Do We Need Standards in Ebooks?

I’ve been following some discussions about ebooks and file formats and ereaders. Epub versus mobi, tablet versus e-ink. Speculations about the future of reading devices and the future of the book itself.

Nick Disabato wrote a series of articles about standards. (go read them here and here) I disagree with him on some points (anti-Amazon bias comes through) and some of what he talks about is technical and I’m unfamiliar with the terms. To be honest, a lot of the discussions go right over my head. I’m not a technophile and gadgets don’t interest me much. I have a tendency to find something that suits me, then stick with it until it breaks down and I’m forced to upgrade. I’m not a programmer, either, and haven’t learned coding and don’t have the time right now to learn it. But boy, oh boy, do I get Disaboto’s frustration.

A lack of standards in the language (coding and platforms) and compatibility of devices affects readers, writers and publishers. With a print book, it doesn’t matter where I buy it or where I read it. I might worry the content will become outdated, but the object itself will never become obsolete and unusable (barring fire, floods and teething puppies).

From where I stand (and I suspect I am not alone in this) the discussions amongst device makers and programmers make me uneasy. Not because things get better, faster, more efficient, cheaper–electronic stuff has a tendency to do that–but because I’ve got a houseful of obsolete gadgets. Some of those gadgets were absolutely wonderful and worked fine and did what I asked, until I could no longer find content for them or technical support because the rest of the world passed it by. I also see a lot of tinkering and changing and shifting and screwing around not because it’s necessary, but because folks like to tinker and change and screw around. (are you listening Facebook, hmn?)

Then we have situations where something becomes the standard not because it’s the best or easiest or most efficient, but because it becomes ubiquitous. Like MS Word. It’s clunky, irritating, and can drive a person to drink while trying to create clean digital files. Bazillions of people use it. They’re used to it and know how to make it work for them, so they’ll keep on using it because using something else requires upfront money and a learning curve. Or maybe they get tired of constant change. No! Damn it! No, I am not changing again. I don’t care if your new best thing is actually the best. I am sick of being jerked around.

Because I don’t understand the whys and wherefores behind this, I asked my friend, Jonathan, if he could pretend I’m clueless (doesn’t have to pretend very much) and break it down for me:

“I started learning rudimentary HTML at the time, though pretty much all HTML was rudimentary. So few people were creating their websites  and there were so few browser options that things were opened wide up. Remember, Internet Explorer wouldn’t even debut until the end of the year (1995)– as if we would ever use that. Your options were either the text-based Lynx, Netscape (formerly Mozilla), Omniweb, and Grail. I only heard of the latter, but never saw them. HTML as a standard was still fairly new, and didn’t have anywhere near the features that it would support in ten years, so you were pretty safe writing a web site in a certain way; browsers would handle HTML in the same fashion… you’re ahead of most of the game if you can italicize words or indent.

Internet Explorer is pretty much where that started to go off the rails. This is probably a familiar pattern to most folks — open standard is established, big company comes along and bastardizes the format into a proprietary format that enables said company to corner a part of the market. Microsoft was bad about this, but are far from the only culprits. Suddenly your HTML might not look the same in Internet Explorer as in Netscape. You had to start customizing your code for certain browsers. … The fragmentation just got worse and worse over the years, as new browsers came and went and different companies dug in their heels. Yes, HTML was supposed to be an international standard, but no one could really enforce this. So too, today do we have a myriad of different major eBook formats. Most draw on HTML, but have their own implementations and interpretations of the tags. Here’s just a sampling, though I’m sure you’re familiar with most:

  • ePub
  • eReader (pdb)
  • HTML (yes there are still eBooks that are pure HTML)
  • Kindle (.azw and .kf8, also works with MOBI)
  • Mobipocket (MOBI)
  • Microsoft .lit (LIT)
  • Acrobat (PDF)

All right, Jonathan, that I understand. (Not only does he know how computers work and how to code and program and all that other good stuff that looks like magic to me, he can speak plain English, too.) To read the rest of what he has to say about the issue, click here.

