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April 12 2012

Ebook formats and the allure of customer lock-in

Sanders Kleinfeld (@sandersk), author of "HTML5 for Publishers" and publishing technologies specialist at O'Reilly, recently sat down with me to talk about ebook formats, challenges publishers face accommodating the formats and how HTML5 might change the game. With all the various ebook formats and platforms requiring multiple publishing outputs becoming something of a hindrance to workflows, I asked if he thought we'd ever see a universal format. He said he worries that vendors won't be willing to give up customer lock-in:

"I'm really optimistic, and I really hope so. I think that's what they're striving for with the EPUB3 standard, which is based around all these open technologies — HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript ... What's disappointing right now is that Amazon is very set on their Mobi format for their Kindle device, Apple has made strides away from EPUB 3 with their latest iBooks 2.0 and iBooks Author ... I think vendors that make these devices are interested in maintaining that lock-in for customers. That's a challenge the industry faces — trying to push things back toward open standards, which I think is best for everyone." (Discussed at 2:43.)

He also said a lot of what's behind DRM is about achieving customer lock-in and that vendors might be obstacles in that regard as well. (Discussed at 4:21.)

You can view our entire interview in the following video:

TOC Latin America — Being held April 20, TOC Latin America will focus on standards, global digital publishing trends, case studies of innovative publishers in Latin America, consumer habits, and much more.

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March 20 2012

The give and take between e-publishing standards and innovation

Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), recently sat down with O'Reilly online managing editor Mac Slocum to talk about the Readium Project and EPUB 3. He also addressed the "EPUB-iness" of formats like KF8 and iBooks, and stressed that extending and building upon the EPUB 3 standard is important for ensuring continued innovation:

"There are two ends to the spectrum when you see people taking a standard and doing things that are similar to or based on that standard but extending it. One is the need for innovation. Even a lean and nimble standards group like the IDPF can't move as rapidly as the pace of innovation at any individual organization or company. So, given the need to innovate, you're going to go beyond the standard ... that is the good side of extending.

"The bad side is when you fork and deviate or when you do things that are unnecessarily different. I think you're seeing a little of both in those efforts [KF8 and iBooks], but I'm hoping to emphasize and encourage the good. We can't let standards prevent innovation ... but we want that innovation to not lock consumers in to one closed silo." (Discussed at 4:18.)

You can view the entire interview with McCoy in the following video:

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February 29 2012

The ebook evolution

At TOC, you're as likely to run into media professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators as you are publishers, booksellers and others working in traditional publishing. This, in turn, makes the underlying themes as varying and diverse as the attendees. This is the final piece in a series taking a look at five themes that permeated interviews, sessions and/or keynotes at this year's show. The complete series will be posted here.


Discussions about the future of digital and how ebooks and ereading may evolve permeated nearly every aspect of this year's show. From data on how readers are acquiring and consuming ebooks to genres that are working well — and those that aren't — to platform and format trends and predictions, the evolution of ebooks and ereading was probably the most pervasive of the major themes at TOC 2012.

Len Vlahos, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, and Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at RR Bowker, led the "Data for Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading" session. They presented data on how consumers are adopting and consuming ebooks.

An interesting slide provided a visualization of the technology adoption curve in the U.S. between 1910 and 1999:

BISGslide1

The text may not be readable, but the message is clear — as explained in the presentation:

"The X axis is time, the Y axis is percent penetration of U.S. households. The squiggly blue line all the way to the left is the telephone. The two red lines in the middle are television and color television. You can see in the case of almost every technology, a slow ramp up, followed by explosive growth leading to almost total penetration. When utility surpasses earlier technologies and when production capacity increases and cost decreases to a sufficient point, the line curves up."

They then compared this to what is happening with ebooks. Some genres followed the exploding path while others flattened out. Fiction clearly is leading the ebook evolution at this point:

BISGSlide2

The ebook questions in 2012, they said, will include how much more growth in fiction is possible, when will the other genres get moving and what kind of role is technology actually playing in adoption. The presentation also included data about ebook power buyers, the patterns of buying in general and the roles children and youths might play in the future of ebooks.

The slides, along with a transcript of the presentation, can be found here.

Michael Tamblyn, executive vice president of content, sales and merchandising at Kobo, Inc., specifically addressed digital non-fiction — or the lack thereof — in the "Cracking the Non-fiction Code" session. Tamblyn noted that the split in fiction/non-fiction print is about 55/45, respectively, but that in digital, even after several years in, the fiction/nonfiction divide is "abysmal":

TamblynSlide1

Tamblyn talked about the reasons behind the discrepancy and looked at the percent to which digital over or under indexes print consumption:

TamblynSlide2

Looking at the reasons behind the inequalities, Tamblyn said there are some commonsense reasons — the gift economy around children's books, for example, skews toward physical, print books, as do juvenile categories in libraries — but that there are other reasons why genres such as travel, reference and cooking are indexing more toward print than digital. These publishing areas, for instance, have the added component of free online competitors, such as TripAdvisor.com and AllRecipes.com.

He highlighted the non-fiction pricing versus unit sales, which indicates that, so far, "digital non-fiction is a backlist business, to a degree far greater than what we see on the fiction side":

TamblynSlide3

Tamblyn said he's been encouraging publishers "to start digging into that backlist non-fiction catalog, get more of those title made more quickly ... get those rights cleared and get those books out — they have a longer life than you may think."

He also said there are great opportunities around the gift economy in children's books — that the gifts are shifting from physical books to reading devices, indicating digital opportunities going forward and explaining a spike in ebook sales after the holidays. He suggested developing a reading device specifically for children to optimize the reading experience for that level may help push adoption forward.

