Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)

E-books will be obsolete within five years.  Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, they are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.

Last year, I bought a laptop in Singapore, and brought it with me to Australia.  It worked fine for reading the Economist online and what passes for journalism in Singapore, but one day I searched for the Sydney Morning Herald, and there were no hits: it’s as if it didn’t exist.  A little poking around revealed that to be able to view Australian sites, I had to register my browser to be in Australia, which also requires a credit card with a billing address there.  What’s more, switching countries like this would delete all my bookmarks, terminate my paid subscription to the Economist and stop me from being able to read even single issue of the Singaporean Straits Jacket.  And needless to say, the laptop is locked to prevent me from installing another browser that would allow me to get around these limits.

Does this sound ridiculous, a perverse fantasy of some balkanized Web of the dystopian future?  Nope: it’s all true, except that my “laptop” is actually an iPad and my “browser” is iTunes/iBooks.  Since my iTunes account has a Singaporean billing address, the Kindle application does not show up in my search results.  If I switch countries, I will lose access to everything I’ve previously downloaded.  And if I do bite the bullet and switch to Australia, a good chunk of apps, music and more on offer will no longer be available on iTunes, iBooks or Amazon, and I’ll pay around 50% extra on what remains.  But I chose not to, and thus didn’t buy 3 or 4 books I wanted to, because their publishers would not sell them to me.

Why?  Because publishers insist on selling e-books the way they sell printed books, and customers simply don’t figure in the equation.

Now, breathtaking stupidity like this is commonly attributed to digital rights management (DRM), and Lord knows there’s plenty of idiocy involved in there as well.  Fortunately, Charlie Stross has already eviscerated that particular sacred cow of the publishing industry (see here and here), so I’ll focus on what’s actually causing my problem: publishing rights.

On the Web, the very idea that the right to read a website would vary from country to country seems patently absurd.  Cyberspace is flat, after all, just computers talking to computers.  You, the reader, do not need to concern yourself with where these electrons on your screen are coming from, and neither do I, their publisher, need to care where they are going.  And when somebody attempts to artificially block those electrons — say, China and its Great Firewall — it’s the kind of the thing that the US Congress and the World Trade Organization get worked up about.

But in the print publishing industry, publishing rights for different countries and languages are both standard practice and a big deal. Printed books have to be moved around on pallets in trucks, and since micromanaging physical distribution in the UK would be hard and expensive for a publisher in the US, it make a lot of sense for the US publisher to cut a deal with a UK counterpart: I give you the right to some content, you print the books and distribute them, and we share the profits.  (As always, it’s actually much more complicated that, and Stross has a readable short primer on that too.)

So when e-books rolled along with the promise to obliterate barriers to distribution, the publishing industry was faced with either changing everything they do, or sticking to what they’ve always done.  Naturally, they opted to circle wagons, stick their fingers in their ears and pretend digital is print.

  • Digital makes copying free.
    • Reaction: Try to block digital copying by imposing DRM.
  • Digital eliminates the constraints of geography from distribution.
    • Reaction: Try to preserve regional publishing monopolies by imposing artificial geographical limits on digital distribution.
  • General-purpose Web browsers change rapidly and allow the user full control.
    • Reaction: Build single-purpose “e-readers” that only allow reading e-books, preferably tightly locked into a monopoly vendor’s authorized distribution channel.
  • Digital formats on the Web are wild, woolly and evolve unpredictably.
    •  Reaction: Try to make e-books resemble physical books by kneecapping them with incompatible “standards” like ePub, created by the publishing industry to serve its own interests.

ePub is an instructive case.  The current de facto standard, version 2, is essentially XHTML 1.1, a W3C standard dating to 2001, with a sprinkle of limited  CSS2 (1998) and layers of proprietary cruft added on top.  This means most e-books are using technology that was cutting edge fourteen years ago, and thus lack even rudimentary features like absolute positioning, which allows making pages look the same on all devices.

Anointed successor ePub 3 was released in late 2011, now encapsulating HTML5 instead, if with a long list of incompatible “extensions, enhancements, deviations and constraints“.  However, nobody’s using it yet, because there are no devices on the market that support it and, e-book readers being single-purpose hardware, you can’t just update them to the latest Firefox to get support.  The only device out there with something like it is Amazon’s Kindle Fire, whose proprietary KF8 format is kinda-sorta-but-not-really in line with ePub 3, so publishers have to repackage everything twice.  Remember the Internet Explorer vs Netscape “browser wars” back in 1995 or so?  That’s where e-book formats are today.

