Exploiting the Full Potential of the EPUB3 Format

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Exploiting the Full Potential of the EPUB3 FormatIf you are a publisher of books that are not strictly narrative, are your ebooks a mirror image of your print books? Or have you taken advantage of the capabilities that the EPUB3 format provides to offer readers an enhanced reading experience?

Ebooks, in rudimentary form, have been around since the 1980s, predating many of today’s young ebook readers. In the 1990s, ebook publication was primarily limited to scholarly publications. Later on, in 2000, Stephen King published an ebook-only novel, later also available in print. Although Sony released the first dedicated ebook reader in 2004, most people associate the birth of ebooks with the 2007 launch of Amazon’s Kindle, followed closely by the launch of Barnes & Nobles’ Nook in 2009 and Apple’s iPad in 2010.

As the market for dedicated ebook readers was developing early in this millennium, a parallel development effort was underway for ebook formats. The book industry, hoping to avoid a format war, similar to what occurred with Betamax vs. VHS in the 1980s, and Blu-ray vs. HD DVD in the 1990s, formed a consortium—the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)—to develop a ubiquitous open ebook format. The Open Ebook Forum, the forerunner of the IDPF, actually began work on a standardized format in 1999, and the Open Ebook Publication Structure (OEBPS) was created that year.

In 2005, work was initiated to produce a more robust format, leading to the birth of the EPUB2 in 2007. Spurred on by the explosive growth of the ebook market and the increasing sophistication of e-readers, work was undertaken in 2010 to more closely align EPUBs with HTML and CSS, adding more features to the format. This led to the release of the EPUB3 format in October, 2011.

EPUBs are zipped files that are essentially an entire website. They contain multiple elements, including HTML files, images, CSS style sheets and metadata. They can be read on most reading devices and platforms, including Nook, Kobo, Kindle Fire and Google Books on Android and iPad. The glaring exception, though, is the rest of the Kindle family. Although the EPUB3 format is more than four years old and is highly recommended by the Book Industry Study Group, many publishers are still publishing in EPUB2 format.

Think of the EPUB2 as plain vanilla, devoid of sound capabilities, videos and interactivity, with reflowable text as the only option (no fixed layout). Although Apple later developed a “fix” to allow a standard EPUB2 file to be displayed as a fixed layout, the format was best suited for reading narrative text, perfectly compatible with the original Kindle e-reader, the only real option in 2007. Simply put, it is an electronic simulation of a print book.

As more powerful devices were launched, with rich colors and larger screens, demand was growing for a format that could deliver a richer reading experience for children’s picture books, photography books, academic texts loaded with charts and diagrams, STM content, educational/instructional texts, etc. At the same time, publishers began to find innovative uses for the enhanced capabilities of EPUB3 in key niches. This was made abundantly clear through the words of Bill McCoy, president of the IDPF, in a recent interview with Book Business Magazine:

“During the last year it’s become clear that one of the key needs for going beyond the simpler text-centric kind of ebooks is in the e-textbook space. In e-textbooks, or more generally digital content for learning, it’s very critical that the content be interactive, that it’s able to have media enhancements like audio and video. If you’re learning about algebra, being able to actually type numbers into an equation is very important. So all the rich media, interactive features that weren’t in the original EPUB but are in EPUB3 thanks to HTML5 are directly applicable to the learning environment.”

The applicability of McCoy’s comments can be clearly seen in OverDrive’s recently launched Read-Along Ebook format (synced audio and text embedded in the ebook). OverDrive, the leading supplier of digital content to libraries and schools, is the only supplier with this capability. In addition, according to Alexis Petric-Black, publisher account services manager at OverDrive, “The Read-Along Ebook category is one of our highest growth areas. Combining our technology with the capabilities of the EPUB3 format, we are able to deliver popular Read-Along ebooks that combine the colorful text and images of an ebook with a read-along capability that highlights words as the narrator, providing our educational and library clients with a great learning tool that entertains young readers and enhances their reading skills at the same time.”

To summarize, many small publishers ask why they should make the switch from EPUB2 to EPUB3. The answer is clear, with the latter format delivering the following capabilities:

• integration of audio and video (HTML5)
• integration of animation effects (CSS3)
• integration of components programmed in Javascript, such as quizzes and interactive exercises
• ability to produce fixed layout books

Publishers, using the right service provider, can cost-effectively differentiate their product by taking advantage of the available, superior technology.