Tamblyn's session slides can be found here, and more from Tamblyn on what ereader customers want can be viewed in this TOC webcast.

The ebook evolution discussion took a turn toward the technical side in a video interview with Peter Meyers, author of “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience” and "Kindle Fire: The Missing Manual." He tackled a question about ebooks versus book apps and whether the forms would merge or one would become dominant:

"I think a lot of people in the industry get hung up on this question of what's the term we're going to use going forward. If we look at the music industry, the terms 'record' and 'album' have stuck around, even as the physical format has largely disappeared. I think the word 'book' is here to stay ... I think the other term likely to emerge is 'app' ... We'll start saying, 'Hey, have you seen the new Stephen King app?' That app might include book-like elements, but it will also be able to accommodate things like interactive features ... I would guess we'll see books and apps coexist side by side, and they'll do different things."

Meyers also talked about how digital is changing publishing over all, that with the infinite canvas of digital publishing, what publishers really are selling is 10, 15, 20 hours of entertainment or assistance in cooking or playing golf. His entire interview can be viewed here.

Sameer Shariff, founder and CEO of Impelsys, agreed in a video interview that ebooks and book apps would both continue as separate products. He also addressed a question about platforms and how the need for conversion will evolve:

"What we're seeing is [that the need for conversion] is not going to dissipate ... [publishers] can't do it themselves ... Now the big thing is EPUB3, and with the Apple iBookstore, there's a new format there. It's not going to be completely automated — there is going to be some element of manual intervention."

Shariff's entire interview can be viewed here.

Along that same line, Sanders Kleinfeld, publishing technologies specialist at O'Reilly, tackled the question of whether or not the industry will see a universal format emerge:

"I'm really optimistic, and I really hope so. I think that's what they're striving for with the EPUB3 standard, which is based around all these open technologies — HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. I'm hopeful that ereaders will follow suit with what's been happening on the web, where you can build an HTML5 website and there's pretty good compatibility across the board, whether you're looking at it in Google Chrome or Safari or Firefox. I'm really optimistic that EPUB3, or the next generation — maybe EPUB4, will be the open standard that re-flowable ebooks will coalesce around using open technologies and that that will be supported by the various ereaders."

You can view Kleinfeld's entire interview in the following video, and you can see slides from his session "HTML5 for Publishers" here:

For more on the ebook evolution discussion, sessions with published slides and/or video can be browsed here.


If you couldn't make it to TOC, or you missed a session you wanted to see, sign up for the TOC 2012 Complete Video Compilation and check out our archive of free keynotes and interviews.


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February 10 2012

Top stories: February 6-10, 2012

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

The NoSQL movement
A relational database is no longer the default choice. Mike Loukides charts the rise of the NoSQL movement and explains how to choose the right database for your application.

Jury to Eolas: Nobody owns the interactive web
A Texas jury has struck down a company's claim to ownership of the interactive web. Eolas, which has been suing technology companies for more than a decade, now faces the prospect of losing the patents.

It's time for a unified ebook format and the end of DRM
The music industry has shown that you need to offer consumers a universal format and content without rights restrictions. So when will publishers pay attention?

Business-government ties complicate cyber security
Is an attack on a U.S. business' network an attack on the U.S. itself? "Inside Cyber Warfare" author Jeffrey Carr discusses the intermingling of corporate and government interests in this interview.


Unstructured data is worth the effort when you've got the right tools
Alyona Medelyan and Anna Divoli are inventing tools to help companies contend with vast quantities of fuzzy data. They discuss their work and what lies ahead for big data in this interview.



Strata 2012, Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work. Save 20% on Strata registration with the code RADAR20.

Photo used with "Unstructured data" story: mess with graphviz.

February 09 2012

It's time for a unified ebook format and the end of DRM

This post originally appeared on Publishers Weekly.

EreadersImagine buying a car that locks you into one brand of fuel. A new BMW, for example, that only runs on BMW gas. There are plenty of BMW gas stations around, even a few in your neighborhood, so convenience isn't an issue. But if one of those other gas stations offers a discount, a membership program, or some other attractive marketing campaign, you can't participate. You're locked in with the BMW gas stations.

This could never happen, right? Consumers are too smart to buy into something like this. Or are they? After all, isn't that exactly what's happening in the ebook world? You buy a dedicated ebook reader like a Kindle or a NOOK and you're locked in to that company's content. Part of this problem has to do with ebook formats (e.g., EPUB or Mobipocket) while another part of it stems from publisher insistence on the use of digital rights management (DRM). Let's look at these issues individually.

Platform lock-in

I've often referred to it as Amazon's not-so-secret formula: Every time I buy another ebook for my Kindle, I'm building a library that makes me that much more loyal to Amazon's platform. If I've invested thousands or even hundreds of dollars in Kindle-formatted content, how could I possibly afford to switch to another reading platform?

It would be too inconvenient to have part of my library in Amazon's Mobipocket format and the rest in EPUB. Even though I could read both on a tablet (e.g., the iPad), I'd be forced to switch between two different apps. The user interface between any two reading apps is similar but not identical, and searching across your entire library becomes a two-step process since there's no way to access all of your content within one app.

This situation isn't unique to Amazon. The same issue exists for all the other dedicated ereader hardware platforms (e.g., Kobo, NOOK, etc.). Google Books initially seemed like a solution to this problem, but it still doesn't offer mobi formats for the Kindle, so it's selling content for every format under the sun — except the one with the largest market share.

