The publishing industry has a problem, and EPUB is not the solution

Ebooks are deliberately being made defective through digital restrictions

This article contains my personal views, not those of my employer Lonely Planet.

I’ll be blunt. Ebooks and EPUB are to the publishing industry what Blu-Ray is to the movie industry: a solution to yesterday’s problem made irrelevant by broader change in the industry. Both have a couple of years left in them, and there’s good money to be made while the kinks get worked out from the alternatives, but the way the wind is blowing is clear.

Whenever someone proposes EPUB as a solution, ask yourself a question: what’s the problem they’re trying to solve? As a standard drafted by the IDPF, a self-proclaimed “organization for the Digital Publishing Industry”, EPUB is built squarely to address the industry’s biggest headache: ensuring that, in the digital age, they retain the ability to charge money for distributing content. The best interests of authors or readers simply do not figure in the equation.

EPUB is thus built around the premise that ebooks should be just like physical books and Blu-Ray discs. You’re expected to buy a copy in a store, bring it home with you, read or watch it, and then keep it in your personal library. As far as publishers are concerned, the only difference (or, rather, threat) is that readers can copy ebooks too easily. Since this poses a risk to the venerable business model of selling individual copies, ebooks must be deliberately made defective through digital restrictions management — regardless of the inconvenience posed to readers, who now find themselves trapped in a completely absurd, purely artificial maze of incompatible formats and geographical restrictions.

But all it takes to yank the carpet from underneath the house of cards is a change to one assumption: what if the book is free? You don’t need a shop to buy it from anymore, because you do not need to pay. You can make all the copies you want, since there is no revenue to be lost. In fact, you no longer even need to take home and hoard your own precious copy, because you can grab one whenever you want, chuck it out when you’re done and get another one later if fancy strikes.

From a publishing industry viewpoint, that’s pure crazy talk, because it demolishes their current business model. But from a web point of view, it’s the way things are expected to work, and it’s in fact precisely how you’re reading this article. As an author on the Web, I have access to a huge range of tools to get my content out there, actively worked on in a massive developer community, and an entire spectrum of ways to try to make money if I so choose. And as a reader, the Web gives me unfettered access to a vast amount of things to read, and I can read them on the latest, shiniest browser out there.

Compare this with EPUB, which cannot be created without specialised tools and knowledge and cannot be read out of the box on any major browser. Existing implementations for writing and displaying EPUB are immature and widely loathed by developers, who will not touch it unless they happen to work for a publisher that forces them to. As a casual datapoint, a search through my (publishing-biased) LinkedIn network finds 4,900 people who claim enough knowledge of EPUB to put it on their profiles, compared to 110,000 for HTML5 and an incredible 1,400,000 for plain HTML. While EPUB 3’s decision to inhale the ever-evolving HTML5 standard wholesale is probably the lesser evil compared to futilely attempting to lock it down, the sheer disparity in these numbers also means that it is doomed to playing an endless game of catch-up, while the open Web races ahead. IDPF’s wish for EPUB to someday become “the portable document format for the Open Web” may be sincere, but for the time being, is anybody actually using it for anything beyond ebooks?

EPUB’s second advantage from a publisher’s point of view is that, by imposing a straitjacket of strict XHTML on the book’s contents and pruning away some of the wilder excesses of raw HTML, it has made it somewhat easier to reproduce ebooks reliably on single-purpose ebook reading devices that lack the oomph to run a full-fledged browser. However, Moore’s law means that ever-cheaper, ever-faster multipurpose tablets with browsers that can handle anything thrown at them are becoming more popular by the day. On the other side of the equation, the aforementioned decision to adopt the full bloat of HTML5 means that full EPUB compliance will actually be harder than merely supporting the Internet at wide. (From personal experience, I can tell you that mapping a pinpoint onto a map or flowing text into two columns, both trivial exercises in modern browsers, are virtually impossible to implement portably in EPUB 3.) Even EPUB 2 is a standard only on paper: Lonely Planet is currently forced to produce three different flavours of EPUB 2, each targeted at different vendors, plus KF8 for the uncooperative thousand-pound gorilla of the market, Amazon’s EPUB-hating Kindle.

The final advantage often ascribed to EPUB is that it serves as a handy package for everything beyond the text: it offers a clear structure for including images and other media, and it defines a clear way for specifying metadata like a table of contents and publication dates. Technologically, none of these is a unique advantage: both vector and raster images can be embedded directly in HTML, the meta tag has been around since the dawn of HTML, and the document outline semantics needed to reliably build a table of contents have been a part of the HTML5 standard for a while now and are supported to varying but ever-increasing degrees by modern browsers.

The inescapable conclusion is that, within a few years, EPUB will offer no benefits over existing solutions. Do you wish to reproduce a paper document with perfect fidelity?  PDF cracked that nut years ago. Do you want to distribute a standalone written document, like a report or a novel, in a format that readily adapts itself to any device?  HTML is the way to go. And if you’re publishing a complex, interactive, data-driven and thus ever-changing website, EPUB doesn’t even try to fit the bill.

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