Is Apple cutting small publishers out of ebook features?

The new update to Apple's iBooks app offers full illustration support, but is the company restricting smaller publishers from using it?

One of the big features in Apple’s updated iBooks e-reader app is support for full color and fixed layout content. Traditionally the EPUB format that Apple relies on for ebooks sold by its iBookstore (which is also used by other ebook sellers including Barnes and Noble for its Nook platform) is relatively free form. This allows the text to flow smoothly regardless of the screen size/resolution of the device and the settings a user picks for font and/or size. That ability to flow text as needed create problems with books that are focused largely on images. An excellent example is children’s books, which are as much about pictures as they are words (often the pictures are more important since that’s how young children relate to the story while a parent, relative, or baby sitter reads the words).

Apple developed a mechanism to work around this problem. Unfortunately, according Liz Castro, who has written a book on producing ebooks with EPUB and maintains a blog where she often discusses related issues, Apple is keeping that mechanism largely to itself. She reports that the company is only providing information on how to create fixed layout ebooks for its store to a select group of publishers and ebook producers. In typical Apple fashion for such secrets, those granted access to the information are barred from discussing it by a nondisclosure agreement.

That makes it virtually impossible for very small publishers or authors interested in self-publishing to create children’s books or other image-focused titles for sale in Apple’s iBookstore. The flip side is that the solution remains something that Apple can keep exclusive and use as a selling point for both its iBookstore as well as for the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch (since, unlike other ebook sellers, Apple hasn’t made created apps for other smartphone or tablet platforms – and isn’t likely to in the future).

Given that EPUB is an open standard, it’s easy to see this as a betrayal of the platform as a whole. On the other hand, supporting an open standard doesn’t compel a company to make its own innovations around that standard freely available. While I fully appreciate the desire on the part of ebook producers to have every possible feature available to them, I can also see why Apple and other ebook sellers might Apple want to have some value-added features on top of the standard EPUB format.

And I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing. It really isn’t that different from the open source business model that many tech companies use. Sure the software is free, but companies are able to make money and provide a better user experience with value-added features around it like bundling the open source solution with hardware, providing support contracts, and by customizing the solution to meet a specific need or goal (the most applicable option to this discussion).

With Google ready to shake up the entire ebook selling model, it’s almost expected that other companies would provide some sort of customization or value-added features to the standard EPUB format. It’s also worth noting that DRM is a customization of the format by each vendor (either individually or in conjunction with Adobes Digital Editions solution). DRM protects the seller and platform as well as the publishers investment in creating the content. It also prevents someone from altering the content and then re-publishing it.

As I recently discussed, ebooks don’t have the physical printing and distribution costs of print volumes, but they still entail almost all of editorial and production processes and costs. For many publishers, this is a sizable investment compared to the actual printing and distribution costs, which can be relatively low per unit when you’re printing in volume.

All that said, I’m not exactly thrilled with Apple’s selective approach either. I like that the company supports smaller publishers and self-publishing by using the EPUB format. It levels the playing field for smaller ebook producers much like the App Store does for smaller developers, which brings me to my issue with Apple’s approach. The company is no stranger to working with individuals as well as major companies to produce and sell content. iOS developers pay a fee to join Apple's developer program, which comes with access to the App Store and access to development resources (including the entire iOS SDK) under an NDA. It shouldn’t be a stretch for Apple to extend that philosophy to “enhanced” ebooks. Let anyone who wants to create them have access to the information and resources, but do it in a way that that information is protected.

Ultimately, I’d like to see Apple take this approach is the company isn’t willing to make its full illustration support public knowledge. I’m not sure if Apple will take that approach or if they will do it any time in the near future, but it seems like an ideal compromise. Even if they don’t, however, I have to give them props for providing a generally open platform that meets the needs of the vast majority of ebook creators and allows the little guys to compete. It’s certainly better than Amazon’s proprietary model any day.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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