How Publishers Should Prepare for EPUB 3

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

The future of e-books is now.

The approval of a new coding language for e-books, developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), a global trade and standards organization for the promotion of electronic publishing, means that soon it will be a relatively simple matter for e-books to contain video, audio, dynamic content and all sorts of interactive features.

The catch? Many of the features of EPUB 3, as it’s called, can’t currently be rendered by most e-reading software. Meaning, if a book publisher created a new e-book using EPUB 3 to embed a Google map or a Twitter feed, the book wouldn’t work properly on most e-readers.

But that’s all about to change.

“2012 will be the year when retailers adopt EPUB 3,” said Bill McCoy, executive director of the IDPF.

For instance, Ingram Content Group, the country’s largest distributor of digital and physical books, said that its e-textbook reader, VitalSource Bookshelf, which is available as an application for the iPad, iPhone, Mac Windows, browsers, iOS clients, and Android in the near term, will begin to support EPUB 3 in April.

“VitalSource works with 200 education publishers, most of which are gearing up for EPUB 3,” said Rick Johnson, chief technology officer for VitalSource.

As more e-reader software supports more of EPUB 3, publishers need to prepare for changes in creative capabilities, workflow, hiring and, maybe most important of all, their relationship with booksellers.

Hear more about EPUB 3 and what publishers should do about it at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo in New York City from January 23 to 25.


The Coming Battle With Retailers

First the tech jargon, then the plain speak: EPUB 3 is built on HTML 5, which means that publishers can build JavaScript into their books.

This is significant, because JavaScript can theoretically be used to track e-book reader behavior, information publishers have coveted since the dawn of the Kindle age – and that retailers have refused to share.

“Retailers, like Amazon, are known for not disclosing certain information,” said McCoy. “Publishers would love to know that information.”

With EPUB 3, publishers should be able to build software into their books that tells them how much a reader reads, when they read and for how long, for starters.

While publishers should push hard to gather all the information retailers will allow, retailers may resist, citing security risks and privacy concerns, said McCoy.

But the terms of the conflict might change when retailers allow books to fetch remote data, like a dynamic Google map or an ad that changes at the whim of the publisher.

“Once you allow that, it’s very hard to limit,” said McCoy. “Some distribution channels will enable that kind of remote data access early in 2012. The question is when the top-end vendors do that. That will depend on competitive situations. Some may try to jump first. I don’t want to predict the moves in the game of Risk, but some of the vendors are more oriented at being open than others.”

Publishers might have an unlikely ally on their side: the specter of piracy.

“As you move into the world of HTML 5, interactivity is becoming the new DRM [digital rights management],” said Johnson, who helped craft the EPUB 3 language as part of a working group at IDPF. “As you enable new interactivity, you are making it harder for people to share the content; you have to have the whole book in order to use those rich features.”

As EPUB 3 is adopted, many of those “rich features” will require remote data calls.


New Paradigms in Sales and Marketing

If allowed, remote data calls through JavaScript embedded in an EPUB 3 e-book will open up a whole new world of customer information and customer interaction for book publishers.

Beyond being able to collect dynamic data from readers, publishers will be able to talk to readers, on the fly. The most obvious incarnation of this is advertising.

“JavaScript support allows the same kind of ad ecosystem as exists on the Web,” said McCoy, meaning that publishers can theoretically advertise anything at any time using ad space they develop in their books sold with such capabilities.

For instance, a book sold today might advertise a related book in the back-matter, plugs for new books that typically appear in the back of the book. If that ad were served through JavaScript, publishers would know just how readers responded to it, and if response wasn’t what was hoped for, they could change or adjust the ad for better results.


New Ways of Thinking About Content

As tablet and smartphone adoption increases, readers will expect richer features from books.

“Users want features. They want eye candy, they want sharing,” said Johnson.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that publishers should seek to add features haphazardly to their current pipeline of e-books. Publishers should think more holistically about their content.

“Publishers are going to need to think about their content as a more malleable asset,” said McCoy. “If you’re doing a novel, you don’t think of it as only a hardcover.”

With the proliferation of devices and screen sizes, publishers need to consider all of the different kinds of places their content could appear – and both compensate and take advantage of those different venues.

“It’s not just about tablets. EPUB 3 is going to live in browsers, in native applications,” and publishers that try to get their content onto screens of all sizes – and looking good – will be ahead of the curve, said Johnson. Scripts, or bits of code that answer questions for a piece of software, that can be built within EPUB 3 will allow publishers to optimize one piece of content for multiple screens, he added.


New Workflows

Publishers that want to build new kinds of reading experiences need to think about what new features they want to add to their books at the earliest possible stage.

“They need to figure out how they want their books to sing and dance,” said Eric Freese, until recently a solutions architect at Aptara, a Falls Church, Va.-based e-book production house; he was also part of the working group at IDPF that developed EPUB 3 and is now an information architect at Amsterdam-based health publisher Elsevier. “Do they want audio and video added in? If so, they need to be thinking about that at creation time, not publication time. The earlier the better. By thinking about it early, you’re more nimble and flexible with what you can do at the end.”

For those publishers that haven’t quite mastered the art of quality assurance (QA), EPUB 3 will bring fresh challenges, ones that should be addressed by changes in workflow.

“With EPUB 3, you have the capability to style things differently and have things adjust to layout,” said Johnson. “You have to make sure you have all the basics down. I encourage publishers to have a good way to do QA work.”


Hiring New, Expensive Workers

EPUB 3 is built on HTML 5. A relatively new coding language, HTML 5 isn’t yet a common skill for developers. And where there’s scarcity, there’s cost.

“If you’re doing children’s books or cookery or anything that needs to take advantage of interactivity, HTML 5 is going to be the core building block and that’s the core skill that publishers need to make sure they have in house or an outsourced relationship that they can count on as a business partner,” said McCoy.

