…And Another Thing: Let’s Talk About eBooks

I work for an eBook publishing company based in the Philippines, so last week’s announcements regarding eBooks piqued my curiosity.

Everyone is probably concerned about the iPad Mini, but I first want to talk about iBooks 3. Or rather, the ecosystem that surrounds it. Many Americans take for granted that they can purchase eBooks from most major online retailers; people outside of the US and the UK, however, don’t have that luxury; Kobo’s the most reasonable alternative (and supports PayPal), while Amazon charges $2.00 extra in a lot of countries. Purchasing eBooks in iTunes can be a farce depending on which country you’re in. In the Philippines for example, only Public Domain books are available. If you want to buy eBooks in iTunes, you need to be in one of the 50 countries (previously 32) being supported by Apple. The announcement that eBooks can now be purchased in Latin America expands the readership outside of the typical US/UK sphere (assuming, of course, the publisher allows their eBooks to be sold in those territories).

As for the App itself, iBooks is one of the few that supports ePub 3 to some extent (Kobo and Readium are two others). ePub 3 support is important if you want more complex layouts, especially those in a foreign language (like Japanese). Take a story like Cutting by Ken Liu. While it’s possible—with some concessions—to reproduce this in standard ePub, it’s sub-optimal. ePub 3 gives you more flexibility in incorporating fancy layouts into your eBook. The new features of iBooks 3 only cements its lead as the technologically-superior reader, especially with continuous scrolling (which might be put-off some “traditional” readers). What doesn’t get talked about are the new social media features of iBooks 3, and while this isn’t unique to Apple (others have offered similar services), if it does take off, it can be another method of expanding discoverability.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the iPad Mini. In my experience, people have two opinions regarding the device:

  1. Why bother when there’s already an iPod Touch?
  2. Didn’t Steve Jobs say the iPad was the optimum size for tablets?

The first is easy to answer. If you’re looking for something lighter and smaller than the iPad but has more space than the iPhone, then the iPad Mini is your answer. It fits in purses and for some, a barely tolerable size to read PDFs. While some are quick to jump at other Android-based alternatives, the key here is that the iPad Mini is locked into the iOS ecosystem, with  all the pros and cons that entails (such as the Apps and arguably an elegant and efficient operating system). The opposite is true as well: if you’re addicted to the Android ecosystem, why would you jump on the iOS bandwagon?

As the second, well, Steve Jobs has reneged on various statements in the past. If Steve Jobs stuck with people don’t read, then why release iBooks? Not that his supposition isn’t baseless; based on data from nearly two years ago (admittedly a lot has changed since then), books are just a fraction of downloads in iTunes. So why not an iPad Mini? From a publishing perspective though, if the iPad Mini succeeds (and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t), that doesn’t necessarily translate to more readers in general. iOS is great for a lot of things, including multimedia and games; consumers might be purchasing the device not necessarily to read eBooks.

What is interesting with regards to eBooks was the recently-concluded Humble eBook Bundle. It’s an unconventional way to sell eBooks, to say the least, and there are a lot of factors contributing to its success. John Scalzi discusses those points better than I could have, as well as what it entails for him as an author.

What I do want to discuss is how it helps the anti-DRM cause. In the Command Line podcast, Cory Doctorow mentioned how some publishers didn’t participate despite initial interest, mainly because it was free of DRM. To quote Doctorow: “It’s pretty exciting to learn that if you trust people, they will, generally speaking, behave well. Not universally, but enough of them will behave well that it offsets everyone who cheats out.” I personally believe in DRM-free eBooks, and I’m glad to see that this experiment succeeded. Going back to the initial problem of geographical limits to accessibility to eBooks, the elimination of DRM is a viable solution to that problem. And the fact of the matter is, DRM costs a lot of money, in addition to being proprietary.

What’s interesting about the Humble eBook Bundle, and something that I haven’t seen anyone stress, is the fact that a lot of the books in it were “free” to begin with. Cory Doctorow and Kelly Link’s work are licensed under some form of the Creative Commons License, and while the specific comic collections aren’t free per se, some of the webcomics in it are viewable in their corresponding creator’s websites. So people are definitely willing to pay for material even if it’s previously available (and the Doctorow crowd is well aware of this).

There’s also the gamification process of the Humble eBook Bundle, which provides stats based on the donations and operating system. I wish it also tracked the region, since that’s interesting data to me, but at the very least, it’s a handy business model to have.

At the end of the day, I don’t think these changes are enough to cause a revolution or significant change, but it’s a step forward in the right direction.