Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Multi-Format Ebooks Matter

Ebook formats are a double-edged sword. If you start rambling off their mysterious acronyms, the eyes of most authors and book readers glaze over.

However, different formats are required to support all the different e-reading devices and reading methods.

No wonder it's confusing. Imagine the Betamax/VHS format war in the '70s, or more recently the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle, but quintuple the confusion and you've got the ebook format wars of today.

Adobe would prefer you read your ebooks in PDF, which is their technology; Amazon wants you to read in their DRM-encrypted version of Mobipocket (bad bad!), which is their technology; and then other companies and organizations are fighting to establish their own standards.

We shouldn't require a computer science degree to make sense of ebook formats, and we shouldn't have to worry if the book we buy today will be readable in the future when the formatting winds inevitably shift.

Instead, we should just be able to purchase a book and know the book is readable on any device for all time, even when we switch e-reading devices in the future. This is how we publish and sell books at Smashwords. With one price, you get access to the book in up to nine different formats, seven of which are downloadable. As we add additional formats, these will also become retroactively available for previous purchases.

The other day, in response to a question posed to me in an interview by Maria Schneider over at Editor Unleashed, we crunched some numbers to determine which ebook formats are most popular with our readers. We looked at a sample of over 50,000 Smashwords downloads during the first three months of this year. The results surprised us. As you can see in the handy pie chart above, although the open industry ebook format EPUB is most popular with our customers, no single format dominates all others.

For authors and publishers of books, the message is clear. If over the last decade you were brainwashed (as many of us were) to believe that ebook = PDF file, and you only offer your book in that single format today, you're potentially excluding the 81 percent of readers who'd prefer to read in a different format.

And if you're a publisher and you only publish in Amazon's Mobipocket format, well, you get the picture. Customers want multi-format books, because no single format addresses all reading scenarios.

For those of you interested in a primer introduction to the different formats, below is a summary of the formats offered by Smashwords, borrowed from our Smashwords Style Guide:
  1. EPUB - This is is arguably the most important format today. Epub, managed by the Independent Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), is an open industry ebook format and it's gaining increased support. If your book is available in epub, it can be read on some of the most popular ebook readers and ebook reading software applications (Like Stanza on the iPhone).
  2. PDF - Stands for Portable Document Format. PDF is a file format readable by many devices, including handheld e-readers, PDAs, and computers. A good format if your book contains complex formatting, layout, charts, images or indexes with page numbers. PDF is also a good option for readers who may want to print out their book on their home computers. On the negative side, PDF is a horribly inflexible format. Readers can’t easily change the font size or style to match their preferences, the text isn’t easily reflowable, and the reader is forced to read page by page.
  3. TXT - Plain Text. Plain text is the most widely supported file format, working on nearly all readers and devices. It lacks formatting, but will work anywhere. For obvious reasons, a plain text file cannot include images.
  4. MOBI (Kindle) - Mobipocket is used by the Amazon Kindle. Mobipocket is supported on Windows PCs and on the ereading apps used by many handheld devices. The Smashwords version of MOBI is not burdened by DRM, whereas the version sold by Amazon is. Amazon has received much criticism in the the industry for insisting publishers must supply DRM-protected books for the Kindle.
  5. RTF - Rich Text Format, or RTF, is a cross-platform document format supported by many word processors and devices.
  6. LRF - This is the standard format for the Sony Reader, an ebook reading device.
  7. PDB (Palm Doc) - PalmDoc is a format primarily used on Palm Pilot devices, but software readers are available for PalmOS, Symbian OS, Windows Mobile Pocket PC/Smartphone, desktop Windows, and Macintosh.
As a final note, I should add that our data for the most popular formats does not include formats we don't publish, and we also don't examine how the formats are used on which devices, or to what extent our customers consume multiple formats simultaneously. They may, for example, start the book in one format on one device but finish the book in another format on a different device.


Andy Shackcloth said...

It drives me crazy, the same thing happened with the DVD-RAM & DVD+RW wars. All that happens is that investment is either held back or diluted until universal standards or drivers are developed.

E-books are developing, as are e-book readers, new active content is just around the corner. All these format wars are doing is slowing down investment in our new products.

Anonymous said...

The ebook format wars are something that bugs me, too. It kind of reminds me what happened earlier this decade when several iPod imitators (and Apple itself) were producing devices that tried to lock consumers into one audio format. Of course, even then it was clear that the mp3 format was going to win out. Apple's AAC and Sony's ATRAC (rhymes with "8-track") really didn't go anywhere.

With respect to ebooks, what I'd like to see is one of two things:

The first is what you describe here -- manufacture ereader devices that are capable of reading most, if not all, of the major formats.

Or second, hope that one format (EPUB or MOBI or whatever) wins out and becomes the standard format, like mp3 is for audio.

The problem, though, is that it isn't in the ereader manufacturers' (like Amazon and Sony) interest to go alone with either of these two things right now. All of these companies are battling for a foothold in this new market, and they think that the best way to achieve dominant market share is to lock their users into one particular format which they control or own the proprietary rights. It's a strategy that may pay off for one of these companies, but in the meantime it will only confuse and frustrate readers.

Gordy French said...