Let’s recap.  Customers today are expected to buy into a format that locks down their content into a silo, limits their purchasing choices based on where their credit card happens to have been registered, is designed to work best on devices that are rapidly becoming obsolete, and support only a tiny subset of the functionality available on any modern website.  Nonetheless, publishers are seeing their e-book sales skyrocket and congratulate themselves on a job well done.  How come?

Because right now, they have no choice.  If I want to read a digital copy of Country Driving today, my options are to either bend over to HarperCollins or to go pound sand.  But once publishers start breaking ranks (as they are already doing) and major authors start to self-publish (as they are already doing), the illusion of e-books being a necessary simulacrum of printed books will start to dissipate.

What will replace them?  The same medium that already killed off the encyclopedia, the telephone directory and the atlas: the Web.  For your regular linear fiction novel, or even readable tomes of non-fiction, a no-frills PDF does the job just fine and Lonely Planet has been selling its travel guidebooks and phrasebooks a chapter at a time, no DRM or other silliness, as PDFs for years now.  For more complicated, interactive, Web-like stuff, throw away the artificial shackles of ePub and embrace the full scope of HTML5, already supported by all major browsers and usable right now by several billion people.   (Check out the Financial Times web app for a sneak preview of what’s already possible.)  Chuck in offline support, an embryonic but increasingly usable core part of HTML5, and you can even read the “book” (website) offline.

The shift will not be instant, and there’s still a good couple of years of life left in the e-book market before the alternatives work out the kinks of presentation, distribution and retailing.  But e-readers will be obsolete in a few years, and once they’re gone, the sole weak advantage an e-book has over its future replacements will be gone.  Any publisher banking on e-books being around 5 years from now is in for a rude surprise.


73 thoughts on “Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)

  1. You can have two iTunes accounts in different countries on the same device. I have done this for a long time and the only snags come up when updating apps.

    PDFs are inferior to the ebook format in several ways, most notably in adapting content to fit different text and screen sizes. An ebook looks good on a phone screen, a tablet or a desktop PC.

    The most nifty feature of Kindle, in my opinion, is that the cloud keeps track of how far you have gotten in the book and will take you to that spot immediately even if you switch devices. PDFs are not capable of doing this either…

  2. Yes, I know there are workarounds, but requiring two separate accounts in the first place is absurd, and the interleaving of Apple DRM and Amazon DRM necessary to set up (eg.) an Amazon US account to work on a Singapore-registered iPad is ridiculous. Remember, these are all completely artificial limitations.

    A PDF with book-sized pages is virtually indistinguishable from a “real” e-book on the iPad, and I presume that reading the same book on different devices simultaneously is a fairly uncommon usecase. But I expect that HTML5, which does have all the fancy CSS capabilities needed to adapt to any screen size, will become the standard medium for digital books in the fairly near future.

    1. The Ipad is substantially larger than any other tablet or e-reader I’ve seen. PDF’s are almost unreadable on my tablet. Which is annoying when certain books only come in pdf e-book format. And it had better be really good if I’m going to strain my eyes.

      I agree, these devices should be open. I think things will open in the future as the tech spreads.I hope anyway.

      1. PDFs unreadable on your tablet? This should only happen if the original source file was set up with a large page size (A4 or US letter). PDFs which are created with standard ‘book-size’ pages and appropriate text size are easily readable on tablets (I’m a senior citizen with only one working eye).

    2. “I presume that reading the same book on different devices simultaneously is a fairly uncommon usecase.” — My wife would certainly beg to differ with you. She reads on her iPad, Kindle, and iPhone, and loves the ability to pick up the book where she last left it. I’m the same, too, though to a lesser extent.

      The ability to reflow a document is critical to me. PDF’s, at least in the various incarnations of readers / viewers that I’ve tried, are too difficult to use.

  3. Although I’ve advocated the same several times, it must be noted that the main purpose of an ebook is to guarantee all content is packed within a stand alone unit with a complete internal navigation logic and standarized metadata –unlike the web, where saving a snapshot of a site for documentation purposes, if even possible, would yield very varying and probably impractical results. The problem with EPUB isn’t so much the technologic path chosen (it’s just a zipped web with metadata and a table of contents) but the fact that the publishing industry, and the technologies serving it, can’t adapt fast enough, and the EPUB standards group is therefore encouraged to make every change a very bureaucratic process.

    Amusingly enough, Amazon could ditch their propietary format for EPUB 3 and it would still enjoy whatever benefits they extract from having a format barrier with the rest of the industry.

