Cumbres_&_Toltec_trainTeleRead writers traditionally have been strong supporters of e-book standards. No blinking. No hesitation. ePub is the way to go in most cases.

The majority of us have just hated proprietary formats even though companies like Amazon make them hard to avoid. Proprietary formats remind us of the time when trains commonly ran on tracks of different gauges.

But as TeleRead’s owner, I’ve made it clear we don’t have party lines.  And today’s beautifully written essay from Chris Meadows, my friend and much-appreciated colleague, illustrates this.

Mind you, Chris isn’t directly cheering proprietary formats. He is just saying retailers and customers really don’t care that much.

Now, however, let me rephrase the question in Chris’s headline, "Does anyone even want cross-platform e-book interoperability?" How about instead:

1. "Does anyone want e-books with which to build a permanent library? Whether or not a vendor goes out of business?"

Look what happened to Fictionwise. Luckily I’d anticipated this might happen, and I hadn’t bought many DRMed books there. But those I did buy were a hassle to transfer to B&N. And even then I lost a few titles.

2. "Does anyone want to be able to easily organize the personal library in one place without need for special products or consideration of e-book formats?"

Just to address one related issue here and in Point Number One, I wish that the current tech-based DRM would go away or be replaced by social DRM that worked no matter what the platform. Really. This would be better for both customers and the industry. See Point Number Seven.

The best DRM is no DRM. Social DRM has privacy issues. But it’s a lot better than “protection” with both privacy and compatibility ones.

3. "Does anyone want more freedom of choice as a book shopper?"

Remember, Amazon in various ways encourages writers to publish with it exclusively.

4. "Does anyone want the capability to read books with a device or e-reading app of his or her choice?"

In terms of features, Amazon’s e-reader is fifth-rate compared to, say, Moon+ Reader Pro, which offers text to speech for cell phone owners.

Proprietary formats hold the industry back by making it harder for innovative companies to market new products. They also get in the way of accessibility. The recent E Ink Kindles lack text to speech.

On top of that, at least on specific devices and under certain circumstance, Kindle apps and other proprietary ones may underperform open alternatives.

5. "Does anyone want to make it harder for corporate marketers and government to snoop on us?"

The more tightly bound you are to a company’s ecosystem, the easier a target you could be for federal snoops who could even monitor what pages you’ve read or what you’ve written in your annotations.

And, yes, the lines between governments and corporations have blurred. I have no idea if Amazon is spying for the CIA. What is clear is that it’s a CIA contractor as a supplier of cloud services.

Furthermore, what ends up in D.C.’s files just might end up in those of the Chinese government—ready for blackmail purposes. Washington is much, much better at undermining citizens’ rights than it is in protecting data. Oh, and no rightwing extremism here. I’m a lifelong progressive Democrat who voted for Obama.

6. "Does anyone e-books to be of higher quality in typography and other respects?"

Why replicate R&D? The Readium initiative shows the promise of industrywise cooperation. Whoops. Industrywide. But, yes, I actually like that typo.

7. "Does anyone want the e-book industry to grow?"

The more people learn the negatives of proprietary tech, the less likely they are to buy e-books (even if they are not techies). Michael W. Perry says he is not buying E  the way he used to. Flattening sales or at least slower growth would suggest he has company.

Concluding, Chris writes that "Amazon’s customer base…wouldn’t know what to do with interoperability if they had it." Um, I’m not so sure about it. Words like "interoperability" may baffle many. But long term, most people in fact would appreciate such little trifles as being able to build a personal library for real.

May I also add that as a writer, I consider permanence to be one of the more attractive advantages of books as a medium? Proprietary formats and DRM, in that regard, severely detract from the value of books.

If the industry can’t get its act together through the International Digital Publishing Forum or otherwise, yes, the government should step in. I know. I’ve already told why Washington’s snoops might love proprietary technology. What’s more, as shown by the FCC’s failure to make Kindles and other readers more accessible despite disability legislation, big corporations still own D.C.  But today is not forever.

Meanwhile, via customer support dialogues and other means such as Amazon’s forums, you can speak out and make clear your loathing of proprietary formats.

