padlockProprietary e-book formats have been around for quite some time. Most major commercial vendors use proprietary formats to one extent or another, be they Amazon’s Kindle format or the proprietary DRM that Barnes & Noble and others put on top of EPUB. Given that they help to chill competition and keep Amazon firmly on the top of the e-book hill, they are generally not accounted to be a good thing by publishing industry activists. But I ran across a provocative post at Digital Book World suggesting that they might actually be a good thing after all.

Joshua Tallent says that “proprietary formats just work,” and that they permit the e-book store to optimize its reading experience to make books look best on its own platforms. He thinks that advocates for EPUB and other open standards should learn from how these formats work and use that knowledge to make the open standards better.

On the other side of things, Andrew Updegrove calls Tallent’s article “egregious.” He points out that while e-book vendors could theoretically make books look better on their platforms, most don’t bother. The proprietary formats are used mainly to keep customers buying from that one particular e-book store. While other sorts of products, such as cell phones, are broadly compatible with each other (in terms of being able to call someone on one brand of device from another), you’re not going to be able to read multiple e-book formats on the same device, unless it’s a tablet and you install their individual reader applications.

I’m not sure that cell phones are really the best comparison, given that the main purpose of phones was originally to place calls to other phones but that isn’t necessarily true anymore. Today, now that most cell phones are full-fledged digital computers, they’re primarily used for other things—and there’s no guarantee that the software you install on one particular phone will work on another. But that’s probably beside the point.

As readers pointed out in comments on Updegrove’s post, Amazon built its own format before EPUB was even a thing, and hasn’t had any need to add EPUB compatibility to the Kindle. Why would it? It only cares about people buying e-books from Amazon. Any ability to add other vendors’ e-books to it is strictly incidental. (Which also means it can do things like preventing other e-book stores from emailing their titles directly to the Kindle.)

Nor is Amazon alone in using proprietary formats to lock readers in. All the major e-book vendors do it with their various DRMs. Amazon is also not the only company to do stupidly annoying things to its own benefit. Last year, Barnes & Noble stopped allowing customers to download e-book files directly from its store.

All that said, I think the quest for interoperability between e-book device vendors is probably a red herring. It would be nice to have available in theory, but in the real world, very few people would actually bother using it.

Interoperate If You Want To

First of all, did you ever notice that Amazon doesn’t actually do much to prevent people from interoperating if they want to put in enough effort? Apprentice Alf’s DRM-cracking plug-in for Calibre still works as well on Kindle e-books as it did when Alf first came out with it. Amazon has never bothered to try to change up its DRM to block it. Compare that to Apple, who has a track record of frequently updating its DRM to lock out cracks.

For that matter, apart from Apple, none of the other major e-book DRM vendors seem to bother updating their DRM, either. You can even crack library e-book DRM with Alf and Calibre, which you’d think should be a matter of grave importance to publishers who rely on its protection—but apparently it isn’t.

I imagine Amazon and the others probably recognize that only a relatively few tech-savvy folks even bother, so it’s not worth the added expense of trying to outpace them. Calibre isn’t exactly the most user-friendly app in the world. Even using the program by itself requires a level of expertise many ordinary people don’t have, and the process of setting up the DRM-cracking plug-in can be downright arcane. I believe that a lot of people who use Calibre take for granted how much they know about computers to let them be able to do that.

No Sideloading Zone

The thing is, though, that for many Kindle users, even the process of sideloading e-books is beyond their expertise or even their comprehension. Even leaving aside user-unfriendly conduit software like Calibre, they have to plug stuff in, and open windows on their computer and drag and drop—it’s a nightmare! Hence, I have my doubts that many people would take advantage of “easy” interoperability even if it existed.

Just look at Baen. Baen has sold DRM-free e-books for a decade and a half, but even when it was allowed to email the books directly to people’s Kindles, that was apparently still too hard for most of its would-be customers. Baen kept getting asked why its e-books weren’t “on the Kindle” yet. It finally had to resort to making sweeping changes to how its e-book store worked in order to get its titles on Amazon’s Kindle store—because that was where all the customers were.

If Kindle owners couldn’t be bothered to buy from one of the longest-running e-book vendors in the business, even if it was set up to email the books right to their devices after they bought them, what good would it do to make the Kindle interoperable with other e-book stores? Maybe a few people would take advantage of it, but most of Amazon’s millions of customers would shrug and go right on buying from Amazon, because all they have to do is tap a button on their screen and they have a book. And the same would hold true for Barnes & Noble’s customers, and Kobo’s, and Apple’s, and so on.