    1. You’re assuming it’s necessary to download a package of the book in the first place, but people have merrily ditched printed atlases for Google Maps, printed encyclopedias for Wikipedia, and CD collections for Spotify, none of which require local copies. But if a local copy for offline use is indeed desirable, then HTML5 offers manifests, which allow the website designer to specify precisely what needs to be available offline.

      1. If all books are to be made available on the web for reading, as well as all newspapers, magazines, etc….., then how do you suggest authors, publishers(web or otherwise), and the like get compensated for the work they do? And suggesting that countries give up the sovereign right to control what happens within their country is absurd. Just because it happens on the web does NOT mean that it has no bearing what country you are in when it happens. If you believe that, then you must believe that no country has the right to regulate ANYTHING that happens on the web, and most of the artificial geographic restrictions you speak about are due to governmental regulations NOT regulations of the individual companies.

        1. I address that in a separate blog post.

          And no, the vast majority of artificial geographical restrictions are imposed by the publishers themselves. There is no legal reason why Harry Potter in the US should be any different from Harry Potter in the UK. (Market reasons, perhaps, but even then does it make sense to prohibit people in the US from getting the UK version?) And when government intrudes, it’s usually at the publishers’ behest, eg. Australia’s rule banning the local sale of foreign editions if there’s an Australian version — even if the local version costs five times more.

  4. While regionality is indeed ridiculous, your examples for “ebooks” are all websites or magazine subscriptions – and you’re reading them on one of Apple’s closed-garden tablet computers.

    Those of us reading ebooks on an ereader occasionally hit a regionality issue, this is not something which will cause ebooks to become obsolete.

    1. Maybe not obsolete, but their current form will become obsolete. Even PDF will become obsolete. PDF was created to allow something to look identical on any desktop computer screen – a very long time ago, when desktop computers were the only reasonable computing device. Which is precisely what you don’t want from electronic content these days – you want content to adapt to the best possible representation on a given device.

      I also don’t think HTML5 is the definitive format for ebooks. Electronic media offers so much more possibilities than printed media. No format originating in the printing world can be reasonably expected to use all these possibilities.

      On the other hand, printed media looks good. It looks better than anything online. HTML, in its current incarnation, does IMO not allow for all the niceties of printed media.

      On yet another hand, laying out text and images in the most adequate way for a specific type of media is not only a matter of markup but also a matter of rendering engines. I suppose some format aimed more at description of a document’s semantics, coupled with a very smart, free and open rendering standard will be the solution for electronic publishing, some time in the future. HTML5 may be semantic, but CSS is definitely not, and CSS is also not portable from one document to another – although it does allow specification of different formatting for different media types. With CSS, you don’t yet have something like the LaTeX macros for book or article publication.

  5. Everything starts out proprietary. When I worked at Compaq, lo, many years ago, the keyboard was proprietary to the PC. CPQ was one of the forerunner companies selling a Windows PC. In time, that proprietary keyboard (along with other tech that was proprieteray) had to go. Apple refused to support Windows apps for EONS. But in time…

    Ebooks will be around. They sell well, they are SUPER convenient (I took 200 books with me on my kindle last trip), they provide instant gratification (See book, want book, download now.) and they work for a lot of people. Will there be improvments? Sure. Will the territorial stuff go away? Slowly. But there are already small publishers uploading to Amazon with “no geographic restrictions.” They want their books to be read anywhere, anytime on multiple devices (Which is why Amazon will eventually have to give in and support ePUB.)

    It will happen because publishers have to remain competitive to survive.

    As for Australia, some of the problems there are with government regulations–not the publishers. Of course it was Australia publishers that pushed legislation to make it so difficult to move books in and out of the country (and made them more expensive to buy IN Australia than get them shipped from some other country.)

  6. I refuse to believe PDFs will ever be truly popular as ebooks. They can’t change fonts and reflow text. There is a reason a sizable proportion of early adopters were over 50; part of it was being able to afford the initial high price of ereaders but the other part was the ability to make every ebook into a large print book..

    1. Actually, PDFs can reflow. It just requires the author to tag the text correctly, effectively making them Section 508 compliant for people with disabilities. The problem is that there are no mobile readers that will reflow them. Only Acrobat Reader for the desktop has the reflow view feature.

    1. Why? As they look just like the printed book, that’s like saying the printed book is the worst possible format for narrative fiction. PDFs (unless specifically designed for the purpose) are not good on is a phone.

  7. I don’t disagree with many of your points, ie that these limitations are completely artificial and created solely to serve the commercial interests of publishers over the wishes of their customers. I also have ties to several different regions and have found ways to jump over the garden walls, such as signing up for both Australian and US iTunes accounts, and downloading apps and digital content to my iOS devices from both. Is it annoying? Eh, very slightly (all it takes is switching logins to update or download, which takes an extra 10 seconds), but it’s worth being able to get content from whichever country I choose.

