Readk.it to the rescue—throwing publishers an ebook buoy

On November 19, 2007, Jeff Bezos and his behemoth of an online bookstore launched the first generation Amazon Kindle in the United States and ultimately announced the future of electronic readers . Despite the fact that other ebook readers—Rocket eBook Reader, Gemstar, Everybook, SoftBook, Librius Millennium Reader, Sony Reader—had previously flopped (Pogue), the Kindle sold out within hours and remained out of stock for several months. The device’s popularity, success, and criticisms inspired the release of subsequent ereaders—such as the second generation Kindle, the Kindle Deluxe (DX) and the Barnes & Noble Nook—in 2009, and, in 2010, Apple raised the stakes with the introduction of the iPad and its iBooks reading app (“E-book”).

As successful as these ereaders and their respective companies have been, from the first moment of the 2007 Kindle launch until the present, book publishers have been struggling to play a game of ‘catch up’ with these titan tech companies. They have been producing ebooks as quickly as possible—adhering to the technology and guidelines dictated to them—and trying as they might to stay afloat in an unfamiliar ocean, constantly inundated with waves of new ebook formats, ereading devices, and public demands. All of which have made it difficult for publishers to create ebooks that are anything more than just digital copies of their print books, something to fill a gap in the marketplace. But with the launch of Readk.it, a digital reading system that requires no allegiance to one specific ereader or company, publishers might actually have a fighting chance to reclaim ebooks as their own.

At this point in ebook production and consumption, assuming that publishers have made the wise decision to create something more substantial than simple PDF files, two formats have been widely accepted: HTML5 and ePUB3—both of which have their pros and cons. HTML5 “was specially designed to deliver rich content without the need for additional plugins. The current version delivers everything from animation to graphics, music to movies, and can also be used to build complicated web applications.” In addition, it was designed to perform whether being viewed on a PC, Tablet, Smartphone, or Smart TV (“HTML5”), and it has a number of useful elements like geolocation, audio, visual and DRM support, and it is supported by ePUB3 (Elliott). However, according to Michael Kozlowski of Good E Reader, “[as of early 2013] publishers have not adopted HTML5 and CSS3 into their pipeline to create enhanced ebooks,” (Kozlowski).

In 2012, Mike Shatzkin said in his opening remarks at the third annual Digital Book World conference that “the new ePUB format promises the gap between an enhanced ebook and an app will be narrowed … App-making tools are being developed that make it easier and cheaper for publishers to make them themselves” (Shatzkin). The format is free and open and can be read on any reader, it has reflowable and resizable text, embedded metadata, CSS styling, and support for audio and video content as well as Digital Rights Management (Elliott). As Helicon Books CEO Ori Idan explains, the ePUB standard is basically a series of HTML and CSS files each zipped together and compiled into a larger file that dictates the files of a publication; “so in essence ePUB3 is not competing with HTML5, [but it] is a complementing standard. It uses HTML5 and CSS3 for the actual contents” and further, since the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) chose to align the two, “as HTML5 evolves, ePUB3 is committed to evolving with it … [which makes] ePUB3 much more fundamentally a portable document packaging of Web content, rather than a distinct format” (Idan).

However, as Alex Sutcliffe explains in his recent essay “ePUB3 is not the Magic Number”, ePUB3 presents a problem in that ereaders and formats often override the ePUB3 CSS files and impose their own styling (Sutcliffe), which creates an unsightly, and often unreadable, ebook. He summarizes: “ePUB3 … renders differently across platforms, is built on HTML5 but limits use of HTML5, and the best reader for the format is only capable of potentially supporting 72.5% of its features … [whereas] HTML5 [is] unfettered by limitations and accessible by most internet-enabled devices and platforms, with a little-used offline storage component” (Sutcliffe).

So which format should publishers choose? If ePUB3 is basically just packaged HTML5, is it even necessary to take the extra step and present a finalized ePUB document? If publishers choose to work specifically with HTML5, how often will ebook readers come across a situation in which a web connection is unavailable? What about band-width limitation and sustainability (Idan)? As IDPF Executive Director Bill McCoy considers: “publishers need to think and act a lot more like web developers” and “some types of real-time content websites and web-based databases will over time replace books,” but “ePUB has a critical role to play that isn’t filled by plain websites … ePUB is the portable document format for the Open Web” (McCoy). With so many uncertainties there is little wonder why the quagmire that is publisher created ebooks has remained fairly stagnant in comparison to the substantial strokes being made by the tech companies and their ereaders.

