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Old 11-07-2009, 12:30 PM   #1
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Kindle in an ePub World

From the publishers point of view, the main purpose of ePub is to provide a single source format for their ebooks. Many UK publishers are ePub only, and now at least some US publishers are following suit.

On EInk Readers, ePub is now the dominant DRMed format, with the Amazon Kindle as the lone hold out. So ePub capable EInk Readers are seeing these ebooks exactly as the publisher intended, but the Kindle is seeing a version created by Amazon from the original ePub. On the other hand, the Kindle is a large fraction of the total market.

For confirmation that Amazon is accepting ePubs directly from publishers, see Pablo Defendini's post to his own Wheel of Time eBook Publishing Schedule:
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Unfortunately, since Amazon handles the conversion from our source file (an ePub file, which is the de-facto open standard for ebooks, as opposed to their proprietary Kindle format) internally, after we hand them our file, the quality on Kindle editions leaves much to be desired (it's an automated process within Amazon, so we don't get to peek into that black box, much less get oversight once the file comes out the other end, before it's made available for sale). As a result, things like the maps, the formatting and such, that look great on all the other e-editions of the books, look bad or don't show up on the Kindle edition. For example, maps don't show on the Kindle sometimes, there is no table of contents, and drop caps look like Artanian's first letter on its own line. By all means, complain to Amazon. They listen to their customers much, much more than they listen to publishers, actually.
Note that it is already common for a publisher to provide a single ebook format to its ebook distributors, with the distributors doing the conversion to other formats. What is new is the use of ePub as the initial format, and also a (laudable) refusal to dumb down the initial ebook to the lowest common denominator of all the target formats.

I have attached screenshots from the ePub version of The Eye of the World displayed by Sony's Windows ebook Library. This includes maps and each chapter's text starts with a dropcap. In the Kindle version the maps are missing and the first letter of each chapter is normal size on a line of its own. The initial cause for these issues is that ePub is a newer, more capable and feature rich format, than MOBI (AZW). MOBI simply does not support SVG graphics and drop caps. However, if you ran this ePub through Calibre you would get a much better MOBI that Amazon is selling. Calibre can convert SVG graphics to JPEGs and it recognizes drop caps and does not make them into orphans. The problem is that Amazon is using MobiPocket's ePub to MOBI converter for this task and it isn't up to the job. This isn't surprising, since Amazon has starved MobiPocket of resources.

In my view, Amazon needs to get its act together for ePubs. The best approach for consumers would be for the Kindle to add ePub to AZW and TOPAZ as a third fully supported format. This would be entirely consistent with Amazon's delivery model (they already have two formats after all), but this gets harder to do the more kinds of supported system types (iPhone, Windows, etcetera) get added. I think it is now clear that Amazon has decided not to do this, since the international Kindle was the obvious time to do so. A "good enough" approach would be to do a Calibre-quality transfer from ePub to AZW, and over time augment to AZW format to make it less MOBI compatible and more ePub like. I don't see any evidence that they intend to do this, since Calibre has been producing better MOBIs than MobiPocket for quite a while and Amazon has not either switched to Calibre or improved their own (i.e. MobiPocket's) converter. What I think they are doing is using their market position to try to get publishers to dumb down their ePubs. If all the ePubs produced are just MOBI clones, then Amazon has no need to do anything beyond what they are doing now. So far the pressure appears to be passive - publishers give Amazon good ePubs and get back crappy AZWs and if a reader complains I'm sure what Amazon says is that they will pass the complaint to the publisher (they don't say that the fault is in any way theirs). I don't think this strategy will succeed, but it is very damaging in the short term.
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Old 11-07-2009, 12:44 PM   #2
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All very good points. It seems like it would just require a Kindle software upgrade to add an Amazon DRMed version of ePub.

Maybe we'll get an extra surprise when the desktop Kindle reader is released (a good surprise).
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Old 11-08-2009, 04:50 AM   #3
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This is very interesting - thank you. I was thinking about this yesterday, when I had downloaded a sample of Kindle book with a number of illustrations - they were small and of poor quality, like MobiPocket books used to be, and I decided that if I wanted the book it would be better to buy another format and convert it.
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Old 11-08-2009, 11:20 AM   #4
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Something seems a bit odd about this claim. While I have read several books with poor formatting, I've read many Kindle books with outstanding and complicated formatting as well -- which suggests that publishers are not dealing with a fully automated process and have zero control.

Before I get started afaik it isn't difficult for Amazon to switch to ePub or an ePub-compatible format with a proprietary DRM wrapper, thus maintaining product separation. I don't think adding more platforms really makes a difference, especially since they own Stanza now. So who knows, it could happen. But....

