Feature: Are eBook Apps, HTML5, or ePub3 the Future of Digital Publishing?By
Digital Publishing is one of the fastest growing segments and most major publishers are now seeing 21% of their total revenues stem from it. Publishers cannot decide on what the future of publishing will entail. There are three main aspects that the vast majority of companies employing for their strategy. We are seeing strong growth with dedicated e-reading apps, HTML5, and ePub3/ePub2 as the main factors for content delivery. In the next three weeks, we will be talking to some of the leading digital publishers that are currently living in this space. They will be talking about the future and current state of digital publishing and how the industry will look in 2013-2014.
Dedicated e-Reading Apps
Android and iOS are two of the most dominant operating systems in the world. Apple, Amazon, and Samsung are currently the most popular brands in the tablet space. Together they reap the largest market share with 85% of all tablet users loyal to one of these devices. Most digital publishers maintain their own reading apps on both of these platforms and also develop on other niche operating systems, such as Blackberry and Windows 8. Maintaining updates, paying development fees, and issuing new features often has prohibitive costs for smaller publishers and ebook companies. It is often very hard to compete with the army of developers that Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble employ.
Dedicated e-reading apps come in two main forms. The all in one solution that allows you to buy and read ebooks or the standalone book, wrapped up in an app. In the last three years we have seen a rise in dedicated apps that give you a singular ebook experience. Instead of buying an ebook from a bookstore like Amazon, or Kobo, you are buying a book that is in a standalone app.
So the big question is, what is the future of digital publishing when it comes to standalone reading apps, or apps that have a singular book title? We talked to a few companies that outlined their thoughts and explained their digital strategy.
Brian Felsen the President of Bookbaby said “Currently, I’m more supportive of the idea of authors using the apps native to the most popular tablets as a way to consume books. App development can allow for beautiful functionality, but there’s often a high cost, slow time to market, and problems with discovery. (There are almost a million apps in the iTunes app store, and, unlike at store’s launch, it is much harder to discover new authors on there given the competition and audience expectations.”
Sol RosenBerg the VP of Business Development at Copia sounded off pessimistically “And your alternatives are? Since you still want to maintain off-line reading/viewing capabilities and DRM, you’re going to need something. The only other viable option is an HTML5 framework, which is a fancy way of saying ‘app running in a browser.'”
Evan Ratliff, the CEO of Atavist mentioned “It all depends on the publisher. eBooks have improved over the last couple of years. But there is still much you can do in an app (or on the Web) that you can’t do in an ebook, in terms of interactive components, video, tightly integrated multimedia. So it comes down to what kind of books you are producing, how elaborately designed they are, how you want to treat multimedia. Certainly I would say that apps are not generally the way to go unless you are publishing something fairly interactive. The other strength of apps, which some of our users have taken advantage of, is that you can utilize different payment and membership models: subscriptions, bundles, all sorts of things you can’t do well in ebookstores. As a publisher ourselves, we get a lot of value out of our flagship app on iOS, and the ability to sell renewable subscriptions in it.”
Fabrice Neuman is CTO of French Digital Publisher Le French Book explained “It all depends on the type of ebook. I don’t see any advantage in maintaining an app for a regular trade fiction book like a mystery or a thriller, or any book, for that matter, that is essentially just words. These books don’t need any bells or whistles, even if they include a few pictures. In this case, going the ebook way ensures the leanest production costs and the fastest time to market. And also the biggest potential market since anyone will be able to read the ebook, whatever device and platform they use. Creating an app, by its very nature, reduces potential audience. On the other hand, as soon as you need to include multimedia elements, for cookbooks or kids books for example, the need for an app becomes more apparent. Even in the latest versions, both ePub 3 of KF8 are not well suited to create heavily laid-out books, where you’ll want texts and graphics to intertwine and interact. And the cost of production of the actual app will not impact the overall costs anyway: video and graphics will take care of that. Apple is trying to join bridges with its iBooks Creator platform that lets you create multimedia books sold on the iBooks Store. But, if you look at it fairly, what it really does is help you create an app wrapped within a ebook “cover”. These ebooks will only be readable on the iPad, giving you no advantage as far as audience is concerned, and they are even less convenient to use than an app since you have to launch the iBooks app before you can read the book. The one advantage is price: in a strange twist of history, apps tend to be way cheaper than books, even though their production costs can often times be higher. So an app disguised as a book can be sold at a higher price. A company like Inkling goes a step further by giving the possibility to read their books on an iPad, an iPod or event your computer.”
