Nitty-gritty of book formatting will limit ebook market growth

‘ePub is now the standard’ and ‘thank goodness’ we all say, almost believing that it is like MP3 for music. But is that ePub in iBooks, Kobo, Kindle, Stanza, Adobe DE, or in another software reader? And then is it one of these readers on the iPad, the iPhone, the Blackberry, Kindle, Kobo, Sony, or another reading tablet, or a desk-top? How many possible variations do these combinations represent? Is the next version of ePub going to make things better, or worse?

If my device can play an MP3 file, there is no quality variation between devices, or none that my untrained ear can notice. But if my device can display an ePub file, I could be driven completely batty by what appears to be broken paragraphs, a vanilla font for all text, italics, superscripts, etc lost, and be left seriously wondering about the nature and quality of the content I am reading.

ePub files need to be optimised to suit your target market and the format/device combination that are most likely to be used. This embeds a serious flaw in the economy of digital book content that will limit its growth, particularly in professional, reference, education, and academic markets. As the AAP reports yet another stellar month for digital book sales (up 160% on same period last year), we need to remember that these vagaries of digital formats will eventually put a dampener on such growth. In fact, it is probably one of the main reasons few textbook publishers are yet to wholeheartedly embrace the ebook format.

Even more to the point, we do not yet really know where the bulk of the sales growth is coming from. If they are from library sales, for example, we can be confident that the useability factor of ebooks will become increasingly important as libraries become more alert to what borrowers can and can’t do with their ebook libraries. Many of these formatting issues will be difficult for publishers or aggregators to solve, and we may see a gradual decline in uptake as readers get weary of the unreliable standards, as compared to the printed edition.

Every publisher has no choice but to produce ebooks now, and to do so to the ePub standard most of their readers would expect for a mainstream mobile device would expect. There is a growing market there, and it might even provide a return on investment soon. However, publishers’ willingness to invest in more robust formatting will continue to be seriously hampered while these long-term demand issues remain so uncertain. And this, in turn, will hamper the ultimate size and growth levels of the ebook market, with the formats as we know them today. The good news is, it will also put a dampener on piracy, as few content pirates will want to invest in overcoming the formatting challenges either.

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