EPUB would seem to be the answer. It's a popular format based on web standards, and it's developed and maintained by an organization that's focused on openness and broad industry adoption. It also happens to be the format used by seemingly every ebook vendor except the largest one: Amazon.

Even if we could get Amazon to adopt EPUB, though, we'd still have that other pesky issue to deal with: DRM.

The myth of DRM

I often blame Napster for the typical book publisher's fear of piracy. Publishers saw what happened in the music industry and figured the only way they'd make their book content available digitally was to tightly wrap it with DRM. The irony of this is that some of the most highly pirated books were never released as ebooks. Thanks to the magic of high-speed scanner technology, any print book can easily be converted to an ebook and distributed illegally.

Some publishers don't want to hear this, but the truth is that DRM can be hacked. It does not eliminate piracy. It not only fails as a piracy deterrent, but it also introduces restrictions that make ebooks less attractive than print books. We've all read a print book and passed it along to a friend. Good luck doing that with a DRM'd ebook! What publishers don't seem to understand is that DRM implies a lack of trust. All customers are considered thieves and must be treated accordingly.

The evil of DRM doesn't end there, though. Author Charlie Stross recently wrote a terrific blog post entitled "Cutting Their Own Throats." It's all about how publisher fear has enabled a big ebook player like Amazon to further reinforce its market position, often at the expense of publishers and authors. It's an unintended consequence of DRM that's impacting our entire industry.

Given all these issues, why not eliminate DRM and trust your customers? Even the music industry, the original casualty of the Napster phenomenon, has seen the light and moved on from DRM.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

Lessons from the music industry

Several years ago, Steve Jobs posted a letter to the music industry pleading for them to abandon DRM. The letter no longer appears on Apple's website, but community commentary about it lives on. My favorite part of that letter is where Jobs asks why the music industry would allow DRM to go away. The answer is that, "DRMs haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy." In fact, a study last year by Rice University and Duke University contends that removing DRM can actually decrease piracy. Yes, you read that right.

I recently had an experience with my digital music collection that drove this point home for me. I had just switched from an iPhone to an Android phone and wanted to get my music from the old device onto the new one. All I had to do was drag and drop the folder containing my music in iTunes to the SD card in my new phone. It worked perfectly because the music file formats are universal and there was no DRM involved.

Imagine trying to do that with your ebook collection. Try dragging your Kindle ebooks onto your new NOOK, for example. Incompatible file formats and DRM prevent that from happening ... today. At some point in the not-too-distant future, though, I'm optimistic the book publishing industry will get to the same stage as the music industry and offer a universal, DRM-free format for all ebooks. Then customers will be free to use whatever e-reader they prefer without fear of lock-in and incompatibilities.

The music industry made the transition, why can't we?


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January 23 2012

Children's ebooks and apps are big business on the iPad

This post is part of the TOC podcast series. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.


If you look at the top paid products in the "Books" category of the iTunes App store, you'll typically see that children's products dominate the list. Children's books and apps are big business on the iPad. This will, of course, be a core focus of next month's TOC Bologna. I thought it would be nice to preview that event by talking about the state of the market in this podcast interview with Neal Hoskins (@utzy), founder of WingedChariot.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Formats and size are a challenge for this content — Even though mobile devices are getting smaller, the current iPad screen size is smaller than the print edition of many children's books, leaving the print version as a more inviting option. [Discussed at the 1:52 mark.]
  • EPUB vs. App? — Publishers face the same dilemma here as they do in other genres. Am I better off simply porting content from print to an EPUB edition, or should I invest in custom app development, native to a particular platform? [Discussed at 6:02.]
  • Languages and multi-lingual layers — Digital platforms represent an enormous opportunity for WingedChariot to extend the multi-lingual reach of their products. One of their recent apps, My House, is a great example of how the user can easily switch between French and English through the touch of a button. [Discussed at 12:50.]
  • Nothing beats hands-on research — WingedChariot has done extensive research with children on what they like about devices, apps, etc. They've also published much of this research. Sample videos are here and here. [Discussed at 14:50.]
  • Three platforms for the mid-term future — Neal sees three companies/platforms vying for the future of this market: Google, Apple and ... Microsoft. It's interesting that he doesn't include Amazon in this list although Google is, of course, the platform behind the Amazon Kindle Fire. [Discussed at 17:50.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.


Want to hear more about the children's book marketplace? Be sure to register now for TOC Bologna, which takes place on March 18th.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

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January 06 2012

Publishing News: Can the Nook be a viable business by itself?

Here are a few of the publishing stories from that caught my eye this week.

B&N looks at spinning off its Nook

NookLogo.png Barnes & Noble made a few ripples in the news this week when it announced the sale of its Sterling Publishing arm. But news that it might also spin off its Nook business caused a bigger stir.

Publisher's Weekly took a look at the Nook's numbers, noting that Nook device sales overall were up 70% year over year during a nine-week holiday period, with the Nook Tablet exceeding expectations and the Nook Touch falling short. The PW post also outlined the planned revenue streams of the proposed Nook business:

The new Nook group would be comprised of four revenue streams: devices; digital content, including e-books, subscriptions, apps, textbooks; accessories; and warranties and extended service plans. While e-books and other digital content sales would be made through BN.com, those sales would become part of the Nook business.

MarketWatch said there's not enough data to determine the profitability of B&N's ebook business on its own. Losses are expected to exceed expectations for 2011:

[Barnes & Noble] said it expects digital content sales to total about $450 million for the fiscal year ending in April — which is about 6% of the total revenues estimated for the company for that period. The total Nook business, including hardware, content and accessories, sold about $448 million in the nine-week holiday period, up 43% from the same period last year. But its investments in the business — along with a shortfall in sales of its E-Ink-based SimpleTouch reader — will crimp the bottom line for the year, bringing in a loss that is deeper than Wall Street had been expecting previously.

