The Tumblog of one Jim Dovey, iOS Software Chief Architect at Kobo in Toronto, Ontario.
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Posts tagged eBooks

New Blog Post: eBook DRM and unDRM 

I had the honour of moderating a panel on eBook DRM technology for the W3C earlier this week, and I’ve taken the liberty of expanding upon my presentation and providing some more talking points.

The main thrust of the argument: there are good and useful end-user features that we can build using the same technology normally used for restrictions. As long as we’re using this tech, let’s do the good things too.

Click through the link for the full post on my new blog.

The number of mobile Apple devices sold and in use is already a multiple of all dedicated eBook devices sold in the United States, making Apple — and not Amazon — the dominant outlet for eBook sales. And while in this position, it enjoys a shopping experience advantage that it willfully denies to its competitors.

Readium Open Source Initiative Launched to Accelerate Adoption of EPUB 3 | International Digital Publishing Forum 

So here’s the Big News to which I’d earlier alluded. The IDPF has got together a who’s-who of people and companies in the eBook world to work on an open-source implementation of a reference ePub3 reading system and container library. And of course Kobo is putting a ton of weight behind it. Also, me: I’m going to be working on this project full-time here very shortly.

Looking through the project’s goals, you’ll see a good amount of overlap with the goals I’d previously stated for the ePub Author project. The core aims are all there:

  • A browser of ‘ePub3-flavoured HTML’ content.
  • A library encapsulating the correct parsing and generation of all forms of structured content described in the ePub3 standard.
  • Best-in-class support for non-Roman scripts, particularly vertically-flowing ones.
  • No limits on its use as the core of a larger project, even commercial ones.
  • Lots of industry know-how being funnelled into a single output.

So yeah: I’m rather excited about this one. Expect to hear more from me as it all progresses.

Now I’ll just go back to writing ePub3 structured content handling code…

"Downmarket Genre Fiction" is it?

So the astute Mr. Gemmell earlier today made note of a rather elitist-sounding article over at paidContent:UK. The author of that piece rather laments the fact that eBook consumption is led by ‘genre fiction’. You know— everything that most people read; something — *shudder* — classifiable. Science fiction. Romance. Crime. Horror. Fantasy. Historical.

So, is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like regular books? What else could we call them……… Ah yes— stories.

This all smacks of the same sort of book-snobbery we see in some literary awards’ shortlists, or in programmes about books on the BBC. This has prompted a number of authors to call out the organizers and producers of such fare for their low view of so-called ‘genre fiction’. In March 2011, author Stephen Hunt wrote on his blog:

In my world there is only one genre permitted access to the oxygen of publicity in the mainstream media, and that genre is contemporary fiction. It is also called literary fiction by its supporters, just to underscore the point that anything that isn’t written in their genre can never be classed as literature or improving or worthy.

The end result of all this snobbery, he points out, is the loss of the joy of reading in the youth of today. In amidst the many other ways of finding entertainment, the elevation of ‘contemporary fiction’ as the only thing worth reading has turned off many of our youth from reading altogether:

And that conflict, dear reader, between what we read and what is actually covered by the media has sadly begot a much greater one. People, especially younger readers, have given up on fiction on dead trees. They were happy to play the ‘literary fiction’ game in a gentler age, when it was the only game in town. Hell, some crazy old dudes even read short fiction in the pulps back in the day. But it’s a more packed playlist now: MMOGs, IM, BitTorrents, RSS feeds, happy slapping, texting, DS, Xbox, Twitter, FaceBook, iPods, iPads, YouTube, blogging, Tumblr, Angry Birds – you know the drill, right?

I suppose I was lucky in high school that my English teacher didn’t hold to such things— we were specifically encouraged to read fantasy and science fiction; I remember reading Howard Fast’s The First Men there, and many people’s marks took a good boost when writing up that one (we were tasked with writing a newspaper editorial about the experiment in the story).

When reading the article which provoked today’s discussion, I initially thought that perhaps the inflammatory title (downmarket genre fiction) was an addition by the editor, and that perhaps the writer herself had a more nuanced view. However, down towards the bottom were a couple of gems which rather cut short that hope:

The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well.

I’m not so sure it is wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public. They may intend to go to the Economist website to read the latest in the euro crisis, but oops! they’ve ended up on Mail Online reading about the Kardashians.

…ok. That’s one way of putting it. Another might be: we read for entertainment, not self-betterment. Most people spend long days working, then most of their evenings working in another fashion: food, cleaning, caring for family. If we choose to spend our leisure time reading, we are more likely to read something entertaining than improving; simple fatigue will dictate that as the norm, if nothing else. Don’t think that it’s all slush, though. Of everything I’ve read in my life, no book has made me reach for the (conveniently built-in) dictionary than Gregory Macguire’s Wicked series. Damn that guy has some vocabulary. And how many other ‘genre fiction’ books — and genre fiction in a fantasy setting, based upon a line of children’s books, no less — would come with study notes included?

The establishment might choose to look down its nose at writing for the sake of story, but its nature does not make it automatically sub-standard.

Bottom-line: the EU thinks the “agency model” constitutes illegal price-fixing.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball, commenting on this story from CNNMoney.

