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It’s Time to End the Format Wars in the Ebook Industry

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In the 1980s, Sony and Matsushita engaged in a battle over VHS v. Betamax. Sony lost that battle but has emerged the victor in home entertainment fight club battle 2.0. Last week, Toshiba announced it would “no longer develop, make or market high-definition HD DVD players and recorders.”

In the early 2000s, the movie industry and the technology industry began a redux of the VHS v. Betamax struggle in creating a successor to the DVD player. The current DVD technology does not take advantage of the visual capabilities of high definition televisions. Given that the FCC mandated that all video signals would be in digital versus analog format, more and more consumers will have HD televisions in their home. Making components that match that increase in technology means more money for the entertainment business.

Toshiba’s abandonment of the HD DVD format came with the promise that it would continue to support the 1 million users worldwide that had already purchased an HD DVD player. It’s a cautionary lesson for early adopters.

The battle for high definition home entertainment came down to HD DVD (Toshiba/Miscroft) and Blu Ray (Sony and others). Initially Paramount and Warner Brothers released its content in both formats but Universal supported only HD-DVD and Disney, Fox and Sony supported only Blu-Ray. A Blu Ray Disc could only be read by a Blu Ray player and HD DVDs had the same limitations. Therefore, if you wanted the enhanced viewing of the high definition movies in your home, you had to buy one of each player. The devices were very costly, anywhere from $499 on up.

What’s the big deal? HD DVD and Blu Ray use blue lasers to read and write data versus the red laser that is used to read/write data in DVD and CDs. The blue laser has a shorter wavelength and allows more information to be placed on a single disc. The higher the resolution of a movie, the more memory space it takes up. A Blu Ray DVD can hold 5 times as much data as a traditional DVD allowing movies to be delivered in a much higher resolution.This battle for home entertainment supremacy is not uncommon. Not only was there the 1980s VHS v. Betamax battle, but in the 90s there struggle between the Super Disc and the Multimedia CD which ultimately led to a standard that became DVD. This meant that every DVD sold could be used in any DVD device on the market. It allowed manufacturers to create and sell varied DVD products. It allowed content providers to release only one format. It allowed consumers to rely on the useability of its content.

Warner announced it would switch to Blu Ray just as the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show was getting underway. This left Universal and Paramount as the two major content providers still on the HD DVD side. A couple of weeks ago, Wal-Mart put the nail in the HD DVD coffin by declaring it would only stock Blu Ray.

Why is it that the movie industry can realize, however slowly, that a unified format benefits everyone but the publishing industry cannot ? Sure, every major publisher and many technology companies belong to the IDPF which talks about a uniform standard and Warner is one publisher that is moving toward that, but the fact remains the the ebook market remains fractured. Sony device reads only proprietary Sony format. Kindle device reads only proprietary Kindle format. Bookeen’s Cybook reads only proprietary Mobipocket format.

The lack of a uniform standard adds increased cost to a digital product which might be one reason the prices of ebooks remain unnaturally high. For example, it costs $200 for a title to be placed in the Sony digital wrapper. Every other wrapper or format, whether it be Microsoft Reader, Kindle, or eReader, costs an additional amount. Assuming that each wrapper or format costs about $200 per title, it is easy to see the additional costs for a publisher or retailer can drive up the ebook price or at least justify keeping it at higher than reasonable levels.

It doesn’t make sense to me to have a retailer like Amazon dictate to a publisher the market for their product. Having an agreed upon standard that is open to other manufacturers creates competition and can serve to open the market for digital books, something that it appears publishers are dedicated to pursuing.

All it would take would be for the major publishers to say, like Warner has said, like Wal-Mart has said, this is the one we will be using to the exclusion of all others. The technology companies would then invest and perhaps invest at a greater rate than now because the uncertainty of the format wars might prevent entry into the market, particularly cheaper entries.

An end to the format wars is a win for publishers. It’s a win for consumers. It’s the one time that NOT being reactionary would actually be a safe move. If the publishers lead the way, the retailers and technology companies will follow and the digital book market will grow and enhance the book industry. The ability to share common content across platforms and devices is essential for the consumer and is a major barrier in the progression of ebooks.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

31 Comments

  1. LinM
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 08:42:04

    Absolutely. My computer is laden with program after program after program to translate translate ebooks from one format to another.