Jeanniey Mullen the global chief marketing officer of Zinio told us “I can’t speak as eloquently about ebooks as I can about digital magazines, but I think this is critical to do at this stage. The difference between the interactive capabilities on the two platforms is large. Without defining the specific user experience and design so that you could be creating a negative brand impact if you continue to think in a one size fits all mentality.”
Finally, Doris Booth the Editor in Chief of Authorlink had a more positive outlook on the future of apps. “The best that device-independent apps (those that work on many devices, including tablets and smart phones) will ultimately win out in the marketplace.”
HTML5 is going to be the next generation of web-content. It is not standardized yet, which is a barrier for companies seeking to adapt this new multimedia form to their publishing pipeline.
In the last few years, we have seen a number of high profile HTML5 reading apps that have been released, such as the Kindle Cloud Reader and the Kobo Cloud Reader. These two platforms were originally established for Safari and Chrome because they wanted to give Apple users a way to purchase content on the web, and not give Apple a percentage of every sale. These two systems are the most well known ones and are more scalable then dedicated apps. Instead of paying the fees to develop 3 or 4 different e-reading apps for Android, Windows, Blackberry, MAC, or iOS, some companies are moving to working on a singular reading platform, that is able to be accessed on any smartphone, tablet, or e-reader.
HTML5 can be used for online and offline reading, which often has a number of benefits. One of the big drawbacks is Fixed Layout books, dictionaries, and indexes. Publishers have to create their own pipelines and systems in order to produce these sorts of things, because the platform does not have these things like ePub does by default.
We asked the question “HTML5 tends to be more flexible in being accessible in most internet browsers. Do you think this will be a format that is going to be more widely adopted in 2014?”
Brian Felson of Bookbaby said ” Yes, and the real challenge will be to make production easier and standardization of distribution and consumption more widespread.”
Meanwhile, Doris of Authorlink mentioned “Absolutely. We must move to HTML5 to meet users’ grand expectations for the digital world. The old HTML isn’t adequate to provide the kind of experience users now and in the future want.”
Evan of Atavist weighed in and said “Certainly. HTML5 is on the rise; we’ve been using it for a couple of years and it’s only going to get more prevalent. We built a system specifically to try and take advantage of both, publishing to both mobile apps and HTML5 web apps at the same time.”
Amy Ross of Vitrium told us that “The browser (the host environment for HTML5) will be a document viewer of choice in the future for two reasons. First, the browser offers greater access and ease-of-use for readers. Second, the cost of delivering content through the browser is lower than the alternatives. Of course, the current feature set in HTML5 cannot completely replace dedicated viewing apps, but most content producers will likely accept some limitations as a trade-off for greater accessibility and ease-of-use.”
Fabrice of Le French Book actually said this question might not be the most prevalent one to ask. “Are the readers, and more broadly consumers, ready to do everything they want to do through their browser? That’s all that matters and it’s all about perception. The “appification” of our daily life is growing rapidly. People are used to launching an app for each task, probably simply because it’s the way we function: we do things one after the other. So a browser is used to go on the Web. In addition, technically, the browser’s capacity to retain information while offline is still questionable. If you can’t be sure that you’ll have access to your book when you’re in an airplane, the approach fails. Of course, you can also consider using HTML5 within an app to optimize your production costs. But even Facebook reversed their thinking on this: they redesigned all their apps (iOS and Android) to be native instead of being wrappers around HTML5 code. Because HTML5 wasn’t capable of delivering the best performance. So HTML5 flexibility seems to be a gimmick more centered on producers’ needs than on consumer benefits.
Sol from Copia had a very interesting point on what his company is doing. “HTML5 is the next frontier of app development and it will probably come in the next few years as a replacement to dedicated apps (as the tools get better, the programming frameworks more efficient). Then again, HTML5 is just really an app running in a browser…”
ePub3 is the third generation of a standardized ebook format that is considered the next generation. The big hyping factors are the ability to display multimedia content and new CSS aspects that will allow more content to be interactive.
