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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.


October 19 2011

Building books for platforms, from the ground up

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.

In this interview, Jon Feldman founder, president and CEO of Open Air Publishing, talks about the development of "Speakeasy Cocktails," an ebook designed and built for the iPad. He says the book content was developed from the ground up specifically with the tablet in mind — each component was designed to take advantage of the rich ebook experience. Highlights from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Incorporating customer feedback took time, but was worth it: Feldman says incorporating beta testers in early development had a direct effect on navigation development. Consumer testers also tested the recipes and provided feedback. The customer feedback was important to product development, Feldman says, because it gave them a fresh perspective on what worked and didn't work. [Discussed at the 2:50 mark.]
  • The Big Six aren't quite getting it: "We see the big six publishing houses still haven't embraced full-on multimedia books; they're making books for paper and pushing out flat electronic versions as an afterthought to capture the channel without building for it," Feldman says. He compares current digital books to the early TV shows of the 1940s, in which the radio host was pictured talking into a microphone. [Discussed at 3:53.]
  • Marketing was key to the success of the $9.99 price tag on "Speakeasy Cocktails": Feldman says there was much leg work behind creating a recognizable brand and showing customers the value of the innovative book, separating it from the 99-cent apps and other cheap and free content. He also talks about how they settled on the $9.99 price point, as opposed to $14.99 or $19.99. [Discussed at 8:15.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.


October 03 2011

Failure is a digital prerequisite

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.

In the following podcast, Jesse Wiley (@jcwiley), who works on digital and new business initiatives at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and is a seventh-generation Wiley family member, talks about the challenges the 200-year-old company faces in the digital age. Wiley says that success and innovation depend on learning how to fail — and expecting to fail.

Highlights from the full video interview (below) include:

  • Some lessons learned: Wiley discusses treating authors and partners as brands unto themselves. He also says the company is learning that traditional print practices don't necessarily translate to digital practices, particularly in terms of discoverability: "As bookstores become less and less of a channel, you don't have an opportunity to have your brand physically represented in a store the way it has been in the past." [Discussed at the 1:25 mark.]
  • Coping with the changing landscape: Wiley says the company is constantly adapting to stay ahead of the game: "We're continually reorganizing our people and our businesses to adjust to the markets, which I think is essential — things are changing so fast, you can't just expect what worked even a year ago to work tomorrow." He says they're adapting incentive plans for editors and investing not only in technology but in the things that make technology work, such as project management. [Discussed at 10:28.]
  • Dealing with revenue streams and knowing when to make a move: Finding a balance between the print and digital business is a challenge, Wiley says, and in a way, the areas that still are doing well in print are funding the new digital projects. He also says it's important to learn to fail: "Learning to fail is not an established concept in publishing, but in the technology world, innovation is built on doing pilots and testing — learning to fail and expecting to fail, and learning from both the successes and the failures." [Discussed at 11:55.]
  • For more of Wiley's thoughts check out the full interview in the following video.

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    The agile upside of XML

    In a recent interview, Anna von Veh, a consultant at Say Books, and Mike McNamara, managing director at Araman Consulting Ltd & Outsell-Gilbane UK Affiliate, talked about the role of XML, the state of ebook design, and the tech-driven future of the publishing industry.

    McNamara and von Veh will expand on these ideas in their presentation at TOC Frankfurt next week.

    Our interview follows.

    Why should publishers adopt XML?

    mikemcnamara.jpgMike McNamara: There are many benefits to be gained from implementing XML in a production workflow. However, it really depends on what the publisher wants to do. For example, journal publishers probably want to reuse their content in a number of different ways for differing products and specific target markets. XML can deliver this flexibility and reusability.

    A UK Legal publisher I worked with wanted to enrich its online content deliverables to its clients. The publisher added more metadata to its XML content, allowing its new search environment to deliver more accurate and focused results to clients. A fiction book publisher, on the other hand, might want to produce simple ebooks from original Microsoft Word source files and might not see any real business or technical benefit to using XML (however, I do think this will change in the future). A simple XHTML-to-ebook process might be a better option for this type of publisher.

