Brandi Scardilli, Information Today
Tell people you’re reading a book, and they’ll probably picture papers sewn together into a binding. Tell people you’re reading an ebook, and it’s not such a cut-and-dry mental picture.
There are dozens of ways to make an ebook, but one format is emerging as the international standard: the EPUB. One day soon, the EPUB format may be the first ebook picture that comes to mind.
The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) is dedicated to developing and maintaining the EPUB format. IDPF executive director Bill McCoy, who was at the forefront of EPUB’s creation, defines EPUB as “a portable document technology that’s converged with and built on the latest open web standards.” More specifically, EPUB is “a means of representing, packaging and encoding structured and semantically enhanced Web content … for distribution in a single-file format,” according to the IDPF.
EPUB 2, which was a successor to the Open eBook Publication Structure, became the IDPF standard in 2007. EPUB 3, the first major upgrade to the format, was ratified in October 2011 by about 300 member organizations, says McCoy, who was secretary of the IDPF’s EPUB 3 Working Group.
Free to Be EPUB 3
The “vision of EPUB 3 was really to converge this EPUB portable document standard with the latest and greatest web standards” such as HTML5 and to take advantage of the fact that the ebook market was shifting from dedicated e-readers (e-ink technology, black-and-white displays, and limited web connectivity) to tablets and smartphones, McCoy says.
The major updates to the EPUB format in EPUB 3 are as follows:
- Rich media support (audio and video)
- Interactivity support (e.g., quizzes and crossword puzzles)
- Global language support (e.g., vertical writing and right-to-left reading)
- Mandatory embedded font support (the inclusion of font files in the document)
- Enhanced metadata and navigation support (e.g., tables of contents are now HTML5-based)
- Annotation and bookmarking support
- Mathematic equation formatting capabilities
- Additional styling and layout capabilities for reflowable content (meaning the content adapts its presentation to the device on which it is being viewed)
- Fixed-layout support (for prepaginated and reflowable content)
- Accessibility features (e.g., enhanced semantic tagging and text-to-speech)
Strengths and Weaknesses
Joshua Tallent, chief ebook architect at the ebook design company eBook Architects, says EPUB’s biggest strength is its industry support across different devices, publishers, and retailers that “see it as a standard that they can apply without having to build their own.”
EPUB is also dynamic: Publishers “can do things like change the font size and have the document reflow, so all the text is still visible,” whereas with a “PDF on a small screen you have to kind of pan and zoom around, which is not a very convenient way to read,” says McCoy.
On the flip side, Ori Idan, CEO of Israeli technology company Helicon Books, sees EPUB’s complicated structure as a hindrance for the standard. “[Y]ou don’t have automatic software that can generate EPUB. … Especially if you add some more features like sound, video, all the features of EPUB 3, then you can’t make it with the click of a button.”
Another problem with EPUB occurs because of the variety of devices on the market. “People have this idea that EPUB is a standard and it’s going to work great across everything, but … [i]t looks different across different devices,” says Devorah Ashlem, senior project manager at Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL), a conversion services company.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
“The adoption rate [of EPUB 3] is much slower than I thought,” says Idan. “I think that this is a very conservative market, and it takes a long time to penetrate through this market. If you think in terms of technology, 2 years [since EPUB 3’s ratification is] a lot of time. If you think in terms of publishing, 2 years [is] not a long time.”
Apple was one of the first companies to use EPUB 3 commercially because its software is naturally compatible with EPUB 3’s features, such as the ability to sync text with prerecorded audio. “They could have invented a proprietary way to do that, but because EPUB 3 had that already defined, it was much simpler and easier for Apple” to support EPUB, says McCoy. “I think in this case they saw that adopting a consistent standard made it easier for them to get content from the different publishers and authors and it made less work for them to develop [their] platform.”
Tallent and McCoy both cite the example of Amazon and Apple converting EPUB files to their own proprietary, locked-down formats as a problem for consumers. For example, “[I]f you buy an EPUB file from the [Apple] iBookstore, you can use it on your iBooks application, but you can’t open it in a NOOK device or in a Kobo application; even a Kobo application on that same iPad can’t open a file you bought from the iBookstore,” says McCoy.