    But the point that I think your piece is missing is the fact that, although there is always a small percentage of passionate, informed, vocal and tech-savvy people who will rail against DRM and closed technology look for any way to circumvent such things, the majority of consumers out there don’t understand most of the technology behind *any* of this, and more to the point, don’t honestly care. As long as they have the convenience of being able to buy an ereader from their local electronics or big-box store, put in their credit card info and search whatever bookshop pops up for them, they’ll be perfectly happy doing so. Most consumers don’t switch residence from country to country and won’t even notice the geolocking, and won’t have any idea that there’s content that they’re missing out on. And the earlier comments have a good point — who’s going to want to read PDFs on a browser when they can use an e-reader to turn pages (instead of scroll), annotate and highlight text, get instant dictionary lookups, etc?

    As long as this majority goes along with the status quo (which is pretty much what happens by definition), the publishing companies will be able to keep chugging along with their current model. The tech-loving outliers will keep looking for alternatives, and perhaps a niche market will evolve for them alongside the mass model, but I highly doubt that ebooks for the masses will disappear because of that.

    1. You’re right that there will always be only a small number of people knowledgeable with up to date technology, but as time goes by, what’s up to date today will be well known and popular ten years from now. Using a word processor and a spreadsheet application was not a common skill ten years ago, but is unthinkable for anybody wanting a job involving a computer. 20 years ago, most people were afraid to push a button on a computer when they first encountered it. Probably in fifty years from now everybody will script his computer, and have quite extensive knowledge of HTML (or whatever HTML will have mutated into until then). At that time, selling a closed format to somebody will simply look stupid and have no appeal whatsoever to users – they won’t be able to script the text.

      1. ::Using a word processor and a spreadsheet application was not a common skill ten years ago, but is unthinkable for anybody wanting a job involving a computer.::

        Do you realise how many millions (or actually billions) of people do *not* have a job involving a computer and so don’t know how to use any office-suite applications at all? Don’t mistake your experience as a computer-literate person for that of everyone else in the world.

        Furthermore, have you considered even how many of the people who *do* use computers on a daily basis know barely *anything* about how they work? Any IT department can tell you just how many know only how to do a few simple things, such as opening up an email program, typing a letter or playing Angry Birds. That won’t change, in 10 years, or 50 or 100. The fact that technology progresses does not turn ordinary consumers into super-users.

        ::Probably in fifty years from now everybody will script his computer, and have quite extensive knowledge of HTML::

        ‘Everybody’ will script his or her own computer? Seriously? Cars have been around commercially for a century now – the majority of drivers on the road can barely even change their own oil or put on a spare tire, much less repair their own engine.

  8. There are valid points made in this article, and then it’s almost completely undone with an inane discussion of websites and pdfs.

    There are a few ebooks available in some countries but not other others, and it is absurd. I don’t think any publisher has tried to justify this either, it’s just the middle finger. The DRM on ebooks only serves for vendor lock in and making it hard to share books with friends (and the sharing feature on kindles and nooks is not frequently available on most ebooks), something you could easily do with pbooks.

    Any discussion about web browser shows a complete unfamiliarity with ebooks, the people that read them, and the publishers that make them. We mostly read offline, and forcing us to read our ebooks online through a browser is MUCH MORE RESTRICTIVE than how it’s done currently.

    And pdfs… NO. Do everyone a favor. Buy a kindle, nook, kobo whatever and just use it for two weeks. Then rewrite your article. I grant you that the slight variations caused by the old epub format is frankly annoying, but you completely lack perspective. Using an ipad to casually read newspapers and magazines online does not count. Also most people are not reading on 10 inch tablets, they are reading on 6 inch eink readers.

    1. You, and not a few other commenters, seem to think I’m telling people to dump their Kindles and e-books in favor of PDF/HTML5 on an iPad or whatever *now*. I’m not.

      What I am saying is that within five years, the situation will change drastically. On the hardware side, multipurpose tablets will have all the advantages of dedicated e-readers today: they will be lighter, have better battery life, be readable in sunlight, etc. And on the software side, currently embryonic HTML5 capabilities will be mainstream, which means that a “website” can do everything an ePub book does today — work offline, have slick touch controls, resizable fonts, whatever — plus a lot more. (Don’t take my word for it, just give the FT web app a whirl.)

