Overhauling Digital Publishing: EPUB Updates and a Change of Industry Attitude

Publishers, reading system developers, eBook designers, and even end-users/readers need to see the limitations of EPUB 3 fixed layout (FXL) formatting, which is the basis for most e-readers on the market today. Alberto Pettarin, software developer and CEO of ReadBeyond research lab, argues that the industry as a whole needs to recognize the overall harm of this format to the publishing industry in terms of production inefficiency, high production costs, end-user reading limitations, poor code conversion, low accessibility, and long-term incompatibility, among other problems. Nate Hoffelder, editor of The Digital Reader, and Baldur Bjarnason, industry expert in web development, design and marketing, both agree with Pettarin that FXL has limitations in all of these areas and more, and they emphasize that the way in which the publishing industry (publishers, reading system developers, eBook designers, and end-users) fails to use the technology for its original purpose, is the ultimate reason for lack of successful digital development in the industry. This, mixed with non-aligning corporate agendas between publishers and reading system developers, has, as Hoffelder suggests, essentially driven “the digital publishing industry… fifteen years behind the cutting edge of web design.” In this sense, it is not only a matter of updating current technology to EPUB-WEB that eBook designers and software developers envision; an overhaul of digital publishing requires a change of attitude from many of the key players in the eBook game to adopt formatting technology in its fullest capacity.

FXL as it was intended

Pettarin reminds us that FXL was originally developed from web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, with the intention of allowing “the author/publisher to semantically tag the contents, [and] in turn allow the user to personalize the “reading” experience according to her needs.” However, he goes on to say that “almost all the FXL files currently on the market are not really fulfilling that vision” (Pettarin). Publishers market FXL as an “enhanced eBook,” a buzzword used to describe perceived value to a customer. In effect, Pettarin argues, this is a false claim. Almost always, an enhanced eBook is simply a basic FXL overlayed with additional (but limited) Javascript and EPUB 3 features, allowing them to claim enhancement, rather than just selling “properly displaying reflowable contents” (Pettarin). What’s worse, Pettarin says, in doing so “they are limiting the user freedom, rather than augmenting it. Sometimes [FXL eBooks] are even inferior to their PDF version.”

Format limitations caused by reading system developers

Reading system developers also place huge format limitations on publishers and eBook designers: “Amazon’s fixed layout can’t be used in the same eBook as embedded audio and video. Also, Apple’s iBooks format can’t be read on the iPhone, meaning that all those pretty [books] don’t even work across Apple’s entire platform” (Hoffelder). Among reading system developers, like Amazon and Apple, there is competition for market share through proprietary software development, which ties up workflow for publishers who are producing multiple types of eBooks for various platforms. This ultimately pushes production costs back on the publisher rather than on the reading system developers, or even the readers themselves who sometimes have a preference in reading systems. Pettarin also emphasizes the vast ineffectiveness of the digital format converters that publishers might use to distribute their files to multiple reading platforms. The XHTML code is transformed into a digital soup, barely readable to the human eye (see example), and the searchability of the document is sometimes rendered useless to the reader where fixed line breaks don’t allow them to search for hyphenated words that are split over two lines. In this case, Pettarin reluctantly concedes that the PDF—effectively, technology from two decades ago—is more useful, “not to mention that PDF readers are available on almost anything with a CPU, while FXL…” (Pettarin). And yet, he states, “very few important stores sell PDF files: either they force you to upload FXL files, or they let you upload PDFs and convert them for you” (Pettarin). Therefore, the reading systems are disallowing the semantic manipulations that FXL was originally intended for. Ultimately, publishers and end-users/readers are losing product value in this situation. As Bjarnason reminds us, “why would publishers [or readers for that matter] want to use a technology that doesn’t recognize mobile phones, for example. Given the long-term trends of the industry, the strategic risks of eschewing mobile phones are much too great for any publisher” (Bjarnason). I would argue further that ignoring or limiting web-based reading habits, such as basic searchability, layout support, or interactivity is detrimental to the publishing industry going forward.

Publishers’ fetish for fixity

This competitive and, therefore, unproductive attitude in reading system developers against each other and against publishers, is partly perpetuated by publishers’ false sense of security in fixed layout formats. Pettarin argues that the use of EPUB FXL further narrows a publisher’s field of vision amongst the myriad reading platforms currently on the market (including the web). Why would publishers limit their digital products to this type of fixity, especially within a market whose digital reading habits require all the flexibility of a web-based system? Within a recent heated Twitter discussion on the topic of fixed layout, industry experts like Bjarnason, Hoffelder, Laura Brady, and Ron Martinez, debated the abolishment of FXL and fully converting to EPUB 3 reflowability, interactivity, accessibility, typography, and—overall—a very clean navigation (McCoy). Hoffelder argued that e-reader layout should be no different than modern-day webpage layout:

It struck me as rather odd that digital publishing was using the latest web technologies to support a concept which most web developers no longer accept as valid.

At one point the standard for website design was to build websites with fixed width (this is similar in concept to FXL ebooks). But that started going away about 4 years ago as the idea of responsive design, or building websites that work with any screen size, became the standard.

It’s now 2015, and almost no web developer will make a fixed width website if they can avoid it… The new standard is for websites to support visitors no matter the size of the screen they use.

And yet in 2015, FXL ebooks are one of the accepted ways to make an ebook.

