Last week, Apple made headlines with iBooks 2.0  and iBooks Author , the company’s next big moves into textbooks and self-publishing. When players like Apple go wading into the marketplace with game-changing announcements, there’s a tendency to believe that all the outstanding uncertainties have been resolved.
But in the fast-evolving e-book space, that’s far from true. Apple, Amazon, Google, and the various corporate content owners are huge and influential, but when they are all battling each other over fundamentals of the market, it’s consumers, creators, and publishers who have control.
The reason for this new flurry of activity is because the e-book market has moved into a new stage. The low-hanging fruit of best-sellers, genre fiction, and perennial classics have been harvested by Amazon and the Kindle-toting masses. The arrival of color tablets with bigger displays and more powerful processors has opened a new frontier for designed and illustrated books, including textbooks, technical manuals, cookbooks, photography, and fine-art books, magazines, graphic novels, and comics. The scramble for this new and potentially lucrative market is on, and it has attracted a wide range of players looking to cash in.
Because so much is still unsettled in this market, everything is up for grabs. Here is a list of some of the issues being hashed out in public as Apple, Amazon, publishers, distributors, established technology companies, startups, educational institutions, individual content creators, and advertisers all try to stake their claim.
Industry-standard e-book formats or proprietary, protected files? This may seem like a technical issue, but the stakes are huge. Industry-standard files and formats are portable across platforms and devices, but proprietary files are only readable using the distributor’s application (or, sometimes, the distributor’s device). With standard formats, publishers and content creators can offer the same file through many distribution channels, and customers can choose where to download based on factors like price and brand ambiance. But when files are locked to an application context, customers and publishers alike get locked to the platform, giving leverage to the distributor. That’s obviously better business for the Apples and Amazons of the world, which is why Apple is quietly tweaking the EPUB standard  in its iBook 2.0 strategy.
Android or iOS? This distinction is most obvious to consumers trying to choose between an iPad, a Kindle Fire, and the various other Android-powered tablets on the market, and generally revolves around things like performance, user experience, and application availability more than content. But the platform battle conceals a battle of business models. Apple’s content strategy is meant to drive sales of its lucrative, high-margin hardware, whereas Android is a much more oblique attempt by Google to push its revenue-generating search technology onto new classes of devices. The two companies’ vastly different objectives may soon lead to a divergence in both their approach and their commitment to e-book content. Microsoft may soon be part of this conversation as well.
Cloud-hosted files or local storage? This basically comes down to “who owns the bits?” When consumers buy MP3s online, those files typically reside on the local system, where they can be copied to an iPhone, burned onto a CD, backed up, renamed, and so on. But when people buy comics from an online distributor like ComiXology, the content is hosted on the cloud and the end user license agreement (EULA) only grants the consumer the right to view, not own, the files. This is in many ways more convenient, since the licensed user can view their titles across multiple platforms and devices without having to synchronize or copy files from one place to another. But if ownership is restricted, shouldn’t that affect pricing? Also, cloud-based models tilt the market toward big, confidence-inspiring players. Why would users trust cloud-based content providers who could vanish overnight--with their paid content--if business or regulatory conditions change?
Standalone apps or “Newsstand”? From an architectural standpoint, there’s no reason why every magazine, textbook, comic, and e-book couldn’t be its own app, built on a custom platform with its own space on the device desktop. But as a practical matter, it’s more convenient to have content aggregated into libraries and available through a consistent application context and user experience. This dichotomy is reflected in the digital comics landscape, where periodical comics from multiple publishers are mostly through distributors like ComiXology, Graphicly, and iVerse, while graphic novels are often built as standalone apps or through publisher-specific applications. Which model prevails depends on whether consumers prefer the convenience of a single environment or the choices inherent in a diversity of technologies.
Creator-friendly terms or restrictive EULA? Digital publishing is a huge boon for independent authors and adventurous readers. Over the past year, we’ve seen self-published e-books and comics top the Kindle best-seller lists as Amazon rolled out its online publishing initiatives. Last week Graphicly made a very public bid for cartoonists to self-publish  on their platform. But when Apple included authoring tools in its iBook 2.0 announcement, the EULA contained a bunch of restrictive language  reserving Apple’s right to not only reject submissions to its store, but also to prevent authors from selling rejected titles anywhere. As the market consolidates, will digital distributors reconstruct the barriers to entry and unfavorable business terms for authors that they eliminate by doing away with traditional publishers?
Format integrity or media evolution? Digital distribution famously represents the convergence of all media (text, graphics, audio, video, interactive) on a single platform, freeing books from the tyranny of ink and paper. This of course opens up new ways to make content more timely, collaborative, and compelling, which is part of what makes Apple’s foray into textbooks so transformative. It also begs the question of whether there is any value to maintaining the integrity of the print medium, with its linearity, static design, and reliance on 26 characters in various permutations to create mental rather than literal images. That is perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all, and one which awaits everyone once the business issues of digital publishing have been resolved.
Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up . His new book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, will be published by McGraw-Hill in 2012.
[Image: Flickr user travis_warren123 ]