    Earlier this year some-one recommended the “Carstairs and Doan” pulp mysteries by Norbert Davis. They are free mobipocket books from manybooks.net and totally delightful. But the files do not contain an author tag so they looked terrible in my library. I now have mobiperl installed to manipulate author/title/…

    Last week Tor released “Mistborn” by Sanderson in pdf format as part of their free ebook campaign designed to collect email addresses of self-identified sff/digital fans. Now I have another collection of utilities to translate from pdf to html and opf. After working on the file on and off, I still haven’t read the book (and someone from mobileread.com emailed Tor and got an html version; I’ve given up and sent an email).

    And then I have the DRM’d mobi version of “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss which Penguin released as an ebook and then withdrew after less than a month. I still send bitter thoughts to Penguin because I can’t read legally read the book on my newest old laptop.

  2. Jane A
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 08:55:01

    I wish that the industry would actually listen to your very persuasive arguments. I’ve been using the eBookreader and converting books from MS Reader when I can’t get them in HTML. (shh, not supposed to say that am I?) But I’ve noticed mobipocket seems to have many more titles available than the other formats and now I’m wondering if I need to get a reader that will support that format.

    There doesn’t seem to be a good solution for us as ebook consumers.

  3. Keishon
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 09:18:12

    Just on the off side, I’d read where Toshiba and Sony bid against each other for Warner’s endorsement, since Warner owns the bulk of the content for whichever format wins. But anyway – it would take an industry giant in publishing to enforce the use of a universal format and the others will follow the lead. We’ve been crying for a uniform format for a couple of years now (for me) and I know my decrease in purchasing ebooks is the result of the proprietary format issue. For instance, it annoys me to no end that new ebooks are first published in Mobipocket (hate that format) and then I have to wait an additional week or two weeks or three for the ebook that I want to purchase to be available in MS LIT (my preferred format). I just don’t think publishers care enough for the ebook market as they have done everything ass backwards in getting it going. All they are thinking of is piracy and that will stop the ball rolling forward each and everytime.

  4. sula
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 10:33:34

    And this is why I will not purchase any e-book reader or start buying e-books in earnest. I refuse to send my money down a black hole. I will continue to wait until this is sorted out and standardized, as it MUST eventually be. Until then, I’ll read an occasional book in e-format, but I won’t invest my money in a personal library that has no garuntee of not being made obsolete tomorrow. I’d rather pay the money for a paperback that I know will always be readable.

  5. Terry Odell
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 10:36:04

    I am SO with you on this one. I have the eBookwise because it’s so much cheaper than the Sony or Kindle, and while there’s a lot of content available, there’s so much that isn’t. I can get one of my publisher’s books in rb format and they slide right in. But I have to go to their own site to buy them.

    My other publisher doesn’t provide that format on their own site, but their books are available at Fictionwise and eBookwise, which is nice, but it’s one more instance where formatting restrictions dictate where I can shop.

    But I can’t afford (nor do I think I should have to) a different reader for all the e-books out there. With all the emphasis on going “green”, why can’t the publishers figure out that lots of people want to read e-books, but since it’s too expensive to buy all those reading devices to get into the game, they don’t bother? Heck, I discover new authors with huge back lists and can’t possible get so many more books onto my shelves. An e-version is a fantastic answer. I’m not saying e-books should replace paper. It’s merely one more option.

    Packing dozens and dozens of books onto one unit is great. I only wish there was a bigger selection, and the formatting issue is the reason.

  6. Mireya
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 10:39:04

    Frankly, I don’t think the big print publishers care enough (at this point) to try and set a uniform format. As Keishon said, they care more about how to avoid piracy. The way their edownloading works now S-U-X. If someone like me, who is above the average home PC user in terms of knowledge, is having issues with the downloads from a big print house, you can only imagine how it could be for someone who is new to all this. After my last misadventure trying to get the latest Kresley Cole title, I am steering clear from the books in electronic format from that publisher. I guess I am spoiled by the epublishers, as I never had any issues downloading my purchases from online publishers and I am grateful for that, otherwise I wouldn’t have continued reading ebooks.

    I have used a Pocket PC for my ebook reading over the past four years, which also doesn’t present a lot of issues for me in handling multiple formats, though I tend to prefer PDF or html.

