ENTRIES TAGGED "EPUB"
Accessibility is a feature every publisher needs to own and implement
Since adding the accessible DAISY format to our ebook bundles in late 2010, we’ve seen a slow but steady uptick in customers downloading and using these files. In looking at downloads month to month in 2012, we find that downloads are routinely into the high hundreds and often over the thousand mark (for more data on which formats O’Reilly customers are downloading, check out Joe’s post from earlier this year).
The Android ecosystem shares some of the same obstacles
Ebook vendors enjoy a closed loop ecosystem. They have millions of reader/customers who are satisfied with EPUB 2 display capabilities and devices. Amazon readers, for example, are largely content with the offerings in the proprietary Kindle store; they’re not lining up with torches and pitchforks to push for improvements. While publishers wait for eReader device manufacturers to add new features and EPUB 3 support, eBooksellers are just as happy to wait.
This DIY ebook construction tool could have much broader potential
I recently watched a couple of episodes of The Men Who Built America on The History Channel. Although I learned a lot about John D. Rockefeller, for example, I wanted more. I thought about looking for a good ebook about Rockefeller but decided instead to head over to the Wikipedia.
Like most historical icons, Rockefeller’s Wikipedia page is fairly extensive. It offered more than I was able to read at that moment and there were other people in the series I wanted information on as well. That’s where the Wikipedia’s EPUB export feature came into play. If you haven’t heard about this it’s probably because it didn’t generate a lot of buzz when it launched a couple of months ago. I think it’s one of the most under-appreciated features of the Wikipedia and offers plenty of lessons for all content producers and distributors.
In a few very simple steps I was able to quickly and easily create my own EPUB file featuring bios of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas A. Scott. You can download my custom ebook here. I copied it over to my Nook and have been reading pieces of it each evening as time permits.
It’s one thing for someone to go in and create their own custom Wikipedia ebooks but what I don’t see through this service is a way to share your creation with others. The Wikipedia should offer a site where users can discover and download other custom ebooks created by others who have similar interests. Think of it as a Wikipedia playlist.
When will the book publishing industry offer something like this? You could argue we already have it with a service like Valobox. Their pay-as-you-go model is terrific but (a) not many publishers have warmed up to it yet and (b) the content isn’t 100% freely available before you buy. With the Wikipedia model I can read as much as I want online before I ever bother splicing together a custom ebook. It’s still free to download, of course, but what if the Wikipedia introduced a modest fee for downloads (99 cents)? Or, what if they inserted ads in those downloads and monetized the content that way? Why couldn’t a traditional publisher do the same?
A platform where your content is totally free to access online and includes a self-service option to create your own customizable, portable version doesn’t seem like a viable model today. Then again, streaming music subscription models didn’t seem viable a few years ago but look at how popular they’re becoming.
Here’s a thought: B&N should create that Wikipedia playlist idea I mentioned earlier. They could offer all those custom ebooks, just like my Rockefeller/Carnegie/Scott one, to their customers. Creators could set a price for their ebooks but free is a better option. B&N uses the EPUB format so the output would flow nicely into the Nook ecosystem. It would also be a great way for B&N to get some lift from Wikipedia’s traffic, especially if a “send to B&N” button could be added to the EPUB creation process.
A user experience plea for more consistency across platforms
Ebook publishing is full of problem areas, most of which cannot be addressed through standardisation but can only come about via a sea-change in the behaviour and nature of the various participants in the ebook industry.
There are, however, several issues that could be addressed, at least partially, via standardisation, that would make everybody’s life easier if implemented.
One of the major issues facing publishers today is the spiralling complexity of dealing with vendor rendering overrides.
Each vendor applies different CSS overrides with differing behaviours, sometimes even only enabling features through server-side manipulation, which means that proper testing of an ebook is not only difficult, but impossible.
If vendors cannot be talked out of requiring these overrides then they need to be standardised and normalised. Any reading system that implements a CSS override is in violation of how the CSS standard defines the cascade and so is in violation of the EPUB 3 standard.
CSS overrides come in four broad types:
- Vendor styles only — The publisher’s styles are completely ignored in favour of the vendor’s.
- Aggressive vendor styles, but publisher styles enabled — Very little is seen of the publisher styles in this scenario. They mainly surface in edge cases that weren’t accounted for in the vendor’s stylesheet.