In an interview for the MarketWatch post, analyst Scott Tilghman said a Nook spin-off could be good for investors: "My sense is that the brick and mortar booksellers and related valuations are such that a spin of a more highly valued (in the eyes of investors) asset could boost overall shareholder returns."

Others, however, are arguing that the move signals B&N is closer to bankruptcy. In any case, the Publisher's Weekly post pointed out that "B&N said it was not a certainty that it would go ahead with the spin off."

Ingram Content Group Inc. is the world's largest and most trusted distributor of physical and digital content. Thousands of publishers, retailers, and libraries worldwide use our best-of-class digital, audio, print, print-on-demand, inventory management, wholesale and full-service distribution programs to realize the full business potential of books. Learn more at ingramcontent.com.

Newspapers look to capitalize on aggregators

Twenty-nine news organizations, including the Associated Press (AP), The Washington Post Co., and The New York Times Co., banded together this week to launch News Right, a news rights clearinghouse that, according to the AP story, will "measure the unpaid online use of their original reporting and seek to convert unauthorized websites, blogs and other news-gathering services into paying customers." The AP explains how it will identify the use of news:

NewsRight encodes original stories with hidden data that includes the writer's name and when it was published. The encoded stories send back reports to the registry that describe where a story is being used and who is reading it. The technology can even locate stories that have been cut and pasted in whole or in part.

Edmund Lee at Businessweek compared the venture to the way the music industry manages — and polices — rights:

The larger aim for NewsRight is to capitalize on interest among digital enterprises that want to legitimately use content, much the way the music industry manages rights through ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] , which helps musicians get paid for their songs played in public.

NewsRight isn't just a policing move, however. Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor pointed out in the AP story that the data gathered will be a selling point for advertisers, too, and could help them "measure the audience they want to reach more effectively."

Apple rumors fire up: Will iBooks support EPUB 3?

Apple_Logo.pngStraight out of the gate is as good a time as any to get the Apple rumors milling in 2012. Apple (probably) won't be announcing an iPhone5 (so, I won't be able to put my 3GS to rest just yet) or the anticipated Apple TV, but "sources close to the situation" report that "Apple is planning an important — but not large-scale — event to be held in New York at the end of this month that will focus on a media-related announcement."

Many are presuming the event will center around Apple's publishing arm, including its iBooks platform. Chris Foresman at ArsTechnica highlighted Apple's recent offering of a free ebook version of "The Yellow Submarine" to show off the platform and said, "based on information from our own sources, we believe the announcement could likely involve support for the EPUB 3 standard." That would be welcome news, indeed.

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December 22 2011

HTML5: The platform-agnostic key to the future of publishing

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.


Is HTML5 one of the keys to publishing's future? Brian Fling (@fling), founder of PinchZoom, thinks so. His company's new publishing platform is called PinchZoom Press, and it's built atop HTML5. In this interview, Brian tells us about what PinchZoom Press can do and why it's an important new entrant in the epublishing space.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • The platform consists of three different pieces of technology — A native app for iOS devices, a layout tool and a content management system. [Discussed at the 1:50 mark.]
  • Why choose HTML5 rather than EPUB 3? — As flexible and powerful as EPUB is, it's still not as platform agnostic as HTML5. Plus, every device comes with a web browser but not necessarily an EPUB reader. [Discussed at 2:56.]
  • But it's really "not about EPUB or HTML" — Don't focus on the end client. It's about understanding how your content is managed and how you think about how your content is presented in a mixed platform world. [Discussed at 5:07.]
  • Portability introduces some limitations — HTML5 is wonderful for portability and knowing that your product will render well on all platforms, but it also means you might not have access to sensors, cameras and other potentially important device features. [Discussed at 7:20.]
  • Native apps are here to stay — Yes, that means we'll have to invest in apps across at least two platforms. The simple truth is the native app will probably always offer the best user experience for that platform. [Discussed at 10:40.]


  • Pricing is still being finalized — PinchZoom is leaning toward only charging for the content management system, and that's likely to be a monthly fee. [Discussed at 19:45.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

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December 07 2011

A sensible look at HTML5 and publishing


EPUB 3 and Kindle Format 8 both boast support for HTML5, but what exactly is HTML5 and what is its role in publishing? For insight on these questions — and practical ways HTML5 can be used by publishers — I reached out to Sanders Kleinfeld (@sandersk), author of "HTML5 for Publishers." (Kleinfeld also will present an HTML5 for Publishers webcast on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 — you can register to attend here.)

Our interview follows.

Why should publishers care about HTML5?

Sanders Kleinfeld: HTML5 is the future of digital publishing. If you're a publisher who's interested in staying competitive in the ebook landscape, it's quite crucial that you understand what HTML5 is all about.

So what is HTML5, exactly? The term is thrown around a lot, but it seems undefined.

SandersKleinfeld.jpgSanders Kleinfeld: The term "HTML5" is indeed used very fluidly in tech discourse, and it has really become a signifier for a constellation of different technologies, some only loosely related to actual HTML markup. When people refer to HTML5, they're usually talking about some combination of the following next-generation web technologies: Canvas, geolocation, native audio/video, local storage, and CSS3.

In your book, you instruct readers on using the <canvas> element. What is that and why is it helpful?

