2014 – a good year for illustrated ebooks

After Frankfurt 2013 I boldly made the prediction that 2014 would be a year of opportunity for illustrated books, like never before.  This year, they will finally get their chance to shine, and find a way to market.

EPub 3 can make a lovely illustrated book with multi-media, interactivity etc etc, but finding a place to sell the resulting glossy beautiful ebook is much harder.  Apple iBookstore can sell them, and people can get the full experience on their iPads, but beyond that, the market is sketchy, and the formats are incompatible.  

That means that to sell the same book on say, a Kindle Fire, you have to re-do the whole thing, because the format that works for Apple doesn’t work for Kindle, and neither of them work for other kinds of tablet.  There is one standard in theory, but it’s customised by each retailer for their own device.  To sell the book for many devices means producing the ebook in many formats.  The problem is, that’s too expensive and complicated to produce – and for most books, the sales don’t justify that level of investment.  

Currently, publishers of illustrated books are left with two choices – steer clear, or dumb down to the lowest common denominator – an uninspiring flat, fixed format that may or may not fit on the reader’s screen – Not Good.

The Association of American Publishers decided to do something about this.  They spent 2013 getting device manufacturers, retailers and publishers to talk to each other, and agree on a set of features from ePub3 that they could commit to support.

The promise is that new devices and software coming out will all display the same set of features.  This means that if a publisher produces a book which makes use of those features, they can be sure that the same ePub3 ebook file will work on all the tablets from all the retailers.  They only need to do one file, and it will be suitable for many markets.  This is revolutionary!  Thank you AAP for getting it together.

You can see the ePub3 standards in the Implementation Paper published by the AAP just after Frankfurt: http://publishers.org/press/117/

 

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Ereader Woes

I saw this article on Book Brunch today: The Ebook Transfer Headache.  In it Nicholas Clee bewails the fact that although he has multiple ebook readers on multiple devices, he can’t swap books from one to the other – his Kobo books won’t work on his Kindle (needless to say) and the Waterstones books that he’s put on his Kobo reader won’t appear in the Kobo app on his new tablet; and he can’t move his Kobo books into another ereader …

The DRM is tying his purchases to the device or app of the retailer he got them from, even though the formats are supposedly compatible, and he’s within his allowed number of copies.  It’s all so frustrating.

But I wonder whether the solution would be, in a way, worse.  The only way that we could all have access to everything we’ve bought on any device would be for the whole lot to be stored in some sort of cloud.  At the moment each retailer, be it Kobo, Kindle or iBooks, has their own cloud, so we can see our stuff on their apps; but a different company’s app is not linked to that cloud, so it doesn’t have access to that stuff.

The alternative would be that instead of giving us access to our books in a personalised area of their cloud, instead our purchases from all retailers are put into our own cloud.  That means that all our stuff would be visible to any of our devices accessing our cloud.

The only way I could have my own cloud would be to rent space from a cloud storage company.  That way all my stuff would be there all the time.  It would be like Dropbox, or Google Docs.

But this throws up two questions:

  1. Would the retailers – Kobo, Amazon et al – relinquish the files to my cloud in this way?  Probably not because of all the valuable usage data they can collect from me, as I dip in and out of my purchases, reading my ebooks in their cloud.
  2. Who would I trust to store my stuff in their cloud?  I hate having all my eggs in someone else’s basket.  Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like Google, or Dropbox or anyone having access to all my digital belongings.  For me there’s a massive privacy issue there – not that I’ve got anything to hide – I just want some privacy.

A partial solution for Mr Clee might be removing some of the DRM from the ebooks.   That would make it easier for him to transfer them from one reader to another, but it wouldn’t make them transfer by themselves.  He’d still have to side-load from his computer, or swap memory cards to and fro as he is already, but once they were transferred, they would work.

This all shows that at the moment the ebooks we buy are still very much tied to the retailer we buy them from.  It’s more than an interoperability issue, and I think it is going to be a long time before retailers sacrifice the valuable market intelligence this gives them in favour of more convenience for their customers.