Publishers Interoperate

And really, why should they even want to buy from somewhere else? The publishing industry already “interoperates.” The major publishers and many self-publishers sell the same e-books through all different places. You can buy, for example, Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves from Amazon, or you can buy it from Barnes & Noble, or Kobo, or Apple. And since the major publishers seem intent on re-imposing agency pricing, and everybody’s letting them, it will cost exactly the same in every store. So there is literally no incentive to buy it from anywhere other than the store you already use anyway.

This does work just as well as an argument for why Amazon and the others should open themselves up to interoperability as for why it shouldn’t, except that adding that capability is not as simple as saying, “Fine, make it so.” It would take a great deal of time and a lot of money to add interoperability to their existing software and devices—and if it’s not even something most people would bother using, why should they throw their money away?

Unwanted Interoperability

I suppose all this is my long-winded way of saying that it’s going to be very hard to get e-book vendors to allow their e-book formats to interoperate with other vendors’ devices, because neither the e-book vendors nor the vast majority of their customers want it. Lots of activists sure do, but the activists aren’t Amazon’s customer base, who wouldn’t know what to do with interoperability if they had it.

Related: A more traditional TeleRead perspective from publisher David Rothman, E-book lovers vs. proprietary formats.


  1. I’ve already explained my disagreement with Joshua Talent elsewhere. I’ll add it here.

    First, proprietary formats don’t “just work” and Amazon’s Kindle formats are an excellent illustration of that. The latest Kindle app upgrade had Amazon fanboys gushing that those apps would now display real drop text at the start of characters. That’s just how pitiful Kindle’s proprietary mobi and KF9 are. It’s a bit like GM bragging that their cars now have gas gages. “Amazing,” GM fans would gush. “Now I won’t run out of gas on lonely country roads.” Like I said, pitiful. The standard for ebooks should be the best print books. Thanks to Amazon the standard has remained the mobi format as it displayed on Palm Pilots about 15 years ago.

    As an author and publisher, I have numerous gripes about epub, but it is head and shoulders above anything from Amazon. And even more important, in about two minutes I can export both reflowable and fixed-layout epubs from InDesign using the same source document as the print version. Apple, I am told, helped Adobe add that ability.

    In contrast, InDesign has no Kindle export capability because, last I heard, Amazon refuses to help Adobe develop one. Faced with a proprietary format with all sorts of gotchas, Adobe can’t do that on their own.

    And yes, Amazon will accept a stripped down version of epub for conversion to their reflowable format and a pdf for their fixed layout. But any glitches that result either force publishers to blindly try various ways to get around Amazon’s conversion glitches or do what I do, simply send Amazon that epub and regard the result as Amazon’s problem, knowing quite well that the results may not be great.

    Second, DRM isn’t the same issue. DRM is tacked on by retailers. It imposes no burden on authors or publishers. It doesn’t in itself limit the viewing experience of readers. It merely limits which readers they can use. Rather than view that ugly Kindle mobi ebook on multiple ebook readers, they can only view it on a Kindle or in one of the Kindle apps. That matters little. Ugly is still ugly.

    Finally, I’m not sure its fair to talk about what readers want. From about 2005 on, when I went to cellular for my phone service, I was looking for a cell phone that wasn’t a piece of ill-designed junk. What cell phones offer was what the rather dim-witted executives and marketing teams at the cell companies wanted to shove at them, phones cluttered with almost useless features that nevertheless looked like profit centers for the cell companies. I remember being disgusted that my popular RAZR phone was so ill-designed, it didn’t even have a way to store simple text notes.

    That’s why the iPhone took off like gangbusters. For once, someone had created a phone that wasn’t a phone plus useless junk. In your terms, by wanting more I was an activist who did not really illustrate public attitudes. In 2006, you could have looked at the cell phone market and concluded that the typical user was satisfied with what he was getting. After 2007 and the iPhone, that was obviously not true. In fact, the recent sales figures show that the other cell phone makers still haven’t caught up with the iPhone.

    Now it is true that a smartphone filled with apps is a far more versatile product than even the best equipped ereader device or app. But the same principle hold true. Most readers are putting up with poor ereaders because they’re not aware of just how good those ereaders might be made. In print, it’s possible to create books that look marvelous. In the digital world that’s extremely hard and on Kindles, impossible.

    For a rough parallel, look at that marvelous ereader for store and read later web posts service, Instapaper. I’m am continually amazed with just how rapidly their apps and services are improving. What was once an impossible task, keeping track of all the online articles I read, is now wonderfully easy and efficient.

    I know of nothing comparable with ebook readers. Some are better than others, but none impress me. And a major part of that is their proprietary nature. I suspect that’s one reason why ebook sales growth is flattening. People are realizing the downsides to ebooks. They’ve come to realize that an ebook lacks many of the advantages of print. I know I am. I now buy more print books than I did before digital.

