Isn’t Amazon supposed to offer us a smooth e-book experience? Well, the ride is getting bumpier. Amazon has now rolled out yet another propriety e-book format or quasi-format, the KFX one. The positive is that KFX will mean better typography for books available in it. But not all titles will be, and meanwhile the change will torture small publishers hoping to keep up.
“I write children’s picture books," complains K. S. Brooks, an award-winning author-photographer shown to the left, "and each time they make a technology upgrade, my files become obsolete and then people leave bad reviews for the books (which is the only way I find out that I need to redo my files).
“My files still work great on the old readers, “ she says in a comment in The Digital Reader, “but it’d be too confusing to customers to have a different version for each reader. The tools they give us to make new books generate files so large that the delivery charges are astronomical. It’s getting to the point where it’s not worth making these into eBooks anymore, which means losing a huge audience.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to reformat my books from the changes they made last winter. Sigh. Thanks for the update, though; at least this time it won’t be a surprise…”
Yes, Amazon does let you convert from ePub to its formats. But complexities remain for people like Ms. Brooks.
With her and other format victims in mind, Amazon should abandon its proprietary approach and go for ePub, the multi-company industry standard. I doubt that a sales disaster would ensue for the company. Its customers are accustomed to buying books there, and even in the wake of agency pricing, they would still make out better than elsewhere and enjoy a bigger selection. Then as now, they would also benefit from more customer reviews and other positives compared to choices elsewhere. Even the market for Amazon hardware could still flourish. Fires and E Ink devices could still play up Amazon offerings.
As a replacement, ePub would not be perfect. Still, as creation and rendition technology improves, it’s going to get better for publishers and uses alike. The evolution of ePub is far, far more transparent than what happens behind the scenes at Amazon. The company’s switch to ePub needn’t be a burden to owners of existing Kindles. Amazon could still distribute the old proprietary formats and perhaps update the firmware of already-available devices.
The company’s defenders almost surely would reply, “Don’t even think about punishing Amazon for its success.” Regardless, the criteria for determining anti-trust violations in the United States is whether consumers have suffered. If I were Jeff Bezos, I would remember that when you harm people like Ms. Brooks, you may also harm the American public at large by reducing the diversity of titles—both from small publishers and self-publishers. Even more importantly, the line between consumers and publishers has blurred. Self-publishing is a booming business. Authors are not just producers. They can be also be regarded as consumers in this DIY era. The Justice Department should consider the new landscape of publishing. If the U.S. Justice Department won’t act, maybe the European authorities can. We are not just talking dollars and cents in discussing format (or, for that matter, the related issue of DRM). We are also talking literary heritage. Regardless of my admiration for Jeff Bezos and colleagues in many areas—ranging from innovation to customer service—I do not want Amazon or any other single company to own it. I also believe that, at least among nonDRMed e-books, there would be more competition in the e-book reader marketplace. Proprietary DRM is as consumer-hostile as proprietary formats. But let’s at least get the format issue out of the way.
I’ll conclude with two details. No, I am not a lawyer. But as a lay person I’m very happy to promote serious dialogue from a legal perspective about Amazon and e-book formats. Second, I’m hardly a Basher, given that Amazon claims so a high percentage of my gadget dollars and given my hardly secret fondness for Kindle hardware, regardless of such issues as limited font choices and lack of text to speech in recent E Ink Kindles. I actually would side with Amazon on the agency pricing issue. In raising the issue of anti-trust action if Amazon won’t do ePub, I am absolutely not out to harm company, but rather to work toward an e-book marketplace as friendly as possible for consumers. If Amazon can make the ePub shift on its own without any government intervention, that will be an optimal solution.
It is not time for anti-trust action right now. But it could well be in the future if Amazon does not embrace an established multi-company standard and simplify life for K. S. Brooks.
(Paragraphing of Brooks quote changed.)
Update: This article is also being discussed on The Passive Voice. – CM