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