O’Reilly’s journey to EPUB 3

Upgrading to EPUB 3 is not a trivial undertaking

We at O’Reilly are very pleased to announce that we have officially upgraded to EPUB 3, and ebook bundles purchased from oreilly.com will now include EPUB 3 files, in addition to Mobi and PDF files. All O’Reilly ebooks released in 2013 are now available in EPUB 3 format, and in the coming weeks, we will be updating and rereleasing our backlist ebooks in EPUB 3 as well.

But while we’re excited to share this news, this article is not merely a press release. The decision of when and how to upgrade to EPUB 3 has been challenging for many in the publishing community, and it has been a long journey for O’Reilly as well. I’d like to talk more about why we chose to take this step now, what additional value we believe EPUB 3 provides to our customers, and the challenges and tradeoffs we’ve tackled in making our EPUBs backward compatible with EPUB 2 platforms.

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Are we over-thinking EPUB?

The future of the book is inherently linked to the browser

One common misnomer I have come across is that EPUB3 is ‘a technology’ – something in and of itself. I believe this category mistake is largely a result of the the IDPF’s (the organisation that maintains EPUB3) success in promoting EPUB as a ‘standalone’ technology to the publishing world.

While all content is trending towards CSS and JavaScript, the core technologies of the browser, it seems a little weird to position EPUB as being a collection of things that do something different from what browsers do. The nuance might not be clear so here goes…

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Math typesetting

Why are we leaving such an important issue to under-resourced volunteers and small organisations?

Typesetting math in HTML was for a long time one of those ‘I can’t believe that hasn’t been solved by now!’ issues. It seemed a bit wrong – wasn’t the Internet more or less invented by math geeks? Did they give up using the web back in 1996 because it didn’t support math? (That would explain the aesthetic of many ‘home pages’ for math professors.)

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Ebook problem areas that need standardisation

A user experience plea for more consistency across platforms

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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.

What’s new with EPUB?

EPUB3 is a big step forward but we haven't seen all the benefits it has to offer

This month’s TOC theme is “formats.” Even though our customers still tend to favor PDF it’s clear that mobi and EPUB are the formats with all the momentum. In order to get the scoop on EPUB I decided to go right to the source. The IDPF is the organization that develops and maintains the EPUB standard and Bill McCoy is the IDPF’s Executive Director. Bill was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about the current state of EPUB and where it’s heading.

Key points from the full audio interview (below) include:
  • HTML5’s impact — EPUB3 is based on HTML5 and brings with it all the rich functionality that HTML5 has to offer. Global language support and accessibility are two very important improvements in EPUB3.
  • Why do we need both EPUB3 and HTML5? — Bill points out that EPUB is a “reliable container” within which HTML5 content can be distributed. EPUB also allows you to step back from HTML5 coding and focus more on the structure of the document itself.
  • Fixed layout — PDF is designed with fixed layout in mind whereas EPUB not only supports fixed layout but it also offers the reflowable option as well as a hybrid solution for those situations where both fixed and reflowable are needed in the same product.
  • 12 years in the making — I’m puzzled over why it’s taking so long for EPUB3 support to show up on devices and in apps. Bill reminds me it was a pretty significant jump from EPUB2 to EPUB3 but that we’re already seeing signs of significant progress.
  • Beyond today’s EPUB3 — Bill prefers to focus on EPUB3 but I did manage to pry a few details from him about what we can expect in the future: Advanced fixed layout (e.g., Manga), adaptive layout (page templates), dictionaries, indexes and annotations.

For more information be sure to download a copy of our free ebook, co-published with the IDPF, What Is EPUB3? If you’re attending the Frankfurt Book Fair you’ll also want to register for TOC Frankfurt to hear Bill and I debate the pros and cons of DRM. (Are there really any DRM pros?!)

You can listen the entire interview in the audio player below.

HTML5 is the way forward

HTML5 is the way forward

HTML5 solves today's single-source file, compatibility and rendering problems


Our TOC theme for August was platforms and we transition to the theme of formats in September. In a couple of earlier interviews we talked about the future of iOS and Android as publishing platforms. I also wrote a piece about how the ultimate winner isn’t actually a platform at all. It’s time to bring in an expert and tell us whether HTML5 really is the future of publishing, both as a platform and a format.

I picked one of the smartest people I know for the job. His name is Sanders Kleinfeld and he’s a publishing technology engineer here at O’Reilly. That’s a fancy way of saying he knows digital publishing inside out. Sanders has worked extensively with HTML5 and is the author of our free ebook, HTML5 for Publishers.

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Responsive eBook Content

Responsive design isn't just for margins and font size; here's one way to rethink content display for multiple reading devices

Joe’s post about graceful ebook degradation inspired me to share an example of responsive content that I thought of while brainstorming with my ebook dev colleagues here at O’Reilly.

Much of the way authors present content is based on what they know is possible with the printed page. But the page has changed—it’s no longer the rigid, rectangular object it once was. It’s important to think about how best to present your content given these new boundaries—one of the key aspects being that these boundaries change. The same reader might look at your content on a large monitor at work, and then switch to her mobile phone on the train home.

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Portable Documents for the Open Web (Part 2)

Why PDF is not the future of portable documents

Part 1 of this three-part series argued that there will be an enduring need for portable documents even in a world that’s evolving towards cloud-based content distribution and storage. OK fine, but we have PDF: aren’t we done? The blog post from from Jani Patokallio that inspired this series suggested that “for your regular linear fiction novel, or even readable tomes of non-fiction, a no-frills PDF does the job just fine”. In this second part I take a hard look at PDF’s shortcomings as a generalized portable document format. These limitations inspired EPUB in the first place and are in my opinion fatal handicaps in the post-paper era. Is it crazy to imagine that a format as widely-adopted as PDF could be relegated to legacy status? Read on and let me know what you think.

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Portable Documents for the Open Web (Part 1)

What role does EPUB play in the cloud-centric world?

Having been involved for over two decades with the intersection of technology and publishing, I’m looking forward to being an occasional writer for the TOC blog. At Joe Wikert’s invitation, I’m starting out with my personal vision for the future of portable documents and the Web, including the relationship between EPUB 3, HTML5 and PDF. This post is the first in a three-part series. Part two can be found here and part three here.

What’s up with HTML5 and EPUB 3? (and, is EPUB even important in an increasingly cloud-centric world?)

EPUB is the well-known open standard XML-based format for eBooks and other digital publications, based on HTML and CSS. EPUB is the primary distribution format for B&N Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Sony Reader, and many other eBook platforms, and is supported by Amazon as an ingestion format for Kindle (whose distribution format is proprietary).

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HTML5: The platform-agnostic key to the future of publishing

HTML5: The platform-agnostic key to the future of publishing

Brian Fling on his company PinchZoom Press and why he built it atop HTML5.

In this TOC podcast, PinchZoom Press founder Brian Fling talks about why he chose HTML5 over EPUB3. He says HTML5 is more platform agnostic. Fling also says native apps are here to stay, so building for multiple platforms will continue to be necessary.