    Anna_von_Veh.jpgAnna von Veh: The very term "XML" can cause many people to run for the hills, so it's sometimes helpful to look at it differently. Do publishers want to ensure that their content is searchable and reusable for a variety of formats, in a variety of ways, for a variety of devices and even for devices that haven't yet been invented? Do they want to be able to deliver customized content to customers? If so, XML — and I include XHTML in this — is the way.

    There are a number of issues. One is the value of putting legacy content into XML to make it more usable, discoverable and valuable to the publisher. The second is incorporating XML into the workflow for the front list. And then, of course, there is the question of when to incorporate XML into the workflow — at the authoring stage, editing, typesetting, post-final, etc.

    While the format-centered model that most publishers are familiar with produces beautiful products, it is not one that is likely to flourish in the new world of digital publishing. Digital requires a much more rapid, flexible and agile response. Using XML, though, doesn't mean that design or creativity is dead. The hope is that it will help automate work that is being done manually over and over again, and allow publishers the freedom to focus on great ideas and creative use of their content.

    What is the best way to integrate XML into an existing workflow?

    Mike McNamara: I don't believe there is one "best" way. Again, it's down to what is the best way that suits that particular publisher. "XML first," "XML last" and "XML in the middle" all have their own costs, implementation requirements and benefits. I tend to favor the XML-first option, as I believe it delivers more benefits for the publisher. Though it would probably introduce more change for an organization than the other options (XML last and XML in the middle).

    Anna von Veh: If you're a large publishing company with a bigger budget and lots of legacy content, then you might want to move to a full content management system (CMS) with an XML-first workflow. But a smaller publisher may want to focus on a digital-friendly Word and InDesign workflow that makes "XML last" easier. However, incorporating XML early into the workflow certainly has benefits. The challenges revolve around changing how you think about producing, editing and designing content and managing the change process.

    How future-proof is XML? Will it be supplanted at some point by something like JSON?

    Mike McNamara: XML is a very future-proof method for ensuring long-term protection of content. It is the format chosen by many digital archives and national libraries. True, JSON has become very popular of late, but it is mainly used today for API development, financial transactions, and messaging — and by web developers. I think JSON has a long way to go before it supplants XML — as we know and use it today — as a structured content format for use in publishing.

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    Is ebook design in a rut?

    Mike McNamara: No, it's still developing. More thought needs to be put into adding value to the content before it gets to the ebook. Take travel guides, for example. If I want a travel book to use in the field, say on a hiking holiday, I don't want to have to carry the print product. I want the same content reconfigured as an ebook with a GPS/Wi-Fi environment added to use on my smartphone, with everything referenced from the same map that I saw in the print version.

    Publishers need to get smarter with the data they have, and then deliver it in the different ways that users need.

    Anna von Veh: Many current ebooks are conversions from printed books, either scanned from the printed copy or converted from PDFs. These ebooks weren't designed or planned as ebooks, and in addition, quality control was lacking after they'd been made into ebooks — and these are very bad advertisements for ebook design. Many new ebooks (i.e. those in the front list) are much better designed. However, most are still based on the idea of the print book.

    A key thing is to focus on is the fact that a screen is not contained in the same way that a printed book is, and that it is an entirely different format (see Peter Meyers' great A New Kind of Book blog, and upcoming "Breaking the Page" book). I think of ebook design as being much more akin to website design, which is why I advocate hiring web designers. I like the idea of starting with the web and going to print from there. It seems right for the digital age. Also, I think anyone working in book production today — both editors and designers — should learn some web skills. Hand coding simple EPUBs is a good way to practice, and it is relevant, too.

    How will digital publishing change over the next five years? Are we headed toward a world where books are URLs?

    Mike McNamara: More and more content will continue to be published online. Many reference publishers are already looking to add more value to content through metadata. This would allow clients to find the right content for their immediate context via sophisticated search engines. Some publishers already allow clients to build their own licensed versions of publications from the publishers' content repositories, with automatic updates being applied as and when needed.