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12 thoughts on “Exploiting the Full Potential of the EPUB3 Format

  1. Michael W. Perry

    Quote from Bill McCoy, president of the IDPF: \During the last year it’s become clear that one of the key needs for going beyond the simpler text-centric kind of ebooks is in the e-textbook space. In e-textbooks, or more generally digital content for learning, it’s very critical that the content be interactive, that it’s able to have media enhancements like audio and video.\

    No, no, no. A thousand times no. This is exactly, precise why, EPUB 3 is languishing. The IDPF is the problem. The IDPF doesn’t understand books. The IDPF doesn’t understand the realities of the book market. The IDPF doesn’t understand readers. The result has been EPUB formats that are big on glitz and poor on actual value. That is why EPUB languishes.

    I’ve got a lot to do today, so I’ll be terse.

    1. Readers simply don’t want multi-media and interactivity. When they read, they want to read. I saw this same ‘the future is in multi-media\ madness linked to CDs in the late 1980s when I was working for Microsoft. It bombed then. It is bombing now. Readers want to read. They don’t want to bounce between reading and the equivalent of watching TV, listening a radio broadcast, and filling out an online form. They would like the better reading experience that ebooks could (but aren’t) providing. But they don’t want to abandon reading. At most, they might like ebooks to link through an external browser to two interviews of the author, one to be listened to before reading the book, the other for afterward. That’s all.

    2. Does the IDPF listen to anyone but giant companies such a Pearson, meaning the deep-pocketed creators of school textbooks? Apparently not. Because what Bill McCoy describes is what they want (mostly because that’s what school bureaucracies want). It’s not remotely close to what the great bulk of publishers want in an ebook format. Creating even poor video and clumsy interactivity is incredibly expensive, and you’re talking thousands of dollars a minute. They don’t have the money for that, particularly given that readers don’t want it and won’t pay for it. Every publisher isn’t Pearson.

    3. What’s needed is to make EPUB do books better that print at what print also does. Graphics should display unobtrusively, not trigger dreadful page breaks. A book about Civil War battles, for instance, should be have available at all times a series of maps that display how a battle is progressing, easily summoned or dismissed by the reader. The same is true of novels. Make including inexpensive line graphics easy and effective. They don’t cost a fortune to create. Don’t talk bosh about videos. They cost too much and merely distract readers. And teach ebook readers how to auto-format texts to look good. At present, they don’t even eliminate windows and orphans. The first movable-type book, Gutenberg Bible, looks beautiful. Fifteen years or so into ebooks, they still look ugly. That alone should be a warning about what is wrong.

    The problem is quite simple. While they’re slowly improving, digital book formats, particularly EPUB, simply don’t meet the needs of most publishers and, even more important, almost all readers. That’s why they’re not being more widely adopted. The problem doesn’t like with publishers. It lies with an IDPF that doesn’t have a clue about what ebooks need to become.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    Reply
  2. Kevin Ho

    By using CSS3, HTML5 and JavaScript, publishers can provide immersive reading ebooks that feature not only Read-Along but also touch-to-play (audio) and speed reading. This kind of ebooks is good for learning foreign language. You may refer to the Immersive Reading series ebooks published on iBookStore by HappyReads.net

    Reply
  3. Matt Aldridge

    I agree with much of Michael’s comment above however any move to EPUB3 could be justified by the improved accessibility features for those using read-aloud devices. MathML may also be a consideration. These aren’t the glamorous enhancements of EPUB3 but in reality probably the most useful.

    Matt Aldridge

    Reply
  4. Peter Spenser

    OverDrive’s recently launched Read-Along Ebook format (synced audio and text embedded in the ebook). OverDrive, the leading supplier of digital content to libraries and schools, is the only supplier with this capability.

    Wrong. Apple gave the ability to publishers to add this to e-books several years ago. And I don’t mean in Apple’s proprietary iBooks Author format. I mean in regular EPUB books. I know because, as a registered Apple publisher, I had access to the code to see how to do it. Apple suggested that it might be especially useful for children’s fixed-layout picture books.

    Reply
    1. Laurence Bennett

      Peter- re-reading your comment, I think we might be talking about two different things. The Overdrive program highlights the text as the narrator reads it . This feature is available word by word, by line or by page. Does the Apple interface allow for that?