Publishers will need to hire more in-house staff, said Johnson. They will either need to build their own HTML 5 development teams or at least hire a knowledgeable liaison for any vendors they work with.

“With this enhanced digital content, they [publishers] will need to grow the skills and capabilities of their staff,” said Johnson. “They will also demand more from their vendors.”

Building it or buying it, engaging an HTML 5 development team is a costly proposition.

According to, the median salary for a Web applications developer in New York is nearly $95,000. And that’s for people whose skills may not even reach the high level necessary for top HTML 5 development.

And that doesn’t factor in the recruitment costs. Good developers are hard to come by, with the unemployment rate for technology workers under 4% for most of 2011 and companies like Google, Facebook and hot startups duking it out for top talent.

As EPUB 3 gains support among reading platforms and devices, publishers will face a time of difficult change. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“As the adoption of digital continues to accelerate, many of the problems that have emerged – workflow for publishers, expectations of readers – are addressed by EPUB 3,” said Johnson.

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

Hear more about EPUB 3 and what publishers should do about it at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo in New York City from January 23 to 25.


12 thoughts on “How Publishers Should Prepare for EPUB 3

  1. Mayowa

    “With EPUB 3, publishers should be able to build software into their books that tells them how much a reader reads, when they read and for how long, for starters.

    While publishers should push hard to gather all the information retailers will allow, retailers may resist, citing security risks and privacy concerns, said McCoy.”

    I’d be more worried about consumers than retailers. That sounds very much like the beginning of a PR nightmare re: Facebook tracking, Google+ searches , Carrier IQ etc.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      That’s a great point, Mayowa. One of the concerns brought up by my sources was privacy. How would consumers react if they thought their Kindle was tracking them?

      The truth is, it already much of what publishers would want to know. The retailers don’t share the information with publishers, generally, and this is a point of contention between the two sides.

      What EPUB 3 will allow is for publishers to build programs that gather the information for them, bypassing retailers. Will retailers support such functionality? That remains to be seen.

      Jeremy Greenfield

  2. RH Wright

    “Users want features. They want eye candy, they want sharing,” said Johnson.

    No, NO, NO! And this statement is a sweeping assumption based on users of tablets and smartphones, not readers using reader-centric devices such as the Kindle, Nook, etc.

    Readers want more (i.e. backlist) title availability, improved editing and proofing of those conversions, and more reasonable pricing from publishers.

    Shiny bells and whistles are for the attention-deprived and app-obsessed.

    In addition, the suggested implications for marketing and tracking reading activity are a complete invasion of the very private act of reading and are something I, and I believe many others, DO NOT WANT.

    About the only positive I took from this is that there is a nice paycheck out there if I learn HTML5.

  3. Lord P

    “With this enhanced digital content, they [publishers] will need to grow the skills and capabilities of their staff,” said Johnson.

    Why does the International Digital Publishing Forum think that people who actually read BOOKS want \enhanced digital content\?

    Did they ask anyone?

    I promise that I will never, under any circumstances, buy any ‘enhanced’ ebooks. No way. I’ll go a bit further, if I own an ebook reader that goes along with this I will destroy it and go back to paper books.

    Reading, if done properly, is a very immersive act. I cannot imagine reading a book and having some ‘enhancement’, or even an icon to choose the ‘enhancement’ break my concentration.

    A very bad idea and one I hope gets buried very quickly.

  4. Reading Solo

    Who wants a book with Big Brother embedded into it? One of the reasons I got my e-reader is because I was thinking, ahh, at last a device for us INTROVERTS. I will take my books without enhancements(cough)spyware thank you very much. Text on a b&w e-ink screen with a TOC is fine and dandy for me.

  5. Fred

    This whole article is just some marketroid’s wet dream.

    Eye Candy! Sharing! Rich Content! All the hackneyed, meaningless, marketroid buzzwords. And, most important of all, Tracking! and the greatest word in their vocabulary – Advertising!

    Not from me. Not ever. And not from anyone who’s not a gum chewing, Facebook dwelling, Twittering idiot, and most of them don’t read books 😉

    People who do read books won’t want anything to do with this abomination. So unless you can invent a whole new category of Web 2.0 users who actually read more than 140 characters at a time then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Can’t say I’m sorry.

  6. Dana Paxson

    I think authors and publishers are right now in exactly the same boat. We all want to make money. We all want to publish. But the tools we have don’t let us do both with any assurance of reliable profit in the e-book world – not yet.

    I wear three hats right now: author, inventor, publisher. I write fiction and nonfiction. I invent and patent e-pub software and its outputs. And I publish what I write using what I invented. It’s the whole package, except for one thing: market reach. That’s what the publishing industry has as its great lever in the business, for now. Whether or not that lever will stay in the hands of today’s publishers is a critical question.

    Debates over JavaScript’s advantages in tunneling information to the publisher from the reader are premature, as far as I’m concerned. Likewise the debates over control of rights. We are just not there yet. We may find that \there\ isn’t where we think it is.

    For my part, thinking about where we’re going is shifting to a model that uses volatility, not permanence, as its underlying assumption about e-books. This means that it’s not the set-in-print permanence that works in the digital realm, but instead the fluid, where’s-the-next-installment, are-there-any-updates dynamic that today serves the software industry so well. Permanence and print go hand in hand; mutability and electronic do likewise. Trying to make the print model work as the standard in the ephemeral digital realm is doomed to failure.

    Thus my work. I invite the curious to take a good look at it. I couldn’t wait. Latest/Website/RandomPlunge.htm

  7. Mario

    I agree with RH Wright, most people who read books don’t care about eye candy and all those interactive features. They just want books!



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *