The Future of Digital Publishing question has been one of the most popular discussions at major conferences in the last few years. Publishers and ebook stores cannot come to a definitive conclusion on a singular delivery method that would appeal to everyone.
Over the course of the last few weeks we have spoke with major publishers, ebook companies, app developers, and thought-leaders to chronicle the future of publishing. This article is the last one in a three part series, you can check out Part 1 and Part 2.
You don’t have to follow the publishing industry closely to know that books these days tend to be packaged in dedicated apps or have interactive elements. Readers now have more choice than ever before when it comes to the process of reading ebooks. You can read them directly on the web with a new generation of Cloud Readers, such as the ones offered by Amazon, Kobo, and Overdrive. You can also download enhanced ebooks in the form of apps from Apple, Google Play, Sony, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. These enhanced editions provide a myriad of interactive features, such as audio, video, maps, narration, and gaming elements. Finally, many e-reading companies deliver ebooks the way people have always purchased them, but the rise of tablet use has all the standard multimedia elements delivered right in the book itself.
Whether you are reading books on the web or reading enhanced ebooks on a tablet, smartphone, or computer, you are often reading them in a HTML5 or EPUB 3. Many people think these are singular entities with nothing in common. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as EPUB3’s backbone is actually powered by HTML5.
EPUB 3, which is the latest revision of the industry-standard XML ebook format, is firmly embracing HTML5 and CSS3. It retains its focus on XML-driven toolkits by requiring XHTML serialization and adding supplementary XML vocabularies, such as MathML and SVG. MathML is fairly interesting because it actually allows complex mathematical formulas to be displayed in a book, which is very useful for e-textbooks. EPUB 3 offers a variety of options for developing advanced, digital-native publications. The main positives about the blending of the two formats in a singular ebook format is the ability for publishers to display video, audio, interactivity, global language support, multi-column layout, embedded fonts, and the backwards compatibility with EPUB 2.
So you can say that HTML5 and EPUB 3 have a ton of synergy with each other. Right now, major e-reading companies like Kobo, Apple, and Sony have all introduced updates to their Android or iOS reading apps to display EPUB 3 books. The main factor is that most publishers seem to be bundling their content in dedicated apps or delivering it via HTML5 and still relying on the EPUB2 format. Amazon is doing its own thing with Kindle Format 8, which is basically just EPUB3 re-packaged to suit its line of Kindle Fire e-Readers.
What are your views on maintaining dedicated Reading Apps for iOS and Android as a method to view ebooks?
Marilyn Siderwicz, the Marketing and Communications Manager of W3C, whose company The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web. She told me that “Digital publishing already is web-based. If you think about today’s ebooks, they’re really ‘frozen’ web sites packaged in a container. Readers today, however, are demanding more flexibility in how they access and use content. They want rich media and the ability to interact with more and different kinds of content. They want to choose how, when, and where to access stories or information. And they want to use media to engage others much like they share physical books with others to expand a conversation.
HTML5 is part of a larger set of technologies—which we call the Open Web Platform—that helps publishers do all these things while reducing the costs and complexities of cross-platform development. Many people don’t realize that EPUB3 is heavily HTML5-based. So what we’re seeing is a continued evolution of the user’s online experience both within and outside of the browser. W3C invites everyone in the digital publishing community to join the conversation as the industry continues to evolve Web technologies. Change will surely accelerate.”
Tom Waters, the CEO of Autography, runs a company that allows authors to autograph ebooks. He has his hands in many different cookie jars, delivering content to a myriad of platforms. He mentioned that “The basic hardware will mainly see changes in performance/size/resolution, but I think we’ll see a wider variety of applications that will be customized for very specific groups of readers. Not just in the accepted genres like romance or thrillers, but also very specific slice of demographics based on location, age group, and cross interests (18-22 year old women, residing on the West Coast, who like romances AND thrillers, etc). Book clubs could customize apps, event managers could customize apps, it goes on and on. They’ve got to embrace cross-functionality, easy upgrades, clean interfaces, and ease of library movement if they want to be successful long term.”