Amazon and the others are market-driven creatures. Complain loudly and often enough, and you’ll increase the chances of meaningful interoperability happening without government regulation.

Image credit: "Cumbres & Toltec train" by Dennis Adams, Federal Highway Administration; levels adjustment applied by Hohum.


  1. One of the things about the Teleread conversation is that it almost always assumes what they call “trade” books. Chris’s main point is that (trade book) readers are oblivious to the silo that they happen to be in. There is no urge to go beyond the gates of that silo or to do anything that cannot be done there. They’ve got their Soma and they are happy. But why is that so? Is it the same with other book markets?
    How many people read a trade book more than once? How many never finish the trade books they do pick up? Even as paperbacks, trade books have long been treated as disposable. Now, with digital, we don’t have to worry about transferring a book that we have put down for the last time. Perhaps soon, as seems to be happening with music, the majority of trade book customers will be convinced to prefer subscription to a service instead of the weak ownership of digital objects. We are being successfully herded toward perceiving the book as a transitory experience and providing the publishing industry with a smoother, more predictable revenue stream.
    Readers of other kinds of books may not be as tractable. They might even become feral readers who find what they want beyond the skyline of silos.

  2. Maybe I’ve just gotten cynical watching the big publishers continually screw up the very idea of e-books for close to two decades now, and working tech support where I encountered ordinary person after ordinary person who couldn’t even figure out how to operate a TV. It just seems to me that, as much as you or I might care about the points you raise, the vast number of ordinary people who make up Amazon’s customer base simply don’t.

    They care about other things, like their own jobs, personal hobbies, families, politics, religion, and other avocations. They don’t have enough caring left over to devote to the intricacies of e-books. They just want something like a printed book they can take down, open up/turn on, and read. Nothing more, nothing less. Amazon was able to take over the e-book market—effectively, to create the e-book market in a way that Peanut, Fictionwise, Baen, Sony, etc. never could—by fulfilling those desires. The reason Amazon has been so successful is they’ve done so admirably well.

    I’ve dealt with hundreds of ordinary people via my tech support days. I’ve tried to get my parents interested in reading e-books. My parents, as I’ve said before, are both Masters-degree holders, former librarians, of above-average intelligence. My Mom did find she liked reading on the Kindle, but I had to guide her through the process of sideloading a book onto it, and it took about half an hour.

    So, effectively:

    1) The vast, vast majority of consumers don’t even know what Fictionwise was. For them, e-books didn’t exist before Amazon came along and put a magic book machine in their hands. They don’t have any experience with Fictionwise, and Amazon seems like the sort of rock solid corporation that is here for the duration, so they don’t think they have to worry about that.

    2) Actually, they probably don’t care. You or I might love to be able to organize our e-book libraries, convert them among multiple formats, put them on Dropbox so we can access any of our e-books anywhere ourselves without relying on some company’s cloud to do it. But we’re unique and special and we take for granted just how much we know and care about computers and e-books. For the vast majority of people, they’re happy if they can turn on their device and tap a few times and there’s their book.

    3) I think that what happened with Baen shows that most of Amazon’s customers wouldn’t know what to do with free choice if they had it. They could have bought e-books from Baen, more cheaply than they ended up being on Amazon, and had them emailed right to their devices, but that was too hard for them. Whether it was too hard to do, or too hard for them to know it existed, the end result was the same. Baen waved the white flag and put its e-books on Amazon.

    4) Again, I think most consumers don’t care about reading on different apps or devices. As long as they can pick up the device they’ve got and see the words on the screen without too much trouble, they’re happy. Remember, people who didn’t know about e-books before Amazon aren’t comparing one e-book device to another, they’re comparing it to a printed book. A Kindle compares quite favorably to a printed book from the undiscerning viewpoint. All the words are there, they’re easy to read, and you can even make them bigger if your eyesight is a problem, without having to go out and buy a separate large print edition. Golly!

    5) Are most people even worried about privacy in that sort of way? If they were, they’d stop using social media in a heartbeat. (Heck, I know just how vulnerable they all are, and I still use them.)

