The Conundrum of Digital Publishing – HTML5 or EPUB 3?


The Digital Book World event has just wrapped up and marked the first large publishing gathering of 2013. Many of the exhibitors and speakers hyped up either EPUB3 or HTML5, as a way to distribute digital content. No one could quite agree on where the future of the industry will take us and many indie companies are focusing on one or the other. The big question that was on everyone’s mind is if HTML5 or EPUB3 will be the future of digital publishing in 2013?

In the last few weeks, Kobo and Barnes and Noble both announced that sometime in 2013 they will begin to offer full support for the  EPUB 3 standard. What this basically means is that their e-readers, tablets, and pps will have expanded support for ebooks that have multimedia elements such as audio, video, narration, and interactive features. The main problem with this approach is that it makes for a good news story, but if publishers are not producing content in EPUB3, it defeats the purpose. Currently the only major publisher to announce a commitment to this new ebook standard is Hachette. Recently, the COO Ken Michaels said “HBG’s goal is to get our authors’ works out to consumers as broadly as possible, with the most engaging experience for readers regardless of device or platform, along with high quality aesthetics and entertainment. To do this in a world of rapid technological change, the industry needs standards like EPUB3 that enable a wider range of publishing creativity in handling complex layouts, rich media and interactivity capabilities. This EPUB3 release is an exciting step forward in our publishing program and will greatly benefit our readers as the industry fully recognizes the potential and fully adopts this important standard.”

SPI Global and other technology developers are proclaiming that the EPUB format is going to fade away, in light of the growing adoption of tablet reading. Meanwhile, the Book Industry Study Group and IDPF do nothing but hype the glorious future of EPUB3 and implore all companies to introduce it into the pipeline.

One of the huge issues with EPUB3 right now is that not all online readers can support it. Major companies like Amazon, Kobo, and Sony currently have not widely adopted this standard in their iOS and Android applications. Apple currently has the BEST support for EPUB3 via iBooks, but they devote zero marketing effort into proclaiming it. The crux of the issue is that if publishers distribute their content in EPUB3, it limits the number of apps patrons can use to read their content and end up having tons of EPUB2 elements in it, negating a pure multimedia experience.

CSS3 and HTML5 is a valid alternative to the EPUB3 format, because the books can be read online on any major internet browser. Instead of relying on dedicated e-reading apps, you can read the books on any major web browser on the PC, MAC, Android, and IOS. Amazon and Kobo have already taken advantage of HTML5 by opening the Kindle Cloud Reader and the Kobo Cloud Reader. These were initially designed and made available to buy, purchase, and read books on the iPad and iPhones, but since has expanded. The main reason they developed these online reading apps is because Apple had implemented a policy last year that demanded all in-app purchases be made by iTunes. This resulted in these two companies disabling the functionality to buy electronic content through their official iOS apps. They bypassed the iTunes restrictions by developing a fully featured HTML5 based store app that functioned like their iOS or Android equivalents. The great thing about this is that accessibility now reaches beyond people with iOS. It allows unsupported devices like the Blackberry Playbook, tablets, and most smartphones enjoy an online reading experience.

Most of the existing HTML5 reading apps with the largest footprint is Kobo and Amazon. The main problem is 95% of all of their ebooks are not able to display EPUB3 or dynamic content. Publishers have not adopted HTML5 and CSS3 into their pipeline to create enhanced ebooks. This is a weird situation because many of the programs they end up using to publish books are products by Adobe. In the last six months, the Adobe Publishing Suite has introduced a number of CSS3, HTML5, and other plugins to convert existing books over to this format.

The largest advantage of HTML5 based readers is the fact they can display both EPUB3 and HTML5 ebooks. Whether you are an indie start-up developing an ebook agnostic HTML5 reader or a major company, it is an easier system to invest in for the long-term. The entire reliance on dedicated apps does not have a future, it simply is not cost effective to update apps for Blackberry, iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux, and a myriad of others. This often creates a severe gulf in certain operating systems never getting any love and alienating customers.

