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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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Comments: 64

  1. Hey! You are flogging my ideas! (Well some of them). Here is a post with comments by Bill McCoy on the same subject http://bit.ly/12XFONT .  And here is a blog started by Dave Cramer on resetting ePub to HTML5. http://bit.ly/YgfXgU to add to the dialogue

  2. Hm… I don’t find myself persuaded.

    I’m a reader.  I don’t author anything even remotely like books.  I want some self-contained bundled thing, that contains static text with formatting *hints*, but not *requirements*, that will work with arbitrary reading devices that do not have a network connection and that are from different vendors.  I want it all to be manageable.  I want it to be as good for old Heinlein, Austin, or Shakespeare works as it is for any “new” content.

    To date, I haven’t found anything better than EPUB coupled with something like Calibre.

    It may be that I just need to see a good working example of this rather than a description.  Got a good example of an e-paper standalone non-networked reading device that can present HTML-formatted books this way?

    (The closest I’ve seen to a mix of what you describe and what has worked for me is the original “AvantGo” on the Palm 3 way back when.  It would pull in HTML and “cook” it into essentially an ebook format that I could read on the go.  I used it more than a little to keep product documentation in my pocket, back then.  It was far from perfect.)

    • Why are you kneecapping yourself with “e-paper” and “non-networked”?  The way to do this today (and tomorrow) is web pages with offline storage on your favorite laptop, tablet or mobile phone.

      • I’m not kneecapping myself, I’m expressing requirements that I feel are important to the way I prefer to read things.

        I *very* much do not want dynamic content or overuse of fonts and color and that sort of thing.  And I *very* much do not want the content or tools to make assumptions about my network connectivity (eg. I may opt not to have a mobile data plan, or a very limited one).

        If you must, consider me a different grade of luddite, not quite at the extreme of “I’m never giving up paper books”, but certainly “I want books to act like *books*, not TV shows, nor some kind of crazy interactive ‘experiences'”.

        And I do not want to even have to think about whether publishers (or anyone else) are performing analytics on how I actually *read* a story — I would rather use a platform that makes that impossible to begin with.

      • Alice Williams Dominguez

        Like dfjedjulio, I am a reader. I am also a traveler, both for business and pleasure. Please be aware as well that not all readers (human not electronic) are static. I have a data plan, however it’s only good in Belgium where I live (have a fixed address that I where I have can have a mobile phone plan) I would be extremely discontent with an ebook that quit working when my train/airplane/boat left Belgian space or even worse resulted in thousands of euros in roaming charges. Perhaps in your world of the future I may (but given the nature of the near monopolies of internet service and mobile communication providers I sincerely doubt it) be able to have fast world wide affordable network connectivity — but that day is not now, nor in the near future.
        Secondly reading, as I and many others prefer it, is not a choose your own adventure book, I do not need dynamic content. I can surf the web for that and follow random links. And yes, sometimes this replaces, or supplements, my need for non-fiction books. But when reading fiction the goal is different.

        Yes, I’d like to see more consistent and complete metadata to enhance finding related material or search within my library for the type of book I’m interested in reading next, in a language I am comfortable with. But I want a book that is light, portable enough I can carry it with me at all times and I do not want ‘big brother’ watching everything I read and knowing that sometimes I read the last chapter first.

  3. Jani,

    I understand your frustration, but as all modern physists know, things tend to evolve from order to disorder in the arrow of time. So my advice is, don’t get caught too much into the term “Standards” because it’s probably not worth it.

  4. May I add there is one critical point we should take into account regarding EPUB?

    File quality. The average EPUB file quality is so low that we are building a crappy ecosystem. And IDPF is partly responsible as EPUB quality check is at best loose. Things have gone so wild that the IDPF could seriously kick some of its members’ arse.

    There are outsourcing companies which can’t even get basic HTML markup right (yeah, we all know a heading is actually a paragraph with a bigger font-size…). This is a serious issue, especially as the IDPF is all about accessibility those last months.

    This issue must be addressed as quickly as possible or EPUB is going to fail.

    There have been so many problems with EPUB 2 that some vendors decided to alter the unmanageable files they were provided with. And there is a CSS overrides extravaganza no one can ignore.

    If the same happens with EPUB 3, because of those outsourcing companies who just don’t care, then the entire ecosystem is bound to explode as it will just be impossible to manage the crap pile.