Enter Readk.it, “a light-weight and open-source browser-based reading system that can be combined with ePUB content to produce a book-like experience in a single HTML file… [allowing] publishers to use modern web design techniques in eBook production” (“Manifesto”). Simply, it utilizes standard web design technologies like HTML, CSS and Javascript to enable readers to open and read ePUB3 files in a standard web browser rather than needing a specific ereader or app (Hoffelder). Right off the bat, Readk.it identifies four main problems with current ebooks:

  • reading systems cannot keep up with the technology
  • content is often displayed differently over different platforms due to incompatibilities between different formats
  • reading systems that lock both publishers and readers to a  particular vendor and their device
  • ebook standards (ePUB2 and ePUB3) that are complex and difficult to implement across different ereading systems (“Manifesto”)

In an attempt to address these concerns and create a system that simultaneously serves the publisher, the ebook, and the reader, the minds behind Readk.it created a system that allows the content to adapt to the platform on which is it being viewed and that “provides rich typography, embedded multimedia, and interactivity and animation.” And, most importantly, the Readk.it reading system is embedded inside the ePUB file, meaning that the file “can be used by the browser to display the content according to the publisher’s wishes” (“Manifesto”).

With hopes of being as accessible as possible, Readk.it is available to the reader in four formats—all of which can simply be downloaded from the Readk.it website. As is outlines on the Readk.it website, Readk.it Solo provides both the book and the reading system in a single HTML file that can be accessed through online services, such as email, and then opened in a web browser and read offline. In Readk.it Library, multiple ePUB files can be stored and viewed as part of a carousel from which readers can choose titles at any time. Readk.it ePUB packages the reading system inside the ePUB file, which can be unzipped and web-served at a later date and used to read an ebook. And finally, the Readk.it Reader can be downloaded on its own, without an accompanying book. This simple HTML file, which is quite small in terms of size, can be opened in the user’s browser and then any ePUB file can be dropped into the browser page to begin reading (“Home”).

Given its accessibility and easy-to-use interface, a great number of possibilities lie within Readk.it. As their site proposes, publishers will be able to provide review and promo copies much more easily if they need not be concerned with which reviewer requires which format for which reader, and the library function will allow publishers to create sample chapters and excerpts to entice readers into purchasing the full ebook (“Home”). The opportunities, of course, are many; but arguably the greatest advantage of the Readk.it system lies within its deliberate detachment from specific ereaders and formats. By packaging the ereading system within the ePUB, Readk.it has removed the overbearing technological companies and their limiting ereading systems from the equation and given the power and control back to the publisher.

Of course, no ereading system is perfect, and Readk.it is no exception—because Readk.it ebooks are designed to open on one HTML page, longer ebooks that are heavily laden with media will inevitably take longer to load depending on platform with which it is being viewed. As well, despite having been designed to perform on today’s web browers, the system cannot be guaranteed to run seamlessly on all modern browsers (“Home”). But even so, Readk.it’s limitations are practically cake compared to what publishers have been dealing with in the past. And with this newfound freedom, they now have the opportunity to break the mould created by previous limitations and finally step up their game to create ebooks they can be passionate about. They can embed videos into children’s ebooks and create audio playlists to accompany each chapter; they can set text over complicated family trees or provide an overlying map of J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land and Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Cookbook publishers can utilize geolocation capabilities to steer their reader toward the nearest farmers market, and houses that produce art books can use the canvas element to entice readers to create their own masterpiece. Honestly, with Readk.it, the sky may very well be the limit.

So, it has been the better part of a decade since Jeff Bezos and his behemoth bookstore dictated the direction of ereaders and forced the creation of ebooks, but today, between the ever-evolving capabilities of HTML5 and ePUB3 and the freedom afforded to publishers by Readk.it, it seems as though publishers may finally have the opportunity to fight back, to reclaim their power over ebooks, and to finally create an electronic product that is as much their creation as their print books. As one reviewer said upon Readk.it’s lauch, “all in all, on a technical level this is a very nifty project and on a practical level it should prove very useful … If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should” (Hoeffelder).

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Bibliography

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Comparison of E-Book Formats.” Wikipedia.  21 Mar 2014. Web. 26 Mar 2014.

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Elliott, Tori. “eBooks—currently ephemeral, potentially durable.TKBR Wiki. 19 Mar 2014. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Hoffelder, Nate. “ReadK.it Offers a New Way to Read & Share Epub eBooks in Your Web Browser.The Digital Reader. 24 Feb 2014. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

HTML5 Introduction.” W3Schools. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Idan, Ori. “EPUB3 vs. HTML5.Helicon Books. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Kozlowski, Michael. “The Conundrum of Digital Publishing— HTML5 or ePUB3.Good E Reader. 19 Jan 2013. Web. 26 Mar 2014.

Manifesto.” Readk.it. Web. 24 Mar 2014.

McCoy, Bill. “Portable Documents for the Open Web.” O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing. 16 Aug 2012. Web. 26 Mar 2104.

Pogue, David. “An E-Book Reader That Just May Catch On.” New York Times. 22 Nov 2007. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Shatzkin, Mike. “Remaking an Industry: What publishers need to be thinking about in 2012.” The Idea Logical Company. 25 Jan 2014. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Sutcliffe, Alex. “ePUB3 is not the Magic Number.PUB 802: Tech & Evolving Forms of Publishing. 24 Mar 2014. Web. 26 Mar 2014. Link: