Exploiting the Full Potential of the EPUB3 Format

By: Larry Bennett

If you are an author or a publisher of books that are not strictly narrative, are your ebooks a mirror image of your print books? Or have you taken advantage of the capabilities that the EPUB3 format provides to offer readers an enhanced reading experience?

Ebooks, in rudimentary form, have been around since the 1980s, predating many of todayÔÇÖs young ebook readers. In the 1990s, ebook publication was primarily limited to scholarly publications. Later on, in 2000, Stephen King published an ebook-only novel, later also available in print. Although Sony released the first dedicated ebook reader in 2004, most people associate the birth of ebooks with the 2007 launch of AmazonÔÇÖs Kindle, followed closely by the launch of Barnes & NoblesÔÇÖ Nook in 2009 and AppleÔÇÖs iPad in 2010.

As the market for dedicated ebook readers was developing early in this millennium, a parallel development effort was underway for ebook formats. The book industry, hoping to avoid a format war, similar to what occurred with Betamax vs. VHS in the 1980s, and Blu-ray vs. HD DVD in the 1990s, formed a consortiumÔÇöthe International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)ÔÇöto develop a ubiquitous open ebook format. The Open Ebook Forum, the forerunner of the IDPF, actually began work on a standardized format in 1999, and the Open Ebook Publication Structure (OEBPS) was created that year.

In 2005, work was initiated to produce a more robust format, leading to the birth of the EPUB2 in 2007. Spurred on by the explosive growth of the ebook market and the increasing sophistication of e-readers, work was undertaken in 2010 to more closely align EPUBs with HTML and CSS, adding more features to the format. This led to the release of the EPUB3 format in October, 2011.

EPUBs are zipped files that are essentially an entire website. They contain multiple elements, including HTML files, images, CSS style sheets and metadata. They can be read on most reading devices and platforms, including Nook, Kobo, Kindle Fire and Google Books on Android and iPad. The glaring exception, though, is the rest of the Kindle family. Although the EPUB3 format is more than four years old and is highly recommended by the Book Industry Study Group, many publishers are still publishing in EPUB2 format.

Think of the EPUB2 as plain vanilla, devoid of sound capabilities, videos and interactivity, with reflowable text as the only option (no fixed layout). Although Apple later developed a ÔÇ£fixÔÇØ to allow a standard EPUB2 file to be displayed as a fixed layout, the format was best suited for reading narrative text, perfectly compatible with the original Kindle e-reader, the only real option in 2007. Simply put, it is an electronic simulation of a print book.

As more powerful devices were launched, with rich colors and larger screens, demand was growing for a format that could deliver a richer reading experience for childrenÔÇÖs picture books, photography books, academic texts loaded with charts and diagrams, STM content, educational/instructional texts, etc. At the same time, publishers began to find innovative uses for the enhanced capabilities of EPUB3 in key niches. This was made abundantly clear through the words of Bill McCoy, president of the IDPF, in a recent interview with Book Business Magazine:

ÔÇ£During the last year itÔÇÖs become clear that one of the key needs for going beyond the simpler text-centric kind of ebooks is in the e-textbook space. In e-textbooks, or more generally digital content for learning, itÔÇÖs very critical that the content be interactive, that itÔÇÖs able to have media enhancements like audio and video. If youÔÇÖre learning about algebra, being able to actually type numbers into an equation is very important. So all the rich media, interactive features that werenÔÇÖt in the original EPUB but are in EPUB3 thanks to HTML5 are directly applicable to the learning environment.ÔÇØ

The applicability of McCoyÔÇÖs comments can be clearly seen in OverDriveÔÇÖs recently launched Read-Along Ebook format (synced audio and text embedded in the ebook). OverDrive, the leading supplier of digital content to libraries and schools, is the only supplier with this capability. In addition, according to Alexis Petric-Black, publisher account services manager at OverDrive, ÔÇ£The Read-Along Ebook category is one of our highest growth areas. Combining our technology with the capabilities of the EPUB3 format, we are able to deliver popular Read-Along ebooks that combine the colorful text and images of an ebook with a read-along capability that highlights words as the narrator, providing our educational and library clients with a great learning tool that entertains young readers and enhances their reading skills at the same time.ÔÇØ

To summarize, many small publishers ask why they should make the switch from EPUB2 to EPUB3. The answer is clear, with the latter format delivering the following capabilities:

  • integration of audio and video (HTML5)
  • integration of animation effects (CSS3)
  • integration of components programmed in Javascript, such as quizzes and interactive exercises
  • ability to produce fixed layout books

Publishers, using the right service provider, can cost-effectively differentiate their product by taking advantage of the available, superior technology.

About Larry Bennett

As Executive Director of Business Development, Larry Bennett manages the North American market for French technology company Nord Compo. Nord Compo is the leader in providing prepress composition and digital services for book publishers in the French-speaking world. Prior to joining Nord Compo full time, Larry worked as an executive for hire, on retainer with Nord Compo and a variety of small book publishers, managing their distribution strategies. Previously, he was President of Distribution at Bookmasters, Inc., where he was responsible for managing the global distribution business, including print and ebooks. From 2007-2011, Larry was Vice President of Digital Print Media at Baker & Taylor, where he was responsible for developing and managing the company’s Digital Print Media (print on demand) business worldwide. Larry is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.