    Unlike the iPhone, I’m not sure that there’s a way for one retailer to break with the pack and actually create a healthy, enjoyable ebook system. Amazon is big enough to do that, but Amazon corporate mindset is so fixed in its narrow self-interest that it makes the pre-2007 cell phone makers and service providers look brilliantly creative and innovative.

    Sorry that’s so hurried. Saturday is shopping day and I must be off.

  2. I thought this was a well done summary of the various approaches to the eBook platforms. I do have one minor correction, though. In addition to disabling downloading, Barnes & Noble also took a swipe at their customers by changing their DRM mechanism presumably in an attempt to prevent interoperability:

    I agree with Michael that the eBook readers improve at an extremely slow pace compared to other industries. This is likely due to the concept that most readers are happy to settle for inferior products (and also because lock-in reduces the incentive to create a marketplace for reading applications), but it’s maddening to watch all of this software plateau before reaching greatness.

  3. Chris,

    I think it’s wrong to conclude that readers don’t care about interoperability – they’re all just buying from Amazon. But what if that changes? Then all of a sudden they might.

    Impossible to imagine this happening? Well, consider this. Ten years ago, Microsoft told everyone it would be ridiculous to adopt ODF instead of OOXML, their proposed format for text, presentations, and spreadsheets, because of the “billions and billions” of documents that had already been created in Word, which had to continue to be supported. Seven years later, after it won the standards battle, guess what?

    It abandoned those “billions and billions of documents” that had to be supported.

    Or look at it this way: how long does a typical electronic device last? How long do we need books to last? How old is the Gutenberg Bible? Do we really want to buy books we buy now to remain accessible? People don’t care about interoperability because they’re taking the continuation of the status quo as a given.

    And that’s a remarkably silly thing to conclude. Remember 8 track tapes? Betamax? Reel to reel tape? Cassettes? The list goes on and on. It’s bad enough to need to buy new versions of music, but do you really want your entire library to become inaccessible in as little as a decade?

    It’s also wrong to conclude that eBook standards don’t matter because only “activists” care about them. That’s always been true about just about anything that matters. A few people throw the tea in the harbor, or march to Selma, or stage sit ins against a war. The fact that others stand aside doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t matter. It just means that they don’t understand or care well enough to get on board.

    – Andy

  4. The claim that Microsoft “abandoned those ‘billions and billions of documents’ that had to be supported” is simply false. Updegrove is either lying or just doesn’t know what he is talking about. I have the very latest version of Office and I can still open and save to the old formats. Either way, I see no reason why we should trust anything he says about this topic.

  5. The evolution of ereader software will occur when companies abandon making eink devices, which have components that require less power. This isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. More functionality means beefier processors and RAM, which mean either a bigger battery or the existing battery with a shorter lifespan. Plus, more power means more heat and who wants their book to be too hot to hold?

    Back to the point, ereader software must still account for millions of customers using the low power devices. Don’t count on them vanishing soon.

  6. I think that Baen’s problem is NOT that Kindle users are lazy (which the article seems to imply), it’s that nobody knows that they’re selling ebooks on their website. I wouldn’t have known had I never been to Mobilereads and seen the bargain ebook threads.

    Even for major publishers, nobody is going to think to hunt down their websites and see if they sell ebooks. That is because we, the readers, do not shop by publisher, we shop by author. That does not make us stupid nor lazy. And frankly with the millions of titles available on the kindle, it is nearly always right to say that the ebook is not available if it’s not in the kindle store.

    Yes Amazon made it very convenient to buy ebooks from them, and kudos to them. But guess what? Readers know how to sideload. Project Gutenberg is much more visible than a small publisher, and many people download the kindle formats and sideload from their website.

  7. I do not understand why the publishing industry does not value interoperability. The simple fact is, one of the largest factors driving pirated ebooks is lack of interoperability. The fact that I can buy a print book, read it, share it with my wife even, and in a few years, still be able to pick it up and read it is convenient. Carrying the hundreds upon hundreds of books I have read is not convenient. Nor is choosing to download one on one device that may or may not be compatible with a future device I like more. Or even another device that I currently own. Why do you think there are libraries of literally tens of thousands of epubs that can be downloaded in minutes. People don’t (usually) do it to save the money, they do it so that they can keep the book, read it whenever they want to, put it on whatever device they are using. Publisher’s fear that someone may be able to share a book and not give them money for it (which they can do with print) is making people very efficient at scanning books to easily interoperable formats and simply not dealing with publishers. Unfortunately, the authors suffer in the process. The person who thinks that the ebook is not available if it is not in the kindle store is either uninformed or delusional. If it is remotely popular, it will be freely available for download on peer to peer sites, torrent, or usenet.

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