    6) What does that have to do with e-books being available in standardized formats? There have been some fairly egregious examples of shoddy typo-ridden e-books, it’s true. For example, the original editions of the Young Wizards e-books. But given that those e-books came from the same publisher, the typos and glitches were there across both the Kindle and EPUB versions. Nice thing about that was, though, they got around to fixing them, and the people who’d bought them already didn’t have to buy them again to get the corrected versions.

    7) I think the growth or non-growth of the e-book industry is far more affected by other factors, such as how many people are bothering to read anymore, etc. Flattening sales and slower growth probably just reflect that fact that almost everybody who wanted an e-book reader by now has one. The market could never have kept growing at that rate forever, with just a finite number of people in the world. Open formats won’t change that either.

    By all means, people who do care about proprietary formats should speak up, and have ways to do so. They’ve had seven or eight years in which to do it, at least as regards Amazon. Before that, they had seven or eight more years to complain about the proprietary formats Fictionwise, Peanut, Microsoft, and others were using. And yet, we still have proprietary formats. (By the same token, lots of people have boycotted Amazon for lots of reasons, yet Amazon is somehow still around.) If enough people did speak up, maybe something would happen. But the fact that, in all that time, enough people haven’t so far leads me to conclude that there just aren’t enough of them to have an effect.

    Of course, you care, and I care. And I’m sure there are a number of e-book readers who care, but they’re folks who, like me, count e-books as one of their personal hobbies. (Or writers who count them as their income.) But such people are a vast minority compared to the folks who spend hours obsessing over how their favorite football team is doing, or collecting stamps, or riding horseback, but as far as e-books are concerned are happy with just having something they can pick up and look at words on without needing to know any more about how or why it works.

    We all tend to take for granted that the things that we care about are things that other people would and should, too. And it doesn’t mean we should stop caring. But I think it’s going to take a lot more caring than we have to get the government to step into the e-book market. Especially given that right now the government seems to be firmly on Amazon’s side against the publishers.

  3. Having read both your article and Chris’, I’m going to have to go with Chris on this one. I’m one of those people who knows Calibre quite well and has the DRM-stripping plugins enabled. And I still buy primarily from Amazon and more than half the time forget to download and strip my books to make an archival library copy.

    In theory, David, I agree with you. In practice, however, I don’t bother. Most of what I buy and read is “read once and move on.” If I find a book I loved so much that I think I’ll read it again, I’ll load it into Calibre and strip the DRM. Otherwise, I just leave it on the Amazon servers, and if Amazon goes Fictionwise, I’ll shrug and not worry about it.

    Is the Kindle app inferior to other apps? Sure. Is it good enough for me? Yes, because of the easy syncing between devices. The last book I read, I read on my phone, Kindle and Fire (and almost read it for a few minutes on my iPad). The seamless syncing is why I stick with the Kindle app, even though there are other, superior apps. (Moon+ lost me when I got fed up with how it handles paragraph breaks. I can either have no line breaks–including no section breaks–or block paragraphs, which annoy me.)

    It’s obvious from the behavior of consumers that I’m not alone in being too lazy to be bothered with taking even relatively simple extra steps. And few consumers are as tech-savvy as I am (Chris’ comments on Calibre are spot-on). If I can’t be bothered, why are we surprised that the “average” consumer doesn’t care about interoperability?

  4. Andy Updegrove has already responded well to Chris and Juli’s side. Meanwhile thanks to both for speaking their minds! That’s what TeleRead is about. No party lines!

    As for Frank’s comments, I believe that readers of both trade books and other kinds care about the proprietary format mess even if the masses reading trade books may not always speak their minds. They’re focused on their families, friends and jobs. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care. Some will either buy a paper book instead or, worse, no book at all.


  5. I’m neither for nor against proprietary formats or DRM. I’m for a wide range of professionally publishers books being available for purchase. If the book I want is $14.99 in Kindle only format with DRM then so be it. Sure, an open format DRM-free copy for $4.99 is theoretically a much better deal —I’m not going to hold my breath or pitch hissy fits if it doesn’t become available that way. If I want those kinds of features from ebooks, I can shop at Smashwords. Of course, there are no (or too few to find) books at Smashwords I want to read, so I’ll put up with proprietary formats and DRM.

