eBook State of Confusion

eBook State of Confusion
(image courtesy banklawyersblog)

I thought this week might be a good time to step back and just review a few big themes/ongoing news in the ebook world. Some of these have been covered before, but since it can get very confusing very quickly with the changing landscape and players in the ebook world. So bear with me, as we run through a few major ebook areas that have been in the news and muddying the ebook waters this week!

eBook State of Confusion
ePUB, DRM, and Sandwiches
(image courtesy Amazon)

ePUB is sometimes seen as a quasi-universal format. While it is used in almost every major ebook store, every version is not universal. I covered this earlier in the week regarding digital rights management, but it is still tough to connect all the dots. Here is how I explained this to a coworker:

Think of ePUB as white bread. It’s what makes a sandwich a sandwich, and not a pile of filling on a plate. Non-DRM’d ePUB is just plain white bread slice. Next, along comes Adobe Digital Editions, or the main Adobe DRM system. Think of this as turkey and swiss. So a turkey and swiss sandwich is made with white bread, but it isn’t the same as plain white bread. Now, let’s call that sandwich the Sony (or Kobo, etc). Next, Barnes and Noble thinks that looks like a delicious sandwich, but theirs is going to have a layer of homemade mustard. Now, they can serve you a sandwich without mustard, but Sony can’t serve you one with it until later this year when Barnes and Noble releases their mustard recipe.

Along comes Apple, who thinks, “Wow, white bread! Yum!” and makes peanut butter and jelly.

Where’s Amazon in all this? They’re off making corned beef on rye.

So if you followed my analogy without getting hungry, the baseline of an ebook is similar but not the same between Amazon and ePUB, and ePUB varies from store to store, depending on the “condiments” and “fillings”. And that’s a big part of why Apple crowing about ePUB gets so confusing, especially when Adobe let it slip that Apple is NOT licensing Adobe Digital Editions. This means even though Apple may be using ePUB/white bread, it’s a totally different DRM/filling and there’s no chance of incompatibility at this time.

eBook State of Confusion

The Google Books Settlement

Google had a great idea one day back in the early 2000’s. “Hey, we have this awesome search engine, and all these servers we aren’t using…let’s scan books and save them for the future, and people can search and just find the snippets they need!” Now, while it sounded great, especially for out of print books, the reality became far, far dicier. After a slew of lawsuits, Google and various authors/publishers settled for an eye-popping $125 million settlement in 2005. But the drama doesn’t end there…

Everyone from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Justice Department began complaining about the settlement. The EFF says it infringes upon privacy rights by giving Google far too much data about individual’s reading habits, while the Justice Department made noises about unfair advantages. Amazon and Microsoft are just two of the companies whose attorneys are fighting the settlement, and several authors and well-known technology pundits have spoken out against it.

The heart of the concerns is that Google will have control over this data in a way no other ebook seller has; this isn’t a case of licensing, it’s a case of literally owning this data on their servers, free and clear of any future copyright issues. Not to mention, the settlement gave them that “get out of copyright free” without consideration to international rights, which vary from country to country. In other words, what is out of copyright in USA law may not be in, say, French law. Hence the incredible amount of scrutiny. Today a judge in California heard arguments from both sides, and needless to say, he determined he needed more time to rule than one day! Look for more news and commentary on the eventual result here.

What is really amazing is that all this kicked off back in 2005, several years before “ebooks” became the buzzword of the year!

eBook State of Confusion
(image courtesy Geoffreyjames)

How does an eBook cost more than a paper book?

Apple may have annoyed the ebook world a few times already, with new pricing models and a whole new DRM system, but it looks like they may be shaking up a longstanding annoyance in ebooks: pricing. The New York Times is reporting that Apple’s iBook’s may have more flexible pricing than it originally seemed. Apparently, the $12.99-14.99 pricing we heard about for books is not a hard and fast range. Apple is requesting that publishers adjust pricing based on whether a book is on the bestseller list, and whether the list price falls lower than the average range for the hardcover. In other words, Apple is expecting there to be rational rules to the pricing of ebooks!

eBook prices are entirely irrational in many cases. A book can be in paperback, and still list at hardcover prices in eBook format! Want an example? Terry Pratchett’s “The Color of Magic” is available as a $7.99 mass market paperback. It’s also available in eBook for $11.99. Why is the ebook higher? It’s pricing off the quality paperback pricing, which is more expensive.

Apple has come in, as an outsider to the ebook world, and essentially determined this is not the way to ebook adoption. So they are pushing for the ability to flex prices as the markets dictate, something that publishers have resisted with ebooks in the past. Hopefully, we see this become a norm, where ebooks are not slotted in as an in-between hardcover and paperback price range, but a separate price continuum all their own.


These are just a few of the issues facing and confusing the ebook world today. Next up in Gear Diary’s ongoing ebook coverage, look for my LCD versus eBooks versus Paper Smackdown Results Show, which hopefully should be completed this weekend!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?