ThisNext originally rolled out Glossi in December, which is a platform that allows people to DIY publish digital magazines. There is no shortage of online ebook creation programs, but magazines really haven’t been done before. We spoke with Glossi CEO Matt Edelman, who knows what he is talking about. Before taking over the reigns of Glossi, he was in charge of Marvel’s Entertainment division. He weighed in on the question and answered “Apps are popular because they provide enhanced value. That isn’t going to change. Even though HTML5 remains a viable alternative, native apps will continue to raise the bar because app-based operating systems will continue to advance. It’s hard to envision a future in which HTML5 closes the gap entirely. That said, a publisher cannot rely upon one or the other to reach their target readers or maximize the size of their audience. Content wants to be wherever it can be consumed. That philosophy has guided the development of Glossi. We believe in hyper-distribution and are designing our platform to enable creators to publish content within whichever user experiences their audience prefers.”
David Burleigh is the chief marketing officer at Overdrive, whose company has recently revised its entire online experience to center on HTML5. This allows ebooks to be read on the web, tablet, fridge, or car screen. He simply said “We see a continuation of development for both apps and other methods, such as HTML5. We believe there’s more dynamic growth in HTML5-based ebooks.”
Finally Jim Ambach, Senior VP of Product Management at e-textbook company Coursesmart said, “At least for the next couple of years, we feel it will remain necessary to provide dedicated apps on iOS and Android mobile devices in order to offer the best possible reading experience both online and offline. Although mobile browsing is becoming more and more important (in some months, CourseSmart sees just as many user sessions from mobile browsers as it does from its native apps) due to the limitations of the browsers on mobile devices, there are things you can’t do without a dedicated app. For example, offline caching and significant data storage. Right now, we think that the optimal solution is to provide both native apps as well as a mobile-optimized browser experience, so we are currently providing both.”
There is a lot of talk about HTML5, EPUB3 and KF8 as future formats that allow for multimedia based books, what are the potential barriers stopping wider adoption and how could publishers adjust to the new formats and get them in something other than EPUB2?
Marilyn from W3C said, “W3C members are discussing a variety of new technology standard enhancements, including those for web typography, layout, metadata, video, and audio. But technology is only one piece of the puzzle. Industry business models will need to reassessed, too, including review of existing and new value chains, competitors, and monetization opportunities. An additional W3C member benefit is learning how other industry players are preparing for change—technologically, but also in the broader business sense.” She continued, “Many publishers are switching to ‘XML First’ content workflows to capture fluid, reusable high-quality content directly from authors. This change reflects a new way of thinking about primary assets, rather than just a technical switch. These publishers ultimately will have a competitive advantage by generating Web technology alongside, or in place of, print products.”
Jim Ambach of CourseSmart weighed in on the prospective barriers on adopting EPUB 3. “Barriers to widespread adoption of these formats include issues such as support for readers with disabilities; for example, the more types of media that are included, the more steps necessary to make sure the content is universally accessible. Also, proprietary standards for particular platforms such as Kindle or iBooks, might hinder widespread adoption as content producers debate about what formats they want to produce to. Lack of tools and design know-how are also considerations, although they seem to be less of an issue now that more and more authoring environments are being created.” She continued “As large publishers work these new standards and capabilities into their existing workflows, they can buy time today by working with third-party experts to convert existing titles and add interactive components to published work. Smaller publishers can take advantage of newer authoring environments and start generating new content right away. The trick will be learning what kind of media and interactivity can contribute to a more engaging reading experience. One of the things that we are starting to do at CourseSmart is provide publishers with analytics that describe how and what content is being used to help them determine what is effective and what isn’t.”
Tom Waters commented, “I think education is the biggest hurdle – people don’t know these formats, don’t know the pros and cons of them, and don’t like having to ask someone for help. They are already behind, and as a result, the changing technology is moving ahead of them even faster because they’re not learning and adapting quickly enough to keep up. It’s something publishers are accused of quite often, but I think as readers we are just as guilty.” What can publishers to to overcome these new technical challenges? “The toolsets for creating and maintaining content are usually the challenge. Currently, creating a feature-rich ebook for multiple platforms means you’ve got to maintain one toolset and document version for KF8, another for EPUB3, another for Apple’s iBook ePub format, and yet another for HTML5. Maintaining the toolsets and personnel qualified to use them is a burden.”