The question of why other vendors have not jumped on board in support of EPUB 3 is not a simple matter. There are two aspects to EPUB 3 support: A vendor’s software and reading system need to support the rendering of content in EPUB 3, and a vendor’s ebookstore needs to be able to ingest and process the content contained in the EPUB 3 file publishers submit.
For instance, McCoy says that customers can buy EPUB 3 files from a third-party vendor and load them into their Kobo device. But they cannot buy an EPUB 3 file from the Kobo ebookstore because Kobo’s ingestion engine does not support the format, so publishers can’t submit ebooks in that format to Kobo. Amazon is the opposite: Its devices don’t display EPUB files readers try to load themselves, but customers can purchase EPUB 3 files from its website.
When Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire tablet, Ashlem says the industry was buzzing about whether it could compete with Apple’s iPad. People were disappointed when the Fire wasn’t equipped to handle all of EPUB 3’s features, such as embedded video. “As the new generation of readers come into play, they really are looking for much more interactivity and much more enhancements,” and device companies will have to acknowledge that, she says.
Mark Gross, DCL’s president, says it’s not unusual for technology to take a few years to catch up with a standard. “Building a reader to be able to handle math very well, handle languages [and other EPUB 3 capabilities] is not so easy to do. So it’s taking a while. This all takes investment.”
Gross suspects there will be gradual acceptance of different facets of the standard. He feels that at some point device companies will see that moving to EPUB 3 is important for their markets. That means other companies will soon follow in Apple’s footsteps.
Ashlem says the industry is “definitely seeing a move to support EPUB 3, but it’s not as fast as the community wants it to be.”
For Tallent, there’s a common misconception that “it’s not about what kind of device you have, it’s about the reading system that’s on that device.” He defines the reading system as the application that opens a file and displays it on an e-reader screen. For example, the Kindle Paperwhite uses a reading system different from a Kindle Fire and the Kindle app on an Apple device, even though they are all Amazon products. “And while there’s a lot of core code that’s going to be used between the three different reading systems … they are still different applications. …”
There is wider adoption of EPUB 3 internationally, thanks in part to the standard’s support for vertical writing. Kobo’s Japanese ebookstore has been accepting and distributing only EPUB 3 files since last July. Japanese publishers are sending all of their content to Amazon in EPUB 3 format, and Amazon’s ingestion process in its Japanese ebookstore is EPUB 3-centric, says McCoy.
Idan notes that e-reading is not very popular in Israel. “Though Israel is very quick in adopting new technologies—we have many people here with smartphones and many people with tablets—we don’t see many people here reading books on reading systems like the Amazon Kindle, because Kindle doesn’t support Hebrew.” An Israeli publisher created a Hebrew-specific device similar to a Kindle, but Idan says it was not a hit with consumers because its functionality was limited.
Helicon Books is working to change the situation, Idan says. It recently released a free EPUB 3 reading app with a Hebrew user interface on Google Play that allows users to purchase ebooks from participating digital bookstores and download them directly into the app.
Idan believes that EPUB 2 will remain in use for fiction and other books read from beginning to end, while EPUB 3 will become the standard for textbooks.
“EPUB 2 isn’t going away any time soon,” Tallent agrees. He says “authors and small publishers who don’t necessarily have tools or skills in-house to handle it” will take longer to adopt the newer standard.
“EPUB is a great standard, and it should be applied across the majority of devices. But when it comes down to it, we have a huge amount of difference from device to device because there aren’t, in some ways, stricter requirements for what an EPUB device has to support,” says Tallent. “This is better in EPUB 3 than it has been in EPUB 2, but we’re still going to see differences.”
McCoy is optimistic that EPUB 3 will be the standard format that publishers can send anywhere for distribution. He foresees a more universal acceptance of EPUB 3 files within the next 6 months.
Gross also predicts a shift in the industry within 6 months. “It might be that there are two standards: the Kindle [e-ink] approach of ‘just keep it simple’ and the EPUB 3 approach of ‘we want lots of sophisticated functionality,’” he says.
The IDPF continues to work on enhancements to the EPUB format. McCoy says the next version of EPUB aims to standardize markup for dictionaries and indexes, create a more advanced layout for digital magazines, and standardize annotations.