There are two subjects in the field of ebooks that I really enjoy reading and writing about. These subjects get me all excited and passionate. I’m talking about market reports about ebook sales and discussions about innovation in the ebook market.
It is worth noting though that ebooks and the ebook market are not the same and to me the succes of ebooks is not necessarily synonymous with succes in the ebook market. When we talk about the ebook market we’re talking about commercial publishing. That’s ok, but if we want to discuss the success of ebooks as a technology, we need to look beyond commercial publishing to see how successful ebooks really are.
The Author Earnings Reports have taught us that self-publishing is traditionally not taken into account when we discuss the ebook market, even though some self-publishers are making a lot of money and millions of other self-publishers are making lots of small amounts. The self-publishing market is a bit like dark matter in the commercial publishing universe. Commercial publishing knows it’s probably there, but apart from the Einstein of ebook publishing, the mysterious Data Guy, nobody actually sees it.
And when we talk about ebook innovation, it usually is in respect to the lack of it in commercial publishing. What are the big publishers up to? Is anything exciting happening there? What about Amazon? Apple? Kobo? The consensus seems to be that not much is happening there. And quite frankly, readers are not asking for it either. The exciting days are over. Nobody is expecting great new technological breakthroughs in the field of ebooks from publishers. E-reader development has stalled. This seems to be a disruption-free zone.
When people talk about ebook innovation they usually mean technological innovation. I would argue that just because commercial publishing is letting us down in the field of technological innovation, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. To me these are in fact truly exciting times. I’m thinking about the merger between IDPF and W3C and the development of a new standard format for ebooks, which could have been called EPUB 4, but currently goes by the name of PWP, Portable Web Publication. This is where the action is. This is hardcore technological innovation. Seamless transition between online and offline. Seamless transition between packaged and distributed content. Convergence between EPUB and the Open Web. Books in browsers finally becoming a reality.
The interesting thing is that this new development is not just driven by the publishing community, but also very much by experts from the (W3C) web community. Together they seem to have an innovative focus that transcends commercial publishing. Reading about this gave me the feeling that this development lays bare even more dark matter in the ebook universe that hardly anybody seems to be paying attention to. Here’s a quote from the IDPF/W3C merger FAQ:
IDPF has strong participation from the global publishing industry, especially eBooks. However, the goals for EPUBs as next-generation portable documents for the web platform transcend commercial publishing into other segments than book publishing. With the merger, W3C will provide staffing and connections with more of the Web community which can facilitate the broader evolution and adoption of an EPUB 4 as the standard for Web-based portable documents in general.
This is a long term game of standards with the final objective of replacing PDF as the standard web-based portable document format. Which brings me to an interesting point. Suppose they succeed in replacing PDF with PWP in a couple of years. It’s a free and open, web-based standard and everybody loves it. Lots of segments other than book publishing are using it. People are getting used to reading PWP ebooks in their browsers. How will this affect commercial publishing? Will they truly embrace it? Will they have the luxury of ignoring it? Will they see the opportunity? How will this transform commercial publishing? Will it be the end of ereader apps? How will it affect platform strategies?
There may not be any demand for better ebooks right now, but to me this situation feels a bit like a Blackberry situation. There is no demand for smartphones without a physical keyboard! Until there is. This change we call innovation. Readers are not asking for better ebooks. Until they do.