- Minimal overrides — The vendor only really enforces control over margins, backgrounds, and possibly font styles.
- Publisher styles — The mode that the reading app goes into when the reader deliberately selects ‘publisher styles’. Under ordinary circumstances this would simply disable the overrides but in most reading apps this mode has a unique behaviour.
But first we have to break a bad habit and embrace HTML5
I typically get a sympathetic look when I tell people I work in the book publishing industry. They see what’s happened with newspapers, they realize many of their local bookstores have disappeared, and most of them have heard about the self-publishing revolution. The standard question I’m asked is, “wow, isn’t this a terrible time to be a book publisher?” My answer: “We’re in the midst of a reinvention of the industry, and I can’t think of a better time to be a book publisher!”
Sure, there’s plenty of volatility in our business but we have an opportunity to not only witness change, but embrace it, as well.
With that in mind, there are the first two of four key areas that make me so enthusiastic about the future of this business: pricing and formats.
You might be wondering why pricing tops my list, particularly since we seem to be in the midst of a race to zero pricing. First, Amazon set the customer’s expectations at $9.99, and now some of the most popular ebooks are free or close to free. Amazon routinely sells ebooks at a loss so that they can offer customers the lowest price, and the agency model isn’t turning out to be the silver bullet for falling prices many hoped it would be.
Despite this, I firmly believe publishers are to blame for low ebook prices, not Amazon (or anyone else). After all, we publishers are satisfied with quick-and-dirty print-to-ebook conversions, where the digital edition doesn’t even have all the benefits of the print one. Ever try loaning an ebook to someone? How about reselling it? Of course customers are going to assume the price should be lower in digital format!
We need to break the bad habit of doing nothing more than quick-and-dirty p-to-e conversions and look at new strategies to reverse the declining pricing trend. I’m talking about rich content.
Let’s work on integrating features in the digital product which simply can’t be replicated in the print version. Once we start creating products that truly leverage the capabilities of the devices on which they’re read, I believe we’ll end the race to zero pricing.
If you’re a publisher, you’re forced to deal with mobi files for Amazon, EPUB for almost all other e-book retailers, and probably PDF as well. Despite all the sophisticated tools and techniques we can access, it still requires extra work to deliver content in all these formats, especially as specs change and capabilities are enhanced.
Fortunately for us, help is on the way, and its name is HTML5. I believe that in the not too distant future, we’ll be talking less about mobi and EPUB as we focus more of our attention on HTML5. After all, HTML5 is one of the core file formats on which EPUB 3 and KF8 (Amazon’s next-gen format) are built. Additionally, HTML5 already supports many rich content capabilities we need to address the pricing opportunity noted earlier. HTML5 is supported by all the popular web browsers, so there’s no need to wait for mobi or EPUB readers and apps to offer richer content support; let’s just use the underlying technology capabilities of HTML5 and turn every browser into a reading app.
In the second part of this discussion I’ll share the other two reasons why I’m so excited about publishing’s future: direct channels and evolving tools.
Why switch to EPUB when you control the mobi/KF8 spec and user experience?
A couple of weeks ago I interviewed the IDPF’s Bill McCoy about the current state of EPUB. As I mentioned in that conversation, EPUB is the format used by pretty much every device not named “Kindle.” But since the Kindle format is the most popular I wanted to get an update on it as well, so I managed to grab a few minutes with industry expert Joshua Tallent, founder and CEO of eBook Architects.
Key points from the audio interview include:
- Beware of auto-conversions — They tend to lead to the most common problems in Kindle-format books. Some hands-on work is required for just about everything except the most basic content formats.
- Amazon and EPUB — They accept it on the content ingestion side but Joshua feels Amazon benefits so much from their proprietary format that it’s unlikely they’ll ever switch to a more open solution like EPUB.
- HTML5’s role — Yes, HTML5 is already used by KF8 and EPUB, but Joshua feels HTML5 will always require a container to define, manage and control the content and that HTML5 isn’t a viable standalone solution, at least not in the short term.
- Enhancements required — Fixed layout capabilities are at the top of Joshua’s wish list but he also notes a few features of EPUB 3 he’d like to see implemented in Amazon’s format.