I had told him before I’m leery of setting standards because sometimes that causes stagnation (MS Word, for instance). Truth is, my real fear is that when the dust settles I’ll end up with more useless, obsolete gadgets. Since I don’t understand the mechanics, I have no idea which format is better or why one is better than another. All I know is what ends up in my hands. Also it’s a pain in the butt having separate formatting requirements when I’m producing an ebook.

So, yeah, we need some standards. I’d love to see ebooks that work effortlessly across any device the user happens to have on hand. I’d love one-shot ebook formatting for production. I also want the assurance that my beloved Kindle will still be able to read what’s available and I won’t be forced to buy new gadgets.

Considering Jonathan’s explanation, I think I see what the real problem is and will continue to be for a while. At least for people like me.  The two major players with the best chance of setting the standard are Apple and Amazon. The trouble is, they’re each coming at this from a different perspective. Apple is all about hardware, so it provides content to use on the hardware, whereas Amazon is all about content and so provides the hardware to support the content. What seems to be missing is the realization that content and hardware have to be married. The hardware has to be good enough to support the content and the content has to be good enough to justify the hardware. Speaking purely as a reader, Amazon is preferred because it offers me vast choice in content, which is easy to find and easy to obtain. Amazon doesn’t make me jump through hoops to get what I want. On the other hand, on a purely aesthetic level e-ink technology sucks. It’s functional, it gives me the content, but face it, Larry (I named my Kindle Larry) you’re a homely so-and-so.

There are times when I lust after a Kindle Fire or even an iPad. What stops me are the cost, the irritation over discarding yet another gadget, and the fact that I want a dedicated ereader. I don’t want or need bells and whistles. I don’t want apps or being forced to convert files and sideload or any of that other stuff, none of which is difficult to do, but I don’t want to do it anyway.

As an ebook producer, I spend too much time and energy circumventing the quirks of various programs and trying to compensate for the limitations of the many different devices readers use. That is time and energy I could be using to suss out the advantages of the technology in order to produce better ebooks. So yeah, even at the risk of Larry becoming obsolete, I think it’s time to start working on establishing a standard format and universal reading devices.


21 thoughts on “Do We Need Standards in Ebooks?

  1. Pingback: An eBook Standards Carol Part 1: Ghosts of Formats Past | Shaggin the Muse

  2. One of the big problems with standards is the need for consensus among competing communities. If you look at the drive for Web standards, you see lovely things like the timeline for proposed changes in HTML. The last version of HTML (4) was finalized in 1997. Wikipedia says that we might get HTML5 finalized in 2022. No, that wasn’t a typo. For the web–incredibly fast-moving technology–implementing standardized improvements is projected to take 25 years. Do you really want to wait that long for improvements in e-readers?

    Whenever I see people complaining about Amazon using a proprietary format, I wonder whether they realize that if Amazon had waited for the standards on epub to be finalized, there would probably still not be an active ebook market. It was only after Amazon demonstrated proof of concept by starting to sell ebooks in reasonable numbers that big companies were willing to start making investments in supporting and developing the epub standard. (I worked for one of them, which is how I know that.) A final recommendation for the epub format that resolved some of the serious problems with it was only made in October of 2011. Yeah, seven months ago. I personally am very grateful that Amazon didn’t wait for the committee meetings!

    • Hi, Wyndes. This is why I have to find people to EXPLAIN this stuff to me. I come at this from strictly a user perspective. I have no solutions, and don’t even know enough to make good suggestions. You make a really good point about why Amazon went with the Kindle and the format it currently uses.

      What I really want is for the developers and programmers to keep people like ME in mind while they are working their magic.