The AZW/Mobi format is really just HTML with limited CSS support. I can see how automated conversion will not produce ideal results, but I would be stunned if publishers were not given the option to submit books with the proper HTML setup. (Nor does the evidence indicate that publishers are required to submit an unformatted document, or an ePub.) There are 3rd parties that offer conversion services. Even with the Digital Text Platform (the self-publishing service), Amazon recommends you set up the HTML and formatting yourself prior to submission.

I might add it really isn't a problem to have illustrations in AZW; e.g. Tom Holland's The Forge of Christendom has many maps. I can see how the conversion process may have issues, but that isn't a limitation of the format.

It sounds to me like Tor did everything in ePub, and now does not want to pay to convert their books to AZW or an HTML process. I can fully understand that choice, as this lowers their costs and ePub is intended for use that way; but if Amazon is paying the expense of conversion, I don't see how Tor can complain too much about it (especially if, as you posit, better conversion processes exist than what Amazon uses). However I don't have access to all the details here, so that's just a guess.

It's probably going to suck for the publishers if they have to make two formats (ePub, AZW) and can't efficiently automate the process. However, a) making two formats is still better than formatting for ePub and BBeB and B&N's PDB and PDF and eReader and so forth -- i.e. the situation is still slightly better than it was even 2 months ago; and b) they'll do it anyway, and it will make economic sense, if the Kindle continues to / ends up commanding 60%+ of the market.

On a totally separate note, in the short term I'd rather see them expend the effort on improved PDF support, especially for the smaller devices.


P.S., our friends at Apple eschewed the far more popular MP3, and less popular but more widely available WMA, for songs it sold on its music store. It would've been "better for consumers" for them to use MP3 or WMA, but they didn't, and still spanked the competition. Go figure.
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Old 11-08-2009, 11:38 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Kali Yuga View Post
It's probably going to suck for the publishers if they have to make two formats (ePub, AZW) and can't efficiently automate the process. However, a) making two formats is still better than formatting for ePub and BBeB and B&N's PDB and PDF and eReader and so forth -- i.e. the situation is still slightly better than it was even 2 months ago; and b) they'll do it anyway, and it will make economic sense, if the Kindle continues to / ends up commanding 60%+ of the market.
Amazon is indirectly the driving force behind Sony and B&N getting behind Adobe ePub, and overall I think they have been good for the ebook industry. If Amazon holds its breath long enough, then publishers probably will have to go to a two formats approach and at that point they are unlikely to use the advanced features of ePub. I did not state this explicitly, but my underlying assumption was that these are a good thing. If so, it certainly would not be the first time that a technically inferior approach wins due to better marketing.
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Old 11-08-2009, 11:59 AM   #6
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Amazon is indirectly the driving force behind Sony and B&N getting behind Adobe ePub, and overall I think they have been good for the ebook industry. If Amazon holds its breath long enough, then publishers probably will have to go to a two formats approach and at that point they are unlikely to use the advanced features of ePub. I did not state this explicitly, but my underlying assumption was that these are a good thing. If so, it certainly would not be the first time that a technically inferior approach wins due to better marketing.
Do you believe that the technically inferior format (by which I assume you're referring to Mobipocket, as used by Amazon?) is likely to win? Amazon are showing every sign of trying to "kill off" Mobi, as witnessed by the fact that virtually every device which previously supported Mobi DRM either has, or is in the process of, switching over to ePub.

I know the Kindle is "big" in the USA, but even with the launch of the International Kindle, the same is really not true elsewhere, and certainly not here in Europe. Here it's Sony who's the big name in the market, not Amazon, and oretty much every European eBook store (other than Mobipocket, of course) sells ePub books, not Mobi.

I think there's very little likelyhood that Mobi will "win" the format wars; ePub is already in a dominant position, and becoming more so as each new ePub-supporting device is release. I think personally that it's only a matter of time until Amazon are forced, for good commercial reasons, to support ePub.
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Old 11-08-2009, 12:56 PM   #7
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I know the Kindle is "big" in the USA, but even with the launch of the International Kindle, the same is really not true elsewhere, and certainly not here in Europe. Here it's Sony who's the big name in the market, not Amazon, and oretty much every European eBook store (other than Mobipocket, of course) sells ePub books, not Mobi.
It is clearly now everyone else against Amazon, but only Amazon has an end to end distribution system. Amazon is the only shark in a pool of minnows. In the US B&N is trying to be Amazon mark 2, but they have no international reach and I don't see how they get to even 20% of the Kindle's US sales. Remember, before Amazon entered the market Sony was the biggest player here and although MOBI was the biggest ebook format Amazon only cared to the extent that it expanded its Kindle ebook library. For Amazon, Kindle ebooks are not MOBI ebooks. It will be interesting to see if the Windows Kindle Reader allows the user to change fonts for example (as all MobiPocket Readers do, but not Kindles).