    That is I think something really important.

  5. Sorry, but this seems way off-base to me. The post seems to attack EPUB as if it was a business model, not an ebook file format. EPUB is simply a standard that attempts to replace all the proprietary formats that came before it. This is the kind of thing that standards are for. Issues regarding DRM, who authors it, who publishes the file, the rights of a person who purchases one, etc. All have nothing to do with EPUB per se.

    The real advantages of EPUB, much like any technical standard, are to prevent vendor lock-in, allow tool development effort to be unified, and acheive various economies of scale and uniformity.

    • You’ve missed my point.  EPUB is driven by the publishing industry and thus has all sorts of features and “advantages” geared squarely at the publishing industry.  My argument is that for authors and readers, HTML5 does a better job, and it’s a cheaper and more standardized for publishers as well — as long as they’re willing to wean themselves off the tit of pay-per-copy.  (Which is admittedly a large ask, but the alternative is oblivion.)

      • Since EPUB makes use of HTML5, I have to assume when you say “HTML5” here you are talking about presenting content as plain old web pages rather than as a packaged ebook. This is largely a matter of reader preference. An ebook, like a paper book, is a more constrained medium. While an ebook reader can do more than a paper book, it still paginates its content and provides a “book-like” reading experience. I think that’s what people like.

        If the market decides it doesn’t like the ebook reading experience and prefers to read content in scrollable web pages, then so be it. I am doubtful this is the case and none of this really says much about EPUB good or bad. It is just a file format.

        • There’s nothing stopping you from paginating content on the web, and most online newspapers and magazines already do this.  (Although usually in a half-assed way that requires both scrolling and changing pages, so they can cram in more advertising!)  My preference, though, is for scrolling, and this seems to be the new normal for today’s digital generation.

      •  In the meantime I’m still waiting for my local grocery store to wean itself off the tit of pay-per-loaf-of-bread.

        • But a loaf of bread isn’t easily reproducible in the way digital products are. A person can’t make infinite perfect copies of that loaf of bread at no cost like they can with a digital book.

          • You’re right Howard, but there’s certainly cost in an author spending two years writing a novel, and a musician recording an album, and a game studio creating “Call of Duty”, and Peter Jackson making “Lord of the Rings”.  As Margaret Atwood said a couple TOC’s ago “someone’s got to pay for the cheese sandwiches on which authors are known to exist”…. or else you won’t have Margaret Atwoods to enjoy.

          • couldn’t agree more – why should a book be free just because it’s digital? Textbooks, for example, involve a lot of research, writing, design and editorial work, these are first costs which have no bearing on whether the end digital product is easily reproducible or not.

          • If you can convince me of a good reason that people should buy books which are all blank pages then I might understand your argument.

            Do you think perhaps that when people buy print books, they are buying
            them for the content inside, rather than simply the paper on which they
            are written?

      • Coincidentally I happened to be wearing a T-shirt from one of the IA’s “Books in Browsers” conferences today. Thought provokiong conferences but even its attendees admitted they aren’t actually reading books in browsers. For short articles – sure the browser is fine, although increasing people are turning to apps like Pulse and Flipboard.. But the huge update in long-form reading that’s happened in the last few years – that’s led eBooks to outsell hardcovers – has been all about offline reading of packaged publications. And, overall time spent on the Web is decreasing, while time spent in apps has overtaken it and is growing faster. So it’s a bit hard for me to see that just putting books content out on URLs is the right answer for everything. I do think it’s the right answer for some things, but trends would seem to indicate that  portable documents and installed apps, both have a long life ahead of them. Increasingly all three delivery means (documents, apps, and websites) will be powered by HTML5 and other Web Standards – EPUB 3 is really just the document part  of that overall universal  platform story. Experiences will all be built on a browser engine, but they won’t all be constrained by the browser’s chrome.

        • Bill, with all due respect, I think the reason why none of us are reading books via browsers is that very few books are available in that format. If a new service opened tomorrow and had the breadth of Amazon with the content delivered by HTML5 I’d definitely check it out (and probably start buying there).

          • Joe, what are you smoking today? The breadth of Amazon with the content delivered by HTML5 is available *right now*:  every Kindle book can be read directly in their cloud reader. No need for their apps, much less their devices. And B&N has Nook for Web, Kobo has a cloud reader, Google Play Books is of course cloud-centric by design, etc. But, as a practical matter almost no one reads that way. So this is clearly not about availabilty it’s about the (inferior) experience presently delivered by in-browser reading.

