Interview: Jason Merkoski

What do you think about the lack of a true standard format for digital books (taking into account that even the ePub format may have different resources depending on the app, e-reader or bookstore)?

I used to be the person at Amazon who managed the Kindle ebook file format. I spent a lot of time worrying about Kindle features, as compared to epub features, and other rival ebook formats. I think the lack of a true standard is not worrying to me – it’s simply a sign that we are still in a phase of rapid innovation. By locking down a format, you restrict innovation, and the ability to give consumers neat new features. Amazon is smart to control its own format, because it can innovate much more rapidly. As an example, when was the last time you saw Apple innovate an ebook feature? It might have been three years ago. By tethering yourself to a format, you limit growth in the long run even though you can sell a lot of content in the short run.

That said, I have had some very heated discussions over the years about ebook formats. My advice to people is to just be chill, sit back with a nice cup of coffee, and watch what happens as it all evolves – or, if you’re an entrepreneur, pitch in and develop some new ebook formats!

 

There is a lot of discussion regarding the usability limitations caused by DRM. However, not much is discussed about the limitations caused by the use of proprietary formats. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think that user independence is an important issue?

I joke sometimes that DRM stands for “Doesn’t Really Matter”. It can always get cracked. I managed a team at Amazon that wrote the ebook DRM, and I know it’s far from perfect. And over time, DRM will cease to matter. I take the long view, in which what I really care about is what happens 100, or 1000 years form now. Will all our knowledge in the forms of books be open, or closed? I would hate to imagine a scenario where are the world’s knowledge is trapped into a proprietary ebook format, and we one day lose the keys to this knowledge. We’re making an amazing leap forward in the human condition by digitizing books, and making knowledge available at ever-cheaper prices to ever-wider audiences. But I do worry that this knowledge will stay closed, and it might not be possible to crack the archives. As an example, look at the moon landing, which happened only 40 years ago. NASA sent some space probes to orbit the dark side of the moon to take high resolution photos, to help the astronauts plan for their trip. They were very high quality photos. Time passed, and a few years ago, scientists decided they needed to see those photos again to help plan another series of satellites and moon landings. But the problem was, nobody could read the files on those digital tapes. It wasn’t that the tapes were corrupt; they had been kept preserved in a cold vault. But the way the data was written had changed so much over the last 40 years, that nobody could decipher those tapes, and recover those photos. After getting close to 100 scientists together, and finding old software manuals in the garage of a former employee of the Air Force (manuals which were stolen, by the way!) they were finally able to recover the data. The moral of this story is that recovering data can be hard, even if you’re not trying to intentionally protect it with DRM!

 

What are your thoughts on new business models, such as Humble Bundles (pay what you want for a given number of DRM-free e-books) and streaming services? Do you see the e-book market coming to a balance between these different business models or do you think one model will stand out?

I think this is an incredible time of exploration, as we figure out new business models, and I love it – love it! The consumer will ultimately win, as more options become available. And some of those models will stick. But not all of them will. A successful model has to pass the “spaghetti test”. How do you know if a plate of spaghetti is done? You take a few strands, and throw them at the wall; if they stick, the spaghetti is done. The same thing is happening now with ebook innovation. Even in the United States ebook subscription space – for example, Amazon, Oyster, Scribd, and Librify (which I once consulted for) – there are lots of variations on the same principle of ebook subscriptions. Librify for example is more tailored for reading clubs. Scribd had to pay millions of dollars up-front to one of the top 5 publishers to get access to their content. Oyster offers books from the traditional wholesale model, and the newer agency model, which complicates their business – though they received $15 million USD in funding, they only have around 5,000 users the last time I checked. And of course, there’s Amazon, which in typical Amazon fashion, comes very late to the game. I wrote some of the original business plans for them in 2010 for ebook subscriptions, and it wasn’t released until this month. And the interesting thing – and perhaps sad thing – with Amazon is that the selection of books through their book subscription program is terrible. It’s as bad as their Prime free music program. You think there’s a lot of selection because it advertises 1 million songs – but then you start looking for one, and you realize it’s not what you wanted. For example, I wanted to listen to a 1980s song by Madonna today, but all I could find were cheap remakes of that song by independent bands. They key was wrong, the tempo was off, and if I played it at a party at my house, I had better hope everyone was drunk and wouldn’t notice. The same is true with the ebook selection on Kindle Unlimited.

I do think, for example, in this space of ebook subscriptions, that the market will level itself, and a basic service will emerge. It’s inevitable, because after all, there are new media forms besides ebooks, and the revolutionaries and innovators will turn away form ebooks and towards the next sexy technology once it matures.

 

Can you tell us your opinion on the recent standoff between Amazon and Hachette?

In my opinion, Amazon is a very good negotiator, and will always get what it wants. Period. If you could combine a pit-bull with an accountant, you’d get the kind of person who enjoys working at Amazon and negotiating with publishers.

Sadly, standoffs like this will become increasingly common. It’s not really about us, as consumers. We’re witnessing the death throes of the publishing world (as we know it).