I don't think Amazon can kill ePub, but they may be able to resist everything that is ePub-like. This isn't in their best interest so far as I can tell, but it also isn't a terrible mistake on their part. If they keep doing what they are doing now and if they capture a dominant fraction of the international English language ebook market despite virtually ignoring ePub, publishers may be forced to produce Kindle-specific versions of their ebooks.
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Old 11-08-2009, 01:16 PM   #8
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This is very interesting - thank you. I was thinking about this yesterday, when I had downloaded a sample of Kindle book with a number of illustrations - they were small and of poor quality, like MobiPocket books used to be, and I decided that if I wanted the book it would be better to buy another format and convert it.
I think the quality of the illustrations depends more on the author and publisher than on Amazon. The Kindle's 16 levels of gray are capable of some quite nice rendering.

Stephen Hawking's A Briefer History of Time has some excellent illustrations in the Kindle edition.

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Old 11-08-2009, 01:28 PM   #9
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Old 11-08-2009, 02:26 PM   #10
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I think the quality of the illustrations depends more on the author and publisher than on Amazon. The Kindle's 16 levels of gray are capable of some quite nice rendering.
Perhaps I just should have said size and not quality At a glance, the size of the illustrations was about the same - small - as they used to be in older Mobipocket generated ebooks. At least they can't be worse in epub - and Kindle books were the most expensive. The Kindle renders images nicely - but it has also to do with the rendering algorithm - whether it takes good advantage of the 16 levels of grey.

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Old 11-08-2009, 02:41 PM   #11
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I think personally that it's only a matter of time until Amazon are forced, for good commercial reasons, to support ePub.
And if I were Adobe, I'd be bending Amazon over a barrel on liscence terms, as well.
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Old 11-08-2009, 06:07 PM   #12
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So why should Amazon ever feel the impulse to bend over? Mentioning Adobe shows a missing part in this thread's title.

It should be "Kindle in a DRM-ePub World". The Kindle is handling non-DRM ePubs just fine right now. Run them through calibre, convert them to mobi, load them on your Kindle, done.

Amazon wouldn't gain anything by adapting Adobe's ePub mechanism. With AZW/Mobi the Kindle is a unique system of reading device, software and shop. With ADE added Amazon wouldn't be anything more any another store selling eBooks. One of the largest ones, maybe, but that's all.

As long as the Kindle is THE best selling eBook reading device worldwide and the store (with all subventions kept in mind on Amazon's behalf) is - if all sales numbers are true - likely selling more eBooks than most European stores combined. Amazon doesn't have the slightest need of changing that system, AZW included.

But, of course, Amazon will change its course very radiply if sales should decline to a certain point. That company still is a vendor first of all. It will offer a system that sells. And won't look back. If it's AZW now, and ePub in five years, so be it ...
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Old 11-08-2009, 06:22 PM   #13
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It should be "Kindle in a DRM-ePub World". The Kindle is handling non-DRM ePubs just fine right now. Run them through calibre, convert them to mobi, load them on your Kindle, done.
The DRM is not an issue for Amazon, because they get the ePubs DRM-free from the publishers and convert them to DRMed AZWs that they then sell to the public. The problem is that they are not using Calibre to do the conversion, but rather their own software from MobiPocket which is much less capable.
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Old 11-08-2009, 07:38 PM   #14
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As long as the Kindle is THE best selling eBook reading device worldwide
It's not. It's only in America, and hardly a supermajority even there.
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Old 11-08-2009, 08:05 PM   #15
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Amazon wouldn't gain anything by adapting Adobe's ePub mechanism. With AZW/Mobi the Kindle is a unique system of reading device, software and shop. With ADE added Amazon wouldn't be anything more any another store selling eBooks. One of the largest ones, maybe, but that's all.

As long as the Kindle is THE best selling eBook reading device worldwide and the store (with all subventions kept in mind on Amazon's behalf) is - if all sales numbers are true - likely selling more eBooks than most European stores combined. Amazon doesn't have the slightest need of changing that system, AZW included.
I don't think that is going quite far enough. It's not in Amazon's best interest to switch to Adobe DRM because that would diminish their product's huge advantage of a far larger library of eBooks than its competitors. Until that ceases to be the case, they have no reason to adopt ePub or Adobe DRM because B&N and Sony potential customers who investigate the size of those product's libraries will (and do) throw a fit over missing books.
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