amazonlogoAmazon has just signed a $30 million contract to provide an e-book marketplace for New York’s public schools.

So what does this mean in terms of the main e-book format featured? News coverage is vague. An account in Capital New York says the Amazon-supplied books will be readable on a variety of devices ranging from PCs to phones. Great. But I suspect this just means that Amazon will  supply apps to read Kindle-format books on a number of platforms.

What about ePub, though—the industry standard? To keep costs down and promote easier access, certain government agencies insist on use of open formats for documentation-creation. Might some of the same concepts hold true for e-books?

No, I’m not saying that the New York schools shouldn’t have done the deal, given the efficiencies it will promote. But both schools and libraries should also be looking forward and asking suppliers in the future to honor e-book industry standards. Yes, the matter of proprietary DRM complicates matters. This can get messy. But the complications will be worth it.


  1. As someone who advised schools once told me that school districts, both state and local, are notorious for making bad technology choices. If you’ve got a technology like laser disks that’s failing in the marketplace, the clever move is to divert your salesmen to schools. They’ll buy what on one else is buying.

    I’m not sure the thinking among these school officials went beyond: 1. Amazon is huge and 2. Amazon is giving a discount and free training. (Training matters a lot when you’re dealing with schools that have techno-phobic teachers.) Recall the train wreck that the Los Angeles school district went through when it tried to adopt iPads.

    In the long run, Amazon will have to go to epub. Their own technology simply isn’t that good and isn’t supported by publishing tools such as InDesign. But that’ll only do that after they have squeezed every bit of advantage they can out of being proprietary.

    The fact that standards will eventually become standards is why I’m publishing with InDesign and avoiding the special apps from Apple (iBooks Author) and Amazon (various).

  2. Why do bloggers keep referring to epub as “the industry standard” when most of the ebooks sold these days are in Amazon’s formats? Mobi was around for years before epub came along. More books are sold in mobi format and it’s newer variations than in epub. Most online bookstores who don’t also sell ereaders supply books in both formats as do sites like Gutenberg.

    Yes, epub is an open standard and mobi is proprietary. If you’re suggesting an open standard be used say so. It’s worth suggesting. But I think calling epub “the industry standard” makes mobi seem like a minor format when it clearly isn’t and that comes across as wishful thinking.


  3. Well, you could say that, in terms of the number of companies using it, EPUB is more of a standard. After all, everyone who sells e-books commercially except Amazon sells them in some version of EPUB, while only Amazon (and, I guess, various other little companies that publish in multiple formats) support commercial MOBI. So, Amazon is “outnumbered.”

    Of course, Amazon also sells more e-books than everyone else put together—in a format that the majority of industry companies don’t. It’s just kind of confusing that way.

  4. @David- I think needs to add something along the lines of “as long as the specs don’t allow for the addition of a variety of DRM flavors” to make their definition more accurate. If they did that, you just might find me agreeing with you.

    You mention that proprietary DRMs complicate matters but as the de facto “fixer of everything digital” in my family, I disagree that the complications are worth it. I realize this is a selfish POV but these days I have better things to do than deal with certain ebook retailers/vendors not named Amazon.

    All that said, when public funds are being used, I suspect cost is the driving factor rather than than file type. Out of the 14 proposals, it looks like it came down to Amazon and Overdrive. Amazon beat Overdrive on price* and five other factors including a stronger and more methodical deployment plan as well as a better understanding of the project’s scale in general. I didn’t see where format was mentioned in the request for authorization at all. As Chris says, most people don’t care or even know about file format and/or DRM, they just want it to work. I’m hoping NY’s DOE gets that out of this deal.

    *by 22.8% before their fulfillment fee. That alone was probably enough to get A the contract but I appreciated the other factors they say they took under consideration. While on a significantly larger scale than what I deal with in my personal life, it’s stuff that saves me time and frustration.

  5. Yes, Anne, proprietary DRM frustrates me too. But at least with the standard ePub format, we’re a good part of the way there. As for Amazon winning the NYC contract, I remind you again that the company can be rather obnoxious in limiting customers’ experience. No TTS on recent E Ink machines. No all-text bolding. It would scare me if Amazon drove the others out of business or at least caused them to cut back significantly. David

  6. David, I don’t think you have ever posted something regarding Amazon’s limitations or obnoxiousness that I didn’t agree with or at minimum see where you were coming from. I just may not feel as strongly as you do on any one issue.

    Also, I don’t think anyone, including me wants them to be the only retailer left standing but I will continue to argue that mobi is the industry file standard by sheer volume.

    As a side note, I’ll also make the argument that it was the big publishers insistence on DRM and the price fixing that actually gave Amazon the position it now has. Without DRM and agency pricing, more people would have likely explored both different hardware and retailers. I rarely purchased books from Amazon prior to the price fixing but the smaller retailers that I preferred to support disappeared. I wasn’t willing to pay what the publishers wanted and Amazon filled the void for me with KDP and later, library borrowing. Also important to me was that Amazon has never failed me on a customer service issue in the twenty years I have been buying from them.

    I was planning on replacing my dead kobo with their latest iteration but while reading the reviews I realized that I didn’t miss it. I sometimes feel guilty about that until I remember past experiences with them. And B&N/Fictionwise and Sony. Agency pricing sent me to Amazon, good pricing on a wide variety books and great customer service is what keeps me there for now.

    I’m sorry that this has turned out to be so long. How about a post on what other vendors can do right now before Amazon’s position is further entrenched? What missteps by Amazon should they be capitalizing on today? What are other vendors doing right compared to Amazon but isn’t widely known? What do you think it will take to make a competitor relevant?

  7. @Anne: Your comment wasn’t wordy—it was nuanced and reflective. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about the term “industry standard.” That’s a detail. In spirit, we’re indeed on the same side.

    Yes, I could write a post on what the other vendors should do before Amazon gets even “further entrenched.” But let me instead extend an invitation to you. As a serious reader of e-books, you’ll have some very well-informed opinions here. Interested? Let me know.

    If so, e-mail your essay to, and tell me what byline (a pseudonym if you’d prefer) you would like to use. I’ll run it past Juli Monroe, the editor in chief of TeleRead, and if she’s game, we’ll publish it.

    Both Juli and I welcome guest commentaries from engaged members of the TeleRead community. She’s reachable at


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