Sometimes the simplest questions are the most vexing.
The things we call “e-books” come in a variety of file formats. PDF, EPUB, MOBI, IBA, and FOLIO are among the most common, but aside from PDF, most people (including even avid readers of e-books and a surprising number of publications folks) have no idea what these files are, how they work, or what the differences are between them. Thanks to the current e-book ecosystem, they don’t need to. In the current system, most e-books are sold directly from vendor to reader within a specific app or device. A reader simply opens their e-reader, finds the book they want, clicks “buy”, and the file downloads and opens for reading. They never see the file itself (like we see a JPG or DOC file) and never have to give a thought as to how to open it.
This seamlessness seems like a good thing. It is, in fact, this convenient, direct app/device-to-file connection that made e-books take off the way they did starting in 2007 with the first Kindle. The trouble is though, that this is also a form of lock-in for readers. Because the file format and access process is obfuscated behind the interface of a single company’s device or app, individual readers are far less likely to leave that company to buy other e-books. Encryption issues aside, most wouldn’t know what files to look for, or what to do with the files once they bought them.
Likewise for publishers. While the conveniences Amazon, Apple and others have created have in turn created a viable market within which to sell our e-books, we are as locked-in as readers. We are now dependent on just a few companies to distribute our digital publications, and we are limited to the formats those companies choose to support. This should not be acceptable to us as publishers. We must actively move toward a dynamic, universal and open publishing ecosystem. This will require us going out on our own, and on finding ways to connect our readers to our books outside the walled gardens of Seattle and Silicon Valley. However, in doing so we must realize that our readers will in turn run head on into that most basic question: How do you open an e-book?
Give Kindle owners a MOBI file, and most are going to have no idea that by plugging their reader into their computer, they can move the file onto it as easily as copying a picture onto a flash drive.
Email iPad readers an EPUB, and few will know that by simply opening that email on their iPad, they can move the EPUB file directly into an e-reading app. Or that there are dozens of free and low-cost EPUB reading apps available for every kind of tablet, smartphone, laptop and desktop computer, and that it’s the native file format for almost every dedicated e-reader device in the world.
Sell someone an HPUB file and, well, good luck with that.
Bridging this gap is going to require a level of education (readers and publishers alike), and while difficult, I believe it’s also necessary. We can teach people how to do these things, and we also need to give them a reason to make the effort by offering them benefits that outweigh the conveniences established by the bigger, trade vendors. Benefits perhaps like encryption-free files they own rather than lease, illustrated and interactive formats and publications they can’t otherwise get, competitive pricing, curated and authoritative selections of amazing digital art books.
Along with this process, there’s another approach to the problem that I’m also intrigued with. While we can educate readers to help themselves, what can we do on a technology end to make it so they don’t need to? Ideally, every digital device sold, should have a default application that will open our chosen e-book file format. Take for example the ubiquitous, universal PDF. It works for people in large part because they don’t have to give a moment’s thought to how to open it. No matter what device they have, no matter how they receive the file, people just need to double-click and it opens. Easy. Seamless.
What if, like Apple is now doing, every new computer and device came pre-loaded with an EPUB reader? What if every internet browser came to natively support HPUB or other HTML-based digital book formats? What if we could deliver individual e-books like software, bundled with their own common e-reading application? What if opening an e-book was as easy as opening a print book?
Sometimes the simplest questions are the most important.