors and publishers only have to develop one digital title, which can be sold by every retailer (if the standard, the EIBF advocates, is widely accepted) and which gets the most out of the device the consumer chooses. And who knows, maybe we’ll have a Spotify for Books in the future, which allows you to read all the books you have ever read or still want to read at your fingertips, on the device of your choice. Then all these problems are solved at once.