Just to clarify a misconception: AAC is not an Apple format, it is an MPEG standard, just like MP3.

mannkind said...

@Gordy French - I'm glad someone on the intarwebs understands that!

Joshua Tallent said...

Just to address another misconception: The Kindle format is not, by default, DRMed. While Amazon may have pushed DRM in the past, publishers are free to use it or not use it in their books. I would venture to guess that at least 90% of the books uploaded by authors and small publishers via the DTP are not DRMed at all. You can tell if a book is DRMed or not by changing the extension from .azw to .mobi or .prc and trying to open it in Mobipocket Reader.

What I want to know is why no one has been railing at Mobipocket's eBookBase and the hard-and-fast rule that ALL books uploaded to it for distribution be DRMed. I think that is more detrimental to the overall industry than Amazon, since Mobipocket is distributing those locked down books to a large number of eBook retailers.

What about Sony and its BBeB format? That is even more proprietary than the Amazon format. At least Amazon has the backing of one of the most popular eBook formats out there.

The life of DRM is in the hands of the publishers. Until they decide to make DRM go away it will continue to be a problem. Even ePub is not immune, as can be seen in the various DRM options being released for it.

Martin said...

Hi Joshua.

Could it be that you missed that Amazon has bought Mobipocket about two years ago? And ever since Mobipocket is not allowed to do anything without Amazons approval. Amazon even shelved the finished iPhone reader for Mobipocket.

So when Mobipocket is insisting on DRM they only do so to support the Masterplan of there Corporate Overlords.

And there is another interesting nitpick here: Mobipocket does not allow the installation of DRM scheme alongside any other DRM scheme. So there is no possibility of an eBook reader which read all format.

And a last word on the statistic: As I have more then one reading device I always download multiple formats - how will that show up in the stats?

Joshua Tallent said...


Amazon bought Mobipocket in 2005, and yes they have certainly controlled the development process. The iPhone rumor, "highly placed source" or not, is still a rumor. And as a company owner myself I can't blame Amazon for that even if it is true. They were doing what is in the best interests of the entire company, not just the Mobipocket branch.

Mobipocket has been requiring DRM since before they were bought by Amazon. And you must have missed the fact that Amazon allows DTP users to ignore DRM altogether. Amazon is not the evil empire.

Hmm... so if Mobipocket does not allow the use of another DRM option on the same device, why is Amazon allowed to put the Adobe SDK on the Kindle DX? I fully expect Amazon to enable DRMed ePub books using that SDK in the future. If they did, it would make great business sense. As much as I hate DRM, my earlier statement stands: Publishers are in control of that. As a retailer, Amazon would be stupid to ignore the desires of the content providers.

Martin said...

Hello Joshua,

thanks for your answer.

I have to say that for me as Software developer Mobipocket iPhone app was only a rumour until the Kindle for iPhone was released. Because from a technical point of view any Kindle reader must contain a fully functional Mobipocket reader as well. It's just slightly crippled so the reader won't open Mobipocket DRM files.

I have been pondering one point for a while now: Why is it that the companies and customers best interest have become mutually exclusive in recent years? Because what Amazon did with Mobipocket is the worse case scenario for exiting Mobipocket customers.

And how does it work? How can going against the best interest of your own existing customers gain you more profit?

And yes the Mobipocket DRM rules have been there before Amazon has bought Mobipocket. Amazon just did not need to change them. But they could if they wanted to. And they don't apply to Amazon them-self as it's one corporation.

Which would explain the use Adobe SDK on the Kindle DX. Only I never heard before that Kindle DX would display Pdf/ADE let alone ePUB/ADE. All I heard is that Kindle DX will display pain Pdf.

Note that just because it would make sense it does not mean Amazon actually does it. As a German who can't even buy a Kindle I can't make any sense out of Amazons eBook strategy at all. Yes, there seem to be a World-Domination-Masterplan, it's clear to see, but I fail to see how it could possible work out.

And last not least: I know of a least one publisher who does not demand DRM - yet all the book they sell on Mobipocket are DRM encrypted. They now offer there books with a 2nd distributor because customers wanted the books without DRM.


Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

I caught a minor error. There is no such thing as the "Independent Publishing Industry Forum". You linked to the "International Digital Publishing Forum".

Dovetail Public Relations said...

Thanks for the typo catch, Nathaniel! Fixed.

John Wolf said...

Hi Mark,

You mentioned Adobe is partial to pdf, but they don't let moss grow on their backside. They have a free reader of .epub called Digital Editions. I use it all the time. It's as good as any of them and it adds value to my computer screen - about $350 bucks worth, because I didn't have to buy a Kindle.

Also, Adode InDesign CS4 now outputs in .epub format, which is a real blessing for independent published authors. I can feel the freedom rush just writing this.

By the way, I really appreciate what you have done with Smashwords. The upload process is brilliant. I've taken advantage of your coupon system, and if you look at my profile, has ferreted out some nice reviews.

Now, how to we best market Smashwords? My books sell on Kindle regularly, but not much going on with Smashwords. When I talk to people, they never heard of the site. Any suggestion beyond the usual - I reference link on my website, blog.

Cheers - John Wolf