    • Wyndes, definitely agree that the speed of innovation cannot wait on people to figure this stuff out in committees. The real solutions, I feel, come when companies come together with common goals and agree to have some inter-operable standards amongst themselves. The advent of DVDs happened in much the same way. Obviously we’re a long way from Amazon and Apple being able to work together on this stuff (and I don’t know if that’s going to clear up any time soon), but I think that’s going to have to happen at some point just to keep eBooks viable.

  3. Standarization?? Ack! i was scared at first that you meant about the ebooks themselves.
    I fear that could cause the same situation the traditional publishing does…but I’m off topic.
    To be able to apply what I’ve written to all formats in one fell-swoop would make me very happy–since I have NO discernible formatting skills and have to pay someone everytime and for every place I want my books.
    Gadgets freak me out a bit too–but I love them, and I too have several outdated, useless and once loved machines.
    As for Word–I don’t know what else to use. ANY suggestions would help…
    Nice post! Thanks Jaye–and Jonathan too for the guest spot 🙂

    • Hi, Penelope. Sounds like we are sisters under the skin. Heh.

      I don’t think we’ll see the end of Word anytime soon. It does too good a job at producing print documents and writers love it (I love it for print documents). What I’m using now is a melding of Word and Scrivener. The meld comes because the writers I’m doing ebooks for use, for the most part, Word. Plus, for cleaning up a source file and getting it ready for formatting, Word’s search functions are superb.

      As for me, I keep working with the tools I have just because I don’t know how to make better tools and depend on people who do know how to make things easier.

    • I’m kind of on the opposite end of you guys, I’m known for being a little TOO enthusiastic about embracing new technology and ending up with some useless gadgets, but even those, too, can be repurposed at times. There are a few viable alternatives to Word, but I don’t see a reason why someone would have to stop using it. I’d love to get an all-in-one solution, but I get decent enough results tweaking the resulting Word file. I’m working on eBook detailing my own process.

  4. Don’t worry about discarding your e-ink Kindle. I bought the Kindle Fire and I keep my e-ink one in use all the time. The ink is best for reading a good book. The Fire has all the bells & whistles that distract from a good book and is also harder on the eyes for long-form reading. It’s more of an app/internet device. Get both and you’ll get good use out of both of them.

    • Hi, Lmarmar. I am going to do one better. I’m going to talk my daughter into getting a Kindle Fire. If I feel a need for bells and whistles, I’ll steal, er, borrow hers. Best of both worlds.

  5. As a self-publisher, I wouldn’t mind if the process of building an e-book were streamlined. But even if e-book format were standardized and stripped of drm, you still have to contend with going from Word to e-book. I’m trying out Scrivener and am hoping it solves the latter problem

    • Actually, Word does work well for a source file. IF writers will learn to think of their Word files not as documents, but as source files.

      If writers will turn off the Auto-correct and Auto-format features, stop using tabs and extra spaces between sentences and after paragraphs, use style sheets and NOT do any special formatting beyond italics, bolding and underlining, they will produce a relatively clean file from the get-go.

      I’ll be writing a post on that later this week or early next week. That’s standardization I think we can all live with.

      • Yes! And yay! So glad to read someone else who thinks this. I find Word completely easy to use for creating clean ebook files, as long as you start the right way. My list also includes no headers or footers; no automatic page numbers; no heading 1 style on more than a single line at a time; no page, chapter or section breaks; never more than 4 paragraph returns in a row; and no font sizes larger than 14. Three styles–normal, centered, and Heading 1–and I’ve never had a document with a problem. I’ve only published one book but I turn my manuscripts into ebooks all the time for proofing and they’ve always looked fine. And I still have the convenience of using Word tools like commenting and track changes for editing.

  6. No idea what you lot just said but as I said before Kindle e-ink has to be the Best reader for out of doors but the kindle app on the iPad is just superb indoors. But I wonder if what you are talking about had something to do with a glitch on the last book I was reading. On the ipad in one chapter, half of sentences were missing and before I ranted at Amazon on an email I decided to revert to my trusty Kindle and all was well with the world again, buggered if I know what the problem was….


