eBook Formatting Standards: What do we want from books?

In amongst all the recent conversations in the publishing industry about joining the rest of the world in the digital age — eBooks, self-publishing issues, transmedia writing — there’s another, more technical debate. This has to do with the format — that is, the digital format — of ebooks.

It’s Internet Explorer vs. Netscape. It’s m4a vs. wma. It’s HD-DVD vs. Blue-ray.

(Disclaimer: I don’t own an e-reader of any kind. I know only what I’ve read, though I’ve tried to do a fair amount of research. If I’ve given misinformation, please correct me (nicely).)

See, historically, it seems that ebook formatting was determined by whatever was presenting the ebook — that is, the device on which you read it. Amazon’s Kindle was, for a long time, the standard: very basic, but very easy-to-use and intuitive black-and-white text. Recently, though, several other companies have created devices for reading ebooks, and some of them have different capabilities than Kindle. The most recent of these is the iPad, whose features go far beyond text to potentially include hyperlinks, extratextual annotations, audio, video, pictures, colour, reader-added notes, and — simply put — most of everything one might want from a truly transmedia ebook experience (other than, of course, Flash). (UPDATE: Another good article on the iPad and the discussion of eBook format.)

So, if an ebook wants to take advantage of some of those features (which I think, going into the future, ebooks are going to want to do), it will have to be in a different kind of format. One that Kindle can’t take advantage of.

But what about all the dedicated Kindle users? Ebooks don’t need all those extras. What this means is that publishers are forced to create their ebooks in multiple formats, just to be available to the whole market. What we need is a standard format that can be used on any such device.

I think the problem stems from the fact that it has always, so far, been the device manufacturers that have dictated the ebook market. Amazon says, “Here’s the device, we want this format.” And if the publisher doesn’t accept that, they lose that segment of the market.

In their recent podcast roundtable, Digital Book World speakers discussed the fact that right now, the big publishers are holding back. [Note: Listen to the podcast. Lots of great information and discussion.] They don’t want to commit to a format or a market until they see how things develop, so they can jump on board with the right choices. This is admirable caution for an industry — but it’s not what we need. What we need is for the publishers to get together — like they did when they demanded a switch to the “agency model” — and decided on a standardized format for all ebooks. And then they have to demand that the device manufacturers conform to them.

Of course, even if the major publishers managed to do this — which seems unlikely — there’s still another major concern. Namely: what format should be the standard?

In trying to answer this question, there are a number of things to consider. One is a very technical perspective, which I’m woefully inept to really discuss.

They also have to consider the different capabilities of difference devices. It needs to be able to hide pictures to work on a Kindle. It needs to have malleable formatting to fit different sizes of device and reader preferences. Which means tha the design of an ebook can’t be fixed, like a pdf might be (which seems to be somewhat how the Adobe + Wired format works). But that shouldn’t mean the design opportunities are taken away from the publisher if they want to add that element of creativity. Rather, it means that the format of an ebook needs to be highly adaptable.

They have to look at what the consumer wants from an ebook, and I think this is really key. If I own a physical book, there are no real restrictions with what I can do with it. I can keep it on whatever bookshelf I want, I can read it however and whenever I want, I can lend it to people, etc. If I own an ebook, I cannot be restricted in what I do with it. That means no DRM, publishers. It means I can move it from my computer to my device and back again. Or to another computer. It means I can lend it to others. Most importantly, it means I need to be able to transfer it from one device to another. From a Kindle to an iPad. Why should I be restricted in that way? There’s no logical reason — except that the device manufacturers don’t want me to.

Finally, the format needs to be forward-thinking. (And this is, I think, where the Kindle failed. Amazon created a device to serve only present needs, without considering future possibilities.) The format needs to serve every function of a modern book, but it also needs the potential for more. If there’s a move to transmedia books — or even if they just become another option — an ebook format should provide. It needs interactivity, video capability, links, notes, annotations, etc.

So how do we get that?

Well, there seems to be one existing format that does a lot of that, and that’s ePub. Apparently, it has vast potential in terms of interactivity, through javascript, flash, CSS3, and HTML5. Again, I wish I had more technical knowledge so I could really judge this format, but it does seem promising. What I’ve read about HTML5 is also promising. After all, websites (built on HTML) have to be malleable to work in different browsers and resolutions, plus by nature require a huge degree of interactivity, and it looks like HTML5 does everything that could be needed.

Whatever format is chosen, publishers need to keep a couple things in mind. It needs to work on all platforms — which may mean no Flash. But it should also be the format the dictates the requirements of the device, not the other way around. If it needs to happen, the Kindle (and maybe other devices) needs to step up and have better capability — at least if they want to offer their customers everything that the publishers are putting into the ebooks.

There’s apparently some caution in ePub formatting to make sure that extra content — anything beyond the text — is not strictly necessary, so that an ebook can be enjoyed just as much on a device like a Kindle, which strips all that away. I think that’s true for existing books, but I’m also afraid that such a caution will discourage publishers from fully embracing digital, transmedia possibilities. That caution needs a corollary — “unless the ebook is specifically intended to have greater functionality.” The last thing we want to do is restrict the possibilities.

This shouldn’t be a topic that gets left alone to “see what happens.” Publishers, writers, readers — even the device manufacturers — need to come together and make a decision that works for everyone, so we can stop arguing and start making some beautiful ebooks.

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2 comments


  1. They do come together, and have been for some time. See the IDPF: http://idpf.org/. Things are slowly converging around the ePUB standard.

    • Lucas J.W. Johnson

      But will they embrace it as the *only* format they use, so they don’t have to waste resources converting all of their ebooks to a few formats?

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