Why Netflix’s Split Business Probably Makes Sense

[October 10 Update: “Netflix “has abandoned its unpopular plan to spin off its DVD-by-mail service and rename it Qwikster, saying it will continue to offer both services through its flagship web site.” From Netflix: “It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs. This means no change: one website, one account, one password… in other words, no Qwikster.” Obviously this news renders moot much of my previous discussion, preserved below. -Ari]

As I indicated yesterday, I’m a little shocked by all the people sliming Netflix for the “crime” of offering customers amazing services for stunningly low prices.

No, the company did not handle the price hike well (though its real error was offering unrealistically low prices in the first place). And I do recognize that splitting the DVD rental from the online streaming (with two web portals and two bills) adds a minor inconvenience to customers using both services.

But many treat Netflix like its leaders had absolutely no reason for splitting the business other than to annoy customers. In other words, people utterly ignorant of the business’s internal forecasts and long-range strategic plans think they can armchair-CEO better than those whose livelihoods and futures rest on the success of the company. I think that attitude is more than a little presumptuous.

Now, I don’t know those forecasts or plans, either; however, I can take some educated guesses as to why Netflix decided to split the business.

1. The inconvenience is minor. Is it really that hard to maintain two accounts? No. It’s extremely easy to log into two pages and maintain two queues. Until recently I used both of Netflix’s services, and that required maintaining two lists, anyway. If something in my DVD queue appeared in streaming, I still had to manually rank the item in my streaming list and remove it from my DVD list. So the new system is trivially different. (That said, Netflix would do well to alert customers when DVD items become available for streaming.) [Update: Somebody pointed out to me that it was possible to maintain an integrated queue on the Netflix DVD list, as everything streaming is also on DVD, but I never found that helpful.] And two lines on one’s credit card bill instead of one? Like, Oh, My, God, surely the sky falling comes next. Get a grip, people.

2. Most people will naturally gravitate to one service or the other. As I reviewed yesterday, I dropped the DVD rentals after Netflix announced the price hike. According to Henry Blodget, half of Netflix’s customers used both services. (For those keeping track, that means half used only one service or the other.) But the figure for both services was inflated by the ridiculously and unsustainably low bundling price. If you wanted the DVD service, you could get streaming on the side for a pittance more, and vice versa.

Those running Netflix, not being as dense and short-sighted as so many of their critics have managed to appear, can see the technological trend lines. Streaming is getting progressively faster and cheaper. More and more people are buying iPads and other portable devices that can handle streaming. Ever more content is becoming available for streaming. At the same time, some people just prefer the older technology, can’t get good internet connections, or don’t want to tie up their internet with streaming. Thus, the two groups of customers seem to be diverging, not merging.

3. The split allows more tailored marketing. Assuming the above to be true, that the DVD and streaming customers represent very different demographics, a split company may have a much easier time tailoring its marketing campaigns to the two distinct groups.

4. Splitting the business allows easier adjustments to both sides. Not a single critic of Netflix can predict what’s going to happen to the Post Office over the coming months and years. Perhaps Netflix’s critics have failed to notice this little detail, but the USPS delivers Netflix disks. The USPS has been hemorrhaging billions of dollars, so delivery schedules or prices may change dramatically over the coming months. Netflix may have to change its DVD rental service accordingly. At the same time, while streaming becomes faster and cheaper, it could be that hot new content may cost Netflix more to secure. Splitting the business allows each side to easily and independently adjust pricing and details of service.

5. Splitting the services allows for splitting the company. Others have suggested this. With the services split within Netflix, the company could easy split legally as well, forming two autonomous corporations. Or Netflix could eventually sell off the DVD side. I can’t imagine that the people running Netflix have never contemplated such possibilities.

Netflix can clearly see the model of what happens to companies that fail to adapt to changing technology: Borders. Netflix has chosen to take its lumps in the market now in the hopes of sustaining its long-term health. While sensible observers can debate whether Netflix made the best long-range decision, I think it’s foolish and frankly mean-spirited to fail to recognize the plausible reasons supporing the company’s shift.

