Where are the ebooks?

We have had quite a few questions asked recently about ebooks, such as “When will Self-Counsel produce ebooks?” and “Why haven′t you produced ebooks yet?” An explanation is clearly in order!

In a newsletter to our authors more than a year ago, I optimistically said we would soon be launching ebooks. At the time, I was expecting the technology to change faster than it did.

We have been tracking the evolution of ebooks very closely ever since they first became available on devices such as Palm’s line of PDAs, to see how our books would work in the new format.

The state of ebooks

Early formats for ebooks were pretty crude and my reservations about the longevity of the early “standards” such as those for the Palm PDA and the Microsoft .lit format proved correct.

The introduction of an open, “standard” format called EPUB by the International Digital Publishing Forum (idpf) held a lot more promise. It was developed by people in the publishing industry and was quickly adopted by makers of reading devices like Sony and Kobo. Amazon unfortunately decided to stay with its proprietary AZW software format for the Kindle (AZW is a variation on the Mobipocket format, created after Amazon purchased the French company).

I do not consider Adobe’s PDF a suitable format for books which you are likely to read from start to finish. It has some merit, used with Adobe Reader or one of the clones, as a tool for reference material (I have a number of PDF books on software programming which I dip into to locate specific bits of information; reading the complete book onscreen is not a wonderful experience). The biggest problem with the PDF is that it does not reflow the content to fit the screen.

While there are now two dominant formats (epub and azw), this does not mean one just has to prepare ebooks in those two formats.

eReading Devices

Sony was the first manufacturer to launch a successful line of portable ebook reading devices. They used a new screen technology called “e-ink” which is a monochrome display with very low battery consumption, and low resolution. Amazon chose the same technology for its Kindle devices, as did Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and others.

In the past year or so, helped by aggressive marketing and publicity by Amazon, a lot of e-ink reading devices have been sold.

Each of these reading devices contains its own software to display the ebook on the screen. Each device vendor has made some effort to add “bells and whistles” to their devices. The result is a bit of a Tower of Babel. A plain-vanilla epub book will display on each device, but not necessarily in the same way. Fonts may change, font sizes may change, and other “under-the-hood” things occur.

All these devices display fairly plain text (e.g. the content of a typical novel) quite well. They generally do not handle bullet points, tables, and other elements common in non-fiction books well, if at all. Images are displayed poorly due to the low resolution, monochrome screens. Links within books frequently do not work; links from books to, say, web pages generally do not work at all, although this is starting to change with newer readers which have WiFi or cellular access to the web.

The advent of the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch opened up a new channel for ebooks. Despite their small (color LCD) screens, these devices proved to be quite good platforms for books, but their small screen size makes prolonged reading sessions less than optimum for many people.

The iPad tablet computer, released earlier this year, is a very viable reading device with a lot more capability than the e-ink readers. I expect a flood of new tablet devices to reach the market towards the end of this year and early next year. Whether many will stay long in the market will be a question for 2011 — Apple has a significant lead on them.

Smartphones such as the Android phones are increasingly able to render epub format ebooks (Kobo and Amazon are leaders in making reader software available on these platforms), so they fit into the iPod and iPhone category of small LCD screen reading devices.

Google Editions

Google has been working on two projects relating to books. The one which has garnered the most attention has been their scanning of out-of-copyright books. Google, Microsoft, and others launched similar scanning projects in partnership with major university libraries a few years ago; all but Google have dropped out, with Microsoft “switching sides” and now arguing that Google should not be allowed to proceed. That project is tied up in the courts.

Google’s other project, Google Editions, has been announced and delayed a number of times. It is now scheduled for “the Fall” and will probably launch before the end of this year. Full details on the project have not been released, but we know some things about it.

Google Editions is a different approach to selling in-copyright ebooks. Probably the best way to think of it is an Amazon-like retail store on the web offering a very large number of ebooks for sale, with Google taking a (small) percentage on each sale.

Google is also working with independent book retailers to encourage them to offer these ebooks via their websites, earning a commission on sales. This could I think be very helpful to small retailers whose brick-and-mortar store sales have barely made them a profit in the face of the onslaught of “big box” chains.

Google is expected to also offer ebook reading software which will work in your web browser. They have indicated they will be supporting the epub format, so presumably it will be possible to read an ebook purchased from Google Editions on any device you have which supports the epub format (almost all the e-ink readers except the Kindle, and all the Apple i-devices).

Collateral Materials

A feature of a great many Self-Counsel Press books is the CD bundled with the book. The content of those CDs ranges from forms, spreadsheets and checklists for use with the book, to substantial audio podcasts and other materials.

How to handle the CD content has definitely been an obstacle to our launching ebooks. The inability of early ebook reading devices to display images or link to anything made them impractical for the kind of books we publish. Now that reading devices are becoming Internet-aware, we can finally see ways to solve this problem.

Self-Counsel Ebooks

I now feel that the ecosystem is in place for Self-Counsel to launch and sell ebooks. Smartphones, tablets, Internet-aware reading devices, and Google Editions all offer opportunities to recreate the kind of books we publish in print. We have been creating and testing epub ebooks on most of the devices mentioned above. We will begin selling them before the end of this year.

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