Two experts help us navigate the ebook format jungle
One of the benefits of working on TOC is that I get to see some of the behind-the-scenes industry debates that take place via email. Since it’s “formats” month here in TOC-land I thought it would be fun to share a thread about HTML5 vs. EPUB 3 featuring O’Reilly’s Sanders Kleinfeld and the IDPF’s Bill McCoy. They’ve both agreed to share this thread with the TOC community since it helps clarify the state of both EPUB 3 and HTML5.
It all started with an HTML5 interview I did with Sanders earlier this month. Bill reached out to Sanders as follows:
Your mileage may vary, especially on the Nook
I also agree with you that Web-technologies-based apps are the future for experience delivery, both in browser and increasingly for native-class apps that are liberated from the browser (whether wrapped in PhoneGap or CEF, W8 Metro apps or the new Chrome Packaged App model Google rolled out this summer at I/O).
Sanders: Yes, I think what I find so frustrating is that we’ve got tablets on the market like the Nook, which use two different engines to render Web content–one for the Web browser and one for the ereader–and the ereader is lagging so far behind the browser in HTML5 support. The ereader is being treated like a second-class citizen, even though it’s ostensibly the primary feature of the tablet (or at least the primary feature by which the tablet is being marketed; I concede that there are many people buying the Nook who just want a low-cost Android tablet, and have no intention of reading ebooks on it).
One of the things I appreciate most about iBooks is that it uses the same Webkit engine as Mobile Safari, and if you test the same HTML5 content in Safari and in iBooks, you usually get the same results.
Distinguishing apps from ebooks
Bill: But… despite all this violent agreement… I’m having a hard time with your contention in the interview that “a lot less is going to fall in the eBook side than it does now for enhanced text and graphics… anything that’s more enhanced is going to drift over to the app side… we’ll have our standard EPUBs for fiction/nonfiction and then biology textbooks will be on the other side”. That’s what I want to probe on in this email.
Sanders: I’ve thought about this quite a bit after my initial conversation with Joe, and I think the debate of “ebook” vs. “app” can be pretty facile if you’re not careful about how you define those somewhat loaded terms. And I think I failed to do a good job of that in my interview. So let me step back and try to do better now.
I think Phase 1 of ebook creation for publishers was basically, “Let’s take all our print books and digitize them so they can be read on a Kindle or iPad”, without much in the way of innovation in terms of interactivity, customized rendering for a reflowable context, or even hyperlinking.
I think we’ve now graduated to Phase 2, where publishers are thinking, “How can we make customized digital content for tablet devices, instead of plain-old text-and-graphics ebooks? Do I make an ‘app’ or do I make an ‘enhanced ebook?'” I think publishers are generally taking two approaches to this:
Approach #1: Hire on software developers to make full-fledged native apps they can sell in the app stores for iPad/iPhone/iPad and Android (lots of these are children’s titles, e.g. “Finding Nemo: My Puzzle Book“)
Approach #2: Make an “enhanced ebook”, which takes the standard Phase 1 text-and-graphics context, and then grafts on some multimedia features, like audio and video clips (here I’m thinking of the Steven Tyler memoir “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You (Enhanced Edition)“, which was featured prominently in Ana Maria Allessi’s talk at Editech)
I’m rather against Approach #2, because I don’t think it’s especially innovative, and I don’t think it’s what customers really want out of next-generation e-content. I feel like the whole notion of “enhanced ebooks” is somewhat of a transitional concept, as publishers start making baby steps in rethinking how they produce content for a Digital First world. In the long term (next 5 years or so), I think a large part of the “enhanced-ebook” middle ground is going to go away, and ebook content is going to fall more neatly into one of two categories:
Category 1: The standard text-and-graphic content that you can read on even the lowest-end eInk ereader (because I don’t think all-text fiction/nonfiction is ever going to go out of favor)
Category 2: Everything else, which will be more and more app-like in the sense that it will be highly interactive, to-some-degree social (commenting, linked to Facebook/Twitter, etc.), and conceived from the start for a Web context (densely hyperlinked, with sophisticated mechanisms to search content and navigate it in a nonlinear fashion)
So, that’s what I was getting at above; I just wish I had articulated it better in my interview.
That’s just part one, folks. Stay tuned later this week for excerpts from the rest of the thread where Bill and Sanders talk further about the subtleties of EPUB 3, HTML5 and web apps.