            Another datapoint is O’Reilly itself. What % of dgiital reading of O’Reilly titles is done in Safari Books Online? A small and shrinking percentage, I bet. This isn’t an availability issue as all your titles are there, and I believe you even had SBO before you even started selling eBooks for download. 
            A third datapoint is library business. Netlibrary was doing browser-based library solutions before OverDrive even got into the game. Usage rapidly moved to the downloadable OverDrive solution even though initially libraries had fewer titles there. 

          • Hi Bill. No smoking here, I’m afraid. I should have stated two other attributes I’d want in that service I was describing: (1) It would give me free reign over the content, so no copy/paste or other DRM-like restrictions and (2) it would come from someone other than Amazon. 🙂 In short, what I’m asking for is a book that feels just like a series of web pages.

          • Sounds to me like you’re asking me, the author, to put in major work to write my book, pay to have my work edited, and pay for a book cover–which would still be needed as this is what we as readers want and are used to–and whatever other expenses arise, but you’re not willing to pay a dime for it. If that model is adopted, the only people who will be writing are the ones who are independently wealthy or have someone else to pay the bills. How do you propose an author pay to live if we can’t charge for our work?

          • Joe, your argument was “the reason that none of us are reading books via browsers is that very few books are available in that format”. I was just pointing out that this is false: all books sold via Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc. come with cloud-reading as an option, but precious very few use it. That they are choosing instead to read in DRM-constrained apps and (most) via Amazon also undermines your subsequent two points (as it relates to consumers in general, which is what I presumed you meant by “none of us”…).

  6. You realize that the ePub 2.0 standard is little more than a zipped HTML5/CSS3 site, right? That Pages/Chapters/eBooks can be uncompressed with simple utilities, created and/or revised with common HTML5-standard editors like Adobe Dreamweaver and then packaged/compressed to create new ePub documents, right?

    If HTML5 is the future you seek, it’s going to pull ePub standards right along with it.

    • Unfortunately that “little more” between HTML and EPUB is the difference between rendering nicely on all major browsers without effort, and not working out of the box on any of them and failing in unpredictable ways on various readers that do claim to support it.

      • Let’s deal with your second contention first: Various readers that claim to support ePubs don’t. Its that the fault of ePubs? Or is it the value of faulty readers? Apple’s iOS and Adobe’s Digital Editions ePub readers have never failed me, or failed to provide a rich media eBook environment. The ePub standard is well defined, and designed to deliver consistent results. It’s not the fault of well-formed ePub files if Fred’s Fancy eBook Reader screws up displaying them.

        Now, to the first: You’re not really going to allege that HTML renders consistently on all major browsers, are you? As someone who regularly hacks with HTML editors and pokes into HTML coding, I can assure you that’s not the case. I can tell you that getting a rich HTML5 site to display consistently across all major browsers takes A LOT of effort. If anything, the ePub standard better ensures an end result that will display consistently across well-designed readers.

        Now let’s get back to my point: That HTML5 (and more importantly, CSS3) is the engine that drives the ePub format, and all the tools you can use today to create a rich website will serve just as well developing ePubs. To put it simply, it ain’t an either/or proposition. That’s because both come along for the trip.

        • A plain HTML file will display better, more consistently and (much) more widely than the same HTML file wrapped up in an EPUB envelope.  Do you disagree?

  7. I think you are half right.  It is true, that EPUB/ebook is a woefully inadequate experiential framework.  Representing  virtual paper book is a pretty lame solution.  However, EPUB is a huge help as a container to support interoperability.  It is significant.  

    EPUB’s strength is as a packaging standard that includes: manifests, content, structure, key metadata,  style sheets, and embedded media.  As someone who has been wrestling with digital content across different platforms for the past 30 years or so, I really appreciate this.  

    You are correct when you state that “None of these [characteristics] is a unique advantage.”   However, there is no other format that provides these capabilities in a standard way, and all at the same time.  If you value content interoperability, you need a standard package.  EPUB is a pretty good way to start.

    EPUB is great container that makes life much easier.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly. Ebooks in their current form are containers for HTML content that pair books with proprietary bookstores and eReader devices. Meanwhile, the web browser already offers far greater functionality than ePub3. Why develop for a format that each vendor implements only partially? This is like the old days of Netscape vs. Internet Exploiter. Which eReaders support which features of your book? Crazy!