Thank You, Netflix

I’m a little surprised by the negative reactions to Reed Hastings’sannouncement that Netflix is splitting its services into online streaming and DVD rentals.

When Netflix announced its price increases a few weeks ago, I evaluated my streaming queue and my DVD queue, thought about the costs, and decided to dump the DVD side of the service. So now I pay $7.99 per month — around 27 cents per day — for continual access to a spectacular selection of streaming television shows and movies. For that pittance I can watch most of the Star Trek series, CharmedThe Twilight Zone, and tons of other awesome shows, films, and documentaries. In what universe is that not a spectacularly amazing deal?

If I wanted, for another $7.99 per month I could rent DVDs, one at a time, without monthly limits. At least where I live, the Netflix DVD cycle takes around three days, meaning I could rent as many as (around) eight DVDs per month with this plan. (Realistically I’d probably cycle through around four per month.) In what universe is $2 or less DVD rentals not a spectacularly amazing deal? However, it just wasn’t quite a good enough deal for me, given the alternatives. Redbox rents new release videos for a dollar, we also use Hulu (the “free” version), and I purchased a couple seasons of House on used DVD. But I came close to dumping my other sources and going solely with Netflix and Hulu.

Think of it this way. If Netflix didn’t exist, and a new company suddenly came on the market to offer what Netflix now offers, a streaming service plus a DVD rental service, each for a low monthly price, people would fall all over themselves signing up and lauding the new service. Apparently, given that Netflix has been offering its customers such amazing value for so long now, the company now deserves derision and scorn rather than praise. I think that’s a little nuts and frankly a little ungrateful.

Now, I do see a problem with disconnecting the DVD queue from the streaming queue. The problem is that, when I (used to) put a DVD on my queue, and then the same item became available in streaming, the item appeared automatically in my streaming queue, and I didn’t burn a DVD rental on it. Now, if you get both services, you’ll have to manually add an item to streaming and delete it from the DVD queue.

However, Netflix seems to be anticipating — and I think correctly — that most people will come to want one service or the other, but not both. I think everything available for streaming is also available on DVD, and the opposite will increasingly become the case as time goes on. I can see why some people would prefer DVDs over streaming, though I definitely prefer streaming. I found this line from Hastings to be especially interesting: “DVD by mail may not last forever, but we want it to last as long as possible.” It will be interesting to see what happens as streaming gets faster and cheaper and the United States Postal Service continues to struggle financially.

For now I will simply offer my gratitude to Netflix and stand amazed at how much better my life has become in the Internet Age.

My Newspaper Paywall Plan for Dean Singleton

Today the Denver Post sent its minions to my local grocery store, and they hooked me into a discussion by offering a drawing. This reminded me that“Denver-based MediaNews Group announced… that it has launched an online subscription paywall at 23 of its newspapers in five states but not in Colorado.” I figure we’re next.

So if a paywall is going to happen, I’d like it to happen the right way. (And I wrote about this back in 2009.)

Obviously a monthly subscription is the most standard model. The problem with this is that many readers — especially those who live elsewhere — may want to read an article only occasionally. This is especially true for a big paper like the Denver Post. So a subscription-based paywall should be only part of the approach.

Ideally newspapers will offer two additional ways to read an article online: pay per view, or watch an advertisement.

Here’s how I envision the pay-per-view model. The paper reveals the first bit of an article, then offers the option to read the rest by clicking a pay button (say, for anywhere from ten cents to a buck, depending on the sort of article). I purchase credits through the system (say, $30 at a time), log in, then spend my credits however I want (and they never expire). I have no idea how to work the technical side of this, but surely it’s possible. Indeed, a robust system could allow other players (including bloggers) to join the same system (for a percentage).

The third option is to view a video (say, 15 seconds) advertising a specific product as “payment” for reading the article.

Readers get the content they want, they have flexible payment options, and journalists earn a living. Does that not make everyone happy?

303 Vodka Joins CO Distilleries

I’ve often thought that a great project would be to interview local business owners and film them producing their goods or services. That’s time consuming, which is why I keep hoping somebody else will do it. But at least I talked with a representative from 303 Vodka, a new addition to Colorado’s still-young microwdistillery industry. I happened to catch the guy at a liquor store tasting, and we bought the 303 potato whisky because we liked it.

