Music, Books, and Formats

Here’s a thought I had a couple months back: the music industry has gone to hell (and by hell I mean the chaos of digital) a lot faster than the publishing industry has. What was different? And how have things changed? In this essay, I’d like to explore the difference in degree of change in these two industries, and hopefully discover a few things about the current change we’re seeing in publishing.


The first reason for publishing’s comparatively slow change is obvious: there were no good reading devices before Amazon got into the hardware business. It won’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the Kindle singlehandedly jumpstarted the ebook industry — it showed, amongst other things, what was possible given E Ink technology and a persistent link to a rich ebook store. In the meantime, the music industry had a bunch of companies building mp3 players, long before Apple entered that market with the iPod. Innovation was certainly not lacking in music.

(There’s a remarkable story here, if you’re interested in such things. Amazon really struggled to build the first Kindle. Businessweek reports:

The effort to develop the first Kindle ended up taking more than three years. Nearly everything went wrong. The black-and-white displays from E Ink, an offshoot of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab that makes screens resembling the printed page and requiring very little power, would look good for one month and then degrade alarmingly. Qualcomm, which was set to provide the wireless chips, was sued by a competitor, Broadcom, and for months was enjoined by a judge from selling its wares in the U.S. The Lab126 team repeatedly urged Bezos to make their project easier by considering a Wi-Fi-only connection for the Kindle. He rejected the idea, constantly suggesting new ones for complicated features, like the notion that customers’ annotations of books should be backed up on Amazon’s servers.

Looking back, it’s remarkable that Amazon — a retail company — even considered making the leap into hardware. Writers have a lot to thank Amazon for.)

Industry attraction

The lack of innovation in E-Reading devices is symptomatic of a larger fact: that music, as an industry, is more attractive than publishing. Dalton Caldwell of music startup imeem has said that people keep trying to do music startups because they love music. In comparison, publishing startups are few and far between.

Now I’m not saying that it’s easy to innovate in the music industry today. In fact, Caldwell’s speech is an argument against doing music startups, given the industry’s love of lawsuits. What I am saying is that the lawsuits are a result of the early innovations that so quickly changed the music industry.

We don’t know if publishers would turn to lawsuits in response to increasing levels of ebook piracy. I’m inclined to think not: a good side-effect of publishing’s comparatively slow change is that publishers have more time to cope with the disruption.

Ebook Formats

But a third reason is that of formats. This seems clear to me only in retrospect, after the Tower of eBabel fiasco during the dot-com boom, and more recently, working on ebook conversion software for the past year. In music, mp3 won the format wars a long time ago. In publishing, the format wars are far from over.

Amazon is the hold-out here: they refuse to use EPUB, the format everyone else is using. Why they choose to do so is mind-boggling to me — AZW is based on mobi, which in turn is an old, clunky format that ought to be retired. The EPUB3 spec, for instance, defines many new features important for the future of ebooks (examples include multimedia embedding and interactive scripting), features that AZW will struggle to include.

In fact, I wonder if music piracy owed much of its growth to the .mp3 format. If you run a cursory search for pirated ebooks on Google today, you will still find an unwieldy number of formats: PDF, EPUB, mobi and a few obscure others. These confusing choices may explain why publishers feel less threatened by ebook piracy, especially when compared to labels. At any rate, a large number of ebook formats make it hard for both consumers and publishers — in particular it makes it difficult to build a good digital publishing workflow. Could the lack of a winning format be a cause of the slow shift to ebooks? I should think so.

Beyond the ongoing clash between EPUB and mobi, however, a host of other questions have yet to be answered. What is the best way to store metadata across these formats? What’s the right way to do annotations? (This is called marginalia by the industry, but I’ll talk about that in some other post). And what of the networked book – how would that look like?

In some ways, ebooks present us with a set of difficult problems that the digital music pioneers did not need to solve. And solving them would be an ongoing challenge for publishers and hardware-makers alike.

I find the music industry a curious phenomenon — so many parallels, and yet so different when you examine the challenges ahead. But of the above three obstacles, only ebook formats remain an unknown variable. Amazon’s relentless innovation with the Kindles, and the increasing excitement amongst authors and agents almost guarantee growth in the coming months.

Summary: Watch The Formats

Writing this makes me realize that the factor we should all be watching out for is the future format of publishing. And I don’t mean EPUB vs mobi — I mean the various additional structures that we would have to build in response to publishing’s problems (that list of questions that I outlined above).

I think this is clear: if tomorrow Amazon were to release an updated AZW, one with support for animations, music, and video; or if next year the EPUB3 working group were to announce a new method for hosting and linking to an ebook, our entire approach to writing and selling these books would have to change. (I’m being random with my examples here, it’s just as likely that successful networked books would come from a startup of some sort, or perhaps from some iPad-related innovation.)