Currently ePub2 is the most widely adopted format of choice for digital books, and ePub3 significantly increase the format’s capabilities in order to better support a wider range of publication requirements, including complex layouts, rich media and interactivity, and global typography features. The expectation is that ePub3 will be utilized for a broad range of content, including books and magazines, as well as educational, professional, and scientific publications.
Sony recently updated its Reader App for Android to support ePub3, and Kobo and Barnes and Noble have also introduced functionality. Amazon has forgone this format and instead developed its own proprietary ePub3 alternative called Kindle Format 8, which has similar features.
Barnes and Noble and Kobo have both publicly started that all of their content will be optimized for ePub3 at some point this year, the only major publisher to announce a commitment to the new platform is Hachette.
We asked the question “How can Publishers adjust to ePub3 and what are the barriers of wider adoption?”
Doris from Authorlink said “It takes constant study. Gone are the days when you learn something that you can use for years. Most of what you learn has a life of about 30 days before you have to learn something else. Historically, publishers haven’t moved very fast. Speed and the willingness to embrace new ways is a requirement for publishers in today’s world. Publishers must learn to be flexible and must seek out a few experts who have deep vertical knowledge. Often, it takes a team effort with many disciplines coming together to produce a good product.”
Brian from Bookbaby simply said “When production becomes more cost-effective and adoption more widespread, as well as increased expectations for more functionality in ebooks, new formats and all of their associated functionality will be increasingly adopted. I think the industry has done well; now it’s up to consumers, as well as to the manufacturers of the best tablets, to adopt a truly common, open standard.”
Meanwhile Evan of Atavist does not even think EPUB3 will see any traction in the industry at all “The Web is going to become more important for books, that seems inevitable right now.”
The Future of Digital Publishing
Dedicated e-Reading Apps such as EPUB3, KF8, HTML5 all bring to the table great options that have virtues. There is simply too many different options and the industry simply can’t decide on what direction they want to move in. With tablets playing a more prominent role in the way we read and interact with eBooks, what does the future hold for publishing?
Amy of Vitrium outlined her thoughts “In the near term, publishers will continue to face the challenge of creating content in multiple formats in order to reach all segments of their markets. But in the longer term, the format will become less important as we see the emergence of cross-platform document viewers such as ours that will support different and legacy formats.”
Brian Felson was indecisive “It’s impossible to tell, as few could have predicted the growth spurred on by these devices. Still, while things will change dramatically within the next three years, there’s little public information regarding major industry developments this year to forecast. It remains to be seen whether the increasing functionality of the tablets will encourage content producers to make more interactive, media-rich works, or whether reading will become relegated to ‘just another app’ on these tablet computers, to compete for the consumers’ attention with email, social networks, and games.”
Fabrice of LeFrenchBook outlined his thoughts “The future is very bright for digital publishing as the market is growing rapidly. e-Readers and tablets get into more hands every day. It’s already there in the US and expanding rapidly in other countries like France. Still, there is a lot of work to do for ebooks to really become mainstream. One example would be simplifying even more how readers can get access to them. We also need to re-invent the ‘ebook social context': for hundreds of years books have served a social role, because they were easy to share with your friends and easy to show on your shelves at home. The ebook is a step backward in that regard. There is a void that social networks alone won’t be able to fill. eBooks have to be able to flow from one reader to the next, just like paper books.”
Doris of Authorlink had a unique prospective “Digital publishing has a tremendous future. Printed books, as much as I personally love them, will become a smaller, but not totally extinct, segment of the market, simply because digital reading will be, or already has become, a way of life today. This is not a bad thing. Digital publishing brings us more information, faster. Now, I think we all must concentrate on delivering good, meaningful content.”
Sol from Copia said “One thing is certain. There will be thousands of new innovative experiments that people will try; much like the tens or even hundreds of thousands of websites and startups. Some will survive – and continue to evolve the future of storytelling in myriad exciting ways.
Jeanniey Mullen wrapped up this segment by saying “I think that we will see an interesting collision within the next 18 months between print and digital magazines. In this collision, the 2 distribution channels will merge and re-emerge as a super power of reading, where print becomes 20% or less of all circulation and digital innovates.”
We have heard a myriad of thoughts and different perspectives today on the future of digital publishing. Stay tuned later this week, when we talk to a number of other companies that outline their thoughts on these same issues and new ones, such as piracy, the synergy between HTML5 and EPUB3 and more!