There seems to be no clear answer on the future of digital publishing. We are seeing a severe scaling back of dedicated e-reader apps and more companies investing in HTML5 based reading apps. Honestly, if you had the choice of spending a copious amount of money updating 6 apps with a new feature, or updating a single HTML5 platform, which would you choose? The industry is torn between what platform to invest in and there is an air of uncertainty on one true format to focus on. This is the main reason why enhanced ebooks are relegated to specific companies doing their own thing. Barnes and Noble and Scholastic Storia are two examples of this.

To help solve the needs of the industry in flux, Good e-Reader is currently developing an agnostic HTML5 and EPUB3 Cloud Reader and eBook Cloud Storage Locker.  You can store all of your purchases from any ebook retailer and even read them via the fully featured HTML5 App. You can learn more about this project and kick in a few bucks for development HERE.

Michael Kozlowski (5148 Posts)

Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about electronic readers and technology for the last four years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the Huffington Post, CNET and more. Michael frequently travels to international events such as IFA, Computex, CES, Book Expo and a myriad of others. If you have any questions about any of his articles, please send an email to

  • OriIdan

    First EPUB3 is actually using HTML5 and CSS3 inside it so you can not say that HTML5 is an alternative.
    It addition, I think we can not say that online content is an alternative to having your own book.
    When you have your own book you are not dependent on web connection and even if the copyright owner removes the website, you still have the content (sustainability).

    As for readers, currently the only reader I know that fully supports EPUB3 is the Helicon books Gyan reader ( Currently works for Android only but will support iOS in the future.

  • Good E-Reader

    If you check again, licensing agreements from Amazon and other major resellers say you don’t own the book, they do. You are just licensing it from them and they have the right to terminate the licensing agreement when they want. This is why people are scared and want to backup their books, because sellers arbitrarily kill peoples accounts/books/

  • OriIdan

    Yes, this is a great issue with Amazon and some other resellers that they don’t actually sell you that book, as opposed to printed book where you actually buy the book.

    Anyway what I wanted to say is that when you download an EPUB book (either EPUB2 or EPUB3) you have the file and you do not depend on internet connection to read it.

    Also as you said Amazon or other resellers can arbitrarily remove the book you paid for. I recall I’ve read that such a things already happen (although Amazon said it was a technical problem)

  • Good E-Reader

    The Main question is the EPUB3 format for eBook for e-readers and e-Reading Apps disappear? It seems to me that HTML5 eBooks and Online Readers are more scalable.

  • OriIdan

    I think EPUB3 is actually a packaged HTML5 website so it is as scalable as a website.
    EPUB3 will continue to evolve and contain much more.
    I joined the IDPF in order to help this happen.

  • Bill McCoy

    You are mixing apples and oranges here, as others pointed out it’s not “HTML5 or EPUB 3″ as EPUB 3 is built on HTML5. EPUB 3 is simply a way to reliably and interoperably structure a portable publication that’s made up of HTML5 (and related Web Standards). There are other ways to represent HTML5-based publications but they are proprietary (iBooks Author format, Inkling format, Kindle KF8) and/or under-specified (Baker Framework’s HPub), not designed for interoperability, and don’t have the features of EPUB 3 (global language support, accessibility, fixed layout as well as reflow, audio synchronized with text rendering, embedded fonts, …). Converging on a single representation for HTML5-based portable documents lets us have tools and services that work across content from multiple sources – as we have had in the paper replica era with PDF. That said interoperability depends on support in reading applications and you are correct that we aren’t far enough along in vendor support of EPUB 3 yet – but it will get there in the coming months.

    The cloud reader you propose to create will use HTML for presentation since it’s deploying to a browser but that’s a separate issue from how the content it’s rendering is represented.

    I don’t think vendors like SPI are saying that EPUB will go away but rather that HTML5 (and related specs of the Open Web Platform) is the more fundamental thing. I agree with that.


    Example of cloud-based eBook reader (HTML5) allowing to read e-books in EPUB format instantly online – book “No Straight Lines” by Alan More @alansmlxl #NoStraightLines

  • etand

    I’m taking first steps, trying to join the volunteer ranks of HTML5 publishers for The multi-platform social justice it promotes.