    Would there be benefits to having a uniform format? Definitely. One thing that deters some people from getting into ebooks is the fact that there are so many choices in terms of readers and formats available. To someone who is somewhat technologically challenged, that is a major deterrent. It intimidates them. Though we live in an era of technology, fact remains that there are still a lot of people out there that may not have computer access, or if they do, their knowledge is limited. If we had a uniform user friendly reader, with decent sized screens, minimum fuss (not a ton of buttons to figure out), and which would allow wireless direct downloads like some other gizmos out there, it would be great, me thinks. With the right marketing it would definitely attract those that have steered clear from ebooks mostly because they feel intimidated by all the seemingly complicated options in terms of formats and devices.

  7. Katie
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 11:05:21

    I asbolutely hate DRM ebooks, and I see myself as a computer-savvy person. When I buy a DRM formatted ebook, I only buy it in MS lit format because of *cough* certain advantages that come with it, LOL. My deepest desire is not to make my ebook available for anyone who knocks on my door, it’s rather that I don’t have any trust in DRM. The ebook vendor could close its doors, the format could become antiquated, and the last thing I want to have is a collection of books that are for one reason or another not accessible anymore. For my own peace of mind I want a html file, end of story. Btw. Jane, thanks to your recommendation I bought the µbook reader and absolutely adore it. The best choice ever!

  8. Danielle
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 12:02:28

    Jane A
    I wish that the industry would actually listen to your very persuasive arguments. I've been using the eBookreader and converting books from MS Reader when I can't get them in HTML. (shh, not supposed to say that am I?) But I've noticed mobipocket seems to have many more titles available than the other formats and now I'm wondering if I need to get a reader that will support that format.

    There doesn't seem to be a good solution for us as ebook consumers.

    Jane, can I ask how do you convert MS Reader to a HTML format? I would love to be able to read the free books I got from eHarlequin.com on my eReader.

  9. whey
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 12:29:44

    I do hope a uniform, open format is where we’re headed. But, that means companies giving up “control” and potential monopoly profits if they can create a proprietary format that “wins.” Companies are in an untenable position. Technology is forcing them to change not just their products, but a large staple of their current business models (creating scarcity in a product).

    I understand their hesitation/denial/anger/fear. Nobody wants to be “Toshiba’d” or be the milk delivery guy or the travel agent who is out of a job (or has to invest in learning new skills) because of technology. I get all that. But, as a consumer, it’s frustrating and disheartening and makes me want to thwack people on the forehead.

    Even though the movie industry has finally settled on Blu Ray, I don’t see them becoming the new DVD. Maybe the new Laser Disc. HD DVD isn’t/wasn’t their true opponent. DVD (especially with upconverting DVD players) and the Internet is. And maybe whatever new technology or distribution method we haven’t invented or mainstreamed yet.

    Is there a lolcat for “I’m in your internetz, ruining yr buzinezz model”?

  10. bettie
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 12:56:11

    Is there a lolcat for “I'm in your internetz, ruining yr buzinezz model”?


    There is now.

    As a reader, the one and only reason I haven’t bought an ebook reader and don’t buy books that are available in print as ebooks is because of the format confusion. I want one format, and no pesky DRM. End of story.

  11. Teddypig
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 13:28:31

    Most manuals and technical documents are already standardized.

    PDFs have been used and supported at the OS level across the board in computing for years. Even Microsoft has to use the format and provide access despite their brand of DRM format they sell.

    I find eBooks are having this problem simply because the publisher wants to make extra money from having to purchase other formats and ultimately leverage the way the eBook is read and used by the customer.

    It is a control issue which the publisher can not win ethically and hopefully will be forced to give in. Pure greed and paranoia is not a viable excuse to continue using anti-consumer annoying DRMs.

  12. Kcfla
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 13:29:08

    I’m with some others. I have yet to buy and e-reader because of all the format confusion. Until someone makes it “one device/format fits all”, I’m stuck at the bookstore/library.

  13. Jane A
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 15:14:52

    Danielle,
    Jane here at Dear Author has a great post on this.
    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2007/02/04/convert-ms-reader-files-into-ebookwisebbeb-compatible-formats/
    I hope this helps…

  14. Bonnie L.
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 15:22:24

    Until the format issue is resolved, I do not see myself buying an ebook reader, period.

  15. Jennifer McKenzie
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 15:40:52

    It’s so frustrating as an author of ebooks as well. Only one of my publishers gives me my ebooks in all the forms they have available. That way, if I have a contest to give away my book, I can accommodate the various formats.
    But the rest of them send me pdf copies. I’d like ONE format for epublishing. Everyone has their favorite, but it would be nice if there was one that all users could use.
    Instead of an ereader, I have a laptop. I couldn’t decipher the different opinions and I just wanted to be able to read my ebooks other places and not be tied to my desktop.
    How in the world can we get them to listen?