New formats and new structures mean new ways to discover, create, and sell ebooks. This is the one variable most likely to change in the near future, and it is — I think — the most likely to influence the shape of publishing. Format problems are what makes publishing most different from music. They have the potential to change the very way books are written.

I look forward to building (as well as finding out!) what these future structures would be.

Update: Adam Gurri and Kevin Kurz have both pointed out in the comments that content creation is another factor: it’s much easier to rip music from CDs than it is to digitize books. I’ve no idea how I missed that.

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Category: Publishing
  • AdamGurri

    If I had to guess, I’d say the music industry went down the digital foxhole more quickly purely because the dominant format by the time the web was lunched publicly, and the time when nearly every household had at least one PC, was the CD. Sure, it was a read-only format at the time–but it still stored the music as digital files, files which could be ripped and copied.

  • Eli James

    Ahh yes, you’re right – an added headstart. Come to think of it – it is much easier to convert from CD to mp3, whereas digitization of books are still being figured out today.

    Thanks for the comment, Adam. Didn’t think of that.

  • AdamGurri

    No problem–I’ve been curious about this question myself.

    Interestingly, though, I feel like video media has been about as slow as publishing. I guess in the 90’s VHS was still the dominant format for the most part, it wasn’t until the turn of the 2000’s that DVDs really arrived as 98% of what people used for storing movies and TV shows and such.

  • Clare K. R. Miller

    “In music, mp3 won the format wars a long time ago.”

    I don’t think this takes away from your point, which I agree with–but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Everything I download from iTunes these days seems to be in an m4a format. Which is a pain… because I can’t put those on my Kindle!

  • Eli James

    And there’s AAC, of course. The great thing about music, I think, is that there exist converters from anything to .mp3, mostly because people get that mp3 is now the standard format for music. 

    That’s not entirely clear for eBooks – EPUB isn’t the only format on the board, and certainly not (yet) the winning one.

  • A U Thor

    Quote: “Looking back, it’s remarkable that Amazon — a retail company — even considered making the leap into hardware.” 

    Incorrect. It’s just cold, hard, financial sense. By encouraging reading of ebooks, they drive their ebook sales = more money. Simple as that. Nothing to be grateful here, it’s just capitalism at work.

  • Kevin Kurz

    I think the reason the music industry went to digital so fast was simply because it was so easy to convert physical purchases to digital, and vice versa; It’s never going to be the same with books. From a readers standpoint, formats don’t really matter (especially when you’re talking about a kindle). Ask any ebook owner what format their book is in, and not only will they not know, but they won’t care… Most will only care that they can get it easily on their reader of choice, and that it works…

  • Eli James

    You’re absolutely right, Kevin – I left that out of my post, and got reminded by Adam Gurri (and you, now!) below. 

    Updated the post to reflect both yours and Adam’s comments.

  • Christopher Wright

    The reason Amazon sticks to mobi is, I think, pretty simple: they get to control everything. I’ve created both mobi and epub formats of the novel I’m about to start selling, and the great advantage of the Kindle is that every Kindle displays the same mobi file exactly the same way — regardless of how clunky it is, Amazon can  be sure that the same user experience is shared between all Kindle readers.

    Now I prefer epub because I prefer open standards, but the downside of an open standard is that no one is required to implement it fully. So epub readers don’t always support the entire spec. Some epubs don’t support italics, some use their own font, font size, and kerning — all the work I did to try and ensure that the book displays  well is largely undone on a lot of the ereaders people are using. This can be extremely frustrating…

  • bcghost

    Hello I am from China
    I am also a chinese web fiction writer and readers my english is not very good…ok,It’s nothing
    As far as i know,in China,The system of web fiction has been developed very mature.This year a web called “qidian” had revenue about 100 milion yuan.
    We use the model called “fen cheng”.Author first wrote about hundreds of thousands of words of free chapters,then enter the VIP chapters, according to 3/6/9 cents per thousand words to pay.
    We charge less, but add up it’s a big numble.and the fresh writer( like me :) ) can receivethe minimum guarantee from the web.
    speak english like this is too much trouble, I have a lot of things on the site did not read (it is difficult),so does i mistake something?
    If you have something want to know, I will make every effort to tell you … :(
    thank google……

  • Eli James

    Hi there,

    I’ve known about web fiction in China for a number of years now (and the equivalent in Japan – Keitai Bunko, though that is primarily delivered to the phone, and unlike Chinese publications aren’t delivered in image form).

    I’ve also linked to an article about the situation in China earlier this year:

    It’s funny, but as to why such models aren’t working in the West yet I cannot say for certain.

    Thank you so much for dropping by, though! :) Why do you think the model works in China, but not anywhere else?