Friday, August 28, 2009

Stanza and the Future of Ebooks

As of this writing, Stanza has been downloaded over two million times.

What's Stanza?

Stanza is an electronic reading application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It's free. And unlike the Kindle app, which is also available for iPhones, Stanza isn't dedicated to a single format.

Let's talk about formats for a moment, because they're one of the reasons ebooks haven't gone mainstream yet.

The history of media technology is all about formats. A format is the means in which a piece of media (books, movies, music) can be distributed, and, possibly, purchased.

The first form of media was writing. For a long time, the first format for this media was stone.

If you wanted to share your writing, you wrote it on a cave wall, or chiseled it into an obelisk or pyramid. This format had the advantage of being long-lasting, but lacked in portability, and ownership was unheard of. If you wanted to read something, you went to the writing.

Then came paper, and scrolls. Scrolls made it easier to write, and they were portable. But scrolls were labor-intensive, because each scroll had to be hand-written. This precluded ownership, except in the case of libraries, scholars, rulers, and the very rich.

Scrolls were the preferred format for writing for millennia. Then a guy named Gutenberg came along and invented the printing press, and the preferred format became printed books. These were cheap, reproducible, and have been the de facto format for sharing writing media.

Until now.

Now, writing, and publishing, has gone digital. Offset printing, with its costs, labor-intensive set-up, and distribution and shipping limitations (which requires time and travel) is no longer the best format.

The advent of the computer, and the Internet, has made writing easier than ever, and distribution free and unlimited. One monk could labor for years on one scroll, which might be seen by only a few dozen people. With books, a writer could reach millions, but was still limited by gatekeepers (publishers and agents) and distribution. It involved money, and a lot of people. Now a writer can save their words for eternity using an electronic format, for free, and reach unlimited numbers of readers.

But there's a problem. Which format should writers use?

Let's look back to Edison and the invention of the phonograph. Edison's invention used a tube. A competitor used a disk. For whatever reason, consumers bought more disks than tubes, and the record became the preferred format for music.

Other formats showed up. Reel to reel tape. Eight track tape. Cassettes. Digital tape. And CDs.

Of these formats, DT (digital tape) made the most sense. It allowed the consumer to record music digitally, which allowed for much faster and better recordings than analog. The first CDs didn't allow recording.

But eventually, CD burners came into vogue, and CDs became the preferred format for music. Up until mp3s came along.

Let's look back on the history of photography. Actually, let's skip to the part where no one buys film anymore, and everyone has a digital camera.

When movies first became popular, over a hundred years ago, ownership was unheard of. Films were seen, and only the rich could own them. Less-expensive 8mm films weren't a big hit with consumers. Video tape, when it first arrived, caused big controversy and a few lawsuits between the movie and TV producers and videotape manufacturers.

For those who remember, the very first movie ever released to the general public was Star Trek II, on VHS and Beta, for the own-it price of $59.99. This was revolutionary. If you had a $600 VCR or Betamax, you could actually own a movie.

VHS wound up winning the videotape war, even though Beta tapes were smaller and had a superior picture quality. But VHS was eventually usurped by DVD.

You can now buy new DVD players for $30, and new DVDs for $5.

BluRay has tried to replace DVDs as the preferred format (after winning the war against HD-DVD), but it hasn't happened yet. Downloading may be the culprit. Why go out and spend $40 on a BluRay disc when you can download a high def movie on cable, satellite, or on your computer? You can also download digital movies to your iPhone, iPod, PSP, PS3, XBOX 360, and many other gadgets.

Why have a physical copy, that requires manufacturing, travel, shipping, and distribution, and shelf space, when you can fit 300 movies on your hard drive and get them by pressing a button?

But even with downloading movies, there are different formats to deal with. Avi, m4v, mp4, rm, iso, img, and a dozen more.

Which brings us back to formats.

Formats can only be read using certain media or programs. Just like you couldn't play your Edison tube on your RCA 78 player, or your Beta tape on a VHS machine, you can't play your avi movie on your home DVD player (for those who aren't into the downloading scene, avi is about as universal a format as you can get for movies, and there are well over a million avi movies and shows available for free if you know where to look.)

Looking back on history, the best format didn't always win the media wars. VHS beat Beta (and laserdisks). CD beat DT. BluRay beat HD-DVD.

I have a theory about why.

When a company invents a media format, they want control over it. They license the format to others who want to release media on that technology.

This usually backfires, because someone comes along with a competing format that doesn't require a license (or has a cheaper license). No license means its easier for others to release media. The more media a format has available, the more likely it is to succeed.