Sanders Kleinfeld: The <canvas> element allows you to embed an interactive sketchpad into your web or ebook content. You can control it with JavaScript. Because the canvas is scriptable, it opens the door to everything from computer-generated drawings to animations and full-fledged games. If you're interested in "app-ifying" your ebook (i.e., adding the kinds of interactive features that are the hallmark of iPhone or Android Apps), the <canvas> element and its associated API are the tools that are going to allow you to accomplish that.

How can publishers make use of HTML5's geolocation abilities?

Sanders Kleinfeld: Much as websites like Google already customize search results and advertisements based on users' locations, geolocation enables publishers to tailor their ebook content based on where their readers are currently located. This seems particularly beneficial to publishers of travel or restaurant guides, as they can sort and customize hotel/dining reviews based on proximity to the reader's location, suggest points of interest nearby, and perhaps even offer directions from one locale to another.

In "HTML5 for Publishers," I explore the possibility of geolocated fiction, where the reader's current location actually figures into the text of the story. [Click here to see an example of this in action.]

More avant-garde uses of geolocation in ebooks might extend to interactive activities and games like geocaching.

The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) has signed off on EPUB 3. What effect will EPUB 3 have on HTML5?

Sanders Kleinfeld: Prior to the finalization of EPUB 3, the EPUB format already had a huge amount of momentum behind it, as an open standard supported by nearly every major ereading platform: iBooks for iPhone/iPad, Nook, Sony Reader, Adobe Digital Editions, etc. — Amazon's Kindle is really the only notable exception. The release of the EPUB 3 standard, which designates HTML5 as the language to be used for ebook content documents, firmly aligns the format with next-generation web technology. I think it's going to serve as one of the primary catalysts for publishers to get into the HTML5 game and for the major ereading platforms to adopt robust HTML5 support. Publishers are clamoring to enhance their ebooks with interactive and multimedia features, ereader manufacturers want to support these features, and EPUB 3 provides a clearly defined path forward.

We're already beginning to see support for HTML5 features emerge on some of the most popular ereaders. Both iBooks and the Nook Color already support HTML5 audio and video, as do cloud platforms like Ibis Reader. IBooks also supports many <canvas> features. I think it's just a matter of time before other ereaders follow suit.

HTML5 for Publishers — This free ebook provides an overview of some of the most exciting features HTML5 provides to ebook content creators — audio/video, geolocation, and the canvas — and shows how to put them in action.

What's your take on Kindle Format 8?

Sanders Kleinfeld: Kindle Format 8 (KF8) is Amazon's answer to EPUB 3. It's a proprietary standard for Amazon's ereader platforms that adds support for HTML5 and CSS3. Amazon recently published a list of KF8's new capabilities.

Prior to KF8, Kindle's CSS support in Mobi 7 was rather rudimentary, which posed many challenges to ebook publishers with highly graphical content that demanded sophisticated, precise layout. KF8 provides the necessary tools for producing these types of books. It will facilitate the creation of children's books, comic books, and other graphically rich content for Kindle.

More generally, KF8 is also going to make it easier for publishers to make "prettier" ebooks for Kindle, and I think it's important not to dismiss the value of aesthetics to the ereading experience. With the release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon is clearly looking to establish itself as a player in the tablet market, and I think KF8 is going to help Kindle keep pace with iBooks.

That said, while I'm encouraged to see Kindle adopt greater HTML5 support, as a staunch open source advocate and sometimes-beleaguered ebook developer who would love all ereaders to unite behind one file format, very little would make me happier than seeing Amazon adopt the EPUB 3 standard.

What's the best way for publishers to approach your book? Is it more of an introduction, or do they need some basic knowledge first?

Sanders Kleinfeld: In "HTML5 for Publishers," I provide an overview of the HTML5 technologies I believe will be most important to the next wave of ebook innovation, along with sample code and demos showing these HTML5 features in action. No formal knowledge of HTML or programming is necessary to appreciate "HTML5 for Publishers," but if you're interested in diving in and developing your own HTML5 content, some background in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript will most certainly be helpful. I provide links to additional HTML5 resources throughout the book for those looking to learn more.

What should publishers keep in mind as they explore HTML5 for their own needs?

Sanders Kleinfeld: As with every new technology, I think it's important for publishers to take a step back and not allow the hype to distract from practicality.

Consider what aspects of HTML5 might benefit and enhance your ebook program, and employ them judiciously. For example, if you're publishing a series of foreign language guides, embedding HTML5 audio/video content throughout your ebooks will likely be received as a welcome enhancement to readers. But if you're publishing serious literature, adding lots of audio and video may be a distraction. Don't be afraid to be innovative, but always put your readership's needs first.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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November 22 2011

EPUB 3: Building a standard on unstable ground

Now that the ink is dry on the final EPUB 3 specification from the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), it seemed a good time to touch base with "What is EPUB 3?" author Matt Garrish, who also was the chief editor of the EPUB 3 suite of specifications.

Our interview follows.

What advantages/challenges will EPUB 3 bring to the publishing table?

Matt Garrish: The biggest bang I see EPUB 3 bringing to the digital publishing world is undoubtedly the ease with which it will allow the creation of rich multimedia and interactive experiences. The ebook market has moved beyond the static two dimensions of the print page, and I don't think there's any stopping the march forward into uncharted digital territory.

We need to let go of the digital book — the one that doesn't have a print antecedent — and see where it will go, knowing full well that it won't translate back to print. I think that's still a scary idea to many people, but as the ebook market expands, growth in print-incompatible books is inevitable.