    Consequently, publishers will continue to move toward having even smaller, more focused chunks of XML data, allowing easy assembly into virtual publications. These will all be available to download and read on multiple devices, focusing on smartphones and tablets.

    The combination of smarter XML (with multimedia information), smarter search engines and smarter reading devices will define how content is created and delivered over the coming years.

    Anna von Veh: In answer to the first part of the question, it depends on what we understand "digital publishing" to mean. I like to think of it as the process of publishing — i.e. the workflow itself rather than the format. In terms of the process, yes, I think the web will have a big role to play (see PressBooks), but once again, it depends on how open publishers are to change.

    Much will depend, too, on exactly who the publishers are in the next five years. I think it is highly likely that tech startups will make up a large piece of the publishing pie, though they may be bought up by larger publishers and tech companies. Some of the big vendors that hold much of the current knowledge of digital publishing (and therefore, perhaps, power) may move into publishing. There are also the smaller indie and self publishers that aren't hampered so much by legacy issues. On the other hand, big publishers have financial muscle and experience in content creation, design and editorial. It's an exciting time.

    As for the format, I wouldn't bet against the web there, either. I'm a fan of the web in general (my favorite ebook reader is the browser-based Ibis Reader). In mainstream publishing, a lot of educational content is migrating to the web and learning management systems (LMS).

    Even if books become URLs, what is needed is a cheap and easy print-on-demand (POD) home printer and bookbinder, or print "ATM," like the Espresso Book Machine. There are many situations where printed books are still required, not the least of which are countries in poorer parts of the world where the web is a luxury. Arthur Attwell's startup Paperight is a great POD idea designed for developing countries, and it also provides publishers with income. Mobile phones, too, are gaining ground in developing countries, and they're being used for a variety of innovative businesses. Smartphones could well become the main way to read content all over the world, whether that content is contained in ebooks, website books, or other forms.

    But this just looks at the technology side of things. People bond emotionally with books and stories, with the authors who create them, and with other readers who share their interests. Potentially, connections could be built between readers and the editors and designers who shape the books. In this digitally connected but often physically separated world, all these connections are becoming both easier and more important, irrespective of what form the content takes or where it lives.

    This interview was edited and condensed.

    Photo on home and category pages: XML_logo by Jmh2o, on Wikimedia Commons


  • The line between book and Internet will disappear

  • Metadata isn't a chore, it's a necessity
  • Here's another reason why metadata matters
  • Sometimes the questions are as enlightening as the answers

  • March 17 2011

    The secret to digital publishing success? Don't start with the book

    LPTour.png In a recent interview, Gus Balbontin of Lonely Planet talked about some of the the development challenges facing publishers in the digital age:

    What we face is breaking down the barriers of a very long-standing way of operating and working. For Lonely Planet, for almost 40 years, we've been creating books, in a particular way, with a particular process and tools and workflows. That's been all thrown up in the air as new mediums and platforms come out. The lucky thing for Lonely Planet is that we've been in the mobile guides business for a long time. Although they were manifested as books, they were still mobile guides.

    Balbontin discussed the challenges of content origination as well, suggesting that when developing digital content, it may not always be best to begin with the printed book, as is the tendency in traditional publishing:

    The mechanics of getting [mobile digital products] out are very tricky — all the way from where we originate our content, which is originated primarily for a book, which then needs to be repurposed. The things that you create or generate for a book don't apply for an app or an ebook. Stripping those things out or changing or morphing or massaging that content to fit the different mediums is a serious challenge.

    Balbontin and the team at Lonely Planet recently addressed this challenge with a completely new product: walking audio tours. The Audio Walking Tours iPhone app is Lonely Planet's first digital-only product with material that did not originate from a print book. The app takes users on city tours, much like the walking tours available in many museums. According to a press release:

    The apps provide detailed information to let people explore at their own pace, with an easy to navigate location aware map that allows the user to stop and start their journey or skip ahead to any of the selected stops. The tours also work offline so roaming charges for international users can be avoided.

