EPUB 3: A Foundation For the Future
Most publishers understand the tactical advantages of adopting industry standards for digital publishing: the cost cutting that can result from interoperability, the greater scalability, the lower friction in the supply chain. But Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), thinks that publishers have to also consider the strategic advantages of an open, horizontal standard, which he says is equally, if not more, critical.
"Standards are a weapon for neutralizing proprietary platforms that would seek to basically create lock-in, that would suck the profits away from the supply chain, including taking the profits from authors and publishers. We don't want to hand over control of books to any vendors, whether their company name starts with 'A' or some other letter in the alphabet. I think publishers need to think strategically about that. In a way, I think we're lucky that despite Amazon having dominance of the distribution channel for ebooks in the U.S. they haven't managed to have dominance on a format level and a standards level -- but there's still risk there."
McCoy sees a bright future for digital publishing if we live in an open-web-based world. The result is a richer environment for publishers to develop content at lower cost.
McCoy has plenty of experience in the area of horizontal digital technology. Before his current post at the IDPF, McCoy was general manager of digital publishing at Adobe Systems. While at Adobe, McCoy was involved in the development of what have become some of the most well-known standards in publishing, including PostScript, OpenType, and PDF. "Those all have been very successful horizontal standards," says McCoy. "In other words there's not a separate PDF for magazines and a separate PDF for ads and a separate PDF journals and a separate PDF for books. There's one PDF format that meets the needs of a wide range of publication types."
The vision for EPUB is similarly broad, says McCoy. And despite the success of tools like the PDF, he's also witnessed the limitations of a single vendor holding the keys to technology: namely, the failure of Adobe Flash to become a truly horizontal platform. "You need something that's open and interoperable because if it's controlled by one company, the chances of them having the scale to make it work everywhere are lower. I was one of the first pro-HTML5 heretics at Adobe, but I don't think it had anything to do with the technical side of Flash. It was simply that Adobe had a small team versus the HTML world having four different browser code bases and tens of thousands of developers all working together and experimenting with different open source things. As the open source world would say, 'the bazaar beats the cathedral,' because the bazaar just has a lot more scale."
Before joining the IDPF as executive director in January of 2011, McCoy served two terms on the IDPF Board of Directors, playing a key role in the development of the EPUB standard. His priority now is to fulfill the promise of EPUB 3 as a true universal standard for the publishing industry as a whole. "Even though ebooks had been the first place that EPUB was established, the time is right for a horizontal format for digital publications that isn't tied to replicating paper, that is more dynamic."
Here McCoy discusses why he sees great opportunity for EPUB to enhance digital publishing and who may find success in a post-paper world.
Where in the publishing industry do you see the greatest opportunity for EPUB 3 to take off?
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 EPUB 3 thanks to HTML5 are directly applicable to the learning environment.
In the learning environment, it's critical that the content be connected. If a student completes an end-of-chapter quiz, you want that to go in your grade book and your learning management system. You may want to have analytics data that tracks student progress and ultimately the learning content is adaptive to the individual. That intelligence and connectedness of the content is critical for learning, which is part of that connected web world.
All of that means that in the e-textbook world, it's just not satisfactory to replicate print, or make just a straight text version that reflows, you need to take content to a different level of capability. That's why the EDUPUB initiative is one of the most critical things going on -- because it's one of the cases where EPUB 3 is most directly related to key market requirements on a global basis. On a horizontal global basis, I think education is really going to be the biggest piece of the adoption of what I call next generation digital content.
The fact that we've got the whole education publishing community, all the vendors like CourseSmart and Inkling, all to agree to go with EPUB 3 and build together this EPUB profile called EDUPUB, is a key step. It's about taking this content beyond what is possible in a paper world.
What's your strategy for expanding the adoption of EPUB 3?
The trick is to make sure we're not creating fragmentations. We're not creating a second format with EDUPUB. We're just creating some specializations and best practices for how to use EPUB 3 to effectively deliver this next generation content. And we expect there to be similar profiles for EPUB 3 in other industries. For example, until now the digital magazine world has been dominated by relatively proprietary formats and the continuation of print replicas or page-flippers. They just take a PDF experience and maybe stick a video or simple interactivity "over the glass" of the PDF page.