That's the biggest benefit I see this new revision bringing to the table, that it offers a clear path away from the print-centric ebook. EPUB is back ahead of the curve and will be both waiting as the format of choice as publishers embrace its new powers and doing its regular duties facilitating dual print/electronic production streams until then.

EPUB 3 alone isn't going to solve all the challenges that exist in digital content creation, but the new revision adds a lot of new weapons to your arsenal, making it that much easier to make high-quality ebooks. The specification is also so newly minted that trying to predict what challenges it will bring with it is a bit premature. Some we can all see coming, like audio and video size and location inside the container file or outside possibly affecting playback. But until the content gets developed, distributed and consumed, it's hard to say which of the many models that could emerge will prove best. I'm confident, though, that the IDPF will be providing guidance and instruction to producers as these kinds of issues develop, if not working to fix them in future revisions.

How do web standards affect EPUB 3?

Matt Garrish: The challenge creating a format like EPUB is navigating the unstable landscape that results when you have to build on top of moving targets. On the one hand, you have an HTML5 specification that isn't finished. On the other, you have browser makers already implementing the standard and the features becoming generally available. Do you wait years and years until the specification is "signed, sealed and delivered," or do you jump in head first and take advantage of what exists now? The IDPF obviously opted to make the leap, so a good deal of the revision work went into circumscribing how to use the technologies in the state they're in so producers don't have to worry about future incompatibilities.

There's little to worry about in terms of using the new HTML5 elements that are available, like audio and video. But there's always concern when you have two agencies separately maintaining the same standard, as is the case right now with the W3C and WHATWG. If browser cores start supporting custom new additions, as the WHATWG encourages, then suddenly you have a situation where reading systems may render features that are not allowed by the EPUB 3 specification. With the door open, how do you manage the standard and ensure interoperability between devices if people jump on a feature because they discover one platform supports it even though others possibly don't? The IDPF has plans for integrating experimental features using the epub:switch element, but it's not an easy problem to solve.

CSS3 is another unfinished suite of specifications, and its support in EPUB 3 was a little trickier than HTML5's. Many of the specifications are now reaching candidate recommendation status (i.e., they're at the point where they are considered stable) and are unlikely to change. But there were also needed properties that were not yet stable, which is why you'll find some prefixed with "-epub-" in the Content Documents specification (primarily from the CSS3 Speech and Text modules). We've taken a kind of snapshot in time of the standards they're defined in so we can use them and not worry if their behaviors change later, if their names are changed, or if they're dropped entirely. The IDPF was fortunate to have Elika Etemad (@fantasai) helping with the revision and coordinating our issues with the CSS groups, too.

Finally, standardized metadata expression languages (both publication-wide and inline) are still unstable within the W3C, with competing languages being proposed. The EPUB working group decided to postpone making a decision on inclusion of any of these until a future version when the landscape has stabilized. But even still, we've improved our metadata significantly with the ability now to add semantic tagging to XHTML5 documents — so you can indicate whether section elements represent parts or chapters or a prologue or epilogue, for example — and to refine metadata in the package document using ONIX code lists and other industry-standard controlled vocabularies.

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What is accessible publishing? How does it apply to EPUB 3?

Matt Garrish: Accessible publishing is the realm I've been working in for the last six or seven years now and probably is not what many people might think it is. There is, disturbingly, still a great chasm in terms of access to information in the new digital age. The oft-quoted estimate in accessibility circles is that only about 5% of the print books produced in any year are ever made available in formats usable by persons with print disabilities. And a big chunk of that 5% is being produced by agencies around the world dedicated to trying to level the playing field. The CNIB here in Canada, which I've worked for, is one such agency that maintains a library and a production arm to republish books in accessible formats.

These types of agencies are not publishers in the mainstream sense. They don't sell the materials they produce and don't typically create new content, but they work with publishers when they can — or chop and scan when they can't — to reformat and publish print sources in braille, talking-book format, large print and many other formats. The DAISY Consortium is like a central voice for these organizations. It advocates accessible publishing practices and maintains its own talking-book specification. But I think everyone in the "business" would tell you it would be a better world if none of us had to be employed playing this catch-up game.

Where EPUB 3 comes in is that the IDPF, with great forethought and compassion in my opinion, has made a real effort to pick up the torch that DAISY has been carrying in the digital publishing world. The EPUB 3 revision saw many DAISY members taking an active role in porting accessibility features over, and of course, the revision was chaired by the incredibly dedicated Markus Gylling, the CTO of DAISY and now IDPF, and someone I've had the great fortune to have worked with on DAISY specifications in the past.

EPUB 3 is now in line to be the successor to DAISY's current talking-book format. But just because a format can be authored accessibly doesn't mean everyone will, or will know how, so we're working to get guidelines and best practices out for people to be able to create great accessible EPUB 3 content. Whatever comes, this is a fantastic leap forward for cutting the middleman out of the process.


How close will Kindle Format 8 (KF8) bring Amazon to EPUB 3? And, do you expect Amazon to eventually adopt EPUB?

Matt Garrish:Well, that's a bit of a loaded question — and I don't presume to speak for the IDPF or its members, to be clear, but I read an article by Thad McIlroy the other day that I think very bluntly summed up the current situation. It was inevitable that Amazon would have to upgrade Mobi when it introduced the Kindle Fire, but I'll temper my response to say I was disappointed Amazon opted to continue to pursue a second format that parallels EPUB. But I was not surprised.

We're sort of back to the same place we were a year ago, though. EPUB, to me, remains the richer of the two formats — having accessibility and greater CSS support built in — but you'll be able to transform your data back and forth from KF8 more easily than if Amazon had stayed with Mobi. The headache once again gets dropped on the consumer. Choose Amazon or everyone else, but don't expect your books to move back and forth seamlessly either way.

