image “The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was ‘A History of Violence’ in 2006,” reports the L.A. Times in a piece on the wind-down of a large VHS-supply operation. And now there’s talk that even DVD’s days may be numbered.

All of this should be a lesson for book publishers. Shouldn’t books be more of a permanent medium than Hollywood videos? Don’t we have the Web for ephemeral content? That is one reason why I find the ScrollMotion—with novels turned into iPhone apps, and with nary a mention of ePub in the corporate ballyhoo online—to be a threat to publishers as well as consumers.

To address one issue, I really don’t care if ScrollMotion and/or Apple can address the library issue in connection with iTunes or whatever. That just means that the proprietary tentacles could go deeper.

Meanwhile I find it ironic that publishers, so interested in control, would entrust so much of their fate to Apple, given the undue influence it wields within the music industry by way of DRM and iTunes. The real salvation for the e-book industry lies in the use of ePub as a consumer format, not just a distribution one. Let’s make e-books as easy to buy and use as audio CDs.

@MaudNewton: Look beyond sexy interface wrinkles

As long as we’re discussing SlowMotion, I’d call people’s attention to Maud Newton’s piece on it. Apparently unfamiliar with all the nuances here, she says that “the only potential negative I see so far is pricing.”

Maud, I enjoy your literary observations, but please connect the dots. One common problem with proprietary formats is that publishers think they can herd customer into them to buy overpriced books. The strategy didn’t work for Gemstar in the long run, and I see no reason why it should with ScrollMotion.

Look beyond sexy interface wrinkles—it isn’t enough just to test software like ScrollMotion; you need to ponder the harm that such proprietary formats will do to the book industry. I really don’t care if SlowMotion co-founder Josh Kopel is a writer, or that his partner, Calvin Baker, is a novelist. That’s good for selling ScrollMotion to the book business, but doesn’t necessarily mean that ScrollMotion will be nirvana in the long run for publishers.

If, Maud, you want e-books to have all kinds of new features, please join us in pestering the International Digital Publishing Forum, as opposed to tolerating proprietary DRM-hobbled solutions. A quick Google search gives me the impression that you haven’t blogged a syllable on ePub or the IDFP (full name or initials). The IDPF  standard itself isn’t nice and visible like a shiny new e-reader. But if you take e-books seriously—and you should, given many younger people’s focus on the screen—then you should care about ePub’s fate.

Oh, and nothing against Josh and Calvin personally. I don’t know them but will wish them luck in their business endeavors. It’s just that, like you, they should play by the rules and go for the ePub standard. And so much the better if they can also recognize the harm that DRM does in making it harder to own books for the long term. Obsolete software systems won’t end up in landfills like old Gemstar readers or VHS tapes. But either way, the eventual harm is the same—loss of content for which consumers have paid, and a weakening of their trust in the medium involved.

The censorship angle: Look at all the freedom that Apple-centric approach can give us (sarcasm alert).

Related: The tech-and-lit chasm: The Nation predicts the iPhone—even if it already exists.

Detail: I want reliable archiving of Hollywood films and other video, but presentation of books is even more important.

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  1. Slightly off topic, David, but my understanding is that the prices of these books on the iPhone will be as high as those for the printed versions. It seems to me that one of the advantages of electronic books is that they cost less to produce, which means they should be priced more attractively. Are iPhone owners so devoted that they’ll overpay just for the cachet? What do you think about this? I think it’s a rip-off.

  2. Excellent point, Paula! I love e-books and the iPhone—well, the Touch in my case–but I’ll not let brand loyalty jeopardize my solvency.

    The R word is operative—and I don’t just mean “recession.”


  3. Hi David,

    So you are calling Maud out for not being anti-DRM enough. Ok fair enough. She doesn’t dwell on the DRM issue at all in her post, but neither does Chris Snyder over at Wired ( Wired is surely a bigger entity to take on with this issue, no? If you threw a grenade at them, maybe we could start a real discussion in a larger forum about why this is counterproductive for the industry. As it is, you have got Maud’s attention but what now? I am sure she agrees that DRM SUX but that doesn’t mean she is going to retract her impressions of the interface. I will stand with you championing ePub and I will “pester” the IDPF until I am blue in the face, but I also will say your gunning for Ms. Newton seems misdirected.

  4. Not to worry, Mark.

    Maud took my post the right way, and of course I’ve long admired her lit blogging efforts.

    No, I’m not asking her to retract her praise of the interface–just to remind her readers that much more is at stake, in terms of the DRM and eBabel issues. Besides, if the industry has a trustworthy standard, then developer can focus more on interfaces, as opposed to herding customers into proprietary formats.

    As for Wired, I wish it had been more critical of ScrollMotion, but, perhaps because I liked Maud’s blog, and because she was so passionate about the interface, I focused on her. I’ll get to Wired in time if it doesn’t wake up.

    Amusingly, Paul Biba, TeleBlog co-editor, is the proud father of a Wired correspondent. Maybe I can get Paul to threaten his daughter with disinheritance if she can’t turn her employer around.

    Happy holidays,

  5. I was interested to read Maud’s reply to David on her update. I think she really doesn’t get it:

    “I would like to see titles offered in a variety of formats — for the Kindle (although I personally do not want and hope never to use a Kindle), for the iPhone (Iceberg, Classics, Stanza, eReader) for the Wii, and for any other device, using any platform that appeals to readers and secures copyrighted materials sufficiently to prevent mass copyright violation.”

    I guess Maud is expecting multiple sales for multiple formats – which kind of misses the point David was making.

    Likewise having faith in securing copyright materials as a way of preventing copyright violation (which clearly does not work – even the Harry Potter books weren’t ever released in digital form and yet are readily available) is just so out of touch with what customers want.

    Even the standalone app issue seems to be of no interest to her – imagine if every time you added a book, audio or video file to your PC, the only way to do it was as a standalone application, and the only way to access it was through your Start menu. How would you manage a system like that? Scroll Motion and the other publishers are being inconsiderate and very short sighted by publishing this way.

  6. I can sort of see the appeal to the “average consumer” of these books, though. It’s easy for us techie types to forget that some people who aren’t used to computers have a hard time with those new-fangled reader applications. I can see the appeal to such a person of being able to buy a book and have it “just work” by tapping the icon after you buy it.

  7. Yes, I can see the appeal, too; but I’ll bet that the publishers haven’t even thought about this. They are just using a quick and dirty method to get content into the itunes store and onto the devices in the easiest way possible. They are working around both a device and a system that was never intended for these uses.

    Having an icon for each ebook isn’t going to look so flash when Apple start a dedicated ebooks division of itunes, and you access your library on the device using a coverflow view. Now that would be appealing to just about every user, and I think the publishers will do anything to be there when it happens. They’ll have little choice.

    The implications if this happens are huge – this could lead to an increase in self-published writers, new forms of presentation and new business models.

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