He goes on to argue that even cookbooks, textbooks, and graphic novels should be no different than webpages in their layout: that’s what digital readers expect.

Time for changes in attitude

In contrast, popularized in the media is the belief that, either publishers don’t have the power to effect change, as Martinez states (“Publishers don’t have control over the technology. They either have to play or sit out”), or that reading comprehension increases in fixed formats, rather than a reflowable, web formats (Rosenwald). Unfortunately, each of these arguments disparages any kind of digital development on the part of the publisher. It is time for all parties in the publishing industry to recognize that an attempt to validate fixed format in digital reading is similar to Western Union justifying their telegraph service in 2006 (Wiki). After all, IDPF and W3C development of EPUB-WEB is expected to take shape a year from now. It should be evident now more than ever that open web publishing is the next step in the digital reading evolution.

Works Cited

Baron, Naomi S. Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

Brady, Laura. “Fixed-Layout Ebooks (with Images, Tweets).” Blog. Storify. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. https://storify.com/LauraB7/fixed-layout-ebooks.

“Ebook Conversion and Design: Best Practices.” Page Two. 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.pagetwostrategies.com/ebook-conversion-design-best-practices-innovations/.

Gylling, Markus, and Ivan Herman. “Advancing Portable Documents for the Open Web Platform: EPUB-WEB.” 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. https://w3c.github.io/epubweb/.

Hoffelder, Nate. “The Problem with Fixed Layout eBooks.” Ink, Bits, & Pixels. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://the-digital-reader.com/2015/02/22/the-problem-with-fixed-layout-ebooks/.

McCoy, Bill. “Why Publishers Are Making a Push for EPUB3 Now.” Digital Book World.  25 July 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/why-publishers-are-making-a-push-for-epub3-now/.

Pettarin, Alberto. “(Current) Fixed Layout eBooks Considered Harmful.” Blog. Alberto Pettarin. 21 Feb. 2015. Web. http://www.albertopettarin.it/blog/2015/02/21/current-fixed-layout-ebooks-considered-harmful.html.

Rosenwald, Michael S. “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right.” The Washington Post. 22 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html.

“Western Union.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 19 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Western_Union&oldid=643244368. 


2 Replies to “Overhauling Digital Publishing: EPUB Updates and a Change of Industry Attitude”

  1. This essay had a very clear argument evident immediately from the first few sentences of the essay, I think it could have benefited if it provided more of an introduction to EPUB 3 as well. The introduction mentions a solution (EPUB-WEB) but does not offer any insight as to how/why this format is better.

    I appreciate the paragraph which gives a bit of history as to what EPUB 3 is, but I was not sure what was meant by “overlayed with addition … EPUB 3 features”. It would have been helpful to explain what these features are.

    I believe one of your sources might be outdated or perhaps it was misunderstood. It claims Amazon’s fixed layout can’t be used with embedded audio and video but there are a couple Kindle’s as well as the Kindle app that does allow this. Also this argument doesn’t serve your thesis as the flaws of Kindle, are an issue with Kindle the device/Mobi, not with EPUB 3 format.

    One of your sources also claimed Apple’s iBooks couldn’t be read on the iPhone, which isn’t true. Since it the iOS 8 software update, the iPhone has had the iBooks app. They also offer iBooks to iPhones (as well as iPads, and iPod touches) which are older versions, or have older software. You mention later in this paragraph how EPUB 3 doesn’t recognize mobile phones and this is detrimental. iPhone allows this, Andriod does as well through an app, did this source mean non-smart phones or perhaps only specific companies? If that’s the case it might be worth mentioning because it wasn’t clear.

    You also make an argument that says XHTML code doesn’t allow reader’s to search for hyphenated words split over too lines, but you are able to do this on both Apple iBooks and Amazon’s Kindle app. Perhaps the person who stated this is quoting an outdated source (since the source it’s linked to is only 10 days old) and this ability was added as an update since its release?

    There is also an argument that EPUB 3 is limiting web-based reading for a variety of reasons but it would have been worth expanding and explaining what reasons exactly for longer in the essay. In regards to the short reasons that are mentioned: You can search in EPUB 3, aps do allow for increase in font size so there is layout supporting, and I agree with you on interactivity but which specifically do you believe the eBooks format needs, or more specific what genres need it. There is a big difference between what kind of interactivity and enhancing a children’s book might need for example, as oppose to a text-only fiction novel. If these reasons were expanded it would be better understood why you made these claims.

    Lastly your conclusion left with me with a question as to whether or not publishers are planning to make the move to EPUB-WEB since it isn’t even released yet.

  2. I was compelled to agree with the author that the FXL has more problems than it tries to solve, and ultimately agree with that digital readers today have an expectation that digital content will be readable across all platforms and devices. I was not, however, convinced (because no evidence is presented) that the EPUB-WEB format is the solution, nor that any responsive solution will be economically viable while simultaneously addressing the problems that FXL is attempting to address.

    The early part of the essay suffers from a lack of clarity in the explanations presented. While a wide breath of challenges with FXL are presented, the definition and purpose of FXL and the problems with the formats are not clearly stated. It is unclear from the essay whether the problems are with the format itself, or with the way it has been implemented. If it is the latter, what is to say that any other format used in its place wont be subject to the same inconsistent representation? While this question is crucial to understanding what publishers should do (and what formats are best), the essay ultimately succeeds at having the reader question the value of the FXL format in its current form.

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