All We Want For Christmas Is Standard Standards

November 1st, 2006 · 3 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

If we were the type to eat our words, we would be, yes, considering swallowing all of the things we’ve said about the publishing industry and their slow movement into the modern world*. Just this week, near the end of 2006, a mere dozen or so years after the dawn of the Age of Amazon, the industry has…wait for it…announced the release of a new digital book standard. Just in time for Christmas!

As with all major announcements, this one came with tongue-ready acronyms: the Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS) and Open eBook Publication Structure Container Format (OCF) were released by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). We dare you to say that one three times fast. Or not, better to focus on how this standard will make your life easier.

Yeah, we have a hard time with this stuff first thing in the morning, too. Let us suggest that standards are good. Standardizing formats and structures allows content to be deployed across multiple platforms and devices without causing undue stress on the consumer (still the ones who pay the money to buy stuff). Theoretically, this means that the e-book (speaking of standardization, will there be a conference to settle the “e-book” versus “ebook” debate?) that you purchase in electronic format from your service provider will work on your laptop, cell phone, portable reader, and, yes, your iPod when that whole business gets going.

Do we have high hopes that such a utopian vision will be achieved? Of course not. As the music industry has proven time and again, nothing says “We’re in charge” like competing digital rights management. As thousands of kiddies will learn on Christmas morning, you cannot play songs purchased from iTunes on your new Microsoft Zune. And vice versa. What faith can we have that Sony and Toshiba (or whomever) will release devices that will adhere firmly to the established standards…without the addition of their own special twist of DRM magic?

It did not escape our notice that the list of IDPF members noted in the press release did not include hardware manufacturers — at least any that we readily recognized in our sub-caffeinated state.

We strongly believe that if the publishing industry is serious about taking another step into the 21st century (prediction: final assimilation will happen about 2500 a.d., give or take), it needs to accept that consumers rule. Adding restrictions that put barriers between consumers and the products they’ve purchased is shaping up to be a major fight** in coming years, and we encourage the publishing industry to learn from the repeated mistakes made by the music and motion picture industries. People who perceive themselves to be locked out of their content, especially if said locking out is nothing but an evil plot to sell more units, will find ways around the barriers. The industry often calls this piracy, but people who’ve already bought the cow want the milk for free, no matter if they’re sipping from a wine goblet or sippy cup.

* – This is a patently false statement, by they way.
** – Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. You don’t really care. You will, you will.

[tags]drm, digital rights management, e-books, Open eBook Publication Structure, OEBPS, Open eBook Publication Structure Container Format, OCF, International Digital Publishing Forum, IDPF[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

3 responses so far ↓

  • Deborah Smith // Nov 1, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    As an author, I remain terrified that the rise of ebooks/e-books will undermine an already shaky sales system that already leaves every author short of Nora Roberts and John Grisham struggling to live on unpredictable royalty checks. We’re already losing royalties to the burgeoning used-book industry (gee, thank you, Amazon.com) and once it becomes possible (and, boy howdy, it will no doubt) for readers to pirate e-books/ebooks, your garden-variety author will truly be screwed. Unlike musicians, we can’t make up the difference by charging fans to hear us read our books in person.

  • ktwice // Nov 1, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    I couldn’t agree more on the possibility for missed sales. The new standard, as I understand it, provides for including DRM. Good, well-implemented DRM is the first step to reducing piracy (I do not say preventing, because if someone is hell bent on stealing, they are going to find a way to steal). Bad, poorly-considered, poorly-implemented DRM will destroy the e-book industry before it has a chance to flourish. It is almost a given that certain portion of the next generation will grow up with expectation that reading material will be available in digital format. In order for publishers to accommodate this up-and-coming market, much less the existing market, solid standards need to be in place.

    However, it is critical that the standards not be tied to devices — my example of iTunes and Zune is just one way that consumers are frustrated. These formats are designed to lock consumers into hardware in order to access the software they have legally purchased. Lack of portability is a solvable problem and needs to be addressed before consumers take the decisions away from the entertainment companies.

    The music industry learned this the hard way — they resisted, they fought, and they dithered. By the time the industry caught a clue, the consumers had adopted a de facto standard and pretty solid processes for accessing music. Since then, the industry has tried and tried to, well, shut the barn door. It’s really too late. The motion picture industry is doing a slightly better job of the whole thing, but, again, look at services like Amazon Unboxed — it’s device-specific while consumers are seeking freedom from that construct.

  • Jeff // Nov 3, 2006 at 10:13 am

    As someone who buys a lot of second-hand books I’m not very sympathetic to complaints about the ‘burgeoning used-book industry.’ This is ultimately a price-point issue. I recently bought a hardcover for 40 bucks, plus tax. (Canadian funds, Canadian taxes.) Unfortuntaely, that’s not very affordable for me. Perhaps as I get a bit older and my salary rises I’ll settle into a nice middle class reading lifestyle and won’t think twice about buying new books, but until that day comes, forget it.

    I do not know anything about the book selling business model, but I would assume that a significant portion of the price of a book is its shipping cost (gas ain’t cheap) and it’s printing costs (paper is more expensive all the time). I recently looked into ebooks and realized that they’re essentially the same price as regular books. While I’m very excited about innovative products like Sony’s E-Reader, and e-ink in general, I can’t see there being much of a market for e-books if the prices don’t come down.

    I am sympathetic to those who are not Nora Roberst or John Grisham, and to be honest I have no idea what slice of the pie a typical author receives. I know here in Canada a best-seller is only a couple thousand units sold, so the potential for supporting oneself on domestic sales alone, even given a best case scenario, are slim to none. I would like to think that with digital sales there would be a new business model in place.