9 Things You Need to Know About ePub3
Without doubt, e-books have (finally) arrived. Market share is in double-digits and rocketing upwards, and dedicated devices, tablets and smartphones are proliferating. Ignoring your digital readership potential is not an option; and treating e-books as an afterthought by offering up a recycled printer's PDF is not a digital strategy. For some types of highly formatted content, a PDF version may be useful, but if that's all you do, you'll be leaving significant distribution and enhancement options (aka revenue) on the table. Since your readers expect to be able to consume your premium content on devices of all shapes and sizes, mere paper-replica PDFs just won't cut it.
The ePub file format has rapidly emerged as the open standard format for next-generation digital publications. ePub is supported by B&N Nook, Kobo readers, Sony Reader, Adobe Digital Editions, Google Books, Ibis Reader, Bluefire Reader, Safari Books Online, VitalSource and many more. While Amazon Kindle is known for using a proprietary delivery format, most Kindle sales are of content that started life as ePub files, i.e., Amazon already utilizes ePub as its key interchange format.
Based on HTML and related Web standards, ePub enables e-books that "reflow," adapting gracefully to different devices. The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF, a trade association set up by the digital publishing industry to oversee and implement e-book standards) has recently finalized a major upgrade, ePub 3. When Book Business asked me to offer its readers some key things they need to know about the impact of ePub 3 on their digital business, I simply couldn't refuse:
1. ePub 3 is enhanced, interactive e-books
2. It's HTML5 "domesticated"
The Web has become the universal platform for content and information. Readers will definitely be discovering your content via the Web, and will increasingly expect to consume it directly in browsers. HTML5, the latest version of HTML, is the core of all modern Web browsers. But websites coded in HTML5 are a thicket of files, scripts, style sheets, images, etc., meant to be executed by browsers du jour, not archived, distributed to channel partners, or processed by workflows like your content must be.
An ePub 3 publication—fundamentally just HTML5, CSS (cascading style sheet), scripts and related Web content—bridges that gap, as it follows the ePub standard's rules that make it well-structured, navigable and able to be packaged as a single file. An ePub 3 publication is a portable document, which makes it browser- and cloud reader-ready, as well as suitable for distribution through reseller channels and on to reading devices and apps for offline consumption. ePub 3 content is also far easier for you and your partners to slice-and-dice and otherwise reuse via widely available off-the-shelf XML tools.
3. Now for fixed-layout as well as reflow
ePub 3 supports full CSS styling including "absolute positioning," as well as SVG ("Scalable Vector Graphics") which enable precisely formatted content in XML. While reflowable ePub remains the best solution for multidevice support, if your content is highly designed—think coffee table books, children's books, textbooks—you may want or need to take advantage of the options in ePub 3 for fixed-format support.
4. An express lane to engaging apps and websites
Custom apps can certainly be developed without utilizing standards. But designing around ePub 3 is a smart move. Consider one of the first popular book-as-apps, "iPhone: The Missing Manual" (O'Reilly Media). Under the covers, this App Store-distributed title is a thin veneer over an ePub-based reading system that utilizes the Webkit browser engine built in to iOS. This architecture frees the editorial and production teams to focus on the content and the mobile app developers to spend their (scarce and expensive) cycles on delivering a differentiated and engaging experience.
5. Make your content accessible to a vastly larger market
ePub 3 is superseding a specialized format (DAISY DTBook) for making publications accessible to people with disabilities. This is not just for the blind. More and more people need larger print to comfortably read, and physically distributing large-print books for every title is not realistic. Dyslexic and physically disabled readers also find traditional paper books challenging. And, we are all "situationally disabled": We shouldn't read while driving, and most of us, while learning to read—either as children or as adults studying a foreign language—have wanted to listen and read simultaneously. Every ePub-based e-book can be, with a single click to increase the font size, a large-print edition. ePub 3 also supports "media overlays" that enable prerecorded audio to be synchronized with text (and it's already in Apple iBooks).
6. A strategic weapon for publishers
ePub, like HTML5, is developed via an open and transparent process. While Adobe's dictatorship during the desktop publishing era (PDF, PostScript) was, by and large, benevolent, Adobe's focus was on authoring tools, rather than control of the overall value chain. Thanks to the iTunes/iPad playbook, the risk of one or perhaps a few commercial vendors effectively controlling all commercial publishing is now an obvious danger. By adopting ePub, publishers maintain "hand" (to borrow a poker term) in their interactions with a massively disrupting digital supply chain. Even vendors who have stuck to proprietary formats, such as Amazon, have had to create workflows accommodating ePub.
Standardizing on ePub 3 for enhanced e-books is a smart move to avoid vendor lock-in (which could lead to future "lock-out" from readers and profits). While most vendors have adopted ePub, and have publicly expressed enthusiasm for ePub 3, there's still plenty of room for reading-system innovation and differentiation in areas ranging from navigation affordances to social reading that aren't specified by the ePub 3 format. But a few vendors still seek "One Ring to Rule them All." Remember: Your content is king. Don't sell it out for vendor eye candy; lust by your techies for the "latest and greatest" or "the proprietary environment they already know"; or the captive ring of conversion that cost sharing offers. And remember that each format you authorize for distribution multiplies the risk of introducing errata and other brand-diminishing artifacts.
Occasionally, vendor claims that their solutions are uniquely enabling of certain experiences are, in fact, true. To wit: For a science professor who uses Mathematica to build complex mathematical models for a like-minded audience, distributing via the associated Wolfram technology may be a reasonable choice. But such cases are the exception rather than the rule. Carefully balance value-added functionality against the risks of limiting your content's reach, being subject to vendor lock-in, and potentially eroding your reputation for quality.
7. It's good consumer PR
The dangers of lock-in are not just to publishers; they also apply to consumers. The notion that a single vendor could control access to books—and all that they represent to our culture—is repugnant to increasingly tech-savvy consumers and their advocates in libraries and educational institutions. Apple gained kudos by adopting the ePub open standard for iBooks rather than using something proprietary, and has been an early adopter of ePub 3 features. Publishers need to convince an increasingly aware and engaged readership that they are doors to content, rather than gates. Adopting ePub 3—publicly and vocally—is a smart marketing move. And delivering one quality-control-checked ePub file to all channels is also a safeguard for your brand quality and reputation.
8. It's your ePub
ePub's custodian, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) is the only global trade and standards organization specifically for the digital publishing industry. Membership includes more than 250 publishers, associations and governmental organizations, libraries and vendors. ePub 3 is by no means the end of the line for ePub; the IDPF is already gearing up to dot some i's on the 3.0 spec. You already indirectly support the IDPF if you are a member of Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group, EDItEUR, IDEAlliance, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) or another association/organization with which IDPF collaborates. Many publishers, small and large, value direct membership in the IDPF to give them a seat at the leadership table in setting directions and priorities for enhancing and supporting this key standard.
9. ePub 3 is open … for business
ePub 3 is poised to grease the wheels of content creation and distribution: broadening reach, increasing reader engagement and lowering costs. Delivering business acceleration is the only real value a standard provides. "Bücher für Alles!" (Books for All!) is a nice slogan for Frankfurt, but will ring false unless authors and publishers are appropriately compensated for creating premium content. BB
Bill McCoy is executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum. For more on ePub, you can download the free O'Reilly white paper "What is ePub 3?" (shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920022442.do). For more information on the IDPF, visit IDPF.org.