      Coincidentally, the latest BISG survey came out yesterday, and e-reader popularity has already started dropping:

      1. Thank you for your brilliant article. Can I point out that you see electronic publishing revolution from an English language world view? Above Ali Lemer got the point: “Most consumers don’t switch residence from country to country”. I agree that the situation will quickly change but in a not English-speaking small country (i.e. Italy, 60 million inhabitants) even an old fashion technology (current ebooks) could flourish for years to come 😉

      2. That’s what I understood and I couldn’t agree more.

        EPUB2 is obsolete, it brings developers back to 1995. But there are many other reasons why e-book developers actually think the situation is going insane. In fact, EPUB is becoming a huge mess and is only a standard per se today.

        Adobe RMSDK (which is used by a lot of vendors) is such a catastrophe — it doesn’t even manage EPUB2 properly, this is no joke— that Adobe is currently developing a new SDK, based on webkit, FROM SCRATCH.
        “Bureaucracy” makes updates really slow. Transition to EPUB3 is going to be painful. No surprise Apple decided to go its own way with iBooks file format.
        And even worse, e-book developers are not treated like developers, they are treated like s**t. No tools, no documentation, no support. Only Apple and Amazon are trying to do that right. Others don’t care. The e-book dev environment is the most amateurish dev environment that exists today. Sad but true.
        e-book dev workflow = code, upload on different devices, debug, code, upload on different devices, debug new bugs, code, upload on different devices, debug newer bugs and so on and so forth. They are just wasting hours because there is no doc nor “previewers”. In the end, some vendors tell themselves “Hey, let’s ignore publishers’ stylesheets/layouts to force a generic layout we chose in a cool arbitrary way! They’re making shit after all, huh?”. So ebook devs make “standard” ebooks
        Besides, Reader Interface is all about “The Book Metaphor”, which is something limitating and annoying. You can’t do full bleed pages on iBooks unless you code a fixed-layout EPUB. Why? Because Apple devs have decided to do so. Some non-fiction could work a hundred times better if we got rid of this absolute metaphor all vendors embrace. So, some develop apps because the EPUB way is too restrictive… Now, apps = zero interoperability.

        Finally, a lot of readers are still reading ebooks in PDF file format, because they just don’t care about the benefits of reflowable text (EPUB + KF8, formats they’ve never heard of). What matters is layout, a domain in which EPUB2 is “trailing hardcore”.

        These are the reasons why e-book devs are more and more skeptical about e-books formats. EPUB3 uses languages of 2015, dev environment brings them back to 1995. And it’s not IDPF’s fault, it’s vendors’ fault. If they don’t update their flawed philosophy, what is described in this article will undoubtedly happen.

        Thanks for this article. It’s high time e-book devs express their opinion, it’s their duty to tell anyone Vendors are incredibly WRONG.

      3. Multipurpose tablets already have all the advantages (why would I want a nook or kindle over a Nexus 7 for example?). But I don’t see how a website is superior to a self-contained file for the purposes of an ebook. I think the formats will experience revisions but I don’t see the ebook file going away in five years (whether it is epub or something else).

  9. Just a few of points:

    1) It is not always the case that publishers are artificially maintaining regional distribution. It may not always be possible to claw back international ebook rights for books, most of which would have had contracts signed 2-3 years ago before any of this was a serious issue.

    2) I know at least one large publisher for which breaking down international boundaries is a priority. However the current vendor solutions (as you suggest) make these kind of things more difficult than they seem.

    3) KF8 is nothing like EPUB3. KF8 is an entirely proprietary solution the use of which entirely locks you into Amazon’s ecosystem. Apple’s EPUB implementation in iBooks is much closer to EPUB3, and in fact supports many of EPUB3’s structural elements.

    4) This leads on to the biggest problem, which is not one the publisher has a whole load of control over. The current load of devices are all useless. The iPad is by far the best. The rest are rubbish. People don’t want to be reading at their desktop (or they prefer mobile telephones and ereaders anyway). Web based HTML5 applications aren’t proven yet, mainly because of untested revenue models (presumably subscription based).

    5) You make no suggestion as to how books should be displayed online. EPUB is just a wrapper to ensure the book displays in the correct way. Yes it could certainly lose a few eccentricities to get it to be more compatible with the web at large, but solutions are abound for this kind of thing. To display the content online in any other way would be just like unzipping the EPUB surely?

    5) Anyone who thinks the big six aren’t investigating these possibilities with all possible haste is naive. These business model and infrastructural changes are not easy to make on a large scale. International corporations can’t turn on a dime. Amazon have been planning their plays for years. To people who say the current situation should have been anticipated, you may be right. But where were you 5 years ago? Why weren’t you creating a revolutionary start-up which would now be fighting with Amazon for e-book supremacy. But to say that publishers are now sitting idle is kinda stupid.