[We're in] a world where content is expected to be on the leading edge of interactive experiences, like The New York Times "Snowfall" piece that goes a long way beyond sticking a video over a PDF. So the magazine world is looking to adopt standards. And we expect similar things to EPUB to happen in the comics industry. EPUB 3 is already being adopted in Japan for digital manga.
So e-textbooks are kind of leading the charge but it's really the first of a set of use case specializations in these different key industries in publishing. STM is another area that has kind of been stuck with the PDF. We're working with stakeholders in all these different sectors to figure out how we get to a world where EPUB can enable all of this and people can develop tools and services that can be used in all these specialties. So the magazine guys and the education guys and the STM guys don't have to all develop separate tools but rather can leverage tools that can be used across EPUB 3. Frankly a slideshow is a slideshow, whether the slideshow's in a textbook or an e-magazine or an STM journal. There's no reason to have five different ways to make the same slideshow.
The IDPF has a lot of members outside the U.S. What kind of work are you doing on an international level?
Part of what we're doing is engaging with the stakeholders and governments to make sure EPUB 3 will meet all their needs. In places like South Korea and Taiwan and China, they are rolling out digital textbooks on a national basis with major national initiatives, and in some of those geographies they've already decided to adopt EPUB 3 for textbooks.
We also try to understand the evolution of digital publishing and what are the requirements for technology in different markets. They seem to be drastically different in some of these geographies.
What are you learning from what other markets are doing?
Digital comics have kind of been sneaking up as a market area in the U.S. In Japan manga is 40% of the total book business. It's very different in the U.S. If you go to Random House and ask about comics they're like, "Ah, whatever." But if you go to Kodansha, the equivalent of Random House in Japan, they're getting half their revenue from comics. It kind of changes your view because they see it not just as a separate silo, but a core part of the book business. In the U.S. Marvel Comics and Random House don't even think of themselves as in the same field of publishing.
How could the comics industry have an impact on book publishers?
The comics guys think a little more creatively about enhancing the experience, because for them it's kind of old hat. Most book publishers in the U.S. are just thinking about, "Well I got this print stuff, how do I get it out on phone or tablet?" And the comics guys are going beyond that to, "How do I create tailored experiences for tablets and phones and what is the range of possibilities from a user experience perspective?" It's being informed more by game development, while thinking about it from a content-centric point of view. So I think comics guys are at an interesting point.
What do you see on the horizon for publishers in the digital era?
The nature of the content being delivered in digital is going to be changed by the affordances the tables and smartphones offer versus the paper world, and I think we're just at the beginning of exploring what that means. For a novel, I don't think it means much. You can move a novel from print to digital without having to think much about it because it's just words and the consumer can adopt it pretty easily because they know what they're getting. It's kind of like moving from tape to CD. It doesn't really change the experience.
But for textbooks, for comics, for children's books, for cookbooks, there's a lot more to being on a digital platform. Now there are skeptics. It hasn't really been proven in the market yet. As far as I know there's not a huge best-selling cookbook in digital that is some crazy, enhanced experience. But there's going to be. I want to make sure we have a platform for it that allows those content experiences to be delivered cost effectively, across different platforms and devices, not controlled by any one vendor, and accessible to people who have disabilities.
Those are the reasons for promoting standards. But the standards aren't going to dictate the kind of experience. That's going to be up to the artists and the inventors and the authors and the publishers to figure out. And I think we're still at the very beginning. Ebooks are kind of like where the web was before there was Facebook and Google and LinkedIn. We're going to have all sorts of great digital books and digital content that we can't predict now any more than we could have predicted Facebook in 1983. All we can hope for is that we make a platform that will enable it.
Who's going to have success in the digital publishing world?
I think that the publishers that are going to be more successful are the ones who run more experiments and see what can stick with consumers and readers and then iterate. To do that, they need a cost-effective platform. You can't do those experiments if you're trying to pay the freight of developing a native app for five different platforms every time you run an experiment. So with HTML5 and EPUB you get a platform that let's you experiment cheaply and iterate and see what works and do more of what works and less of what doesn't work.
Related story: EPUB 3 Specification Public Draft Released
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.