    More and more devices are web enabled (including eReaders) and wireless service coverage grows daily. The days of being required to hand 30% of a book’s sale price over to some bookstore are numbered. The days of huge limitations on added media are likewise coming to an end. EPub is a technological window of opportunity for corporate giants. Soon, readers will be able to pay to access an author’s books as they would any other web content. To make that content purchasable as a zipped archive of HTML5 content for offline reading will require a fairly short technological hop. I’m betting on the browser and resisting the corporate takeover of the open web.

    • Agree Dave. We are already well on our way with our HTML5 eReader (tekreader.com) for technical publications, or any other type of publication for that matter. XML content holds no prejudice to publication types.

  9. I had a five page response to this, but I decided it might be viewed as a rant. I think this argument is fatally flawed. It covers a lot of things–too many in too small a space.

    1) The author acknowledges that ePub is essentially HTML. Any HTML doc can be made into an ePub file. Enough said.
    2) DRM is voluntary. Since it is voluntary, just as websites can block access without a subscription, or similar, it is a red herring. The standard could be wonderful and widely adopted and this would be a non-issue.
    3) I can’t believe that an argument for “free” has to trot out Cory Doctorow. If you can’t find other examples for free FICTION making real money in other ways, then you don’t have much of an argument. DON’T use music as an example, until you show me “concerts” where people come to hear fiction writers.  Cory Doctorow makes some real money in no small part BECAUSE he is an icon.  HE admits that since he became known for this, others cannot use the same route to the same success.
    4) One breath says epub was for weak devices. The next breath says epub 3 is bloated (although still WAY thinner than PDF). The next breath after that says Moore’s Law (which is for integrated circuits, not memory, nor speed of access to memory) will solve the day if people use HTML…but wait, if everyone is using powerful devices, then that bloated argument is meaningless, isn’t it?
    5) MP3 did not provide a unique advantage. Neither does the QWERTY keyboard. Neither did VHS over Beta (other than VHS could initially handle 2 hours). Point: “unique advantage” rarely wins the technology race. The 8086 processor was uniquely bad compared to others, yet…

    The main point SEEMS to be what if the book is free. This point is lost by the false arguments and analysis having nothing to do with “what if the book is free” question.

    If a book is free, give an aspiring FICTION author some insight as to how they are going to make money writing–without using Cory Doctorow as an example. Bonus points: no one I have talked to wants to have ADS on their novel. If the book is free it has NOTHING to do with ePub being good or bad. The publishing industry DOES have a problem, but ePub has nothing to do with it.

    1) People are reading full length manuscripts less and less.
    2) People are reading fiction less and less.
    3) Publishers have not figured out a good model with electronic books and quite frankly when they moved toward some interesting models you get get the justice department blocking it.
    4) Books are not Music. You listen to music over and over. You go to concerts. You commit 3-5 minutes with a song.
    5) Marx was married to a rich woman. His agenda for the communist manifesto was different than making money. Some authors want to at least make a living at the art. FICTION.
    6) Entire spectrum of ways for an author to make money? REALLY? Let’s see one that does not assume you are the next Cory Doctorow. In the past it was a long shot for an author to make it big, BUT a number of authors could make a small living at it, and get some editing done. Lay out that spectrum for me that doesn’t involve charging SOME money, if the FICTION novel is free.

    • EPUB on paper is all fine and dandy, but in practice support is at the same level as HTML was in 1995: a mishmash of wilfully incompatible implementations.  And given how thoroughly EPUB2 support was mangled, I have no hope that support for the far more complicated EPUB3 will ever make it out of training pants.

      Re: your point 4, that’s exactly the point I’m making: EPUB was designed for weak devices, yet EPUB3 inhales all the complexity of HTML5 wholesale, meaning you need a full-fledged browser for it… except that no full-fledged browser actually supports EPUB3, meaning you might as well use HTML5 instead!

      Like you say, in the past it was a long shot for an author to make it big, and in the future it will continue to be a long shot for an author to make it big.  In fact, it will be a even longer shot, since the barriers to entry are being lowered so dramatically (publish for free! read for free!), but that’s all gravy for both the readers and the occasional author who does make it big.  How many great manuscripts lie undiscovered on a publishing house’s cutting floor?  And how many of them would have been found if they had been posted on a website?