We’ve come a long way from prohibition (though there’s still some progress to be made on that front).

Nook Advances

I’m a Kindle man. Not only do I have a book about Harry Potter selling for Kindle, but I own a Kindle, and I read books on my iPod Touch with Kindle software.

But I like Barnes and Noble (BN), largely because a local store allowsLiberty In the Books (a group I help run) to meet there. So, every month, I walk through the store and talk to the staff about the latest developments for the Nook. (I’ve caught a bit of ribbing for bringing my Kindle into BN.)

The brilliant thing is that both the Kindle and the Nook now sell for $139 — very reasonable even for lower-income consumers. Virtually all well-known public-domain books are available for free for these devices.

It now seems very likely that BN’s Nook is here to stay, and that it will save the company.

Impressively, the new Nook brings together two important features, so far as I’m aware for the first time: e-ink (and the long battery life that comes with it) and a touchscreen. (Thank goodness the new Nook dropped that idiotic split screen of earlier models, part touch and part e-ink.)

Frankly, I’ve taken to reading on my iTouch more than my Kindle. There are several reasons for this. The Touch fits in my pocket, so I can take it pretty much anywhere. I really like navigating a book with the touchscreen. On the Kindle, it’s a real hassle to click down to the link and jump back and forth. While I like the Kindle screen, the Touch looks great, and I haven’t noticed any eye strain. Plus, whether I’m reading a printed book, the Kindle, or a Kindle book on the Touch, I tend to use the Touch to take notes. So, if I’m reading from the Touch, I can read and take notes on the same device. (I wouldn’t dream of trying to take notes on the clunky Kindle.)

The new Nook isn’t small enough to fit in my pocket, but it is touchscreen, which must help a lot. Goodbye, mouse-sized keypad! And, while the Touch is a much more versatile device, it also currently starts at $229.

I predict that, until Kindle adopts touchscreen technology, the Nook will make larger inroads into Amazon’s potential market.

One question is how powerful the Nook is as a pad computer. A BN staffer suggested to me that a variety of applications are coming for the device. Unfortunately, I am unable to find ready information about this. If the Nook can also serve as a word processor, and perhaps even as an email and web device, that will greatly improve its value.

(I have not actually held or even seen the new Nook. If Barnes and Noble would care to lend or gift me one, I would be happy to write up a full review, complete with a disclosure. Given that my wife and I already have four digital reading devices between us, including our Mac, I just can’t justify buying a fifth.)

Even though I’m unlikely personally to buy a Nook, I’m glad it exists. It gives BN a real chance of surviving and perhaps even thriving as a company (or as a division of some other company), and it has noticeably motivated Amazon to keep improving the quality of the Kindle while lowering its price. Hurray, capitalism.


Allen commented May 29, 2011 at 10:33 AM
“I wouldn’t dream of trying to take notes on the clunky Kindle.”

Interesting; I’m the opposite. I read on the iTouch when I’m in a pinch (e.g. standing at the microwave at work warming up lunch). And I prefer to take notes on the Kindle.

Angelina commented May 31, 2011 at 3:28 PM
I can’t wait to try out the new Nook! I currently have the older version (with both e-ink and touch screen) and I really love it. However, it doesn’t mean that there’s not room for improvement. I like the idea of a touch screen. I don’t do much else on my Nook but read, so it doesn’t really have to have a lot of extra features.

Real Page Numbers Coming to Kindle

When I first Tweeted the New York Times piece on how Kindle will incorporate real page numbers matching those in print editions, somebody emailed me wondering if I’d had something to do with that. I said I suspected not, even though I’ve written on the matter. But the language from Amazon’s release does seem to cover the same points I raised.

Here is the Amazon release:

Our customers have told us they want real page numbers that match the page numbers in print books so they can easily reference and cite passages, and read alongside others in a book club or class. Rather than add page numbers that don’t correspond to print books, which is how page numbers have been added to e-books in the past, we’re adding real page numbers that correspond directly to a book’s print edition.