  16. bowerbird
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 20:06:07

    oh, you’ll get your “standard format”.

    and it will be locked-up, and opaque,
    and defective-by-design with d.r.m.,
    and viewer-programs for it will suck,
    and you’ll have to pay through the nose
    to get your content converted to it, and
    adobe will laugh all the way to the bank,
    because they’ve got you by the short hairs.

    not really what you wanted after all, is it?

    -bowerbird

  17. Shiloh Walker
    Feb 24, 2008 @ 23:40:53

    A universal format would be sweet, but I have to wonder how likely it is. Wouldn’t all the people who have a share in the digital platform be fighting tooth and nail because they didn’t want ‘their’ format, and therefore their devices, to get excluded?

    I just bought a Sony Reader and I have to say, I’m in love. I’ve read three books in less than a week and I haven’t done that in ages. Lately, I only read sporadically but the Reader’s made it a lot easier for me.

    Of course, I’m not really looking forward to converting a lot of my older formats so I can read them easily, but I figure if I do a few at a time, it won’t be so bad.

    As annoying as some of the formatting mess is, I’m glad I didn’t put off getting the Reader. I can knock out a decent amount of reading at the gym, and this is MUCH easier to use on a treadmill than a paperback and this summer instead of two totes of books to haul around on vacation, I’ll just load up the SD card before we hit the road. For that kind of convenience, I’ll deal with some inconvenience.

    Bettie, your LOLcat is just too cute.

  18. Robin
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 00:39:27

    Frankly, I don't think the big print publishers care enough (at this point) to try and set a uniform format. As Keishon said, they care more about how to avoid piracy.

    Maybe this is counterintuitive, but it seems to me that creating hostility in readers by frustrating conversion, inflating prices, and privileging propriety will ultimately boost piracy way more than working *with* readers to offer the most affordable and easily used and acquired product — something that will build a sense of trust and loyalty in readers rather than a sense of being jerked around (let alone all the ways in which the new technologies can be viewed as attempts to circumvent long-valued limitations on copyright).

  19. bowerbird
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 02:48:06

    robin said:
    > it seems to me that creating hostility in readers
    > by frustrating conversion, inflating prices, and
    > privileging propriety will ultimately boost piracy
    > way more than working *with* readers to offer the
    > most affordable and easily used and acquired product
    > — something that will build a sense of trust and
    > loyalty in readers

    right, and this is precisely why the recording industry
    would never think of doing lawsuits against music fans.

    and why adobe would never have a russian d.r.m. cracker
    arrested and held in jail for a long period of time…

    corporations are smart about avoiding this bad publicity.
    they’re trying to do what’s right for us, the customers…

    -bowerbird

  20. Danielle
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 06:34:26

    Jane A on February 24th, 2008 at 3:14 pm:

    Danielle,
    Jane here at Dear Author has a great post on this.
    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2007/02/04/convert-ms-reader-files-into-ebookwisebbeb-compatible-formats/
    I hope this helps…

    Thanks Jane. I forgot about these instructions.

  21. MarieNicole
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 10:23:49

    Since I’m e-published, I figured it behooved me to buy an e-book reader some time ago. I have the old Rebel 1100. I can still buy books formatted for it or I can buy books in html and convert them to rb. Yes, it took me hours to figure out the process initially, but now it’s a breeze. I know at some point I will probably buy another e-bookreader but ah, there’s the rub. Which one to buy?

    I think I’ll wait and see if the industry ever decides on one format. At least now I know to buy Blu-Ray.

  22. Christine
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 10:57:58

    Personally I have a fondness for Mobi. I think it’s the easiest to read onscreen. And all Kindle format is is dressed up Mobi – you can read unsecured Mobi format on a Kindle. AND you can convert .pdf to Mobi for free.

    I’m waiting for the 2.0 version of Kindle. I figure they’ll probably win – they’ve got the biggest, most visible marketing, since every time someone clicks on Amazon, there it is. And Whoopi Goldberg was showing hers off on The View a week or so ago. Once it comes down in price, I think it’ll be the way to go, especially with the wireless connection, instant subscriptions that show up daily, like newspapers, and instant Wikipedia access. It’s a nice machine.

