#10 / 2018

„interop in EPUB 3 is key“

Interview with Laurent Le Meur, CTO EDRLab, in the run-up of the conference DPUB Summit in Berlin

EDRLab is an international, non-profit development lab, working on the deployment of an open, interoperable and accessible digital publishing ecosystem in Europe. Members are publishing companies like Editis, Hachette Livre and Madrigall.

The digital book market is still pretty lightweight at least in continental Europe. Which are the main reasons?

Marketers are much more qualified than me to answer this. What strikes me is twofold. One, the data we get is partial: Amazon sales are inferred, self-publishing is not taken into account. Also, this global assumption does not take into account the large differences between sectors: a digital form is more useful for academic publishing, adult books, practical and travel books than its paper counterpart. More, new forms of expression like turbomedia and other types of visual narratives are natively digital and could raise in the coming year.

EPUB 3 was created in 2011, but it didn’t replace EPUB 2 so far on most ebook distribution channels. Even in the US the majority of EPUBs submitted by publishers are still EPUB2. Why is that?

My take on it is that traditional publishers, publishers of traditional books in paper primarily, have put in place a workflow in the early time of EPUB, either internally or via with subcontractors. And these workflows were using EPUB 2, which allows for a basic transposition from paper to digital for such books. e-readers were built using custom rendering engines, with basic HTML (XHTML 1 = HTML 4)

EPUB 3 brings

  • a better typography (HTML 5, CSS 3)
  • better layout possibilities (not only fixed layout)
  • accessibility standardised
  • interactivity and multimedia

This makes EPUB 2 obsolete. 

But also, there is a need for a better understanding of web technologies. In many cases, the lack of direct revenues, the fact that EPUB 2 is good enough, the fact that most e-readers can't handle better typography, layout, interactivity, multimedia ... this blocks evolution. The more people will use iOS and Android tools the more EPUB 3 will become mandatory. 

Does Amazon’s proprietary format undermine the development of EPUB?

Not really. Both are consumed side by side. The issue with Amazon is mostly for users, who are stuck with files they can't use outside of the Amazon silo. It's important to note that publisher produce EPUB, and the Amazon format is the result of an automatic transform of EPUB, before protection and distribution.

The weight of Amazon on the market is an issue, for sure. Amazon provides a catalog, a bookselling site, proprietary format and DRM,  e-readers and mobile applications. To compete with that in the open world, we need to align the planets also, around

  • an open format (EPUB)
  • an open DRM (Readium LCP)
  • open-source software (Readium)

You once said that Apple, Google, Kobo, Readium etc. must talk together. Why is that so important?

Interop in EPUB 3 is key. Issues are not on the packaging side, but on the use of HTML, CSS (a lot), JS. Every reading system should handle EPUB "the same way". There is a very interesting effort at the W3C = best practices for EPUB 3.2, and we are participating to that effort also. 

At EDRLab, we have also made this year a huge effort on the creation of Readium CSS. The clean set of rules that reading system can follow to handle EPUB 3 publications. Every reading system adopting Readium CSS has large chances to be interoperable with the other systems using the same CSS. 

The EPUB brand is still not recognized by end-users who prefer the PDF format. How can that be changed? 

This is a marketing issue for booksellers. They sell "ebooks", the recognition would be different is they where selling "epubs". The word is important: "publication" englobes many other types of expression than "book".

The Readium project has been started to accelerate the adoption of EPUB 3. What is your bottom line for this project? How successful is Readium today?

It's not easy to measure the success, because of the lack of data. But for many in the industry, Readium = open-source for EPUB. Readium software has been difficult to master. Readium-2 is a brand new development, made by EDRLab, its team and members. It targets mobile apps on iOS and Android, and desktop Mac Windows Linux. 

The next big step as far as future publishing standards are concerned seem to be Web Publications and EPUB 4. Why are Web Publications a new opportunity for publishers?

Well, to be frank, it may not be a new opportunity for every publisher. 

Access to extracts, sure. 

Academic publishing, sure. 

Access to books via subscriptions, good chances.

Re. EPUB 4, it's an adaptation of EPUB to the natural evolution of Web technologies, and EPUB 4 files should be the easy result of automative transformation of EPUB 3. 

Which are the major challenges? 

As usual, interop as I already said. Audio-books are an easy part. We "just" need to standardize how audio-books are distributed as EPUB packages.

Visual narratives are much more interesting and challenging. We aim at creating a new industrial form of expression. I insist on "industrial". Currently, authors and developers create marvellous applications, that cost a lot and don't sell much. They are prototypes. If we manage to guide the authors via authoring software, generate a descriptive format (no code) and let reading applications "animate" the work, the author can work without technical assistance. This is what you're doing with Instagram filters or powerpoint presentations.  

In this scenario the Web browser could become a reading system, books could become, as the W3C put it, „first-class citizens of the web“. How could reading change in this development? 

I don't think that the experience of reading on the web will fundamentally change. You find Web publications today, i.e. a set of pages that make a publication, they are simply "made by hand" with no standard.  What people will be able to do: save a publication for reading offline, or later (Firefox has this capability via the integration of Pocket).  

Do browser vendors support these books in browsers scenarios so far?

This is a tough question. Edge reads EPUB 3, like it can read PDF. During the DPUB Summit, Ben Walters, one of the leads developers on EPUB for Edge, may give some indication on what Edge could do with WP. For other browser vendors, I think they still need to be convinced, by their users. 

But this is not a showstopper:  Our Readium-2 mobile and desktop applications will very soon be able to read WP.  And the Readium community will develop a Progressive Web Application that will serve as a sort of plugin for users reading Web Publications. 

Laurent Le Meur is CTO of EDRLab in Paris.