 

Colofão is a website focused on the editor’s role in the digital books business; we write from the perspective of people who work in the publishing industry. From your perspective as a professional who has worked in one of the most important companies in the e-book business, what is your opinion about the role of the e-book editor?

This is a great question.

For some classes of content, editors are pivotal, necessary. Editors can really help craft a book, and editors are super valuable resources for authors. Moreover, without editing, what services does a publisher offer anymore? Many publishers don’t even provide marketing support anymore, and outsource their distribution. So editing is the “secret sauce” of publishing houses.

That said, in my opinion, we’re seeing more and more automated technology doing what editors previously did. Editors and publishers are no longer taste-makers, starting trends: that’s done now by recommendation engines, of the sort you see on Amazon, and in the emails you get about books you should read next. We’re even seeing books starting to get written algorithmically – Icon books is starting a series of romance books that are created 100% by computer software. This means the editing is automated too. I think as people’s attention spans get progressively more diluted, and people have less time to focus, they will focus less on long-form content, and be happier reading shorter articles, chapters, or snippets. When you lost the overall story arc in a book, it’s even harder to retain the editor’s role, as we know it. So, the changes in attention span, combined in the focus on algorithms, is making it hard for editors. My advice, by the way, to anyone who wants to enter publishing? Don’t. Go into software instead.

 

Do you think there is a future for enhanced e-books or that the digital book market will continue to be based primarily on text-only e-books?

Let me put the answer here in the form of a story. I worked in Hollywood running technology in 2012 for an ebook/app development company. I got to work with some great (and strange) stars, like Alicia Keys, and PeeWee Herman. Because we were building animated ebooks as apps, we required a lot of designers, and a large budget – the first app we built cost about $2 million. It did well, and was on the Apple App Store in the top 5 position for a month. But in the process of building this, I realized there’s a spectrum for the creative arts when it comes to telling stories.

On the top end of the scale, you have movies. They have budgets of $100 million USD or more, in many cases, because there are so many people from director to gaffer who need to contribute. A little lower on the spectrum are video games, but even an indy video game can cost millions of dollars to produce. A video game isn’t as immersive as a movie, and requires more imagination from the consumer. Next lower you have apps. An app could cost anywhere from $10K to $100K or more, and while it’s easier to produce, it is still more limited in what it can do, and imposes a greater imaginative burden on the consumer. Finally, at the lowest end of the spectrum, you have books. They can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to maybe $50K to produce, especially for textbooks, and a lot less for trade fiction, and require so much investment of imagination and time from the reader.

So basically what you have is a spectrum of cost and creativity. On one end of the scale, for  high budget films, you require very little creativity from the reader; they sit back and watch. On the opposite end, for a book, you require so much creativity, because it’s just words.

In my view of the future, this spectrum will continue, and more niches will develop – enhanced ebooks, app/movies, etc. If a work is popular at the lower end of the scale, it can rise up and become a movie, for example. (Reciprocally, movies or videogames rarely become books afterwards.)

Because there will always be a creative impulse in people, and many of the world’s most creative artists are (let’s face it) not blessed with million-dollar endowments, we will always see books – or what comes to one day replace books. We will always have a solitary way for an artist or author to express his or her words in as simple, and inexpensive, a way as possible.

 

Amazon has proved itself to be capable of dominating the e-book market in a number of different countries it invests in. In your opinion, what advantages or abilites allow it to stand out even in countries where other powerful bookstores are already operating? Do you see any companies well positioned to compete with Amazon in the global market?

In the space of ebooks, and print books while they continue to survive, Amazon will stay on top. No contest. It’s like a boxing match between a muscled fighter, and a sad toad. The toad will lose.

Sadly, I wish it were otherwise. I wish there were more independent players in this market.

However, I think this is only true for ebooks and products derived from books. I do not think Amazon will stand out when it comes to selling music, apps, videos, TV, games, or other forms of digital media currently on the market.

 

Educational content is still a big challenge when it comes to e-books. What do you think would be the best way to make this type of content available, when multimedia support is still limited in most of the leading reading platforms?

Over the last three years, the amount of time students spend in libraries has dropped by 70%. That’s not a good sign. Please don’t misunderstand me; I love libraries. They’re great places. I love getting lost in the aisles, finding unexpected new books. But now that content is going digital, libraries are being replaced by coffeeshops as social venues. Moreover, budgets for most libraries are shrinking. So it can be a challenge in the educational space. I run an ebook startup called BookGenie451 (www.bookgenie451.com) which tries to help students in other ways. After all, just because a book has flashy interactive content doesn’t mean it’s “educational”. In fact, there’s an incredible amount of content out there that students need – and it’s already digitized – but it’s just hard to find. What I did at BookGenie451 was invent smart software which learns about you from your social networks, such as what you’re interested in, how well you read and write, what your education background is, what skills you have, etc. Then, when you search for content, the software uses what it knows about you to make some very accurate recommendations – not just for books, but individual chapters. I’ve seen that students are often “time poor” which means they don’t have much time, and would probably rather be playing sports with friends or hanging out at a bar, rather than writing an essay! So even though multimedia support is limited on many platforms, we can still help students by making the basic “discoverability” of content happen much faster, and much more intelligently.