At YUDU we have been keenly following the development of EPUB- and HTML5-based solutions for complex eBooks for some time, and there are a few key points which I think need to be considered in the context of the recent discussions at legislative levels about interoperability of EPUB files. A very well explained and structured report from the Johannes Gutenberg – Universitat Mainz – Germany, commissioned by the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), gives a good overview of the current state of eBook formats and DRM systems. It also alludes to “Alternative Options” that are available to publishers wishing to publish to app stores. Section 5.1 in this document is the first time I have come across some kind of official categorization for the way the YUDU app system works (although it is not entirely accurate). I should mention that the report has been commissioned by the Federation following widespread concern that customers buying an eBook from one of the international eBook retailers such as Apple and Amazon, which operate closed ecosystems, “implicitly subscribe to this retailer as their sole future e-book supplier”. This threatens European book culture by stopping customers buying future eBooks from privately owned, bricks-and-mortar community retailers, the organization said.
The purpose of this blog is to explain some of the advantages provided by the sort of app architecture we use over public standards such as EPUB3. I will also mention the benefits of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) software applications such as iBooks Author. I will also outline a couple of points about how the lack of standardization causes complexities in a couple of areas of publishing, noticeably libraries and working with eBook retailers.
If we really want to push eBook boundaries and attract readers who are not your traditional book readers to read your digital products, we need to have a team involved in the eBook production process that employs intelligence from both the right- and left-hand side of the brain. We need to combine the creativity of user interface design with the logic of programming skills. We need to be able to deliver high-quality and creative products on budget and on time. The current state of the tools that exist to produce excellent eBooks in the EPUB3 format are in their infancy and the majority (if not all) of book designers and publishers use WYSIWYG software programs for good reason. It brings people into the publishing process that do not need to have a background in computer programming to understand how something might be able to function; whether they be creatives, authors or publishers themselves.
If we are to offer our customers and readers the ability to take notes and personalize their digital books, store and keep those notes on any device, we need to use a reading system that we can trust to work, and one way of doing that is to make sure we are using our own system, which we can use for the purpose for which it was intended.
Whilst retailers, publishers and developers get their heads around what works well and not so well in EPUB3 format, schools, universities, shoppers, students, teachers, parents, lawyers, accountants and leisure readers all want a solution that enables them to read what they want on their tablet or smartphone devices right now. We have customers that need to sell interactive publications directly to their customers via their website, and we can in no way offer them a solution that is based around the EPUB3 format, due to the lack of cross-platform rendering and functionality of the format. You will be hard pushed to find an open-source eBook reader that works well across different platforms for illustrated or enhanced titles.
We have territory partners across the globe that tell us horror stories where an eBook retailer has released an app and within 24 hours the EPUB DRM system has been hacked and eBooks stolen. One of the realities with DRM is that the more standard and basic a format is, the easier it is to pirate. It has always been a struggle to explain the robustness of our DRM system, but this is the most metaphorical explanation we have come up with to date (thanks Toby!):
Distributing EPUB documents is like giving lots of people copies of your books in a locked box, then selling them a key to open the box. Some people will buy the key, but some will find ways to break the box. You can make the box stronger or use a better lock, but there’ll always be people who find a way round the security. In comparison, an app is more like giving them the flyleaves for the books only, then selling them the rest of the book. It’s fundamentally more secure because the content isn’t in their possession until they’ve paid for it.
Whilst we believe you can never eliminate piracy (you can always screenshot content for example), we need to make it sufficiently easy to purchase content, and sufficiently difficult and tedious to hack DRM systems to limit piracy and maintain a healthy global publishing industry.
As we become a more digitally led society, one trend that seems to be happening is that more and more consumers are comfortable with the idea of ‘renting’ their content. They do not feel they need to ‘own’ something to enjoy it. I do not own any of my Spotify music or my eBooks on O’Reilly, but I can still enjoy and use them when I want to. A lot of the concern which led to the publishing of this report talks about the idea of ownership of digital content. We could argue that ownership is something which has more relevance in the physical world compared to the digital world. Ultimately, as long as I can access my eBooks, do I need to own the files? If we assume that we do not need to own the files, we can get past some of the barriers around DRM concerns.
Concerns around the lack of interoperability.
One of the problems of the lack of standardization of publishing content in digital formats is that it undermines libraries’ ability to offer their customers equal experiences. One book may have an EPUB version made for it, but it might turn out that this book is best experienced as an app or an iBook. I am sure we have not heard the end of this issue.
The Need to Work with eBook Retailers
Many book publishers are going through a difficult internal transition from B2B companies to B2C companies and employing digital marketing experts and brand builders. So it is clear to many that currently they need to work closely with eBook retailers such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Kobo and Barnes & Noble to sell their content, and it is in the publisher’s interest that there exists a format such as EPUB 2.0.1 and EPUB 3 which will allow them to distribute one file to all these retailers. However, as the report clearly states, we are three or four years into the digital publishing revolution and the major eBook retailers have still not come to an agreement on eBook format standards. As was the case with the music industry, companies like Apple and Amazon, not European legislators, will likely lead the future of format standards.