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Strategic insights
Lies, Damned Lies, and Ebooks

Written by on January 20, 2012

You might remember "The Emperor's New Clothes" the famous story by Hans Christian Andersen. It is about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to anyone who was either incompetent or stupid. At first everyone agrees that the Emperor's new clothes is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever seen. But one day, when the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

The story tells the tale of how people fear to speak out against what other people believe to be good.

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So the good old minister went into the hall where the two swindlers sat working at their empty looms. "Goodness!" thought the old minister, opening his eyes wide. "I cannot see a thing!" But he did not say so.

The two swindlers invited him to step closer, asking him if it wasn't a beautiful design and if the colors weren't magnificent. They pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old minister opened his eyes wider and wider. He still could see nothing, for nothing was there. "Gracious" he thought. "Is it possible that I am stupid? I have never thought so. Am I unfit for my position? No one must know this. No, it will never do for me to say that I was unable to see the material.

"You aren't saying anything!" said one of the weavers.

"Oh, it is magnificent! The very best!" said the old minister, peering through his glasses. "This pattern and these colors! Yes, I'll tell the emperor that I am very satisfied with it!

---

And so begins a lie that eventually takes down an Emperor, and everyone around him.

This story is a remarkable example of the powers of persuasion and the fear of not looking foolish - even when what you see clearly isn't as remarkable as it is made up to be.

This story also fits something we all know. "The Emperor's New Clothes" exactly mimics the ebook industry of today. Publisher and authors, wanting to dazzle the world around them, are being cheated by the ebook platforms, which, in reality, are nothing but a watered down version of something that has existed for years.

But the publishers, author and their advisers, in fear of looking foolish, is living a lie, publicly marveling in the ebook brilliance and never realizing they are not doing anything at all.

It's time for us to find that little kid, who in all innocence can point out the obvious, and force the publishing industry to refocus on what really matters.

I am, of course, referring to he mass-deception of the Amazon Kindle, The B&N Nook, The Kobo Reader, and worse, the Apple iBook + iBook Author. All of which is a deception designed to cheat the emperor (the publishers and authors) into thinking he is getting a new suit a clothes.

ePub

In the ebook industry, the most popular format today is ePub, but what do you think ePub really is? Is it a special ingenious format designed to create an entirely new form of publishing? No, not even close!

Try this: If you are a Baekdal Plus subscriber, download one of my books and open it in the excellent ePub editor Sigil (it's free). It will show you exactly what's inside an ePub file. You will probably be surprised to find that it is simply a watered down version of XHTML. The type of HTML we used before HTML5.

Here is a screenshot:

As you can see, an ePub file is actually just a website with HTML pages, a folder for images and a normal CSS stylesheet. Which means that every single ebook that you have been reading so far is, in reality, just a bunch of web pages.

What this also means is that every eReader you use, the Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Kobo and all the others are, in reality, just watered-down web browsers.

So let me ask you this. If ePub is really just a web page, why do you accept that every book you bought in Apple's iBooksstore can only be read on the iPad - using iBooks?

What Apple is doing is to take standard XHTML, wrap it into an ePub file, add some proprietary code that locks it down so that it can only be read in one app (iBooks) and on one device (iPad). And then, once they have assumed complete control over your HTML file, they require that you pay them 30% of your revenue.

This is the reality of the ebook industry today, and it is the same with the Kindle, Nook and all the other ebook readers.

When Apple presented iBooks, with its fancy page-curl effect, what they actually presented was a watered down web browser, designed to render XHTML files. The only difference is that instead of showing a scrollbar, they added this fancy page curl effect. But the result is the same, when you move from one page to the next, all you really do is scroll down the HTML page within the ePub file.

Apple created a simple web browser but presented it to you as something completely new and spectacular. And every publisher, like the Emperor before them, was so impressed by this "new clothes" that they accepted to give Apple full control and 30% of their profit.

And you, as a reader, are now forced into buying Apple's devices - and if you one day decide to buy something else, you will lose all your books. Books, that are just HTML pages saved into a single file. Take those extra elements away and you can use the exact same output in any browser, on any device, anywhere! It just the web.