The community-driven nature of EPUB, I expect, will always keep it one step ahead of the competition. You may get periodic pronouncements of new format improvements from Amazon, but the IDPF, in my experience, works hard with industry stakeholders to make sure the format reflects what they actually want and need. Work is already getting started on adding indexes and dictionaries to EPUB, for example, and meetings were just held in Taiwan to deal with fixed formats — involving the manga experts who work at the issues every day.

There are many great things coming down the pipe with EPUB, and with the IDPF committed to keeping the specifications open and accessible, I don't expect I'll stop championing the format any time soon.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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November 17 2011

Why we needed EPUB 3

The following is an excerpt from the TOC report "What is EPUB 3?." Download the full report for free here.


What is EPUB 3?If evolution is the cornerstone of life, that's certainly no less true in the electronic world. If you can't adapt — or fail to adapt in time — you're destined to join the ranks of the Netscape Navigators, OS/2 operating systems, and WordPerfect office suites of the world, as a warning to future technology developers that nothing lasts forever, and never in its original form. In this light, EPUB 3 is more than just bug fixes and tweaks from the last version; it represents a major change in what an ebook can be. It's a whole new beast, you might say.

The ebook market has been going through its own kind of hyper-evolution in the mere four years since EPUB2 was released, and a flurry of new devices and document formats have come and gone in that time. E Ink technology was all the rage in 2007 when Adobe, Amazon, Sony, and others were entering the market, however, and EPUB2 arrived to meet the new needs of these portable reading devices, with improved presentation capabilities, better navigation, support for DAISY accessibility features, and some advances in global language support. But EPUB2, like its predecessor and contemporaries, remained a static format, in that its core only allowed for the reading of basic text and image documents.

EPUB2 was an advance, and for a time it served the needs of the market well. It might even have had a longer run had dedicated E Ink devices remained the predominant choice for reading. But just as readers were abandoning their paper books, tablet computers came storming onto the reading scene, not only adding visual and aural dimensions lacking from E Ink's shades of gray, but also including the appeal of merging many capabilities into a single device — reading, browsing, gaming, and music, to name just a few. Dedicated E Ink readers suddenly didn't seem so cool anymore, nor did bland content that looked just like a printed page.

Although the primary effect of this new progression in the way content is read was to expose the multimedia shortcomings of current formats, ebook content had been under assault for a variety of other reasons, too. The ebook community had been clamoring for the ability to make interactive content, for improved global language support, and for better accessibility features, as well as a whole host of other changes to the status quo.

The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) would have been foolish to sit tight on the EPUB2 specification in the face of its own constituents' needs, so a revision was inevitable. Unlike Amazon's Mobi format for its Kindle devices, which is able to rest on its progressively aging technology because both the content and rendering are tightly controlled by a single company, EPUB requires the IDPF to take a much broader perspective with its development because of its diverse community. But this requirement has also kept the format at the leading edge of ebook technologies throughout its history. While EPUB2 was, to use a common euphemism, good for its time, that time, dominated by the initial thrust of reproducing the static print page in electronic form, has passed.

[Note: Amazon's Kindle Format 8 will reportedly include some amount of HTML5 support.]

EPUB2 didn't suffer only from the lack of new features that HTML5 now offers; not every problem a format faces can be solved by new technology alone. Accessibility is one obvious example in EPUB2. In retrospect, the way that features of the DAISY standard got bolted onto the specification led to aspects never being fully or properly implemented by publishers or developers (the DTBook grammar for content) and others being misunderstood or conflicting with general-purpose needs (the NCX navigation file being used for reduced tables of contents, undermining its use by the target audience). The EPUB 3 revision also presented a chance to revisit issues like these that had appeared or been left open since the previous revision, to see if new and better solutions were now possible.

The EPUB 3 working group began the revision of the specification in the summer of 2010 and had a one-year timeline to overhaul the format, in order to address all these issues and more. The result is that the revision has seen major improvements in virtually all the key functional areas: integrated audio and video support (as we've mentioned), accessibility features are much more tightly entwined in the specification now, global language support mechanisms are more numerous and also more integrated, publication-level metadata allows much richer expressions, and so on down through the original charter.

This isn't to suggest that the EPUB 3 revision got everything perfect. The metadata world is in flux, and many had hoped that a more standards-oriented solution would be forthcoming. Video content support is divided between the H.264 and WebM codecs, leaving the specification without a single video type that all reading system developers could agree to support. The comic and manga communities still are looking for more improvements in supported formats and rendering. In other words, the evolution of EPUB doesn't end with the current revision, and thought is already going into improvements.

That said, if you want an open, community-driven, standards-compliant specification that sits at the forefront of what an ebook can offer, however, there is no other solution but EPUB 3.

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July 27 2011

Ebook empowerment with EPUB3

Julien Simon, CEO and founder of Walrus Books, and Jérémie Gisserot, creative manager and technical consultant at Walrus Books, have been somewhat limited in what they can do with their enhanced ebooks. They're banking on EPUB3 to change all that.

In the following interview, Simon and Gisserot discuss the advantages of EPUB3 and what they'd like to see developers do next.

Which new features in EPUB3 are most useful for your enhanced ebooks?

JulienSimon2.pngJulien: We are definitely pleased that EPUB3 specs now natively include audio and video — it's a crucial step for enhanced ebooks. Because EPUB2 did not include these features, developers (mostly Android developers) did not integrate them into their reading applications.