And here’s what I posted on the matter last November:

[A] big problem with digital editions of books these days is that there is no standardized pagination for citations. … One of the comments [posted to the article] suggests another important use for standardized pagination; in reading groups, where people might be reading copies of a book on different devices, it would be very useful if everybody had a common page system.

Whether or not I helped inspire the change, I’m glad the change is coming.

Unfortunately, Amazon does not mention in its release how publishers accomplish adding the pagination, nor could I readily find this information in Amazon’s information on Kindle publishing. If any reader knows about this, please email me or post the information in the comments.

A Plea for Book Publishers to Include Page Numbers in Digital Formats

Besides the major inconvenience of Digital Rights Management (DRM), the other big problem with digital editions of books these days is that there is no standardized pagination for citations.

Thankfully, there is a very simple solution to this problem, if only publishers would adopt it: insert page numbers into digital editions to match the print editions. That is what I’ve done with my own book, Values of Harry Potter. Inserting page numbers in every new book would be a trivially easy thing to do, and it would allow buyers of digital copies to use and reference the same citation schemes as the buyers of the old-technology ink-on-paper copies.

December 1 Update: I’m amazed by how much confusion this seemingly simple idea has generated. Therefore, I’m adding two images to illustrate what I’m talking about. I took a screen shot of my own book, Values of Harry Potter, as displayed by Kindle for Mac. For the Kindle edition, the text “[33]” was inserted where page 33 starts in the print edition. This has to be done by the publisher. Because the Kindle uses free-flowing text, obviously the added text might appear anywhere on the screen. The point of this is to inform the reader, “This is where page 33 begins in the printed edition.”


And here are pages 32 and 33 of my book as scanned from the printed edition.


One of the comments suggests another important use for standardized pagination; in reading groups, where people might be reading copies of a book on different devices, it would be very useful if everybody had a common page system. (The original post now resumes; this ends the update.)

The only drawback to inserting the page numbers is that they are a minor distraction when reading. But this is a trivial inconvenience, as the reader can easily ignore the page numbers, while the benefits of standardized citations are substantial.

I briefly considered the alternative of simply dropping page numbers altogether, in digital and print editions, and going with something like numbered paragraphs. But then I decided that was a bad idea. I’ve tried to read a printed book that did not number each page, and the experience was frustrating. I like to get a sense of where I am in a book, and the page numbers help provide that. While lengths of paragraphs vary widely, the amount of text on a standard printed page is roughly comparable across books, though of course it tends to vary by type of book. (Academic books tend to use smaller font sizes relative to popular books.)

There is another reason to include page numbers, besides the fact that some readers will continue to prefer printed copies into the indefinite future. On some devices, pdf documents work better than the free-flowing text of other digital formats. And, with fixed pages, the designer has more control over the look of the text and the overall book. So pages are here to stay. The thing to do, then, is to simply mark the same page numbers in the digital editions. This offers another benefit to readers of free-flowing editions, besides the ease of citing material: they can more easily track their progress through a book. (By contrast, the Kindle tracking system tends to leave the reader feeling lost in an indeterminate void.)

A related problem is that of notes. In print editions, I very much prefer notes at the bottom of individual pages, for ease of reference. But of course that doesn’t work for digital editions with free-flowing text. Moreover, I severely dislike the strategy of numbering endnotes by chapters, because the result is that you end up with a “Note 1” for each chapter, which can be confusing. (“Oh, you meant that the profound mysteries of the universe are answered in the OTHER Note 8!”)

My proposed solution is to clearly tie each note to its page number. For example, let’s say Page 25 of our book contains four notes. Rather than number them, we’ll letter them “a” through “d.” Then we end up with Note 25a, Note 25b, etc. (If there is only one note on a page, that can be marked with an asterisk, and then we’ll just have “Note 25.”) Under this scheme, it really doesn’t matter whether the note is printed on the relevant page in a print edition or included at the end of a digital edition; the citation scheme will remain the same.

I already own an iPod Touch, and my wife and I just ordered a Kindle. While some publishers foolishly decline to make new books available in digital editions, more and more the standard is to release books in multiple formats simultaneously. The year 2010 will have marked the major transition to digital publishing. As this transition continues and accelerates, publishers can do us all a favor by simply making pagination standard across editions.