      But yes, I should stop using the word “free”, since nobody seems to parse it correctly.  In the digital world, creating things continues to cost money (or time), and that has to be paid or volunteered; it’s only the distribution that’s unshackled.

  10. “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” 

    Agreed! And if you want to *directly* distribute the document, online via a URL, you may not need EPUB. But if you want to package that content so that you can distribute it via multiple channels, and so it can be used offline, you need more than HTML. EPUB is simply a set of guidelines for how to make web content (which of course isn’t just HTML but all kind of other specs that make up the Open Web Platform) into a reliable portable document (built on Web Standards and not being limited to exactly reproducing a paper document like PDF). And if you want global language support including vertical writing, and accessibility support, EPUB adds that to this portable document packaging of the Open Web Platform. Similarly Google “Packaged Apps” and Mozilla “Open Web Apps” are attempts to define similar things for apps (which unlike documents don’t necessarily have a linear structure, reading order, TOC, or other semantics that EPUB provides). If you argue we don’t need EPUB then do you also argue that we don’t need packaged apps? Or downloaded music, movies or games?

    I don’t happen to agree with you that helping authors and publishers monetize their work is illegitimate. It seems clear that if we don’t have an ecosystem in which creating premium content can be appropriately rewarded then we will have less of it to enjoy. But to me this is an entirely separate issue than EPUB having utility as the portable document packaging of Web Standards. PDF is limited to paper replica so it is certainly not the right portable document format for this century. EPUB may not be perfect – and it is painful that it is taking so long to leapfrog onto the real browser stack wtih EPUB 3 – but it is enabling publishing to gracefully evolve to the Web, and once we’ve moved to EPUB 3 we can stay curret with the Web Platform into the future (and eventually pare off the parts of EPUB legacy that we don’t need any more… someday that may even mean abandoning packaged downloadable files but I think we are quite a long way from that).

    • > But if you want to package that content so that you can distribute it
      > via multiple channels, and so it can be used offline, you need more
      > than HTML.

      Offline access can be entirely achieved using HTML5, and the only reason that ‘multiple channels’ might be an issue would be for users of devices with the peculiar anti-feature of not supporting a decent web browser.

      > If you argue we don’t need EPUB then do you also argue that we don’t
      > need packaged apps?

      Actually, we don’t.  Web apps are the way of the future, and increasingly feature-rich Javascript APIs will eventually render native apps entirely redundant.  Apple and Google need them to drive app store revenue, but customers mostly don’t and won’t at all in the future.

      > Or downloaded music, movies or games?

      Currently yes, but music and movies are nothing that better browser caching couldn’t solve.  WebGL will kill everything but high-end-do-you-have-the-latest-video-card gaming.

      > someday that may even mean abandoning packaged downloadable
      > files but I think we are quite a long way from that

      Agreed, but not for technological reasons.

      • So, you are saying each publisher sells their own books on their own site. They don’t give the files to iBooks or Amazon or Google. No other site can display the book. Users can’t read in native apps designed for reading.  Each publisher has their own reading UI that is likely ugly and different for each site.  What a beautiful vision you’ve got there. 😉

    • “f you argue we don’t need EPUB then do you also argue that we don’t need packaged apps? Or downloaded music, movies or games?”

      Yes, in fact I do argue precisely that, although due to the inherent complexity of apps/games and the sheer amounts of data for audio (music) and video (movies) the shift will take longer than it will for text.

      Also, I’m not sure where you pulled that “illegitimate” from.  This isn’t about moral choices, this is about market economics: if the actual cost of distribution is zero, trying to charge large amount of money anyway for distribution is simply not sustainable.  Which is precisely why the market is shifting towards direct distribution from that URL (no EPUB needed) instead of selling packaged bundles (which requires EPUB and a publishing industry).

  11. ePub and especially EPUB3 is a reasonable file format. I think you are confusing the current state of ePub readers with a problem in a file format. Also, it isn’t valid to criticize something unless you have a better solution. PDF isn’t it.

    But I do agree that readers are awful. Which is why I wrote my own. You can get it here in the Apple App store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/alice/id455584158?mt=12 It’s $5.