    1. Apologies if it sounds like I’m ranting, and I admit a certain bias as I do work on eBooks. The points in this article for the main are valid and correct. We probably won’t see a lot of EPUB in five-six years time, at least in its current form.

      The only thing I really disagree with is the implicit assumption that the publishing industry is somehow not aware of these issues.

      1. Oh, they’re aware that their printed book sales are dropping alright, but as you point out being able to quickly and coherently respond to that threat is another story! Publishers naturally tend migrate to packaged e-books because they are easy to understand and cause the least immediate disruption, my thesis is simply that this is not a sustainable solution since it’s unsatisfactory for readers on so many levels.

        And for what it’s worth, I was creating a rather revolutionary little startup 5 years ago 😉

  10. Jani you make some good points. You’re perfectly right about EPUB 2 being 14 year old Web tech (although you seem to like PDF, which is over two decades old tech). I completely agree with you that the modern Web is right technology platform for the future of publishing. I also share your POV that tablets and smartphones are the reading HW platforms of the future. That latter point is debatable, and the answer may vary by region and other factors (we might be one definitive medical study away from all deciding that light-emitting screens are or are not materially harmful to vision), but on the whole I think dedicated eReader & E Ink obsolescence is probable in the near future.

    But, you seem to miss the point that EPUB 3 is essentially just HTML5 that is well-structured and has added metadata. This makes content able to be distributed through multiple channels (unlike normal websites). It is a big change from EPUB 2, and thus we have a painful migration underway this year, but it puts us on the path to real convergence of digital publishing and the Open Web. And I believe we’ll see continued value in having well-structured metadata-enhanced content in many workflows.

    There is no deviation from HTML5 in EPUB 3, you are just wrong about that. In fact EPUB 3 normatively references and therefore encompasses the entire HTML5 specification, as well as relevant CSS3 modules. There is definitely one major constraint, which is that EPUB 3 requires HTML5 to use the XML serialization. This means that EPUB 3 content is HTML that can be created and manipulated with standard XML tools. That is not true for “tag soup” HTML and is an impediment to content syndication and reuse. While the merits of our decision to impose this constraint are arguable, it’s been applauded by many including folks in W3C management.

    1. Glad to have you here, Bill! I agree that on paper, ePub 3 is not a bad standard; after all, building it around HTML5 pretty much proves my point that HTML5 is the future. I’m a bit surprised to see you claim it has no deviations though, as the standard has a section specifically about those deviations, plus a whole bunch of custom extensions?

      Nevertheless, the real problem is going to be in the implementation. Nick above eloquently summarizes the pain of developing right now for ePub 2, and this pain will be multiplied many times over once the first buggy, limited implementations of ePub 3 in e-readers start coming out. It’s not even theoretically possible to be fully HTML5-conformant, since HTML5 is only a draft standard at the moment. Mix in incompatible but still HTML5-y formats like KF8 and iBooks Author 1.0 that publishers are still expected to support, and we’re looking at epic amounts of pain that will simply accelerate the shift away from packaged e-books.

      1. Jani, I don’t underestimate the pain in the migration from EPUB 2 to EPUB 3. But we will IMO have a greater initial level of consistency because everyone’s building on WebKit so we start with at least a baseline of HTML5 support that’s reasonable. But I’m still missing something in your prediction about the near future. I have with me on 3 devices a Lonely Planet eBook “short” about Buenos Aires. Thanks to EPUB (the reflow feature it shares with .mobi), I can change font size on my iPad to what’s comfortable, change to “night mode’, etc. None of which is doable with PDF. And on the iPhone it wouldn’t be readable as a PDF. Are you suggesting that within “a couple of years” Lonely Planet will either a) try to make me accept PDF or b) make me be logged in to their website in order to read the content? The latter begs the question of whether we’ll all have fully reliable 24/7 internet that soon as well as the question of selling through channels (I didn’t buy this “short” from your website). What’s your vision? BTW re: EPUB 3 “deviations” from HTML5 – did you even read this section or just look at the heading? OK EPUB requires MathML, HTML5 does not… maybe that’s a “deviation”… but this stuff is very minor. To put it in perspective, I’d argue that there is materially less “deviation” from HTML5 spec in the EPUB 3 spec than there is in the implementation of HTML5 in any web browser. What EPUB 3 does, fundamentally, is just pin things down that are under-specified in HTML5 (whether MathML is there, what embedded font formats are supported, that XML encoding is used, …). This is in the interest of making content that can be created & manipulated reliably with automated tools and distributed through multiple channels. Do you really have a problem with that? Do you really plea for folks to “throw away the artificial shackles of structured, reliable, navigable, metadata-enhanced content”?