Anonymous November 30, 2010 at 5:04 AM
There is great confusion over ‘e-books’. I don’t think this is altered by referring to ‘digital editions’, and there are assumptions about the relationships between print and electronic file books.

As you mention, the pdf – and there are other ‘print design’ files that mimic the print book – do contain all these features if required. Even taking those out of the issue of page numbering there are a host of file types. Of these html, and its relations, which can mimic the print book, and text, which can’t, are fairly universal.

Outside txt, the main area of the problem you specify, Ari, is in the dedicated file types for reading devices, and the moderately adaptable ePub. And then it really applies mostly to text books, and well researched non-fiction.

Publishers are already struggling with the multiple difficulties of conversion from print files – where those files do already exist. And I imagine the thought of yet another complication will send hearts sinking right through the boots!

Yet your case is good; or at least shows a puzzling challenge to e-books. I doubt if it can be achieved with extant works.

But with modern thoughts on how the files are prepared, which has been made understandable through css2 and xhtml, perhaps the future looks much brighter for you idea. There are already many print books that do group by chapter or page.

One well worth pushing, I would say.

Joseph Harris in the UK

Joe November 30, 2010 at 8:21 AM
Care to post a screenshot illustrating this?

Ari November 30, 2010 at 8:29 AM
Joe, Do you mean a screenshot of my book, with the added page numbers? Really all I did was add in the page numbers in brackets; it is the easiest fix imaginable. For example, My page 32 ends with “Though Lupin poses,” and my page 33 continues the sentence, “no threat to others…” In digital editions with flowing text, that becomes, “Though Lupin poses [33] no threat to others…” Then it’s perfectly clear where page 33 begins in the print and pdf editions.

Sam November 30, 2010 at 2:41 PM
Unless a publisher takes great care, pagination may vary between editions (e.g., paperback, hardback, PDF). In your eBook page number scheme, do you mention which edition is the source of the page numbers? Is it important to do so?

Ari November 30, 2010 at 3:23 PM
Seriously, Sam; how hard is it to enter in page numbers? I’ve done it, and it’s a trivially easy and fast process. It doesn’t take “great care” to enter in the numbers correctly; it merely takes a quick double-check. Even for a lengthy book, the process could be completed within a matter of hours. There’s only one edition of my book (with multiple formats), so the pagination is the same for everything. However, if a book undergoes changes with a new edition, clearly that would be useful information to include in the digital formats. (But why a publisher would offer different editions of the same book at the same time is beyond me.)

Anonymous November 30, 2010 at 8:13 PM
The problem with numbering pages in an ebook is that the user has the opportunity to change the font size so both the total number of pages and the page number will alter depending on the font size selected. A great thing to offer but obviously makes it harder then to match numbers to a physical book with fixed shape and size.

Ari November 30, 2010 at 9:00 PM
Dear Anonymous, You are missing the entire point of the suggestion. It is precisely because the text of some digital formats flows freely that publishers should insert pagination to match the printed edition. Obviously, because the text does flow freely, meaning the amount of text on a device’s screen varies with the size of the screen and the size of the font, the inserted page numbers will NOT appear at the top of the screen. Rather, they will appear wherever the page break happens to be in the printed edition, which could be anywhere on the screen of an ereader.

Sam December 1, 2010 at 10:10 AM
Gee, Ari, in my comment I didn’t even HINT that I was in any way opposed to including page numbers in eBooks. I was merely suggesting that a reader may wish to know from which edition the numbering was taken. I recall that in a recent Atlas Shrugged discussion group, two paperback printings of that book had different pagination resulting in some difficulty in referring to passages in the different editions.

Ari December 1, 2010 at 10:14 AM
Sam, I agree with you, and I was not suggesting you were opposed to including page numbers.

