Sunday, May 30, 2010

BookExpo, Digital Book 2010, and eBook Messes

When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be either a doctor or a garbage man. When I got my Ph. D., I thought that I had checked off the first option; that was stretching a 5-year-old's conception of a doctor pretty far. Looking back on my career so far, however, I see that using machines to get rid of dirt is a much more consistent theme. In graduate school, I used high vacuum systems to remove impurities from semiconductors; at Openly Informatics, we built software systems to clean up electronic resource metadata.

This week at IDPF's DigitalBook2010 Conference and BookExpo America, I was reminded over and over again how messy the so-called "supply chain" for books had become, and how the transition to ebooks from print is just making everything that much messier. I had known about the ebook ISBN mess, the book metadata mess, the territorial rights mess and of course the orphan works mess, but the presentations at IDPF on the "agency model" staggered me with the realization that big publishers were dumping a huge load of local sales-tax excrement on their channel partners. The last straw for me was a BISG presentation on rights standards. The speaker was trying to convince the audience that huge piles of money were to be made if only content rights could be efficiently chopped into smaller, more insidious pieces.

I hit the floor of the expo hoping to find solace in some shiny clean gizmos. I found all sorts of reader devices that I hadn't seen before, along with the alluring iPads and the competant Sony readers that I'd seen before. I didn't see a single Kindle on the entire show floor.

Well maybe I wasn't looking too hard. But it was hard not to get the impression that IDPF and BookExpo was a gathering of the anti-Amazon forces of Openness.

It's easy to swallow the story line that Amazon is building a closed, sterile system with its Kindle and that B&N, Sony, and all the others are unleashing a torrent of innovation with their open ePUB standards and promises of interoperability. This story line usually makes an analogy with the early days of the PC, in which Apple's proprietary Mac system was swamped a wave of innovation fostered by the PC's open design and Microsoft software that worked with all the hardware. The irony of Apple using ePUB for their iBookstore on the iPad is dutifully noted and left unexamined.

Somehow, BEA failed to sell me on the open vs. closed story line for ebooks. I don't see how open standards are going to clean up the scrapheaps on which the current book industry is built and in which the ebook industry is stuck.

I've mentioned that I've been reading about the early days of Intel. The Windows-Intel platform was never an open one; it was designed to sell Intel chips and Microsoft software. Apple's strategy, in contrast, was designed to sell computers, and avoid all the mess of keeping the hardware compatible.

After a day to reflect on Book Expo (and some time to sleep off a very nice party!) I came to a different story line that I find more useful in giving insight into the future course of the ebook industry. I think the key to understanding the different entrants in the ebook race is to understand which messes they're trying to tidy.

Amazon, with its Kindle, has focused on maintaining a clean shopping experience and a clean reading environment. By eliminating the computer tether with wireless Whispernet, they avoid a hardware compatibility mess. By choosing a proprietary file format, they avoid a document compatibility mess. By launching only in the US and extending to other territories slowly, they avoid all the territorial mess. Since their online bookstore had already addressed all the messy details of e-commerce for a huge catalog, the execution of Kindle was in large part an exercise in avoiding having to deal with any new messes.

Overdrive had a surprisingly large presence at BEA- they had two separate booths. Working with hardware makers such as Sony, Overdrive has attacked the problems of messy distribution channels- libraries and bricks and mortar retailers, in particular. The work of Overdrive has allowed publishers to pretty much forget that libraries use ebooks- the only place that libraries were mentioned on the show flow in connection with ebooks was in the Sony booth- they work directly with Overdrive to surface the library channel to consumers through their Library Finder feature.
The company that made the biggest impression on me this week was Kobo, the ebook seller that spun out of Canada's Indigo Books. More than any of the current ebook players, Kobo is emphasizing an any-screen strategy. Unlike Amazon, Kobo is not afraid to takle the mess of making a consumer's ebook work on all the devices they own. Kobo's $150 ebook reader device, which launches in the US on June 17, looks and feels like the device that Apple would have designed if Steve Jobs  bothered to reads books anymore. Perhaps most significantly, Kobo is tackling the ebook territorial rights mess. At IDPF, Michael Tamblyn, Kobo's Executive Vice President for Content, Sales and Merchandising, described Kobo's global reach. On one day last month, Kobo sold books to customers in 174 countries. Kobo does business in 6 different currencies and has agreements to sell books from 1600 publishers.

Apple's Disneyfied approach, as expressed in the iPad, is to sweep all sorts of application messes into app sandboxes. Apple has done very little, though, to clean up ebook messes, and their complicity in letting the big 6 agencies dump on the supply chain suggests that they want to be like Target and Walmart and just skim the blockbuster cream off the incumbent publishing ecosystem. I agree with Mike Cane that Apple will open the digital book floodgates by targeting the ebook creation tools mess.

There are still a lot of ebook messes looking for entrepreneurial sorts to show up with a broom, or perhaps a tsunami to just wash away the whole rickety shantytown. It should be an interesting couple of years.

I hope this piece has cleaned up the picture for you a bit!
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