Why Authors Everywhere Should Cheer for Unified ebook Standards (A Chat With Nick Disabato)

Editor’s Note: I am pleased to feature this interview with Nick Disabato as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.

Nick Disabato is a designer and publisher from Chicago. He helps other people make Distance, a quarterly journal for long essays about design and technology.

Matt Gartland: You recently wrote a persuasive two-part essay on A List Apart about publishing standards. In part one, The Fragmented Present, you write that “Everybody suffers from our current system.” In a distilled form, what are the affronting conditions?

Nick Disabato: There are so many, but here are a few:

  • Amazon is strong-arming publishers and readers by locking them into their platform, driving down prices, and playing hardball with negotiations – even going so far as to remove all of a publisher’s books from sale.
  • Amazon and publishers are hurting libraries with hostile ebook lending terms.
  • Publishers are hurting themselves by releasing many ebooks well after the print release date, which encourages piracy.
  • E-reading platforms are hurting authors and publishers by instituting DRM, which also encourages piracy and hurts sales.
  • Authors are hurting the whole ecosystem by publishing with the “big six” in the first place.

Readers are affected on every side of this fight. Sometimes they benefit (such as from low prices); sometimes they suffer (DRM, lack of a standard ebook format). Mostly they suffer, though.

MG: With all things considered, which role suffers most: readers, authors, publishers?

ND: I don’t know if that can be quantified. We drag each other down equally; if one group suffers, the others do in turn. It’s a negative feedback loop.

MG: The lack of a simple way to create semantically correct ebook files underpins your stance that the ebook landscape is broken, technology-wise at least. Why should authors care about such a technical matter?
Ultimately, how does such a fractured ebook technology landscape impact an author’s book sales and larger business prospects?

ND: Because it affects the sale, distribution, and longevity of their books. Proprietary formats are hard to archive, leaving the author’s work hard to access if the format becomes deprecated. DRM makes it hard for the author to distribute copies for review, and if the platform goes down at some point in the future, all of the author’s books will become unreadable.

Authors are readers, too, and having a unified ebook format would also make it easier for them to transfer their ebooks from one reading platform to another. And even if they don’t care about that, their readers do, and they will sell fewer copies if their readers opt out of the system.

As ebooks become more widespread, it becomes more imperative that these issues are addressed. Even if we’re not writing code, we all need to understand the way that technology works, because otherwise it’ll get the best of us.

MG: In part two, A Standard Future, you write that “Our ebook reading and creation tools are primitive, nascent, born of necessity, and driven by fear.” In your view of a standard future, what is the first all important step toward rectifying today’s shortcomings?

ND: Nobody wants to cooperate with each other, and nobody wants to follow standards bodies. I think a lot of this is born by greed – most parties, libraries and readers excepted, want more revenue from ebooks – but none of this is sustainable in the long term. I believe it makes the most sense to tackle this now. We’ve lost sight of what makes books so great. So, the first step might be to realize that publishers and e-readers will take in slightly less money in the short term, for a potential flourishing in the long term.

MG: Why should today’s authors, who are increasingly responsible for their own marketing and business efforts, take a deep interest in the design and interoperability of their ebooks?

ND: I think they should care for the same reason they should care about technical matters. (Interoperability is also a technical matter.) Overall, design is the way that your book is marketed and perceived. If you don’t have agency of that, then you may not be providing the right message to your readers – or at least the message that you want.

MG: And how far should they (the authors) go in terms of learning the technical skills involved?

ND: Ideally, they shouldn’t have to. You don’t need to know HTML to start a blog, for instance. An ebook tool should allow easy import of a manuscript, some WYSIWYG cleanup, and one-click publish – just like any blogging tool allows.

As they presently stand, our publishing tools could use a lot of improvement. Right now, the best thing out there is iBooks Author, which exports only in the iBookstore’s proprietary format. And I don’t know anybody who is handling publishing quite as well as WordPress or Tumblr are.

MG: You proclaim that “We’re used to the web disrupting many industries, and it’s time to embrace the turbulence around publishing, for better and worse.” With that spirit, you founded The Publication Standards Project, which has lofty long-term goals. What’s your most palpable hope for the project?

ND: A unified ebook standard embraced by all e-reader manufacturers, top-notch publishing tools that embrace that standard, and a community that cares more about what we’re saying to each other than the best ways to turn discourse into a numbers game.

MG: And what’s your most potent fear?

ND: That we’re not in a position to change anything. I worry about this every day.

MG: What’s the #1 thing authors (or their designated design/tech person) can do right now to improve the user experience, which is to say the reading experience, of their ebooks?

ND: Self-publish. Connect with your readers directly. There don’t need to be any more middlemen in your work. You can hire an editor, for example, but self-publishers continue to have the final say with what they put out the door.

It takes more effort, but you’ll know your readers better and be able to engage with them more meaningfully.