Clive December 1, 2010 at 5:32 PM
It’s horrible. We (I run a small press and I typeset amongst other functions) deliberately omit page numbers from EBooks precisely because the browser will sprinkle them all over the text when the font size or page size is changed by the user.
EBooks are actually a bloody awful, pathetic example of technology. Can’t even support a drop cap. Can’t flow text around images. Primitive. Next we’ll be going back to clay tablets …

Clive December 1, 2010 at 5:35 PM
Besides which, pagination is not necessary: the file publisher can include dynamic links from contents and/or index to any text item…

Ari December 1, 2010 at 10:38 PM
Clive, Obviously ebooks have some huge advantages over printed books (less cost, less space, ease of purchase), which is why that market has been growing rapidly and will continue to do so.

You didn’t actually respond to any of my reasons for including page numbers, so there’s really not much for me to say in response. However, it’s a little silly to say that adding page numbers “sprinkle[s] them all over the text;” it inserts them at precise intervals to match the printed edition, which is the entire point.

Look, publishers can either offer books that are useful to readers, or they can lose money. Take your pick.

Notes for Twitter Haters

Recently somebody on an email list asked me why I would possibly use Twitter. For the benefit of those who have never tried the service and don’t see the point of it, following are my (edited) notes in reply.

I once swore I would never get a Twitter account. Now I love Twitter, and indeed it is my primary source of leads for interesting news and opinions. (More often than not, when I send some sort of news alert to an email list, I first heard the news via Twitter.)

I use my own Twitter account @ariarmstrong primarily as a feed for news and views that I find interesting, meaning links about Colorado politics and select national and religious issues. Thus, in nearly every Twitter post, I include a link to some article or blog post. (My wife tells me she no longer reads the paper directly; she reads it only through my Twitter feed.)

The value I provide to others is to sift through quite a lot of information — including the Denver Post nearly every day — and provide summaries and links to the interesting stuff. Thus, you usually won’t get crime news or celebrity news from me, but you will get stories related to property rights, free markets, and the Nanny State.

Doing this sifting and summarizing helps me as well. It helps me become aware of the news of the day and to see patterns in the news. For example, I’ve found many bits of information through Twitter pertaining to antitrust. This is much more useful than reading a single article about antitrust, because it points to a larger trend. Spotting political trends is a very useful skill for an activist, for it helps in planning articles and ideological campaigns. And Twitter can be very useful for this.

In terms of the others I follow on Twitter, a few users post personal information, entertaining messages (as with @DRUNKHULK), or information focusing on some particular topic, such as parenting. Mostly, though, I follow people who feed me interesting political news.

Thus, rather than read a hundred periodicals every day, I look carefully at one periodical every day, then Ilook at specific articles in (perhaps) dozens of other periodicals according to what looks interesting on Twitter. Indeed, I follow the Twitter feeds of several publications.

The writer worries that Twitter “seems like endless rambling about nothingness.” If you have a bunch of friends who ramble about nothing, then that’s what you’re going to get. That truth does not change whether you’re communicating face to face or on Twitter. If you don’t like what somebody is saying, “unfollow” that person. One key reason I love Twitter is that doing so is so easy.

The writer wonders about keeping up with Twitter as well as other social media and RSS feeds. I never did use RSS feeds much, and now I hardly ever use them. The problem with an RSS feed is that usually it is related to a particular site (or group of sites), such as a blog. Twitter is so much more useful than that. I can get a blog’s feed through Twitter if I want, and I can also follow any number of individuals who are sorting information and commentary in a practically unlimited number of ways. Saying you don’t want to use Twitter because you can use RSS feeds is a little like saying you don’t want to drive a car because a bicycle has wheels, too.

The writer wonders how much time I spend “social networking” in a day. That phrase may be a little misleading, because my main purpose in using Twitter is not to chat or network with friends. How much I use social media depends on how much time I have for it on a given day and how much interesting news is going on. I’m sure I spend more time using social media than others do — perhaps an hour or more per day — because I use social media as my primary tool of obtaining news and opinions, and I like to obtain a lot of that to see how the political landscape (especially in my own state) is unfolding.

Finally, the writer wonders whether I separate my personal life from my activism. On Twitter, the answer is no. I simply do not usually post personal information to Twitter (though I do learn a bit of personal information about friends through Twitter). (On Facebook, I have started using lists to separate personal friends from political associates.)

