EPUB3 Key to Growing Illustrated Ebooks Internationally?

There’s no shortage of publishers ready to declare illustrated ebooks a lost cause, at least until further notice. But according to one Japanese publisher speaking at the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) at Book Expo America in New York City today, there are two reasons to hold out hope: international markets and EPUB3.

Related: One Idea to Save Illustrated Ebooks

If EPUB3 is more widely adopted, said Osamu Yoshiba, executive director for the digital and international business divisions of Kodansha, Ltd., “publishers like us will easily publish any kind of content in ebooks,” not just comics.

How come? Take a look at Japan.

The country’s flourishing anime and manga culture made it a uniquely receptive market for illustrated ebooks even before the adoption of EPUB3. But in the two years since two leading trade groups collaborated to advance industry-wide standardization of the format in Japan, the growth of the ebook market there accelerated dramatically.

Today EPUB3 represents just over 51% of all ebook file formats in use among Japanese publishers, according to Yoshiba. To be fair, about 80% of the ebooks in the Japanese market are comics. Nearly 80% of those are now published in EPUB3. The reason, as Yoshiba sees it, is that there’s no comparable system for facilitating global distribution while supporting complex illustrated content.

It’s unlikely digital comics will ever come to dominate the ebook markets of Europe or the United States with anything approaching those proportions. But just because Japan represents such an outlier, Yoshiba said, there’s no reason to believe international markets for illustrated ebooks can’t also grow significantly. In North America, Kobo, iBooks and Nook all distribute EPUB3 ebooks, as do a large number of French publishers and publishers throughout Asia, particularly in Taiwan.

Not everyone sees EPUB3’s potential the way Yoshiba does. Ivan Herman, digital publishing activity lead at the Web standards organization W3C, who also spoke at the the IDPF conference this morning, argued that EPUB3 continues to favor the interests of publishers and the industry’s biggest digital service providers — “the Jouves and Aptaras of this world” — over those of readers. Herman advocates the adoption of Web-based standards instead.

Liza Daly, vice president of engineering at Safari Books Online, who joined a panel with Herman, agreed, adding that EPUB3 continues to pose challenges for retailers. “It’s still complicated to produce the interesting kinds of content that it enables,” she said. “We’re stagnating now. EPUB3 came out a few years ago and we’re still talking about it like it’s a thing to come.”

There’s one place, though, were Daly admitted EPUB3 had overcome those challenges and made remarkable strides, both in terms of content and delivery: Japan. The question now is whether that exception proves the rule, or breaks it.

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