    I got tired of the horrible versions of ePub files from Project Gutenberg so I wrote a tool to convert a plain text file to an EPUB3 file that validates using the latest epubcheck. You can specify where to break for sections, edit the CSS, include a cover image. Text blocks convert to paragraphs automatically. You can add additional resources like fonts and images, but will need to insert html into the text to show the image or edit the css if you are setting a background-image. It automatically generates a Table of Contents and an ncx entry. kindlegen will convert the generated epub to a mobi file so you can read the book on a kindle. It’s $10. You can find it here at the Apple App store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hatter/id599454393?mt=12 This blog post http://bald-mountain.blogspot.com/2013/02/hatter-app-to-turn-text-files-into-epub.html talks a little more about the tool, and has a link to a copy of “Walden” that I generated using it.

    I use the tools together to verify that the book I’m making looks OK. So, for $15 you have a toolset for making a decent ePub book.

  12. From a publishing industry viewpoint, that’s pure crazy talk, because it demolishes their current business model.

    It’s also kind of a crazy model from the author’s point of view.  How do you propose writers support themselves if their books are given away free??

    • Most writers don’t support themselves with the current model. Most have other jobs (as researchers, professors, consultants) and, in fact, publish as a result of those jobs, rather than supporting their “writing habit” with outside work. The bulk of books published are not novels.

  13. Your arguments are misleading. EPUB is an open standard, which is also free (as in beer) to implement. The standard does not dictate that you have to make free versions of your content available, nor does it require you to include DRM. Like O’Reilly, you can charge money for your content, or you can give it away for nothing. EPUB helps you deliver the content. It’s an envelope without postage, and the contents are typically cash on delivery (COD). EPUB only restricts the formatting of the contents by making them adhere to widely available, open Web standards. While standards like EPUB may have their deficiencies, they are still more preferable than competing and conflicting proprietary formats.

  14. What we want? Plain content? Well formatted content? Interactivity? As a publisher, EPUB (and Mobi), is the most immediate solution to catch our cut on the business until our landing to Apps. Epub 3 Is our solution to “interactive” content, altough the only device that reads it properly is iPad.

  15. I just wanted to add a different perception for the reading experience between webpage and ereader. The ereaders are designed in a way that content paginated to look like a book. There are different type of readers found in this plant, where most of them learn or search new things in web and read them in webpage. This helps to know or learn as fast as their requirements need. But the book reading is an art of the literature. The literature should be differentiated from blogs. Webpage are fine for blogs, but I dont agree that it will give the same essence to literature. I agree that ePUB2 formats may not make more difference between webpage and eBooks, but the way ePUB3 is designed, it upgrades the literature industry to latest technology.

  16. I absolutely love this idea!! We have been developing ebooks for some time now, in the ePub format. And it has always been a challenge trying to make epubs work consistently for our buyers across multiple platforms. I think we will give your idea a chance.


    Leonard Fernandes


  17. As the comments point out, the technical aspects of this post are largely a red herring as EPUB is just a structured HTML standard that is useful both in reading systems, browsers, and web servers (e.g. “here’s where we’ll all put the TOC data”).  But if you replace all mentions of epub with mobi, or PDF, then it starts to make a little sense. The argument seems to be that  1) all books will be free in the future, and 2) people will read them in browser chrome vs ebook oriented reading systems (which employ browser engines). Both will likely be true  in part (already are – and will likely increase).  It is when we get into binary statements that we get into trouble.  Because, some people will continue to pay to read ebooks – in fact more than do today.  And people will continue to read in apps that are designed specifically for that purpose – in fact more than do today. Admittedly, that’s just my prediction, but at least it is consistent with current market trend data. The X is dead trick is usually tripe on any topic, but sometimes closer to reality (e.g. dedicated ereading devices) and sometimes less – e.g. this post.

  18. Apparently, I’m in the 4900 as I’ve written an app that will let you produce EPUB documents on an iPad. The format itself is just Strict XHTML + a couple of XML meta data files, and then packaged up in a ZIP file with any images your HTML needs. The format is not that cumbersome, though it includes a large number of optional meta data tags that are used for archival purposes.

    While I think your point on DRM may be spot on, the critiques of the standard are ignorant of the history of XML in publishing. HTML is actually a subset of the SGML that was used by typesetting software to help them more easily make stylized text in books and periodicals. XML is a more standardized and useful continuation of the same approach as SGML. Though this is changing, somewhat, from a publisher’s viewpoint, HTML is something you get from the XML after you’ve used the XML to make your book. EPUB is the same way. And the insistence on strict XHTML isn’t much of a problem since many publishers already validate their XML as part of the process of publishing.

  19. Hah, I just posted this to the wrong comment stream (duh)  Now the right place:There is user experience (e.g. UI), and how and where you enable that, and using what coding languages (HTML5, Objective C, etc).  There is where the content data is stored, and how it is structured – and related standards. There’s delivery and storage mechanisms; streaming, caching, download – and related standards.  Using Flipboard as an example:  I read my Twitter, Facebook, and news feeds in a native app (Flipboard) on a variety of OS devices – mostly because I like the UX, the content is stored in a distributed way on the web, distributed via RSS, and partially cached on my local device. The app has integrated browser views, used in a variety of ways, and invoked by the user, HTML5 is often used for page layout and interactivity in those browser views.  Hybrids of local and remote data, native and web code, proprietary and open – and standards are key. THIS is the future. 

  20. Hello friends, nice post and nice urging commented at this place, I am in fact enjoying by these.Shane Latham

  21. I like the idea of EPUB as a container for HTML5 et al., but that’s not the problem with this rant.

    Your link to ” The best interests of authors or readers simply do not figure in the equation” is actually a complaint about iTunes, cites “the web” as the solution, and claims that PDFs are doing a better job than EPUB. And your summary use case is “to reproduce a paper document with perfect fidelity” which is PDF. Neither are critical use cases for publishing today nor the future.
    The real use cases lie elsewhere. Books are not simply paper documents. Books contain stories, narrations, and guides that provide certain kinds of experiences for content consumers, and these use cases can be traced back to oral traditions. For your cited use case with iTunes, it might be better to look at the struggles of reaching universal formats that provide both usability and quality for audio and video. THAT’s what creators and consumers care about, not codec wars.

    Yes, EPUB3 is a grand vision for universal accessibility for packaged content based upon accepted web standards. That’s worthy of years of experimentation, development, and innovation  We have enough whining in the publishing industry, along with enough technical crud from the Adobe PDF format. Let’s move forward with real use cases that deal with content and context.

  22. There are business models for free ebooks, like https://unglue.it/ that depend on having a robust packaging model to enable zero-cost distribution. So the central thesis of this article is kaput.

    • Jani Patokallio

      Is there any reason Unglue.it has to use a packaging model?  You tout “you can put it on any device you want” as an advantage, but surely being able to just read from *literally* any Web-capable device, including those that don’t support EPUB, would be an even bigger advantage?

      • Creative Commons licensing has to be applied to something. It’s not the packaging per se that we need but the boundaries. So PDF and MOBI work too- it’s easy to define what is part of the book, and thus free licensed and redistributable, and what is not part of the book. We need website-in-a-package more than book-in-a-file, and that’s what EPUB is evolving towards.

  23. EPUB is a container format.  Comparing EPUB to HTML5 is like comparing hamburgers to hamburger patties.

    Compared to PDFs, EPUBs are smaller and hackable.  And, in the end, who really cares about pixel reproduciblity on a mobile reader or tablet?
    Compared to Kindle’s format, EPUBs are way more open and accessible.  Try to find the open source equivalent of Sigil.

    eBooks (in all formats) need to be published without DRM, because that’s the only way to fix all the silly errors resulting from converting existing print books.  You also can’t loan DRMed eBooks to friends, which encourgages them to be exposed to new authors and genres, which helps sales.  

  24. Great article, to me the problem is simply how do we monetise content. We already have the Youtube advertising model which gets the cash from advertisers. Why not a Spotify model to get cash direct from customer (or shared), i.e. £x per month for unlimited access to a library of books (maybe a good starting point for what should the x in £x be (?) could be the average monthly share of wallet on published books now. 

  25. I think the problem is not EPUB ( which is just a container ) but the rendering that is not standardized.
    The solution to have the same rendering across ebook platform, similar to how browsers offer consistent experience for web.

  26. EPUB is just a container facilitating the distribution. The real problem is why the rendering is not standardized. A web page is rendered the same way across all browsers because we all agreed on the standards alongside the rendering.
    We should do the same for EPUB. IDPF should provide rendering guidelines to ebook platforms

  27. ePub is great for start-ups like us at Jellybooks, because it ensures some level of consistency and a reasonable degree of interoperability with 3rd party reading systems and apps.