    • I will be honored to produce your ebook, Tom. And yet, there was probably a coding glitch that the iPad tried to “fix.” I live in fear of introducing those kinds of glitches. Ay yi yi.

  7. [Warning: Serious Rant Ahead. Exercise Extreme Caution.]

    We know what makes a good standard. This is a solved problem, but every industry seems hell-bent on ignoring the lessons we learned as we built the internet. I am posting this comment from a razor-thin tablet while traveling 70 mph down a highway in east Texas (don’t worry, Mrs. Ockham is driving). That magic didn’t just happen. There is a whole stack of standards that makes that possible and most of them were never designed with wireless communication in mind. The most likely thing to go wrong is in the html display, which is absurd, but I know why that is.

    Back in the age of dinosaurs, er, mainframes, somebody realized that it would be really useful if you could hook up one computer to another one further away than in the same room. The hardware guys got out the wirecutters and went to work. Voila, the first computer network. Ok, that is bit oversimplified, but the point is if you are sending electric pulses down a wire, you have to have some standards for how the network interfaces interpret them. A dude named Bob Metcalfe looked at how some other folks had done it, fixed their bugs, made a few improvements, and on May 22, 1973, Ethernet was conceived. And it was born on November 11 of the same year when he and a co-worker got the system working. Back in the day, there were competing protocols, but today almost every wired network uses Ethernet. And just above Ethernet on the stack is TCP/IP and all your networks use that as well. Moving up the stack, you get HTTP, which is the application protocol that will be used to communicate this comment from my iPad to the server that hosts Jaye’s blog and then serve it up to your browser. All of those protocols have a few essential qualities in common and they are among the most successful standards in history. That is no coincidence.

    Qualities that make good standards

    1. Do one useful thing

    Ethernet, TCP/IP, and HTTP were all designed to exactly one thing that everybody needed. All of the competing protocols did more from the start. That just made the competitors harder to implement.

    2. No optional features

    If you make your standard simple, implementers can make all the features work.

    3. Make it easy to see compliance

    Get your standard approved by a standards body. Create a suite of tests that demonstrate compliance.

    4. Extensions are fine, as long as they don’t break existing systems

    All of these standards got used in ways no one anticipated. They got extended, twisted, and mangled, but they work as the foundation of the internet.

    Sadly, none of the ebook format standards meet any of these design goals. Do the following thought experiment. Think of a bar graph with one bar for every print title that was sold in 2011. The height of each bar would equal the total number of copies sold form that title and they would be arranged so that tallest bar is on the left. So, “The Help” and “Hunger Games” would be over on the left. Now, start moving your minds eye towards the right until you get to the point where there are an equal number of books (not titles) on each side. How far would you have to go? 10 titles? 25? Not very far, in any event. Make a list of the features required to do decent ebooks for those titles. Think about how many other books could be done with that same feature set. That is what the standard should specify.

    • I understood most of that. It’s the bells and whistles and “look what I can do!” nonsense that screws everything up? Yes?

      I’m thinking we need more rants and demands and noise until the people “in charge” get it through their heads that we need the basics standardized and let each individual producer determine their own bells and whistles.

      • Actually, the most common reason that standards get messed up are committees who cannot reach consensus. That leads to optional features, vague standards that allow multiple incompatible implementations, and competing standards. That is what happened to and is still happening to HTML.

  8. Pingback: An eBook Standards Carol Part 2: The Open Standard Phantom | Shaggin the Muse

  9. Interesting couple of posts, Jaye– this one and today’s. I don’t know enough to comment, but I do agree, standardization would make your job much easier. And I might actually be able to figure out formatting.

    • I don’t really know enough to comment either. Heh. All I know is, I will be much relieved when everybody settles on something we can all live with. Until then, clean source files.

  10. Pingback: The #TESSpecFic Weekly: Happy เดือนมิถุนายน! | Shaggin the Muse

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