Matt Edelman from Glossi elaborated “The barriers will be based on what enables publishers to best distribute and monetize their publications. Amazon’s dedication to its own format, KF8, makes KF8 a requirement for book publishers. KF8 will only go away if Amazon moves to another format. At the same time, no one else is rushing to adopt KF8; they see Amazon as dominant enough already. HTML5 and EPUB3 have advantages for multi-media publishing and distribution, although they are not exactly analogous. You can have an HTML5 experience within an EPUB3 ‘container.’ HTML5 cannot offer everything in terms of ebook creation that EPUB3 offers… yet. However, EPUB3 faces two key barriers: lack of backwards compatibility with all EPUB2 readers and less support across platforms and devices. Any restriction on distribution threatens wider adoption.”
What do you think the industry needs to do to decide on a future unified platform, such as EPUB3, Apps, or HTML5?
Marilyn from W3C said “The question implies that EPUB3, apps, and HTML5 are in direct competition. Instead, it’s more helpful to recognize that the technologies already have a lot in common. EPUB3 is really a packaged HML5 Web site. And app development will be very similar whether someone is using the app inside or outside the browser. The approach is the same; differentiation is really a matter of the user interface design and overall experience. Digital publishing companies increasingly are getting involved with building Web standards, but more involvement is needed. Organizations like IPDF and W3C are reaching out. We welcome everyone in the industry to participate.”
Tom Waters was fairly negative about any consensus happening with wider adoption of a single ebook format. “I don’t expect to see a unified platform. We don’t see it elsewhere and I wouldn’t expect ebooks to be any different. There are multiple sizes, shapes, fonts, and layouts of physical books. There are DVD’s, Blue Rays, and various streaming video formats for movies. We don’t want or need just ONE format for content delivery because our needs are different at different times. Flexibility is key. The content and the container, regardless of how much we might complain about it, are inextricably linked.”
Jim Ambach from CourseSmart mentioned, “I think the industry needs to watch and understand how the majority of users will want to access that content, and then find the easiest most effective way to reach them. At CourseSmart, we strongly believe that the fewer impediments between a user and the content they need, the more willing they will be to use the services you provide. We are committed to working with publishers to provide access to their content using the most straightforward means possible. Whatever technology lends itself to that cause is likely to become that unified platform.”
Eric Hellman the President of Gluejar, maker of Unglueit contributed “There’s a vital, need to have a standard for distributing self-contained book-like websites. EPUB3 goes a good way toward towards that. Let me rephrase that. I think that our civilization will descend into darkness without a standardized distribution format for book-like things. I don’t want our civilization to descend into darkness. Apps, KF8, MOBI, EPUB3 are all attempts to make something like that. The process behind EPUB has the best chance, I think to get there. Maybe it will be EPUB5 before it reaches some level of maturity.
I fear that the “Book in Browser” approach (Kindle CloUd, Safari Online, etc Zola, too) will hook publishers on the narcotics of intrusive data collection and revision. No doubt it’s the best format for a cookbook or a travel guide. But it can’t work for a dangerous book, and the great books are dangerous. Ironically, the BiB approach is the best near-term solution for implementation skew, which is today’s biggest headache for EPUB publishing. So I see that as a key step along the way. I talk to a lot of librarians, and their deepest concern is for the future. What will happen to ebooks when the platforms go away? Companies will fail, governments will fall, and censorship is an ever-present and growing danger. Too much of the publishing world is focused on next year’s bottom line, to the detriment of the entire ecosystem.”
Finally, Matt from Glossi summed it up by saying, “I don’t think there is anything driving the various members of the digital publishing ecosystem to proactively choose a unified platform. Not even consumers would benefit from that. Just as some people prefer hard cover books over ANY digital alternative, so too will segments of consumers continue to gravitate towards publications that offer unique value specifically because of the platform on which they are published. And as long as there is a market for more than one alternative, there will be suppliers for that market.
What does seem clear though is that the web itself is becoming the publishing platform of choice as it matures. That suggests HTML5 may become the most dominant platform, largely because it would be the most economical one.”
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and Verge.