  23. DS
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 15:33:40

    I won’t have Adobe reader on any of our office computers or any of my personal computers. I hate that bloated memory hog.

  24. Teddypig
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 16:19:45

    I won't have Adobe reader on any of our office computers or any of my personal computers. I hate that bloated memory hog.

    As long as the PDF is not DRM’d by the Publisher you can use any one of the hundreds of PDF readers out there that meet your needs.

    As usual only the DRM creates the Adobe monopoly.

  25. Teddypig
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 16:21:01

    I keep saying it really is not the format it’s the DRM that is bad.

    Formats can be converted easily.

  26. bowerbird
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 17:09:07

    > any one of the hundreds of
    > PDF readers out there

    hundreds? no.

    maybe a dozen.

    likely half that…

    > it really is not the format
    > it's the DRM that is bad.
    > Formats can be converted easily.

    easily? no, not really.

    not all of ‘em, anyway.

    and especially not .pdf,
    which is the one that
    people want to convert
    most often, i’ve found…

    if you’re a windows user,
    abbyy’s pdf-transformer
    – an $80 program –
    can do a fairly good job.
    and there’s other options.

    otherwise, you’ll need the
    _pro_ version of acrobat,
    which means that adobe
    extracted cash from you.
    feels like extortion to me.

    -bowerbird

  27. The Daily Square - Shave Your Beard Edition | Booksquare
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 22:43:15

    [...] It?s Time to End the Format Wars in the Ebook IndustryJane at Dear Author builds upon our frequent commentary about the stupidity of forcing format wars on consumers. [...]

  28. Michael "PDF boy" Jahn
    Apr 02, 2008 @ 11:20:10

    I am sorry I am late to this thread. Lets all assume that there may be good reason to have searchable books, if only to find content the user is interested in buying and reading. If we look at Apple iTunes, there is a single format available for a digital song and a digital movie. While I agree that the industry needs one for digital books, I think a debate on the issue of ‘what is an eBook” is far less important as ‘what is the distribution model – one only needs to look at what the Apple iTunes store has done to realize that worrying about file formats is a waste of time. The biggest guy will win, and that 300 pound Gorilla sitting on the elephant in the room is Amazon. Check out this debate !

    http://www.paidcontent.org/entry/419-amazon-does-damage-control-on-its-print-on-demand-demands/

  29. Saira
    Jul 25, 2008 @ 11:53:57

    I’m late to this discussion too, but I wanted to chime in with my two cents. I agree that it’s time for an industry standard… publishers need to realize that DRM controls are frustrating to the consumer and deter some people from purchasing eBooks. Now, I honestly don’t find DRM so difficult to work with that it actually prevents me from purchasing eBooks (because I definitely do find eBooks more convenient to use than paper books, and, especially for books I will only read once, they have a MUCH smaller environmental impact, which is important to me). However, because DRM acts as a barrier for so many people, the selection, pricing, etc of eBooks suffers – which is bad for me (and everyone who reads eBooks).

    I also wanted to correct one point – you stated that “Bookeen's Cybook reads only proprietary Mobipocket format.” I use a Cybook, and have used it with multiple non-DRM formats (including PDF, HTML, TXT, and non-DRM as well as DRM MobiPocket). Also, even DRM MobiPocket is not as proprietary as, say, the Kindle, because you can purchase MobiPocket eBooks from multiple online retailers.

    If you haven’t used a Cybook, I definitely recommend it (BooksOnBoard is giving one away for FREE right now! More info here). I still agree with you that DRM needs to be abolished… I hope publishers realize this soon.

  30. Hendrik
    Aug 26, 2008 @ 09:10:41

    I would like to make a neat remark. I remember there was also a format battle between DVD plus (+) and DVD minus (-) standard:

    DVD plus (+):
    Philips, Sony, Mitsubishi Chemical, Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, Thomson, Yamaha

    DVD minus (-):
    Pioneer, Sharp, JVC, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Kenwood, LG Electronics

    But in the end Sony developed a DVD burner which mastered both formats and this battle was decided. The past has shown, that only if this terrible format wars come to an end, consumers will buy technology in numbers. Before this we all are Early Adopters and act as guinea pigs.

  31. Smashwords Founder Says E-books Are on the Rise « FiledBy Blog
    Jan 13, 2009 @ 08:05:02

    [...] is a way of preventing piracy, but it worked against the e-book industry. As a woman named Katie commented on the Dear Author blog last February, “My deepest desire is not to make my e-book available [...]

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