I’d say the possible reason for targeting Apple in this case is that Apple is also a platform vendor upon which competing eBook retailers wish to build platforms, and indeed have done so, before Apple. Apple’s accused collusion with publishers therefore additionally gives Apple a significant lever against competitors in the eReader app space. Just look at what they’ve done to Kindle, B&N, and Kobo.

Remember: if it weren’t for the Agency Model, all those would have been able to run decently enough via Apple IAP, albeit quite likely with higher prices. Apple eventually decided to allow us to charge more in our app— in the full knowledge that the deals they’d helped shepherd into the publishing industry would prevent us from actually doing so.

BeamItDown Software and the iFlow Reader will cease operations as of May 31, 2011. We absolutely do not want to do this, but Apple has made it completely impossible for anyone but Apple to make a profit selling contemporary ebooks on any iOS device. We cannot survive selling books at a loss and so we are forced to go out of business. We bet everything on Apple and iOS and then Apple killed us by changing the rules in the middle of the game.
The current custodians of ebooks — Amazon, Google and the publishers — have agreed to cripple the liquidity of ebooks by preventing readers from cut-and-pasting text easily, or to copy large sections of a book, or to otherwise seriously manipulate the text. But eventually the text of ebooks will be liberated, and the true nature of books will blossom. We will find out that books never really wanted to be telephone directories, or hardware catalogs, or gargantuan lists. These are jobs that websites are much superior at — all that updating and searching — tasks that paper is not suited for. What books have always wanted was to be annotated, marked up, underlined, dog-eared, summarized, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, shared, and talked-to. Being digital allows them to do all that and more.
[W]orking with the iBookstore has been the most amazingly horrible, opaque, and frustrating experience I’ve had. Apple’s software is terrible, the iTunes Connect Web site is lousy, and support questions often aren’t answered for - and I’m not kidding here - months. It’s gotten a little better over time, but mostly it makes my stomach hurt.

Adam Engst, interviewed by eReaderJoy (courtesy of John Gruber).

Gee, it’s a good thing that there are other eBook store providers on iOS, eh?

O'Reilly: 79% of our book sales are eBooks 

I can probably tell you why O’Reilly is doing so well in the eBook market today: They are the only publisher to require no DRM on their eBooks.

Every other publisher I know of has an explicit requirement in their vendor contracts that the vendor must implement some form of DRM to be applied to the publisher’s eBooks, and that such DRM must be maintained against attack. O’Reilly bucked the trend by requiring the exact opposite: vendors absolutely must not place DRM on books from O’Reilly Publishing.

Now they’re selling them like hotcakes. Even though they’re selling them to a tech-savvy audience, which is arguably the most likely to be able to disseminate these eBooks to all their friends.

Bravo guys. Let’s hope the rest of them take note and follow suit.

eBook Sellers & In-App Purchase

Earlier, Mark Topham pointed me towards IAP ‘consumables’, a method by which a user could be billed, say, $4.99, but which would still bill them if we put through the transaction again (for a different $4.99 book).

This solves the ‘2.5M into 3500 doesn’t go’ problem fairly nicely, but it has a few problems which undermine Apple’s altruistic spin on things:

First, some problems for the user:

  • SKUs now refer to price points, not books, so users must still have an Amazon/B&N/Kobo account to keep track of their purchases.
  • This therefore doesn’t keep the user ‘safe’ from us ‘evil’ vendors, since no useful information on their purchases is attached to their Apple accounts.

Some problems for businesses:

  • In-app purchasing is now literally only used for billing a user’s credit card (at ten times the market rate). We still need to do everything else that we do, because we can’t use IAP to determine whether an item has already been purchased. The onus is on us to ensure that we don’t bill the user twice for the same item, etc.
  • If the existing prices don’t exactly match Apple’s pricing tiers in all territories, we will need to renegotiate with every publisher for new prices in every IAP territory, separately. And we’ll need to do it again if Apple alters the territory maps, taking content offline (for everybody) while doing so to avoid breaking either the publishers’ or Apple’s rules.

And a problem for both sides:

  • None of Apple’s listed prices include sales tax. You only see that when your bill arrives via email a bit later. Kobo, at least, keeps track of this and tells the user before confirming the purchase what the full price will be. When using IAP, we can’t accurately determine where you’re being billed, so we can’t advise you of taxation. We can guess, based on your address, but we’ve no means of telling if your Apple account is using that address or a different one in another territory (since people move countries all the time these days).

So, at the end, what has been gained, for each of the three parties involved?

The User:

  • Doesn’t have to leave the app to make a purchase. Which was only required due to stipulation by Apple. No other benefit that I can see.

The eBook Vendor:

  • None that I can see.


  • Gets 30% of their competitors’ revenue, along with lots of analytics, again from their competitors.

In Summary

This runs counter to Apple’s expressed intent of making things easier for the user. If that were the case, they would offer better catalog support, or would allow vendors to implement their own purchase hooks. As an example, what I’d have implemented for Kobo, based on what their system is actually already capable of handling in-app, would have been a popup confirmation almost identical to the IAP one, with the addition of sales tax information. That doesn’t sound user-unfriendly to me. It actually sounds more user-friendly than IAP, right now.

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