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January 23, 2012

The dawn of digital publishing

Is a week long enough to gain some perspective on the new landscape in ebook publishing?

If 2010 was the Year of the Many Datasheets, 2012 is looking like the Year of the EBook. We are getting numerous inquiries about how to change publishing processes to accommodate the new requirement to deliver content for EPUB and Kindle. (The Year of the Process Change Driven by New Digital Requirements may be more accurate, but it just doesn’t flow trippingly off the tongue.)

There’s been plenty of technical discussion on other sites of the major new developments: the new Kindle format, the new Apple toolset, and, especially, the licensing restrictions attached to Apple’s new iBooks Author.

[Update: A discussion of the technical problems and why it matters from ZDNet]

Cave painting, Algeria

The artist was probably criticized for the monochromatic palette.

These are all valid issues, but they miss the larger point. We are at the dawn of digital publishing. We have a long way to go before we master our new medium.

Like the cave painters, we face enormous technical challenges (them: creating a color palette; us: creating valid EPUB or Kindle formats), archival issues (them: humidity and cracking stone; us: evolving incompatible formats), and new frontiers (them: mastering the illusion of perspective; us: employing effective 3D images).

iBooks Author provides an interesting sandbox for experimentation for publishing professionals, but no more. The current iBooks Author license only allows you to sell through the iBooks store if you develop in iBooks Author. In addition to this silly limitation, the ebook file produced by iBooks Author is not a valid EPUB; the code is full of proprietary extensions.

So what was Apple thinking when they released a beautiful, free MacOS-only application that produces ebooks for iBooks only?

This is about Amazon.

Apple is strong in education and design. Amazon’s Kindle format is doing well in ebooks and particularly cheap, self-published ebooks. Apple, as usual, is going after the high-end, high-margin market: textbooks.

They are attempting to tie up the following:

  1. iPad as a consumption device for textbooks.
  2. iBooks Author to create textbooks.
  3. iBooks Store as the textbook marketplace

“But why would a publisher agree to this? We have to publish to lots of different formats.”

Close-up of Sistine Chapel fresco

Detail from the Sistine Chapel

The publishers are not the target audience for this new approach. The target audience is textbook authors—educators who already live in a MacOS/iPad universe and have no interest in other technologies. Apple’s intent is to eliminate publishers from the equation and pick up those teachers or professors who want to create one textbook for their particular area of expertise. Apple is providing tools that are simple enough for a non-professional content publisher, and that could create high-quality results. (I’m reminded of the release of PageMaker 1.0, which was also quite limited but at the same time revolutionary.)

The negative coverage of the technical details misses the point. Apple is attempting to disrupt the textbook market by:

  • Providing software for content creation that will be compelling to the average textbook author.
  • Providing a venue for distributing content that will be compelling to the average textbook author.
  • Providing a way to produce digital content that will be compelling to the textbook user.

Apple will probably eliminate the licensing restriction within a few months—the format being created won’t render properly in other ebook readers anyway. Don’t expect them to conform too closely to the EPUB specification, though. Making an incompatible format is a competitive advantage.

Will it work? I refer you to the great Browser Wars of yesteryear for a historical (!) context. Back then, the open source movement wasn’t as strong as it is today, though.

I await new developments from Amazon.

What are your thoughts?