The case for an e-book standard and the death of DRM

When are e-books going to start acting like real books? There are more than 20 different e-book formats in the wild, and they're all completely incompatible. BooksOnBoard founder Bob LiVolsi wants to change that with the EPUB format.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

When are e-books going to start acting like real books?

There are more than 20 different e-book formats in the wild, and they're all completely incompatible, according to SmartPlanet's own Dana Blankenhorn.

So what's an avid reader to do?

Bob LiVolsi wants to change that. LiVolsi is the founder and chief executive of BooksOnBoard, the largest independent e-book bookseller. BooksOnBoard was the first retailer to offer to its readers books in the EPUB standard, a free and open file format designed so that consumers can read (and move) their books wherever they want.

You know, like a real book.

SmartPlanet spoke with LiVolsi about the evolution of the EPUB standard and why reading an e-book will soon be more rewarding than reading a dead-tree copy.

SmartPlanet: How did the EPUB standard come to be?

Bob LiVolsi: It's an interesting challenge in the e-book space. It's taken a long time to measure levels of adoption. In 2000 they talked about the year of the e-book, but in 2002 lots of publishing jobs were lost in publishing companies for e-books. So it's been a long ride.

The effort for a standard has been challenging. When the iTunes thing washed over the world, the tech guys all wanted to be the next iTunes. That was a step back: Amazon's Kindle is all proprietary; Sony's original reader was proprietary; and so forth. All the high-tech guys were forcing a solution that worked for them onto readers. To do that is insane, even though there's a natural evolution for them in that way.

In fall 2007, EPUB was signed off on, but it was six or seven years of hard work. The intention was to create a standard so users could read their books wherever they wanted to, just like a real book. With the EPUB standard, that was the underlying core vision.

SP: What about publishers? What's in it for them?

BL: If publishers could produce all of their books in a single format, you'd lower their cost. First, format conversion is expensive. Second, you can manage ISBNs better, since a lot of publishers have distinct ISBNs for different formats.

Everybody thought digital e-books should be less expensive than paper. [But] the economics of publishing are built around building print.

When you go to publishing an e-book, you need to convert to a new format, which can be tricky. You have costs, more testing, and several different formats [to publish]. It's all incremental cost. So when [publishers] look at the total picture, e-books fundamentally add cost, and you need to sell a lot of them to make it worthwhile. They're selling better now.

SP: So why do e-books cost less than traditional books?

BL: Amazon sells books below cost; a lot of those $9.95 books, particularly those in hardcover that aren't in paperback yet. Barnes & Noble and Sony are doing it, and BooksOnBoard has to do it, too, to offer competitive prices.

Don't get me wrong, though -- at the same time, Amazon's done a lot of good PR for e-books.

About 65 percent of everything we sell right now is Adobe format, and most of that is EPUB. Roughly half of everything sold is EPUB.

SP: What's in it for consumers?

BL: We take our customers where they find us. Most of our customers are middle-class folks that work hard to make a living every day. They are much more comfortable in the Adobe format, EPUB. Partly because Adobe has a history of standardization with PDF. It's a natural evolution, and I think that's why 65 percent of our customers are gravitating toward that -- a standard that will be on more and more devices, rather than less and less.

Say you have a Kindle. If you break it, and you have $500 worth of books already, you have to buy another Kindle or an iPod. A book is supposed to be a $6 decision, not a $300 decision. To know that a book can be read on multiple devices -- a laptop, an e-reader, a phone -- adds value. It's closer to the way that customers are used to reading books.

In fact, it's better than a standard book because it can be read in multiple places.

Our core customer makes less than $60,000 a year per household. That $300 decision is an expensive decision. The primary place they read is a laptop or desktop or netbook, not e-readers. The primary place readers read is in bed, even an e-book. Most customers who have netbooks bring them to bed because of the back-light.

One author told us she reads e-books in the bathtub and gets out when the battery runs dead on her notebook.

SP: EPUB-formatted books can be read in many places. What's the argument for a dedicated e-reader?

BL: I love e-Ink, but people are more and more reading on smartphones and computers. The major benefit of e-Ink is that you can read in broad daylight. But most people read in low light -- at home, in the office, on the subway, in their own car as a passenger. Particularly trade books, fiction, things of that nature.

The other question about the beach is: what happens when sand gets in your device? I'm not sure we've come up with a solution to that yet.

A lot of people adopt e-books because they're green, but if you're making a $5 decision about a book, but a $400 decision is entirely different.

I'm delighted with e-readers, but for quite some time yet, the primary place to read will be netbooks, notebooks and smartphones. With netbooks, it's a convergence thing -- you get a lot more value with it [than with an e-reader].

SP: Are e-books growing in adoption? If so, how much?

BL: We've grown nonstop since [we launched, in 2006]. We grow 12 to 15 percent a month, every month. This space has been fairly recession-proof. We do 24/7 support; that helps.

E-book awareness grew out of the fact that the Kindle sat on Amazon's homepage for two years now. Most people thought the e-book and Kindle were synonymous. Only now are people becoming aware that they can read their books on their netbooks. As awareness rises, we'll see a growth in adoption.

But if you can get a netbook for a couple hundred dollars, it's a hard argument for a dedicated device. And there's less room in the briefcase, of course.

We've focused our business around what the customer wants. We were the first to ship EPUB books, about 14 months ago. We were one of the first to offer DRM-free MP3 audiobook downloads. If the industry focuses on customers, growth will be there. There's an appetite for it.

DRM's a good thing if you're a huge author, but if you're a new author, DRM's only an impediment. But I don't know how you split that. Still, DRM won't matter if the customer can get easy access to the books.

SP: Can e-books ever replace the musty bookstore?

BL: You can't get all the way back to the old bookshop, but many of our readers use Twitter to interact with each other and us. Always be courteous, know that the customer's always right, and if they can't figure out the technology, it's not the customer's fault. That's just one element.

We're looking for more ways to personalize the experience. But if you know you can help somebody, that's pretty comforting.

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