RocketBook: Less of a rocket, more a damp firecracker…
I joined the fledgling eBook team at Microsoft eleven years ago this month. When we began work on eBooks back in 1998, it was clear from the outset that no publisher wanted to sign up to supporting a single eBook format.
At that time, there were two eBook contenders with devices in the marketplace – RocketBook and SoftBook – both of which are now either gathering dust in the closets of “early adopters”, or taking up space in landfill somewhere…
SoftBook: Turned out to be just too soft…
Each used its own format. Microsoft Reader was a third. Soon, there were eBook readers from Adobe and a host of others. They proliferated like weeds.
Very understandably, no publisher wanted to bet its entire eBook future on a single format. It was a problem everyone recognized. Out of that grew a markup standard called Open eBook. Eventually, the Open eBook organization morphed into the International Digital Publishing Forum, and Open eBook became ePub.
It was clear to everyone that there would be different eBook formats for a long time to come – perhaps forever. The problem is that if the publisher wants any kind of Digital Rights Management (DRM) or protection, the raw markup somehow has to be wrapped in a secured software package.
In the case of Reader, Open eBook markup was converted to .Lit. If the book’s being sold in Adobe’s Digital Editions, then it’s wrapped by Adobe’s Content Server and served up as .epub.
Amazon has entered the eBook fray in a spectacular way with its Kindle, which uses its own .azw format (again, with digital rights protection).
Since Amazon has its own “closed” device, its DRM can be a lot more transparent to its customers than DRM which has to protect content in an open software environment like a Windows PC or a Macintosh. Both MS-Reader and Adobe Digital Editions require the reader to Activate the reader software they’re using.
Many people hate DRM, and suggest that publishers are trying to hang onto the past. “It hasn’t worked for music, or anything else”, goes the litany,”So why do publishers believe it will work for books?” These are often the same people who insist all old business models are dead, and just don’t know it yet, and that all content will eventually be free.
Personally, as a writer, I’m not ready just yet to give up on being paid for my work. I’m writing a book right now, and if it takes me a year, I’d like to hope I’ll be able to pay the mortgage at the end of it.
Unlike many of the litanists, I believe that publishers and their editors perform a vital function in improving the quality of material which gets published. They need to get real, though, accept that the removal of the requirement to print and distribute physical copies of books has driven publishing costs down dramatically, and re-work their business models accordingly.
eBooks should be a lot cheaper, and could be a lot cheaper, without harming publishers’ or writers’ incomes. But a world of nothing but free content is like free cable TV – 500 Channels, and you can spend hours searching it to find there’s nothing you want to watch.
However, the issue here isn’t the different ways of wrapping standard markup. What happens to it when it gets rendered?
It’s exactly the same problem that I wrote about yesterday on this blog in relation to the Web. I created a page which used absolutely Web-standards HTML markup, and a standard CSS3 stylesheet – both verified as such by the WorldWideWeb Consortium’s Validation tools.
Yet the final rendering worked the way I wanted it to on only one Web browser. On three others it broke. One just made my page slightly ugly – the others hit it with a truck.
And there’s the issue for eBook publishers. Even though they all standardize on ePub as their markup, what happens to it when the reader sees it is out of their control.
I’m not talking here about the reader’s “personal comfort” decisions – like making the text larger, for instance. Readers have to be able to do that.
I’m talking about what happens at a lower level, in the rendering engine and its text and page composition engine.
Take Microsoft Reader, for example. At its heart is a text composition engine called Page and Table Services – the result of hundreds of man-years of effort by one of the best teams in the company (I can say that – I never worked in that team).
At the heart of Adobe’s Digital Editions is that company’s terrific text composition expertise. Adobe (and Aldus, which it acquired in 1994) has been doing this for decades, for professional printers and publishers with the highest possible standards.
Both will compose to their own metrics.
In Adobe’s Digital Editions, I looked at two free ePub books, and one free book in Adobe’s PDF format. Huckleberry Finn, in PDF, was beautifully set; nice line-length, great word and line-spacing, hyphenation and justification. Just about perfect. The two ePubs, though, were a bit rough – justification but no hyphenation, and lots of other problems…
ePub in Digital Editions: Not such a good read…
Amazon clearly has its own engine in Kindle. It’s not bad – but it does do weird stuff that it shouldn’t, and doesn’t do other things that it should. It’s readable, but could be improved.
(Disclosure here: I have to earn a living outside Microsoft now, and there’s a limit to how much free advice I’m going to give…)
I’m clearly not the only one who’s spotted this problem. On the IDPF’s own homepage is a Open Letter from the Association of American Publishers, which says:
“We encourage the IDPF to provide support to facilitate implementation industry-wide. We recognize that a number of issues remain, and we encourage the IDPF to work with its member organizations to develop guidelines/plans for addressing:
Quality assurance of any other formats which are created based on the EPUB version
Conversion to .LIT and eReader
How to handle books that do not have reflowable text and are not appropriate for EPUB”
Well over a decade on the road to eBooks, and we’re clearly not there yet…