    For more on how the Audio Walking Tours app came about, the importance of handling content in nimble ways, and why authors need to be more flexible as well, check out the entire interview with Balbontin in the following video:


    March 08 2011

    HarperCollins' Avon Impulse: Digital trendsetter?

    AvonImpulseLogo.pngAvon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has launched an all-digital line, Avon Impulse. Matthew Flamm explained the publisher's plans in a post for Crain's New York Business:

    The imprint will put out one original e-romance a week. There will be no shipping and printing costs, and authors will not be paid advances. Authors do better with e-books however, since they're paid a royalty rate of 25% of the net sale. With paperbacks, they're paid 8% to 10% of the list price, which works out to be considerably less.

    Flamm pointed out that Amazon pays 70% royalty, but it is important to note that the 25% royalty Avon Impulse will pay is only for the first 10,000 copies — after 10,000, the royalty increases to 50%.

    In an email interview, owner Kassia Krozser discussed this all-digital move and noted a couple of concerns.

    What are your initial thoughts on an all-digital romance imprint?

    Kassia KrozserKassia Krozser: This is a smart move by HarperCollins/Avon. A digital-first imprint allows them to experiment with content in a relatively inexpensive way. With a print program, there is less incentive to push the boundaries of genre and style, while, as proven in the past decade and a half, digital-first and digital-only presses have been able to explore new ideas. These smaller houses have frequently published books that authors are told readers don't want, only to discover readers do want new story types, and they're willing to pay for them.

    If Avon plays this smart, they can become a trendsetter in romance fiction.

    What are some potential issues that might make this not work?

    Kassia Krozser: Where I have some concern is the business model, as outlined in the FAQ on the Avon Impulse website (and noted in Smart Bitches' reporting). Avon is offering a 25% royalty on net receipts — net is undefined, but I am assuming it means price customer paid less commission/agency fees — for the first 10,000 units sold, increasing to 50% thereafter. I love that the royalty is increasing, that's a very smart move, but the 25% royalty is not particularly competitive with other players in this marketplace; 30-35% would be more in line with established players in the digital-first market.

    Another concern is the line's DRM. Again, other players in this space make a point of touting their books as DRM-free. It's a great marketing tool for them. While there are a lot of new readers who are relatively unsophisticated about DRM and buying ebooks, the established reader — a reader likely to champion a new imprint — has certain expectations.

    How do you think authors will respond?

    Kassia Krozser: Authors will be comparing what Avon offers when it comes to digital-first against other digital publishers. For these authors, there are known trade-offs: no advance but higher royalties and faster reporting, less money but faster time to market, no marketing dollars but community-based efforts that get the word out. Avon, obviously, has some leverage in that they have a strong print program, and will be looking at Impulse authors for that program. Those will factor into author decisions. The question becomes how well this imprint stacks up against other publishers in the same space.

    What about the goal of publishing a book per week — is that achievable?

    Kassia Krozser: Publishing a book a week can be done. The trick is to build up a catalog before going live, and then have a steady stream of titles in the pipeline. There will have to be a team of editors working on Impulse titles to keep up this pace. Presumably HarperCollins is hiring additional editors since I suspect their regular editorial staff is full-time busy. It's a lot of work and requires good digital workflow. Remember the speed-to-market point — an author who isn't receiving an advance is going to want a book on the shelves, virtual or physical, in a timely manner. Any delays are money out of that author's pocket (or perceived money).


    January 24 2011

    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.


    September 10 2010

    The line between book and Internet will disappear

    A few months ago I posted a tweet that said:

    The distinction between “the internet” & “books” is totally totally arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years. Start adjusting now.

    The tweet got some negative reaction. But I'm certain this shift will happen, and should happen (I won't take bets on the timeline though).

    It should happen because a book properly hooked into the Internet is a far more valuable collection of information than a book not properly hooked into the Internet. And once something is "properly hooked into the internet," that something is part of the Internet.

