E-Book Babel


Samuel Greengard

The demise of Border's Books couldn't have been a shock to anyone following the chain's ongoing financial troubles -- or the bookselling business in general.

Amazon says that more than half the books it sells are in electronic format. Barnes and Noble reports that e-books are outselling print books by a margin of 3 to 1 on its website.

It's becoming harder to survive with an industrial-age business model. But even as Borders shutters its stores while promising to switch its e-book accounts to Kobo, there's the question whether the Kobo E-Reader (or any other specific format/device) will survive over the long run.

Good thing that a standard audio format, MP3, existed in the music world prior to companies like Apple and Amazon getting their mitts on the distribution system. Can you imagine if the record companies would have each had a different media format? Perhaps there was a silver lining to the industry's ineptitude in embracing digital downloads. Pirates and thieves accomplished something that music executives wouldn't have ever been able to do: create a de facto standard.

Of course, the movie industry had its share of competing technologies: VHS versus Betamax and Blu-Ray versus HD DVD. But two is better than 25, which seems to be the current number of e-book readers.

I'm not sure which device will ultimately win out and which format will become the standard. But I know that I'm not willing to invest in an e-book library until this issue is sorted out. The last thing I want to do is buy a bunch of books and wind up with e-debris because a company goes out of business and the format is relegated to the dustbin of history, a la Betamax and HD DVD. It's bad enough that it's impossible to share a book with a friend or spouse using a different device.

We've all gone through the costly process (by design) of upgrading records to cassette tapes to CDs and, in some cases, buying digital tracks to replace one or more of these formats. We've all gone through swapping tapes for DVDs. There's a certain inevitability to evolving technologies and the formats that spin out of the digital mixer. But, whether it's media, hardware, software or anything else, it's important to keep in mind that proprietary formats that benefit each company individually usually penalize the industry...and consumers.

I'll keep reading print books for a while, thank you.


6 Comments for "E-Book Babel"

  • sTEVE hARVEY August 02, 2011 8:47 pm

    Calibre can convert most ebook formats into each other, and it's open source. I doubt that there are many formats that are easily converted by some free program or other.

  • Omar Sanchez July 29, 2011 12:54 am

    True, for a while there will be print books and "PDF books" (not really e-books); it is the only format that you can read in virtually any device. No way!!

  • alur July 27, 2011 6:37 pm

    Mr. Greengard wrote a "safe" conclusion saying that he will keep reading print books for awhile. The wise and prudent conclusion if one is worried about an ebook format being obsolete because a company goes out of business would be to buy a Kindle. I don't think Amazon is going out of business, hehe. It's fun to act the all-knowing guru sitting back and contemplating the correct move, but that decision has already been made in the last two years by those who bought Kindles, lol. Besides, how many books do we really need to keep? Large home libraries, of which I have one, are just pecker contests. I only need a few that I will ever re-read anyway. So if I lost an entire library of ebooks, I wouldn't need to replace it. Bulk and large numbers of books in libraries to impress guests are passe at best and impractical in the information age at worst. Large libraries were a form of hoarding anyway. On a personal side, my wife hardly visited my library in 30 years. After buying her a Kindle two years ago, she hardly puts it down.

  • Bud White July 27, 2011 5:10 pm

    My wife has a Kindel, I have an iPad2. I've downloaded an app onto my iPad2 which reads Kindel books. This works fine for our family.

  • Larry Haley July 27, 2011 9:41 am

    I will keep this brief; though it starts with a theme of confusing. It is confusing why anyone would worry about ebooks becoming "e-debris" regardless of the lack of a strong runner for the standard format. As far as I'm aware; all of the formats have available "software readers" for the PC, most (if not all) for the MAC, & again "most" for Android (and even iPad). So continue to ENJOY the cost savings of your ebooks over their hardbound twins - just make sure to keep your "software ereaders" up to date. We'll all keep our eyes peeled for the inevitable standard (or two) so we can convert our piles of "edebris" to a single standard for our tablets, epads, netbooks, & notebook. Afterall, a final standard certainly will make a "prettier" library of the thousands of titles we slug around on our portables instead of a dozen paper books.

Leave a Comment