Gene Therapy: Climbing Aboard the E-book Bandwagon
With the advent of electronic ink, or e-ink, the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle and the .epub formatting protocols, the era of the e-book in the United States may be on its way. If you are a publisher or book producer, sooner or later you will be delivering electronic versions of all of your titles for distribution through a burgeoning network of electronic channels—if you’re not already doing so. It may be tomorrow, it may be next year or possibly later, but I guarantee the need to do so will be thrust upon you by the marketplace.
While it is true that complex pictorials, scholarly text, cross-referencing structures and use of color will exclude some books for the time being, there are e-book display options designed for desktops and portables that can accommodate the original page flow without reflow issues. (See VitalSource.com, NetLibrary.com and Ebrary.com for e-book examples.)
Since you are probably already creating PDF versions of your books to send to your printer and for online browsing and search, it is not difficult to launch an e-book program. The following steps need to be coordinated:
1. Choose the lists and/or titles (with input from your editorial, marketing and sales departments) you believe would qualify for e-book distribution by virtue of content and format.
2. Identify channels through which you could market your e-book editions—such as the library market (Questia, NetLibrary), online retail (Amazon, Fictionwise, Cyberread) and the educational market (VitalSource, Ebrary).
3. Select formats/platforms in which you would like to make e-books available (Kindle, Sony, .epub, PDF/Adobe, Mobipocket, Microsoft.lit/Reader).
4. Select conversion partners/solutions through which you will obtain your e-book files (Data Conversion Laboratory, Rosetta Solutions, Publishing Dimensions, Texterity, Code Mantra, Innodata Isogen).
5. Consult with your distributor and/or wholesaler about which data storage and e-book distributors would be best for you to work with, and choose which service(s) you will use (Ingram Digital, LibreDigital, OverDrive, Vital Source).
Publishers who are using master distributors will find that these distributors are either already providing or are about to provide e-book distribution services themselves (IPG, NBN, Midpoint, Ingram Publisher Services, Chicago Distribution Center’s BiblioVault, Perseus). As far as I can tell, it will still remain up to the publisher to decide which formats to use and to manage the conversion.
The Current State of the E-book Market
The concept of a lightweight reading device that can store dozens or hundreds of books does have great appeal to the habitual reader who commutes or travels extensively—not to mention lunchtime reading compulsives, students or field-work professionals. The real viability of such a device, however, has always boiled down to functionality/user-friendliness, economics and the availability of content.
Today, through the development of e-ink—a wafer-thin, plastic “electronic paper,” which holds minute electrically charged cells that form its images—portable readers provide a reflective rather than backlit surface that closely simulates the adaptability of the paper surface. Moreover, since e-ink technology uses power only when it changes an image/display, the battery life of the reader is extended considerably compared to a computer battery. This is the technology now being used by the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle.
While the technology continues to advance, another major barrier—access to content—still exists. Proprietary operating software for various e-readers has not helped to make offering content in e-book form any easier for publishers, as it has required the same title to be published in multiple formats. This has created a small industry of conversion houses that, for a fee, will create and distribute files in various formats for publishers.
These formats/platforms, in addition to the Kindle and Reader, include the Adobe Reader, Mobipocket, Microsoft.lit, Palm and Franklin. (Fictionwise, a major independent online e-book retailer, provides a comprehensive and easy-to-understand explanation of e-book formats at www.Fictionwise.com/help/ebook-formats-FAQ.htm.)
Adding to the complexity for e-reader users, publishers have demanded rigid control over content for fear of piracy and copying. This means that what book readers have come to expect in the aftermarket—the ability to share books and read them wherever convenient—has become more limited in the digital medium because of multiple proprietary platforms and publisher restrictions on transferability from one device to another.
Those restrictions appear to be loosening up, though. Some publishers have discovered that allowing access to e-book versions for browsing, for search inside and, on occasion, even for downloading have boosted sales, and have enabled them to reach customers who they otherwise have been unable to reach through conventional channels.
So now where do we stand? In order to have a viable market, some equivalent must exist of the universal infrastructure that the printing industry built. While there are numerous printing presses designed to achieve production efficiency and quality, in the e-book world, error correction isn’t possible until you have already created a file, displayed it and discovered that the tagging that you have relied on is not working—and moreover, you are not too sure why it is not working. If you are not using the appropriate reader platform, the file will be unintelligible or won’t open at all.
So creating a universal tagging system—or nomenclature—is key to simplifying quality control, and the convenient and economical display of e-book content.
In Pursuit of Standards
One man has relentlessly pursued the dream of a universal tagging system, providing leadership in technology through his firm, and in acceptance through the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)—Garth Conboy. Conboy is a San Diego native who heads up eReader Technologies, headquartered in one of those charming residential-style adobe structures on Herschel Ave. in the business section of La Jolla, Calif. It is a warren of techies in pursuit of perfecting systems of one sort or another that relate to reading technologies.
Conboy dates back to the early days of the Power Book and SoftBook in 1996, and through the years of Peanut Press, Mobipocket, Glassbook, Adobe Reader, the Rocket Book, and now the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle. He has followed the evolutionary trail of proprietary reader hardware and software that has been a major obstacle to wide-scale e-reading adoption.
Last year, IDPF (under Conboy’s leadership of its standards committee) completed publication of the three elements of e-book standard formatting, which are now collectively called .epub. They are:
1. OPS—the Open Publication Structure. This is the guts of .epub and provides standards for defining the content elements of an e-book (titles, heads, text, etc.) so that they can be understood across platforms.
2. OPF—the Open Packaging Format. This provides publication-level metadata, and describes all the components of the publication and how they are tied together (markup files, images, linear reading order, etc.).
3. OCF—the Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS) Container Format. This describes how all the components of the e-book can be packaged together for transmission, delivery and archival purposes.
As Conboy explained it to me, OCS is very much like creating a ZIP file, which any computer will recognize and enter into its directory. Once unzipped, however, its files will be recognized by your computer only if you have the appropriate software. But at least it gets them to a destination, and you can identify the file names inside.
That’s where the XML-style .epub tagging system comes into play and where the .epub suffix, when recognized, will set into motion an internal system that can read and display your book with its structural elements true to the intention. There’s a lot more here than meets the word—but I think this is as far as I need to go to make the general point: .epub sets the stage for e-book market growth.
Check back in the October issue for Part II of this series—I’ll explore how to prepare books for the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle.
Eugene G. Schwartz is a regular contributor to Book Business. He is a publishing industry analyst, writer and editor-at-large for Foreword Magazine. A former PMA board member, he is president of Consortium House, a management and business consultancy to publishers.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.