This article, by Rob Salkowitz, originally appeared on Fast Company on 1/30/12.
Last week, Apple made headlines with iBooks 2.0 and iBooks Author, the company’s next big moves into textbooks and self-publishing. When players like Apple go wading into the marketplace with game-changing announcements, there’s a tendency to believe that all the outstanding uncertainties have been resolved.
But in the fast-evolving e-book space, that’s far from true. Apple, Amazon, Google, and the various corporate content owners are huge and influential, but when they are all battling each other over fundamentals of the market, it’s consumers, creators, and publishers who have control.
The reason for this new flurry of activity is because the e-book market has moved into a new stage. The low-hanging fruit of best-sellers, genre fiction, and perennial classics have been harvested by Amazon and the Kindle-toting masses. The arrival of color tablets with bigger displays and more powerful processors has opened a new frontier for designed and illustrated books, including textbooks, technical manuals, cookbooks, photography, and fine-art books, magazines, graphic novels, and comics. The scramble for this new and potentially lucrative market is on, and it has attracted a wide range of players looking to cash in.
Because so much is still unsettled in this market, everything is up for grabs. Here is a list of some of the issues being hashed out in public as Apple, Amazon, publishers, distributors, established technology companies, startups, educational institutions, individual content creators, and advertisers all try to stake their claim.
Industry-standard e-book formats or proprietary, protected files? This may seem like a technical issue, but the stakes are huge. Industry-standard files and formats are portable across platforms and devices, but proprietary files are only readable using the distributor’s application (or, sometimes, the distributor’s device). With standard formats, publishers and content creators can offer the same file through many distribution channels, and customers can choose where to download based on factors like price and brand ambiance. But when files are locked to an application context, customers and publishers alike get locked to the platform, giving leverage to the distributor. That’s obviously better business for the Apples and Amazons of the world, which is why Apple is quietly tweaking the EPUB standard in its iBook 2.0 strategy.
Android or iOS?