5 Reasons to Love ePub3

Everyone is talking about ePub 3 which is launched this autumn, so I went along to UCL’s Digital Publishing Forum to find out what the fuss is all about. This is what I discovered from a very good talk by Graham Bell of Editeur.

Where did it come from?

ePub 1 was the Open Ebook format (OEB) developed by the IDPF
ePub 2 is the one we use now. The first device we could read ePub books on was the Sony Reader, launched in 2008.
But many publishers and readers are painfully aware of it’s limitations, so the IDPF have been working on upgrading it.
Now they have ePub 3 about ready to use, and you can see the specs on their website at idpf.org/ePub/30/spec

What does it do?

  • Media: The thing that makes all the difference is that an ePub 3 file also contains other media, so things like audio, and animation can be added to the book, yet it still retains the all-important reflowing text of ebooks. These other media will appear in the correct place in the book, synchronised with the text – they don’t have to be grouped in an appendix at the back. Some ebooks do already include multi-media but they only work on a few types of reader, so if you have the wrong kind of phone, or your ereader is the wrong make, you miss out. ePub 3 aims to reduce these differences between machines as ePub 3 becomes a universally recognised industry standard.
  • Layout: Current ePub ebooks are fine for novels and straight text, but ePub3 goes much further – not just books but also magazines, newspapers, journals, corporate publications whose highly designed pages need a fixed layout to look great, are more likely to work well too.
  • Languages: whether the writing goes left to right or right to left, and starts at the front or the back of the book, whether it writes in letters or scripts or characters, ePub 3 will show it correctly.

How does it do it?

ePub 3 is based on HTML5. As this is the same code that many apps are created in, it will pave the way for ebooks to become more app-like. At the moment web browsers use HTML4 so we won’t be reading ebooks in Internet Explorer or Google Chrome.

HTML 5 is based on XML so ePub 3 tags keep meaning and structural descriptions separate from presentation instructions. This has the effect of making them less media-specific. An example is the <i> tag. Instead of meaning italics as it does in HTML 4, it means emphasised. A screen may be directed to show this in italics, but a read-aloud programme will know (directed by the CSS) to put a stress on that word when it reads it out. Similarly, the <b> tag no longer just means bold, it means strong, so the read-aloud will speak louder at that place.

What does this mean for publishers?

  1. Better slicing and dicing: selling parts of a book is something publishers would Ilke to do more of, and the new structural tags in ePub 3 make it much easier to do. Each chapter or section has its own self contained structure showing headings and subheadings in relation to the part, not just the whole. It’s like a row of terraced houses that you can move apart into small detached houses without the party walls falling down.
  2. Better page design: ePub 3 benefits from better styles in CSS. The designer can now put the page or parts of the page into columns and the reading device will fit them onto the screen, regardless of the size of the screen – they just reflow. This makes ebooks a possibility for a whole range of titles that really need that option in order to look good
  3. Better discoverability: no-one can buy a book unless they can find it, and online you find by searching. ePub 3 uses SVG graphics. This means that diagrams are ‘drawn’ on screen according to instructions instead of being a fixed image pasted in. Included in those instructions is the text for the diagram, right there in the text of the book. That has two benefits:
    • a diagram’s captions and labels are searchable like the rest of the text, from within the book as well as on the web in services like Google Books
    • because they are embedded in the text, diagrams and captions will always appear in the right place instead of re-flowing off somewhere else and getting separated.
  4. Better bells and whistles: all these things combine to make it easier to add things to help or entertain the reader. Instead of adding one photo, why not add a slide show? Maybe a diagram would be clearer if it was animated to show how it works. Want to know where Sherlock Holmes found the body? Here it is on Google maps. Ebooks will be able to be more like apps.
  5. Better metadata: the book’s details are included in the ePub 3 file showing title, author(s), publisher, date etc in a way that a computer can read (ie not just painted in the artwork of the cover). Based on this information, and its links to further information, the computer can classify the book appropriately in its database. Thus we will have the self-cataloguing book. That will make life easier for librarians

All we need now is lots of affordable ereaders to enjoy these lovely new ebooks on.