I certainly don’t think anyone must use Twitter to be an effective activist. Of course, you don’t need to use a computer or a telephone, either. But they can sure be useful tools.

* * *

Paul Hsieh, who points to the DavidAll Group’s Twitter 101 guide, adds the following notes about his Twitter use: “I personally subscribe to the Twitter feeds of several health policy groups, blogs, and influential individuals. Through their feeds, I often find good material worth writing about that would take me longer to accumulate if I simply scanned news stories or RSS feeds. Basically, they act as filters for me. Of course, the tricky part is finding those people who serve as good filters. In that sense, it’s like trying to find friends who watch a lot of movies and whose taste is close enough to yours that you can trust them to provide a first-order approximation of what you would/wouldn’t like (recognizing that there will be some disagreements both ways).”

My ePub Odyssey

Like Odysseus, I have a very simple goal in mind. Like Odysseus, I seem to be taking forever to get there. My goal is to create an ePub version of my book, Values of Harry Potter. Hopefully in describing my difficulties in doing that I can help point others in the right direction, and perhaps encourage some software developers to help with the transition.

The good news is that I have already made a Kindle version of the book available, as I’ve noted. I also have great HTML version of the book finished (and this was the basis for the Kindle version), as well as a pdf with fully functional internal links. With direct sales of the ebook, I want to include all three versions — HTML, pdf, and ePub — so that last format is what’s hanging me up. (In general I think all publishers should offer multiple, DRM-free ebook versions, to provide maximum flexibility to customers.)

I like the idea of the ePub format, developed by Adobe. It is open, so anybody can use it. At least theoretically, any author or publisher can create an ePub, and anybody can create a reader for the format; several readers now exist. ePub already reads on a variety of devices — including my iPod Touch — and I hear several more compatible readers are entering the market. Unlike an HTML ebook, ePub organizes many files, including text and images, into a single package. Unlike pdf ebooks, ePub reflows text to fit your screen and reading preferences.

The problem is that it is a royal bitch to create a complicated ePub book.

I finalized my book in inDesign, Adobe’s design software. From that finished text, I created a text-only file and hand-coded the HTML version, adding hundreds of internal links. Then I modified this file for Kindle. For the pdf, I went back to inDesign and added all the internal links, which inDesign anchors to specific pages.

I didn’t want to create the ePub straight from inDesign, because I doubted the internal links would work well. (With the HTML version, I anchor particular words and paragraphs rather than pages.) Anyway, even though inDesign supposedly has a built-in ePub converter, this didn’t work for me. It merely told me — repeatedly — that the conversion had failed. Thanks a lot, Adobe. Perhaps with Creative Suite 5, inDesign’s ePub converter will actually, you know, work, and perhaps Dreamweaver will also offer a functional converter for use with HTML.

So I decided to go back to the HTML for the ePub conversion. Dreamweaver automatically converts HTML to XHTML 1.1, so I made that conversion. (I think ePub requires XHTML, but I’m not sure about the details.) Those without the software will have to code by hand. (In the future, I’ll just code straight XHTML to save myself the hassle.)

One page lists a variety of ePub conversion programs. I tried Calibre, which created an ePub with tons of junk characters that eventually crashed my readers.* I also tried eCub, which created a file that immediately crashed my readers.

Jedisaber provides the single best source on ePubs that I’ve yet found. Indeed, creating an ePub from his “sample” file is at least as easy as trying to use one of the software converters. (It has the added bonus of actually working.) After modifying the “sample” files with my content and information, I immediately created an ePub that opened on Adobe’s Digital Editions.

Unfortunately, after making a minor tweak to the file, it no longer opened. After a lot of exasperating trial and error, I figured out that the problem was that the files were not listed in the correct order in the .zip folder (which, renamed, becomes the ePub). Finally I downloaded YemuZip, dropped in the files in the correct order, and created another working ePub.