      2. First, let me just make it very clear that this is my personal blog. Nothing I say here represents Lonely Planet policy, nor does it mean that LP is going to do what I say.

        With that out of the way… while I think PDF is an underappreciated format suitable for distributing exact replicas of printed books, that’s not what we’re aiming at, and my bet on the travel guide of the future is that it will be based on pure HTML5. Ubiquitous Internet isn’t going to happen in five years, least of all for Lonely Planet’s target audience of intrepid travellers, but that’s where HTML5’s offline and local storage capabilities come in: as long as you’ve downloaded it once, your travel guide will remain readable and fully interactive even if you’re kayaking down the Congo.

        Long story short, I simply don’t see a need for the book metaphor, and hence ePub, in the future. Lonely Planet’s travel coverage spans the entire world, and while to date we’ve chopped it up into bits for sale because for books we had to, the digital revolution now affords us the opportunity to get away from that limitation.

        1. Jani, re: “I simply don’t see a need for the book metaphor, and hence ePub, in the future”. EPUB is not about “the book metaphor”, it is an approach to making HTML5 content structured, reliable, navigable, metadata-enhanced, and most of all interoperable so it can be distributed via multiple channels, archived, etc. In effect, making HTML5 into portable documents. That’s not just the “book metaphor” (I’m not even sure what you mean by that term).

          Do you see a need for the travel guide of the (several years out – let’s be clear) future to be distributed from multiple sources, or do you see that it will be available only from the site of the publisher?

          If content is available ONLY from publisher websites, with no need for any “portable document” metaphor, then there will be definitely less need for EPUB – but IMO still not zero value. As, HTML5 is now optimized for web apps, not content/documents. FT.com and Nature’s “Principles of Biology” are two great examples of HTML5-based publications that are NOT using EPUB 3, they didn’t need to, because they are directly distributed. But that doesn’t meant that their production processes wouldn’t have benefited from doing so. For example, I don’t think text-to-speech is there properly in either case, EPUB 3 has rich facilities for accessibility. A year from now with tools from dozens of vendors supporting EPUB 3 and building-block open source components for things like Media Overlays available, I think it will be clearly faster and better for an FT.com to use EPUB 3 as an element of their solution. In effect, the W3C was forced to throw Semantic Web and documents under the bus of Web Applications, and EPUB has come to the rescue. EPUB can be viewed as just a spec for dealing with Web content in a structured manner, with the limited utility that provides in the circumstances for which that’s the way you want to deal with that content.

          And, I don’t believe that all content will be available only from the publishers site. If anything, content syndication is growing in importance, not shrinking. EPUB’s additional role and value as a *packaged* representation of Web content will IMO have value for many years to come, and EPUB will thanks to its N-screen support, accessibility, and ability to leverage Web tech for forms, rich media, and interactivity, begin displacing PDF for ad hoc document distribution workflow. Not to mention we have apps. With EPUB 3 you will be able to press a button and generate a mobile application that wraps that content in Phonegap & embedded browser engine with your choice of UX. Arbitrary HTML5 content will certainly be possible to appify, but it’s going to take more work, not be a one-button process, because arbitrary HTML5 can’t have a UX added to it automatically – it’s code, not data. EPUB, at its core, just makes HTML5 back into data.

      3. Bill, this conversation is too fascinating to hide in the comments, I’d love to see you expound on your views in a full blog post — your place or mine? Or if you’ve already done so, I’d really appreciate a pointer.

        Lonely Planet is a multichannel publisher and in the next few years our printed books, magazines, e-books, mobile apps and whatnot will continue to be distributed with the widest reach we can muster. But distribution is a pain in the behind, both for us and our readers, so I think over time users will migrate to accessing our website directly, which lets us publish updates instantly and provides the richest channel for interaction.

        Portability/being able to “own” a copy of a book is probably the strongest argument for continuing to use ePub (or equivalent). Personally, I think the trend of everything moving to the cloud a la Google Drive makes it likely that many (most?) people will no longer be fussed about having “local” copies on their own storage, but this tech is still in its infancy and and it’s possible that this is just another temporary swing in the fat-client/thin-client pendulum.

        The concept of ePub becoming a generic document interchange format for syndication is interesting, but it’s a pretty crowded space out there already and so far all formats that — like ePub — try to straddle the gap between “this is data, display as you wish” (eg. HTML) and “this is an exact representation, display precisely as I say” (eg. PDF) have failed. Which is not to say that ePub can’t succeed, you’ll just need to convince developers that it offers more value than a tarball of HTML and images.