Jérémie: Apple used to have an advantage. Because iBooks was (and still is) using the WebKit graphic engine, Apple was the only one able to offer enhanced reading experiences. Now, with the official launch of EPUB3, we can only hope that developers — especially Android/Windows developers — will go in that direction.

Julien: EPUB3 is not a revolution for Walrus. It's a step forward. We hope that, thanks to EPUB3 specs, our enhanced ebooks will now be available on different platforms.

What has HTML5 brought to EPUB3?

JeremieGisserot.pngJérémie: HTML5 is a major step forward thanks to localStorage. LocalStorage uses iBooks' memory to remember your choices, the pages you read, the answers you gave to questions, the points you earned while reading a gamebook, and the parts of the text you chose to unhide.

Julien: Basically it gives a memory to your EPUB file — even when you close the book. This new "brain" is crucial for our gamebook development because the reader's choices need to be saved. Publishers should really consider localStorage — for us, it's like stepping on Mars ... the only limit is our imagination.


An EPUB3 demo video from Walrus Books

How about CSS3? How do you use it and how well does it work with HTML5 and EPUB3?

Jérémie: As the WebKit graphic engine is used by iBooks, most of the new features brought by CSS3 are well displayed on iPad/iPhone/iPod. We can now reduce the use of "decorative" pictures in our EPUBs. By "decorative" I mean pictures we were displaying to simulate complex layouts to fit with the printed versions of the books. We can now use boxes with rounded corners, shadows, and blurring directly inside the CSS. It's a way to clean the code and make the book much more flexible. In addition to HTML5 and Javascript, it is a great new tool for us to play with.

What changes do you see EPUB3 bringing to the publishing industry?

Julien: The publishing industry now has a great challenge to meet. Jobs are evolving — they require more flexibility and new knowledge. Young publishing teams will adapt, but in some cases a lot of work needs to be done. There are more tools than ever, both for the publisher and the writer. You now have to consider pictures, audio, video, game play, etc., as new ways to tell a story. And considering that buying an HD camera won't turn you into a Scorsese-clone over night, a lot of effort has to be put into training and learning.

To some extent, the book-reading experience will be more like watching a movie, playing a video game and using the Internet. When working on a book project, not only will a publisher and a writer sit at the publishing meeting table, but they'll be joined by a sound designer, a scriptwriter, a director, etc. The publisher's job will soon look more like a producer's job.

Why did you opt to produce only for Apple platforms?

Jérémie: Today it's more of a limitation than a choice. Only iBooks is able to interpret our enhanced EPUBs the right way. We made several attempts on other platforms, but the results were really disappointing — CSS is erased, videos cannot be played, and audio cannot be heard.

Julien: We can't wait to see developers getting involved with EPUB reading apps and making this technology work with Android, MacOS, Linux and Windows. A lot of work has to be done in that field. Ultimately, however, reading should not be a matter of devices, but of taste.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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  • January 12 2011

    What to expect in EPUB3

    Just as publishers are wrapping their heads — and workflows — around the current version of EPUB, a new release is scheduled for May. The EPUB3 draft is set to publish for comment later this month, giving publishers and developers their first blush at what the release will mean to them.

    In the following interview, Bob Kasher, business development manager for integrated solutions at Book Masters and a member of the International Digital Publishing Forum EPUB Working Group, highlights some of the changes the new version will bring to the publishing industry. Kasher is scheduled to speak in depth on EPUB3 at February's Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York.


    What are some of the major changes EPUB3 will bring to digital publishing?

    Bob KasherBob Kasher: There are three key areas EPUB3 is focused around: language support, greater accessibility, and increased multimedia support. Language support will allow EPUB3 to save and search non-Roman scripts — such as Japanese, Chinese and Arabic — as font characters rather than JPEGs, as in current EPUB support. This will make a much broader range of literature available to current and future reading devices from base EPUB files. It will truly internationalize EPUB.

    EPUB3 will also be better at integrating the current DAISY accessibility standards, to help make reading devices of greater usefulness to visually impaired readers.

    EPUB3 will be much more adept at supporting multimedia capabilities for both HTML5-based devices and the coming generation of tablets supporting both Flash and HTML5. It is hoped that in doing so, EPUB3 will help develop an enhanced ebook standard that can be used across a variety of media and content.

    Other developments include enhanced metadata support for discoverability, better facilitation support for touchscreen devices, and support for MathML, which we hope will open up greater opportunities for textbook publishers. EPUB3 will be a quantum leap forward in capabilities for future device support, but still backward compatible with current devices on the market.

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    Will EPUB3 bring any digital rights management changes?


    Bob Kasher: DRM is still optional, and DRM formatting will still be flexible as far as being wrapped with EPUB. There will be no changes in that area.



    How will EPUB3 change ereaders and apps?


    Bob Kasher: That depends on where content creators take it. As EPUB3 will be backward compatible, it will be usable on current devices, so there won't be any immediate need for change. However, as new devices open up greater opportunities for readers to access elements not readily available on devices like the Kindle or Kobo or Nook, it will propel accessibility to these attributes in the next generation of ereaders.

    With an estimated 80+ new tablet products coming to market this year, I foresee an increasing consumer interest for app-like products that can be accessed through general distribution sites rather than as individual apps.

    When will EPUB3 be released? Is the publishing world ready?

    Bob Kasher: The draft is being readied for comment and release this month, and we hope to have the final version publicly proclaimed by Book Expo America in May. I think the world will be ready — there is already a lot of testing and development around the product. I fully expect publishers will embrace the re-write quickly and effectively, and we hope it will be one more element fueling the digital transformation of our industry.

    This interview was edited and condensed.



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