I should say “partly working ePub.” Digital Editions would recognize only a few of my internal links. It took me quite a lot more trial and error to figure out the problem. In HTML, I had used the “a name” tag, such as (a name=”1note”), which Dreamweaver converted to (a name=”1note” id=”1note”). I learned my HTML back in 1998, so I wasn’t aware of the new (apparently nonsensical) regulations. Anyway, I quickly learned, “the id attribute’s value must be an XML name and cannot start with digit or have spaces in it.”

I used “search and replace” in Dreamweaver to change all the offending digits to text. The resulting ePub opens in Digital Editions and functions perfectly. All the internal links work great. Unfortunately, the ePub crashes the BN reader and works improperly in Stanza, which doesn’t display any of the internal links.

My hypothesis is that the “a name” tags are causing problems in those other readers. I learned, “In XHTML, the id attribute has essentially replaced the use of the name attribute. The value of the id must start with an alphabetic letter or an underscore. The rest of the value can contain any alpha/numeric [character].”

Unfortunately, it is not immediately obvious to me how to convert all the “a name” tags to “id.” In order to prevent hard line breaks (with an extra return), I used breaks with space indentations rather than paragraph markers. So for long stretches of text there’s nothing to attach the “id” marker to. (Perhaps the way to do this is obvious to somebody who actually knows all the XHMTL codes; if so please leave a comment.) I think it is possible to correct this problem by using the style sheets to read paragraph breaks as soft returns, but I don’t know how to do this off hand. (Plus, I’m not even sure this is what is causing the problem with other ereaders.)

The upshot is that I still do not have a fully functional ePub. I have one that works great on Digital Editions but poorly on every other reader I’ve tried. I guess my next step is to convert all the “a name” tags to “id,” then try to compensate with the style sheets for the soft returns. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to do this, and I’m not sure it will even solve the problem.

If you have a simple, straight-text book you want to convert to ePub, using Jedisaber’s directions should be a piece of cake. But God help you if you want to take advantage of the digital format with many internal links, something that becomes even more complicated if you try to link across chapters in separate files. (I just put the main text of my book in a single file.)

So consider this a status report. The ebook version of Values of Harry Potter is coming. Soon. If I can just get past the cyclops.

* Update: After reading Jason Fleming’s comment, I decided to give Calibre another try, using the XHTML with the corrected link tags. I got very similar results that I got doing it by hand: an ePub book that works beautifully on Digital Editions, crashes the BN reader, and works with Stanza sans links. If you just have a cover image and straight-text book in a single file, this software probably works great. However, it doesn’t (obviously) allow the flexibility of splitting up files; for instance, in my hand version I broke off the title information into a separate file.

Update May 1: After recoding my entire xhtml document to eliminate the “a name” tags (in favor of “id” tags tied to the paragraph markers), I created a new ePub with Calibre that works exactly as before. It works beautifully in Digital Editions, crashes BN, and works in Stanza but without any active links. So that was a complete waste of time. I wonder whether BN or Stanza are even set up to handle internal links. If anybody happens to know, please comment.



D. Jason FlemingApril 30, 2010 at 1:53 PM

The guy who runs Calibre seems to be very dedicated to making the .epub standard as clean and accessible as possible. I’m not sure how specific your problem was, but if you filed a bug report (http://calibre-ebook.com/bugs), it’s a good bet that he’d treat it seriously.

D. Jason Fleming May 4, 2010 at 5:52 PM

I’m sorry for the waste of time. What I intended to say was: “based on what he has said on epub messageboards, the guy who runs Calibre seems…”, and that you should report what happened as a bug, you might get either a) results, or b) an explanation of why it behaves the way it does at the moment. I didn’t mean to make you go through the frustrating process again just on my say-so. Many apologizings.

Ari May 4, 2010 at 6:07 PM

I didn’t try the “id” conversion because of Fleming’s comment; I tried it because I thought it might work. It didn’t. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Becca May 28, 2010 at 9:19 AM

Any luck yet?

We do conversions to epub and have no trouble with internal linking, except in the Stanza, which just doesn’t seem set up to handle the links or the design elements. Have you used the google epub validator? http://code.google.com/p/epubcheck/
That, or the Threepress validator http://threepress.org/document/epub-validate, should be able to give you a good idea of what’s causing the errors.