From Baldur Bjarnason:
A bit of an utopian fantasy but, I think, an essential one. We need visions of where we’re heading with this.
Everybody knows what it feels like. You’re thrown from crisis to crisis, locked into solving problems, resolving issues, keeping things from breaking down, grasping the duct tape with one hand, and your sanity with the other.
Every time you look up, you see more trouble coming your way and no time to avoid it.
It’s hard to think about long-term problems …
The publishing and ebook industry is completely in reaction mode. Publishers reacted to Amazon by colluding to set up the agency system. Kobo and B&N reacted to Amazon by mimicking its strategy.
The only two companies that seem to have a plan and try to act on it are Amazon and Apple, both tech companies. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones who are going to control the future of ebook publishing. Unless there are dramatic changes the rest of us can do very little except play along and accept that it’s their playground and their toys, leave, or have the patience to wait the decade it might take for somebody to disrupt them.
Or, we could stop reacting to what they are doing, take a moment, and figure out what the ebook industry should look like. Picture the ideal and then figure out how to get there, step by step.
How do we want ebooks to be made?
- One button publishing.
- Design tools.
1. One button publishing
A writer should be able to open up a Scrivener or Word document – one that has been thrown back and forth between the writer and the editor until both are satisfied – click on something like “Export to EPUB” and have a ready-made EPUB file that works everywhere.
Even though most books would be served by basic styles, there are a number of books that require a visual aesthetic with specific characteristics for the book to work.
To accomplish this we only need to add a single one-time step to our one-button process: Write, click export, and pick a theme.
3. Design tools
Then we have books that can’t be served by simply hanging a theme off a solid structure. These books need proper design. Or, if they don’t need it, they’re getting it because the author is a neurotic designer who is compensating for their inadequacies as a writer by making pap look gorgeous.
That’s where we get to the next level in the tools hierarchy: proper, fully featured, extensive design tools.
In this world there wouldn’t be any ebook developers any more than you have .doc developers.
The fact that we have an industry of people whose job description is close to indistinguishable from ‘fixes office documents by hand in a hex editor’ is insane.
The only developers the ebook industry should have are tool developers, people who program and make the writing programs that export the ebooks, theming apps that add themes to ebooks, and the design tools for the edge cases.
Please, go read the rest of Bjarnason’s vision for the ebook industry. This is probably the most insightful thing I’ve read about where we need to go with ebook development. I’d like to tip my hat to Paul Salvette of BB eBooks where I found the link to this article.
I have a few ideas about how to make this vision a reality, but I want to talk about the key first step today. If we want to get to one button publishing in the near future, we’re going to need an intermediate format between Word and Scrivener (or your tool of choice) and ebook formats. The reason is the plethora of hardware and software for ebook reading. It’s not just that there is Amazon’s formats (KF7 for non-Fire devices and KF8 for Fire) and ePub. It’s that Amazon’s eInk devices and apps for the various platforms all have slightly different and completely undocumented capabilities and behaviors, which can change when they invisibly update the software.
Did anybody notice when the Kindle app for the iPad started using the KF8 format instead of the older format? Because that happened (although the BISG doesn’t seem to know that yet) and your books might look different today on the iPad. And there is the fact that nobody completely supports the ePub 3.0 standard (as of 26-June-2012). I’m not even sure how to spell it. Is it ePub or EPUB? Don’t even get me started on trying to figure out what part of Unicode each platform supports.
In the crazy world of ebook formats, we either stick to the lowest common denominator (which is barely above simple HTML and a cover graphic) or convert to a format that can:
- Preserve the logical structure of your book.
- Be transformed to many different output formats.
- Be converted reliably and automatically back and forth to formats readable by writers’ tools (like Word and Scrivener).
- Be invisible to writers, editors, designers, etc.
- Serve as a foundation for the collaborative workflow required to bring an ebook from manuscript to completion
Nothing like that exists today, so I’m going to create it. If you are a writer who has self-published an ebook, you can help by answering a few questions in my survey for ebook formatting.