Buyer's Guide: The State of Ebooks in 2014
This article is from the Book Business Buyer's Guide which is a publisher's reference on emerging technology in the book industry. You can find other Buyer's Guide Sections here:
Ebook & App Solutions
> The Nuts and Bolts of Ebooks and Apps
While it may be a bit soon to say the ebook business has matured, it's definitely true to say it's finally outgrowing its awkward adolescence. Today, ebooks as we have come to know them are taken for granted. But the more important news is how many of our assumptions about them are being challenged. Here are a few of the highlights.
No Longer an Afterthought
Despite all the talk about how the ebook market has hit a plateau -- and it seems to have, for trade books -- it is now basically a given that most books, whether published in print or not, are also published as ebooks. Certain genres -- romance, sci-fi, etc. -- are dominated by ebooks. Some books are only published as ebooks now: see Karen Russell's well-regarded new Sleep Donation novella, which spans literary fiction and sci-fi. In almost every corner of publishing, ebooks are no longer speculative but rather clearly here to stay.
What this means is that publishers are evolving their workflows to create ebooks either along with or instead of print, rather than relying so much on post-print conversion.
The Backlist Bonanza
The frontlist is just the tip of the iceberg. Another thing the mainstreaming of ebooks has done is enable publishers to get much more value out of their backlist. While POD (print-on-demand) is important too, it was really ebooks that prompted publishers to revive all those otherwise languishing assets. Backlist ebooks are also getting a second life on subscription services like Oyster and Entitle.
Everybody's A Publisher
Another huge effect of the ebook revolution is the surge in self-publishing. While this was possible in print, it is a no brainer with ebooks. For every self-published Cinderella story like Fifty Shades of Grey, there are thousands of books published by authors who may only sell a few hundred copies, and many so-called "hybrid authors" who publish some books themselves and other books through established publishers. Ebooks made this possible.
The Imminent Ebook Watershed in Education
While most attention to ebooks still focuses on trade, huge advances are happening in other areas of publishing. One of the most important is education. Past surveys have established the perception that students prefer print, but recent ones show that is about to change. Why? Because ebook advancements, such as the application of adaptive learning technology, has enabled e-textbooks to be better than print textbooks. A prominent textbook expert recently remarked that he thinks the current cycle of major textbook production -- a long and complex process -- is the last one that will be based on print.
An important initiative that is soon to have a huge impact is EDUPUB, a joint initiative by an alliance of organizations, including the IDPF (the International Digital Publishing Forum, responsible for the EPUB standard), the IMS Global Learning Consortium, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and Pearson. EDUPUB has come to involve a large number of publishers, technology companies, and service organizations that are working together to establish an open, extensible, practical set of standards and practices for educational publishing.
It's Not Just About Ereaders
One thing the EDUPUB initiative makes clear is that ebooks are not just about ereaders like Kindle, Kobo, and Nook. Today, ebooks are available on basically all digital platforms. Some -- like the textbook platforms provided by CourseSmart and VitalSource -- are proprietary and designed to provide a uniform user experience across all devices, including laptops, tablets, and phones. Retailers like Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and B&N have apps that enable the ebooks they sell to be read on that same wide range of devices.
Fixed Layout vs. Reflowable
Another important development has been the ability of ebooks to work for content that requires a high level of design, like children's books, cookbooks, and coffee table books. The advent of tablets suddenly made it possible for those books to work as ebooks without sacrificing their graphic sophistication.
The EPUB standard and many ebook platforms and apps enable "fixed layout" books to be rendered beautifully on tablets. It is also possible with EPUB 3 to design reflowable books that have very sophisticated typography and design on devices that can display complex pages (like tablets and laptops) while using techniques like fallbacks and media queries to adapt to smaller screens like those on phones. This "responsive design" now enables publishers to create a single EPUB 3 that can be optimized for larger screens while adapting to small ones.
The Emerging Consensus on Standards
The slow and fragmentary implementation of EPUB 3 established an unfortunate "wait and see" attitude among publishers. Well, stop waiting and start seeing: EPUB 3 works for most books on most of the leading ebook readers and platforms. Behind this is a long-awaited consensus on the underlying technologies that ebook technologies are built on. This foundation is enabling continual innovation based on open standards and interoperability. As mentioned above, the vast majority of ebook readers and systems are now based on EPUB 3. And EPUB itself is based on the Open Web Platform, the 100-some standards (HTML, XML, CSS, SVG, MathML, etc.) that are governed by the W3C.
The W3C itself has launched a "Digital Publishing Interest Group" to explore how the Open Web Platform can be improved to meet the needs of publishers. And EPUB 3 itself continues to evolve. The EPUB 3.0.1 update is in the final stages of approval, as is the new spec for EPUB Indexes. Work on EPUB dictionaries and glossaries is moving ahead. The Advanced Hybrid Layout (AHL) Working Group is developing specifications for enabling books like comics, manga, and graphic novels (as well as magazines) to be optimized as EPUB. As mentioned above, the EDUPUB profile for EPUB will be a huge enabler for e-textbooks. And the IDPF is working with the W3C on the issue of Open Annotations, which will enable things like highlighting and comments to be done in an open, non-proprietary way so they can be exchanged between systems.
The state of ebooks is good!
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