    We face fewer issues over how an ePub will render on one reading app  (say Bluefire) versus another (Readmill, Aldiko, Kobo, BN, txtr, Overdrive, etc.) as compared to how our website renders on Chrome versus Firefox (especially when it comes to fonts and typography, which – lets face it – makes up for a large part of the long-form reading experience, just rendering the simple question mark turned out to be challenge).Now HTML email on the other hand is a nightmare, every email reading system and every web mail provider has different mark-up and quirks making it a nightmare to design a good responsive email template to optimize sharing book samples and book recommendations among users.Yes there are situations where our users want to read in the browser, like a 30 second snippet to decide whether they want to download that ebook for later reading offline or to bypass the download process, because they have 15 minutes idle time right now and want to quickly read a chapter. That is a complimentary user experience to what ePub provides (though ePub is still the master content source for that HTML reader, too) and thus HTML reading systems make a lot of sense – where appropriate.ePub is a great packaging system. Publishing is an inherently slow and conservative industry. If there was no Pub it would be orders of magnitudes more difficult for us to have any dialogue with publishers,because thank-goodness, even Amazon accepts content form publishers as ePub.As a point in case look at Japan, where the ebook market was stifled until very recently. The market finally took off when a unifom system emerged with the adoption of ePub by Japanese publishers. Suddenly – and years after the United States – the market took off.ePub is great for long-form narrative fiction books (and in some areas of non-fiction, too). The situation may well be, and is likely to be, different for other categories, such as text book, travel guides (image, maybe even audio heavy), children’s books, etc. These categories may benefit from something other than ePub. All to often we think of book publishing as a single  uniform industry, which it is *not*.The famous QWERTY system may not be the most efficient system, but it allows us to focus on writing as opposed to figuring out how to type..Long live ePub!

  28. I must say that I have to disagree.
    EPUB3 is essentially HTML5 with packaging.
    As much as I know HTML5 although has provisions for offline reading, does not contain packaging mechanisms.
    I wrote a short article about it: http://www.heliconbooks.com/article/epub3vshtml5

  29. How do you propose to package all the stuff that goes with HTML in so it can be easily moved around and made to work offline? This is one of the major advantages of EPUB. 

  30. I prefer reading ebooks on my laptop. I have had three Nooks, they are mobile devices and frustrating to use (touch screens imply more than is actually there). My laptop is a MacBook and the Nook app will not work on MacBooks. Mobile ebook readers do not have the content capability of a laptop. I can have it all with Ebooks, EPUB and my laptop.

  31. i completed my b.tech and joined in epub developer shall i continue this job or quit which is better to lead a rich life

  32. Ok, I’m taking into account your disclaimer about personal views and your employer.

    Now, obviously, your views can only be the result of your work at this company.

    Sorry for saying that this way, but lonely planet ebooks are just terrible and it is not a format problem, it is a workflow –and possibly a human skills– problem. Technically, and designedly, they are not worth their price ever.

    How can some designers and publishers achieve great EPUB books? This equation revolves around tricks, a deep love for handcrafted products (if need be) and the pursuit of excellence, three concepts that don’t seem to be in lonely planet’s vocabulary. Sorry for being so crude but that is unfortunately true.

    Before ranting about EPUB, you should just ask yourself whether the people in charge of ebooks are the good ones or not and how your workflow can be improved.

    And I must also say that going Inkling won’t help as your ebooks have failed to show any sense of worthy digital ebook design. So I’m quite uncomfortable with this kind of rant from a person employed by a company which has spent those two last years publishing mediocre products –at best.

  33. As a guy who spends all his time writing his first novel, the last thing I want is to give away my work for free. I need to make this a living and that doesn’t happen when books are free.

    I agree with everything Paul Topping said.

  34. Not everyone wants to read self-published biographies, science fiction, poetry and html5 coding manuals. Publishers work to weed out the amateurish and stupid publishing projects. Only a software person (data plumber) doesn’t see the value added by publishers demanding and applying standards of quality in their publications.

  35. April 2012
    Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)
    Jani Patokallio
    … The shift will not be instant, and there’s still a good couple of years of life left in the e-book market before the alternatives work out the kinks of presentation, distribution and retailing. But e-readers will be obsolete in a few years, and once they’re gone, the sole weak advantage an e-book has over its future replacements will be gone. Any publisher banking on e-books being around 5 years from now is in for a rude surprise.

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