In some cases, licenses don't matter. The ability for consumers to copy the media in a specific format (like the case of avi--no one has ever released consumer avi files for purchase) will make it the format of choice.

Which brings us back to writing, and to ebooks.

For all intents and purposes, ebooks are superior to print. If you grew up reading ebooks, would there be any advantage at all to inventing offset printing? No.

Ebooks, whether or not anyone wants to believe it, are the future. Because they're cheaper, easier, faster, more versatile, and can be copied.

So why haven't they taken off in a big way yet?

Formats.

There are well over two dozen different ebook formats.

For consumers, this is a nightmare. It's not a question of choosing between VHS or Beta, or HD-DVD and BluRay. It's a question of choosing among a dozen different ebook readers, with more coming out every month. And each of these readers has a licensed format specific and exclusive to their device or program.

Remember when you dumped your VHS and had to buy all of your movies again on DVD? Think about buying the same book ten times, as ereaders come and go and none of their formats are compatible.

Right now, Kindle is the leader in ereader sales. Sony is very much in the game. Barnes & Noble is releasing an ereader too.

Let's set aside the functions, bells and whistles of these machines for a moment. Let's also set aside price. These gadgets will continue to become better, and cheaper, like all technology does.

What it will come down to, like it always does, is who has the biggest library of media available. That will be the format that wins.

Which means these companies have a choice. They can either try to license as many books as possible on their devices in order to get the largest library, or they can create readers that read many different formats, and let consumers decide (as in the case of avi and mp3) which format they prefer.

Now along comes Stanza. It isn't a $400 unitasking ereader that is bound to a single format. It's a free application that reads all of the major formats.

I've been playing around with Stanza for the past week, and I'm impressed. It has the biggest library of any ebook reader, both legally (buying ebooks in various formats) and illegally (downloading ebooks on file sharing sites.)

Don't think people are stealing ebooks? In a one hour stretch yesterday, I downloaded 700 books, all by popular and bestselling authors (including all of my own titles) for free. There are hundreds of thousands of free ebooks available on the Internet, many of them illegal.

Stanza can read all of these books, even though they're in different formats. This is revolutionary. It's also a big step closer to having a universal ereader.

"Universal" is the key here. In the past, Joe Consumer waited for the one format that was available everywhere--the one with staying power--before he committed to buying some new camera or video player or personal stereo.

But now, he doesn't have to wait. He can let the companies duke it out, get a Stanza for free, and read whatever he wants to, in whatever format he wants to. And with a bit of know-how, he'll never have to pay for a book again.

Stanza isn't without its flaws. Some formats don't read as smoothly as others. And getting books from your computer onto Stanza isn't as quick, easy, or elegant as it is with the Amazon Kindle.

But give it time.

Maybe it will be Stanza. Maybe it will be another ereader. But soon, you'll be able to get an app that allows you to instantly download any book you want, for free, on your gadget du jour.

Now, if the big boys want to compete with this, here are my suggestions.

1. Lose proprietary formats, and stop linking your devices to only one distribution network. A universal ebook reader will be able to read many formats, and get them easily from many sources.

2. You don't fight piracy with copy protection and licensing. You fight it with cost and convenience. That means NY print publishers need to wake the hell up and stop selling ebooks for full price. For those who don't know, Kindle and Sony lose money on ebook versions of hardcovers. Publishers insist on selling ebooks to them for 40% of the hardcover price. So when Kindle or Sony sell an ebook for $9.99 (which is still waaaaay too high) they are actually LOSING five bucks per book. How do any of the parties involved in this ridiculous model think it can be sustainable?

3. Become your own publisher. Then you control the content, and the price, and you don't have to share profits (or lose profits.) Kindle has allowed for authors to publish on their device (and Sony is doing the same) and since April I've made over eight thousand dollars selling my books there. But allowing authors to publish, and actively soliciting name authors, are two different things. They need to start soliciting.

4. Once you have the universal technology nailed down, share it. It's smart for Amazon to have a Kindle for iPhone. But if it really wants to be the universal reader, it should have Kindle apps freely available for all smart phones, computers, video game systems, cable and satellite TV, and pretty much everything consumers use or can use to read on. Then it should allow that reader to access books not only on Amazon, but on all places ebooks are available.

So how will they make money, if they give away the app for free, and link to sources that have free ebooks?

Stay tuned...

Coming This Monday: I'll share the answer. I'm also going to back up my words with actions, and begin a new, revolutionary ebook experiment that you can participate in. It's going to turn some heads, that's for sure.