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.