      Reply
  5. James Byrd

    EPUB3 is probably a nice option for publishers who need its capabilities. For those of us who are publishing straight fiction with no embellishments, EPUB2 does the job just fine.

    If EPUB3 is languishing, I suspect it is for two reasons:
    1. Many publishers don’t need/want the \superior technology\ it offers.
    2. Publishers are rightly concerned about cross-platform support.

    We have enough trouble getting consistent results from EPUB2. I can’t imagine how much trial-and-error would go into getting the much more complex EPUB3 to work reliably across platforms.

    The EPUB “standard” is kind of a joke and always has been. Vendors are given so much latitude in which features they implement and what extensions they add that publishers are faced with customizing every title for every target platform (and keeping up with the changes), or they must be satisfied with a watered-down least-common-denominator solution. Just when we finally get EPUB2 dialed-in, along comes EPUB3, and we begin the struggle all over again.

    Reply
  6. Larry Bennett

    James- I fully understand what you’re saying. Nevertheless I would add that the right EPUB3 creator or conversion house can indeed give you a file that is robust and features which work seamlessly with all resellers. at least I know that that is the case with us.

    Reply
  7. Dave Bricker

    Bill McCoy and the folks over at the IDPF are to be lauded, but eBook Reader device/software makers have turned ePublishing into a quagmire reminiscent of the browser wars of the 1990s when sites were \optimized for Netscape\ or \optimized for Internet Exploiter.\ Even a simple ePub2 file supposedly based on HTML CSS web \standards\ displays inconsistently from device to device and platform to platform. Standards? Add the many features of ePub3. Every device supports a different subset. Why would any publisher release a sophisticated ePub3 book knowing it will be broken for some readers on the day of its release. Figuring out what works on what platform is a nightmare.

    Also to be considered is that a Word or Indesign document can be converted to ePub2 with little to no hands-on contact by a designer or coder. EPub 3 demands aesthetic and technical decision-making, which translates into expense. Publishers are selling millions of crappy, weakly, inconsistently formatted eBooks. Most lack the on-board talent to innovate in technology and design, and the money is in mediocrity.

    I developed open source PubML® eBooks in the web browser because the best ePub3 readers are browser-based anyway. The web browser (even IE) adheres much more tightly to web standards than any eReader. It’s possible to integrate web fonts and online media like YouTube, Flickr, and Google Maps. People are wired everywhere now – even on planes. Why create an eBook that’s insulated from the web? The web is free, open, and non-proprietary. If publishing is a cornerstone of civilization, the web gives it back to the people.

    And though eBooks show great promise, there aren’t any tools that make them easy to develop. My PubML™ Publishing tools turn WordPress into a visual ePublishing system that exports web-books and ePub2 files.

    Reply
  8. Alan Diede

    It is astounding that there is this repeated issue of enhanced ebooks vs. \regular’ ebooks in this and many other forums. It sometimes make me think that the people involved in this bogus discussion have never published or sold a book, or any kind, especially at a bookstore. The idea that there is a \preference\ among readers for a plain text book over a book with additional media or visa versa is absurd. . It is as saying that novels and books of poetry can not sold in the same place at the same time as books full of full color photography, such as cook books or coffee table books because the reader prefers in terms of books purchased the popular text fiction books. What? Madness.

    Those of us who already publish ebooks replete with multimedia wish for the day that we can fully embed the parallel media of our ebooks instead of having to send our readers on a trip to the internet to get the full enhanced effect . And even though we produce non-fiction ebooks (travel guides) that lend themselves utterly to linked media sources, such as social media and google maps, it does not take much imagination to envision an enhanced ebook that utilizes media to tell a narrative that is not just more immersive, but actually becomes a tale told in the 3D world. A story that continues even as the reader moves in time and space from one point to another, That, I am sure, would qualify the enhanced ebook as a new medium for artistic expression.

    But that doable reality (we could complete a narrative ebook with these functions now, but it will seem ham handed compared to what fully ehanced ebooks can be) the unfortunate combination of publishing’s built in myopia and the technicians flaccid opinion of content means the implementation of real enhanced ebooks is slipping further and further away.

    I would hope that principals who are actually interested in the realization and implementation of fully realized enhanced ebooks would come together and demand that the content creators and distributors get real. At least for no other reason than an enhanced ebook is a value added product and can demand and obtain a higher price than other ‘regular’ ebooks.

    Reply

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