eBook Formatting Standards: What do we want from books?

In amongst all the recent conversations in the publishing industry about joining the rest of the world in the digital age — eBooks, self-publishing issues, transmedia writing — there’s another, more technical debate. This has to do with the format — that is, the digital format — of ebooks.

It’s Internet Explorer vs. Netscape. It’s m4a vs. wma. It’s HD-DVD vs. Blue-ray.

(Disclaimer: I don’t own an e-reader of any kind. I know only what I’ve read, though I’ve tried to do a fair amount of research. If I’ve given misinformation, please correct me (nicely).)

See, historically, it seems that ebook formatting was determined by whatever was presenting the ebook — that is, the device on which you read it. Amazon’s Kindle was, for a long time, the standard: very basic, but very easy-to-use and intuitive black-and-white text. Recently, though, several other companies have created devices for reading ebooks, and some of them have different capabilities than Kindle. The most recent of these is the iPad, whose features go far beyond text to potentially include hyperlinks, extratextual annotations, audio, video, pictures, colour, reader-added notes, and — simply put — most of everything one might want from a truly transmedia ebook experience (other than, of course, Flash). (UPDATE: Another good article on the iPad and the discussion of eBook format.)

So, if an ebook wants to take advantage of some of those features (which I think, going into the future, ebooks are going to want to do), it will have to be in a different kind of format. One that Kindle can’t take advantage of.

But what about all the dedicated Kindle users? Ebooks don’t need all those extras. What this means is that publishers are forced to create their ebooks in multiple formats, just to be available to the whole market. What we need is a standard format that can be used on any such device.

I think the problem stems from the fact that it has always, so far, been the device manufacturers that have dictated the ebook market. Amazon says, “Here’s the device, we want this format.” And if the publisher doesn’t accept that, they lose that segment of the market.

In their recent podcast roundtable, Digital Book World speakers discussed the fact that right now, the big publishers are holding back. [Note: Listen to the podcast. Lots of great information and discussion.] They don’t want to commit to a format or a market until they see how things develop, so they can jump on board with the right choices. This is admirable caution for an industry — but it’s not what we need. What we need is for the publishers to get together — like they did when they demanded a switch to the “agency model” — and decided on a standardized format for all ebooks. And then they have to demand that the device manufacturers conform to them.

Of course, even if the major publishers managed to do this — which seems unlikely — there’s still another major concern. Namely: what format should be the standard?

In trying to answer this question, there are a number of things to consider. One is a very technical perspective, which I’m woefully inept to really discuss.

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