    It will happen, because: what is a book, after all, but a collection of data (text + images), with a defined structure (chapters, headings, captions), meta data (title, author, ISBN), and prettied up with some presentation design? In other words, what is a book, but a website that happens to be written on paper and not connected to the web?

    An ebook is just a print book by another name

    Ebooks to date have mostly been approached as digital versions of a print books that readers can read on a variety of digital devices, with some thought to enhancing ebooks with a few bells and whistles, like video. While the false battle between ebooks and print books will continue -- you can read one on the beach, with no batteries; you can read another at night with no bedside lamp -- these battles only scratch the surface of what the move to digital books really means. They continue to ignore the real, though as-yet unknown, value that comes with books being truly digital; not the phony, unconnected digital of our current understanding of "ebooks."

    Of course, thinking of ebooks as just another way to consume a book lets the publishing business ignore the terror of a totally unknown business landscape, and concentrate on one that looks at least similar in structure, if not P&L.

    While you can list advantages and disadvantages of print books versus ebooks, these are all asides compared with the kind of advantages that we have come to expect of digital information that is properly hooked into the Internet.

    Defining a book by what you cannot do

    What's striking about this state of affairs -- though not surprising, given the conservative nature of the publishing business, and the complete unknowns about business models -- is that we define ebooks by a laundry list of things one cannot do with them:

    • You cannot deep link into an ebook -- say to a specific page or paragraph chapter or image or table
    • Indeed you cannot really "link" to an ebook, only various access points to instances of that ebook, because there is no canonical "ebook" to link to ... there is no permalink for a chapter, and no Uniform Resource Locator (url) for an ebook itself
    • You (usually) cannot copy and paste text, the most obvious thing one might wish to do
    • You cannot query across, say, all books about Montreal, written in 1942 -- even if they are from the same publisher

    You cannot do any of these things, because we still consider that books -- the information, words, and data inside of them -- live outside of the Internet, even if they are of the e-flavor. You might be able to buy them on the Internet, but the stuff contained within them is not hooked in. Ebooks are an attempt to make it easier for people to buy and read books, without changing this fundamental fact, without letting ebooks become part of the Internet.

    Many people don't want books to become part of the Internet, because we just don't know what business would look like if they were.

    This will change, slowly or quickly. While the value of the digitization of books for readers has primarily been, to date, about access and convenience, there is massive and untapped (and unknown) value to be discovered once books are connected. Once books are accessible in the way well-structured websites are.

    What lurks beneath the EPUB spec

    The secret among those who have poked around EPUB, the open specification for ebooks, is that an .epub file is really just a website, written in XHTML, with a few special characteristics, and wrapped up. It's wrapped up so that it is self-contained (like a book! between covers!), so that it doesn't appear to be a website, and so that it's harder to do the things with an ebook that one expects to be able to do with a website. EPUB is really a way to build a website without letting readers or publishers know it.

    But everything exists within the EPUB spec already to make the next obvious -- but frightening -- step: let books live properly within the Internet, along with websites, databases, blogs, Twitter, map systems, and applications.

    There is little talk of this anywhere in the publishing industry that I know of, but the foundation is there for the move -- as it should be. And if you are looking at publishing with any kind of long-term business horizon, this is where you should be looking. (Just ask Google, a company that has been laying the groundwork for this shift with Google Books).

    An API for books

    An API is an "Application Programing Interface." It's what smart web companies build so that other innovative companies and developers can build tools and services on top of their underlying databases and services.

    For instance:

    We are a long, long way from publishers thinking of themselves as API providers -- as the Application Programming Interface for the books they publish. But we've seen countless times that value grows when data is opened up (sometimes selectively) to the world. That's really what the Internet is for; and that is where book publishing is going. Eventually.

    I don't know exactly what an API for books would look like, nor do I know exactly what it means.

    I don't know what smart things people will start to do when books are truly of the Internet.

    But I do know that it will happen, and the "Future of Publishing" has something to do with this. The current world of ebooks is just a transition to a digitally connected book publishing ecosystem that won't look anything like the book world we live in now.


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