Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
As someone who has been creating ebooks for more than a decade, I am often asked whether I think Amazon will someday let go of its proprietary Kindle format and switch to EPUB. My response has been the same since the question was first posed to me in 2009: I don’t see any reason why they would want to.
I also find it somewhat amusing that everyone singles out Amazon for this supposed faux pas of digital publishing, when Amazon is hardly the only company with a proprietary ebook format. Apple has iBooks Author and Barnes & Noble has proprietary formats for children’s books and fixed-layout nonfiction, just to name a few.
Why do these companies choose to use proprietary formats instead of (or in addition to) the open source EPUB standard?
Because proprietary formats just work.
When an ebook retailer builds its own ebook format, it steps beyond controlling just the reading system or device to actually controlling the code that is loaded into that reading system. That level of control brings with it a level of certainty about what the retailer can expect to receive, in turn giving it more control over features, functionality, and—importantly—the quality of the reading experience.
This is the same reason why some EPUB retailers will run every EPUB file they receive through an ingestion process that changes the markup in specific ways and forces the EPUB to meet certain criteria. Essentially, those retailers are ingesting EPUB files in a proprietary way, all with the goal of making the reading experience better.
While I am a strong advocate for EPUB and other open initiatives in our industry, I think we do ourselves a disservice if we try to downplay the benefits of proprietary formats. Instead, I think we should be working on ways to make open standards more consistently supported and easier to implement—in other words, learning the lessons that proprietary formats teach us.
It is encouraging to me that we are doing just that in the ongoing development of the EPUB standard.
There are active efforts to bring the EPUB standard even more into line with prevailing web standards, allowing EPUB files to be first-class citizens of the web and as easy to use as any webpage. There are also efforts to make EPUB work better for educational content (specifically the EDUPUB profile), essentially using “proprietary” (note the air quotes!) markup to extend the abilities of an EPUB file in a space that has some very specific requirements. And, finally, there are efforts (like Readium and epubtest.org) to make the display of EPUB files on different devices as close to each other as possible, bringing the goal of one EPUB file within ever closer reach.
So fear not, friends. If we continue down this path, there may come a day when it actually does make sense for all ebook retailers to use the same ebook format. But even if they don’t, we will at least have learned the lessons of proprietary formats, and we will be much the wiser for it.
Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Inkling uses a proprietary, XML-based ebook format. Rather, content authored on Inkling’s platform is in HTML5 with flexible CSS styling, allowing users to export their content into other formats.