    When I think about propriety ebook formats, I recall the dozen or so audiobooks I purchased from 1997 through 2004 – probably a few hundred dollars worth. The format was cassette type. But all my tape players are gone now. Can you guess what happened to those tapes? Sold to used book stores for pennies on the dollar. I switched to Audible and digital books. Yes, I could have plugged in a tape player to a digital recorder and made my own free and legal copies, but after trying that once or twice, I decided it was a better value of my time to repurchase the books I wanted to hear again.

    Will something similar happen with ebooks? I have no idea. Either way, the open source epub format is no guarantee that it will be the best value in the future.

    My solution: Damn the formats and DRM! Read what I want to read! Let the future sort itself out.

  6. I want my own personal library, and I want it available even when I can’t pick up a wireless signal. That means my library needs to reside on a portable usb hard drive that I can carry around and hook to any computer available. So, DRM’ed books in funny formats served out of the cloud are not going to suffice. The whole point of ebooks as opposed to print was to not be chained down to certain locales.

  7. None of the seven issues you raise would be solved by Amazon adopting epub.

    1. Would still be a problem because it’s a DRM issue, not a format issue.
    2. Again, DRM.
    3. Formats are totally unrelated to exclusivity. B&N has exclusive arrangements and they already use epub.
    4. Anyone can easily build an app that reads epub and mobi files. A single format would make that easier, but DRM.
    5. People are bound to Amazon’s ecosystem because they deliver a better reading experience, not because of the format.
    6. You know that it all (excluding FXL) ends up being html and css, right? Do you really think Readium has something that Microsoft, Google, and Apple don’t? AFAIK, Readium isn’t even building a rendering engine. I think they are using webkit, which is exactly the same thing in all of Amazon’s newer devices and apps.
    7. Looks to me like the mobi part of the market is growing and the epub part is the one shrinking. If that’s the case, and you really want the market to grow, you should be encouraging the epub folks to switch to mobi. But seriously, mobi isn’t holding back the growth of ebooks.

  8. Thanks, William, but I’ve addressed the DRM issue.

    1 & 2. The best solution isn’t just ePub in most cases, but also no DRM. I’ve said it already.

    3. B&N? Yes, they’re another example of the nastiness of limiting certain reading choices to certain formats. I’m using a generic approach to bash proprietary formats or quasi proprietary formats, as opposed to saying Amazon is the only sinner. B&N uses DRM to make ePub in effect proprietary. Technically DRM isn’t the same as format. But in real life, it is, alas. It’s another way to limit customer choices. Bad!

    4. Glad you see the light here, in at least one respect: a single format would indeed make life easier for app developers. And once again, I’ve already addressed the DRM issue.

    5. Methinks Amazon and competitors alike would fare better with ePub and without DRM since people could own e-books for real and since they could read them on the apps optimal for them. Amazon’s reading software sucks (at least as far as I’m concerned) compared to Moon+ Reader Pro and the like. Let’s help people achieve the optimal experience for them. No small detail, given all the competition that books as a medium face.

    6. If the industry stopped hobbling itself with proprietary approaches, maybe Readium would get more money. As it happens, the project has already come a long way.

    7. Of course ePub use isn’t growing as quickly as it could in the world of trade books. And one reason, ironically, is that Kobo and B&N have actually made life harder for readers than Amazon has. Kobo has its own weird twist on ePub. B&N discourages sideloading. The issue is not just formats alone, regardless of how injurious proprietary formats (and DRM) can be.


  9. Agreed that DRM is a major barrier to competition and innovation. However, it is but one of the barriers used by Amazon to protect its turf. The others include whisper sync that shifts the cost of delivery from the reader to the publisher sustaining a superior experience and the K-8 format that suppresses the diversity of content favoring exclusive listings. Taken as an integrated system, these form a formidable competitive barrier.
    However, format has other dimensions that need to be treated separately. For example, the emergence of ePub 3 might soon become a factor when Radium.js makes it possible to do all of your reading with web browsers instead of eReaders. Then there are those cases where a proprietary format enables a level of expression unavailable elsewhere. I wrote my last book with Apple’s IBooks Author because it was about ePublishing and eTextbooks and I could actually show my readers what an eTextbook might look like instead of simply describing it in words and static images alone.

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