Last week, the W3C and the IDPF—the organizations responsible for the HTML standard and the EPUB ebook standard respectively—finalized their plan to merge. The plan has not been without controversy. Proponents have said that it will give the IDPF the reach and power of a larger organization to push for its improvements in the ebook standard, whereas opponents have been concerned that it will lose its identity, and publishing-related organizations will lose their voice, as the IDPF is subsumed into the larger W3C.
Last month, Digital Book World carried dueling editorials from people against and for the merger. The opponents, including execs from Overdrive, Impelsys, and Open Road Integrated Media, would prefer to see the IDPF revitalized on its own, and have a ten-point plan they want to implement to make that possible.
On the other hand, long-time IDPF member Bill McCoy thinks that this merger could move EPUB to the mainstream, rather than letting it peter out like the WAP mobile web implementation did when everyone else moved to HTML5. He also feels that incorporating EPUB directly into ongoing web development could allow ebooks to move beyond “ebooks that are skeuomorphic digitized equivalents of print editions.” The bigger organization will have more people doing the same work and a louder voice to be heard, and McCoy adds that using the W3C’s royalty-free licensing model will ensure that EPUB remains free and open for all to use.
In a CNet editorial, Stephen Shankland anticipates that this could potentially bring all sorts of “smart” features to digital textbooks, such as pop-up tables, embedded video and 3D models, and so forth. Such textbooks could be updated automatically without requiring the repurchase of a new edition. However, The Digital Reader’s Nate Hoffelder points out that iBooks has already supported this sort of thing since 2012, as have a number of failed textbook startups. It’s not exactly new, but neither is it in very wide use.
But interactive ebooks? pop-ups? embedded videos?
We have all that, and ebook developers can use it when they want. The reason they don’t is that frequently the market doesn’t want it.
It is true that Field of Dreams had it wrong: just because you build it doesn’t mean anyone will come. But I foresee another problem with all this pie-in-the-sky talk of a broader EPUB standard for everybody.
When I was talking to David Rothman about possible angles I might use in this piece, he suggested that Amazon’s recent changes to its Kindle ebook format—making it more difficult to convert even DRM-free titles into other formats—might show the need for a more powerful standard-setting organization.
But here’s the problem with that. What do you call a standard that almost nobody actually uses? Yep, that’s right…you still call it a standard. And EPUB is exactly that kind of “standard” that effectively isn’t one.
Perhaps it’s not entirely correct to say that “almost nobody actually uses” EPUB. Because, really, just about every ebook vendor who isn’t Amazon uses EPUB. The problem is that the vast majority of ebook customers use Amazon, whose format isn’t compatible with EPUB. (Or, to be more precise, whose format can’t be (legally) made compatible when DRM is involved.) So, as far as all those readers are concerned, Amazon’s non-standard standard is their standard standard.
We’ve seen multiple ebook businesses crash and burn (most recently, Shelfie) because they simply couldn’t get enough customers—their would-be customers were already strolling through Amazon’s garden. And while it might not be a completely walled garden—customers can still sideload books from elsewhere if they choose—the way it works out in actual practice, it might as well be.
To the average person, sideloading stuff is hard, or at least too inconvenient to want to mess with. Even if other ebook stores released their ebooks in Kindle-compatible DRM-free Mobipocket format, most Amazon customers couldn’t be bothered to step outside their tap-a-button-to-get-a-book comfort zone. (That’s why Baen neutered its own ebook store’s subscription bundles in order to get onto Amazon—that’s where all the customers are.)
So, even if the newly merged W3C/IDPF is the most powerful method ever for promoting EPUB as an open standard, what good is that going to do? Amazon already has all the customers, and it’s not interested in switching things up. EPUB can be as “standard” as it wants to, and the W3C can use as big a megaphone as it wants to tell everyone how awesome it is—but that’s not going to pry one customer loose from Amazon when that’s where all his or her books are. Nor is it going to force Amazon to add EPUB capability to the Kindle if Amazon doesn’t think that’s in its best interests. It would probably take some kind of antitrust action to change that, and as long as the current “consumer welfare” paradigm of antitrust enforcement holds sway, I don’t see that happening.
I hope something about this surprises me, and the newly-merged W3C means some kind of sweeping change will come about that could revitalize the e-publishing industry and change the balance of power. But I suspect it’s going to go right on being business as usual.
Correction/Update: Firebrand Technology reversed its opposition to the merger, as Chair Fran Toolan mentioned at a January 18 meeting in New York, and in fact has provided a royalty-free grant in support of the transfer of EPUB IP to W3C. We’ve removed Firebrand from the list of merger foes in an earlier version of the post. Others may also have changed their minds.