Rich Media eBooks

The new development is that authors and publishers have started to want more. The "Emperor's clothes" wasn't fancy enough, so they wanted something smarter. They call it Rich Media eBooks and the idea is that books should be able to include amazing new things like videos, slide shows, interactive maps, and buttons that you can push.

This, of course, is quite odd considering that ePub is still just XHTML and is therefore already fully capable of all those things. We have been using videos and interactivity in HTML for the past 15 years on the web, so why can't we do the same in ePub, which are also just HTML?

The answer, of course, is that we are dealing with people with a print mentality. When they created the ebook, they didn't like this "web thingy". And while they used web technologies, they did everything in their powers to limit ebooks to the state of print. As such, you can only do text and images and everything has to conform to a preset print-page template.

It's not that the ePub format cannot do it. The reason why we have this limitation is because the ebook providers didn't want us to do it. If everyone realized that ebooks was just HTML, we would demand a much more open market. Why would we allow companies to lock down web pages into a proprietary format? Doesn't that go against everything we believe in?

To "fix" this, Amazon is now coming out with a new ebook format. It is called Kindle Format 8. And as Amazon puts it, it's pretty amazing:

We want to make sure everyone knows about Kindle Format 8 (KF8), the new format for Kindle, which allows you to take advantage of highlighting, colored text, text wrapped around images, bulleted lists, tables, and more!

Uhhh ...it's almost like the web in 1997. Isn't it amazing? Colored text? Not just black ...but in color! Real shiny colors!

How stupid do they think we are? If this is not another case of "The Emperor's New Clothes" I don't know what is.

What do you think Kindle Format 8 really is? Unlike ePub which is based on a watered-down version of XHTML+CSS, Kindle Format 8 is ...[dramatic pause] ...a watered-down version of HTML5+CSS3, saved into a proprietary Kindle file format that limits the book to Kindle devices only.

Sure, that is a lot better than ePub, but why would any publisher do this when they could just as easily keep their books in HTML5 and have them work anywhere?

Then yesterday, Apple came out with the new iBooks 2 and the free iBooks Author app. With it, they say, you can create stunning new rich media books. And sure, the app is very well made, and the books look amazing. But what do you think the iBook Author is really doing?

Yes, it too is just creating HTML5+CSS3, which is then saved in an iBook format so that you can only read it on the iPad. The iBooks Author app is in reality just a WYSIWYG HTML5 editor!

Note: Although Apple is creating a weird nonstandard version of HTML5+CSS3 - again in an attempt to lock you in. While it is based on HTML5, you cannot open the HTML files created by iBooks in a browser.

Not only that, but Apple has decided to press their luck in cheating the publishing emperors, by adding a "terms of use" that states:

If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a Work), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.
Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

Not only is Apple taking your HTML5 created book, limiting it to their platform, restricting it to be sold only via Apple (for a 30% cut). They might also decide not to allow you to publish it at all. Your only other option then is to export the book as PDF and give it away for free (thus destroying the whole point of using their app.

This is a scam! There is no other word for it.

Note: Also read, "ZDNet: Apple's mind-bogglingly greedy and evil license agreement."

What's pissing me off about this is not that Apple, Amazon and the others are creating apps and tools for their customers, nor that they try to get you to only buy from them. That's just business.

What's pissing me off is that they are taking the web (HTML5), watering it down to what we had 5-10 years ago, presenting it as "the next big thing", while at the same time saying that publishers can't use HTML5 because it isn't good enough.

You already have the tools you need to create great books. It is called HTML5. You already have all the eReaders you need. They are called browsers (+ offline browsing). And the combination of the two can be used on any device, anywhere, using any payment system, store or distribution channel.

It is time for that little innocent kid to yell out:

Publishers, when you buy into this hoax called ebooks, you are not wearing any clothes.

Note: Screenshot from from Happy Reading's "The Emperor's New Clothes".

Coming up (in about two weeks): The amazing future of ebooks - beyond print.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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