The ebook revelation

c: | f: /

Are ebooks really the saviour of the printed word or are the corporations and standards bodies doing their level best to screw it up?

I’d like to make an ebook. I even wrote a Textpattern plugin to help me, which I’ve just extended to include both Kindle (mobi) and ePub file formats, because I thought it’d be nice to keep people’s options open.

I was wrong.

The problem is one of control. Everyone’s scrambling to control a segment of the market before it becomes saturated but nobody has thought about how real people actually consume the printed word. Instead, they have thrust e-readers and DRM on us to combat a problem that didn’t exist because the corporations are too blinkered to figure out how else to make money from digital content.

If I want to write for Amazon’s Kindle platform I need to use their tool to create it. I can optionally add DRM myself and upload it to their server for sale or free download. It works pretty well, despite the books being severely limited in scope at the moment because they refused to embrace HTML 5 properly.

Then there’s ePub, supported by everyone else. It uses the still unreleased HTML 5 with its rich tapestry of ever changing tags as the W3C argue over what should or shouldn’t be in the spec. Meanwhile, the ePub standards body forge ahead with their own interpretation and extensions which works sort of ok until you try and actually view the content on an e-reader.

There’s Nook and Kobo devices, Kindle Fire, iPod, iPad, and iPhone, plus a myriad other handset manufacturers. And for PCs there’s Calibre: a freeware desktop book organisation program. If I don’t own every device, how can I see what it’s going to look like and check for rendering errors? The answer is: you can’t, which maybe explains why ebooks often look bloody awful.

Apple’s iBooks seemed like it might be the saviour but it enforces DRM which means I can’t very easily make the content myself. Instead I need to rely on their iBooks Creator app, both of which require an iOS capable device to run. And even if I did buy one of those and create my book I’d be forced to list it on iBookstore.

Most other third party e-reader software / apps leave Desktop users out in the cold, or are badly written, or charge for the privilege of creating my own content. Calibre will display the book, but has its own quirks regarding cover images and navigation, and there’s no guarantee that what you see is what you’re going to get on a hardware device. Kindle Previewer will convert ePub files to its own mobi format before attempting to render them, but the results are less than spectacular at present.

So to recap:

  • I can’t create content myself for distribution on iBookstore unless I buy an iOS device.
  • I can’t download a book from iBookstore and transfer it to my computer to read offline.
  • I can’t buy a book for someone else’s device as a gift.
  • I can’t convert ePub to mobi and back reliably using an existing off-the-shelf package, because they all want to peddle their own format or extensions.
  • I can’t lend my ebook to anyone.
  • I can’t give my ebook to a charity shop when I’m done with it, for them to resell and do good in the world.

Lots of “can’t”, not much “can”. Where’s the fun in that? Think I’ll stick with paperbacks at the expense of the rainforests, or give up reading.

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