      4. Bill it was great meeting you in Buenos Aires and now hearing your thoughts in Jani’s blog. Great discussion guys, super interesting. If i can use a great website (read: UX, content, functionality) online and offline…on any of my devices…i don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t migrate to all our requirements being fullfiled by pointing our browser to a specific address…i’d love to understand your thoughts of why channels as we know them are needed…

  11. You do not have to stretch your imagination to think that eBooks will change in the next 5 years. Just think how much they changed in the last 5 years.

  12. I think you’d be better served bitching at Apple over this.

    My iPad is the first Apple product I’ve ever owned. I’ve had it for a year. I hate the thing because I can only do what Steve Jobs allows me to do. Coming from PC-land, where I can do anything I want, this was a slap in the face.

    So your problem with Amazon still may be the geo restrictions and publishers’ insistence on such things. But there are workarounds for those.

    Your absolute main problem is your device, which is specifically designed to block you from doing certain things.

  13. I’m not sure if I can disagree with you more except about your frustration. Really, though, your frustrations arguably stem less from formats than from publishers themselves. Your opening implies that the Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t have an app in the US iTunes store, but then it’s not as though access to the US app store is closed to the SMH. And further, can’t you navigate over to SMH through your iPad’s browser? Do you really need an app for that?

    Maybe you do. Apps are nice, it’s true.

    “De facto standard” means one in dominant position by public acceptance and market forces, which means Mobi/PRC is actually de facto standard for ebook format. Much of the corporate publishing industry decided to adopt ePub as its standard for ebooks, true, but it did so only after Amazon had already bought Mobipocket. Also, why would you want to make pages look the same on all devices? Devices will all have different screens, and part of the advanced capabilities of ebooks is the ability to resize (and, heck, change) font on the fly.

    And PDF? You seriously think ebooks are based on obsolete technology and should be supplanted by one that’s 21 years old?

    1. “Your opening implies that the Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t have an app in the US iTunes store, but then it’s not as though access to the US app store is closed to the SMH”

      No, it’s not.

      But the idea to register here, to write an app for this and that just sucks.

      The idea behind the web is – content on the server, your browser on your device. World Wide Web.

      The apps are a step back in time. It makes the display of content dependent on “the right device” and “the right place”.

      Who on Earth wants that?

      For a German migrant in Australia, with a Chinese wife, all this “borders” don’t make sense. Do you believe I have a DVD recorder with region settings. Of course I don’t – because I would need at least three of them to play all the DVDs I have in the house.

      I haven’t an Amazon reader, even if I find the Kindle with its e-ink very nice (for the purpose of reading).

      One of the reasons are the restrictions to a specific store. Why should I pay double the money for a book as an American reader? Or how to get the books from the German store? Or Chinese books?

      Okay, in the case of DVD recorders the Chinese importer did it for me. I did not have to “hack” the region code staff on my own.

      Maybe I have a workaround for a Amazon (or an iPad or whatever) as well. But it needs me to break things, to fiddle around, to look around for “how-tos” etc.

      Just tiresome.

      The result: Amazon has one customer less. A family where everybody reads.

      Bad luck for them.


  14. Agree or disagree; It matters little. What does matter is the debate that will arrive at an outcome where the IP of the authors is recognized, the manipulation by publishing houses is subjected to scrutiny, and the intended benefits to those who wish to acquire information for their own use in upheld.
    Bring on the debate, let us argue the facts, and let the end user determine with their credit card which base format they prefer.

  15. What I find missing from the epub development point of view is the ability to mark up text with notes, to annotate our digital books, to have sticky notes and colored tabs hanging out of the pages. Kindle provides highlighting and note taking functionality, but how to extract those notes, share them, organize them, and make them visible is completely missing.

    I am also waiting for the day when a fixed-layout experience combines with reflowable text (in liquid layouts or contextual layouts) that enables us to experience literature both visually and textually, such as in IDEO’s vision for the future of books at: http://www.ideo.com/work/future-of-the-book

    Thanks for the engaging debate. I stumbled upon it through a tweet-up over the #eprdctn hashtag, which happens every Wednesday at 11 a.m. EDT. I posted a link to it in the InDesign User Group blog at http://www.idugsf.com.

    1. “Kindle provides highlighting and note taking functionality, but how to extract those notes, share them, organize them, and make them visible is completely missing. ”
      …You can find all my notes at my kindle account online and copy/paste them for sharing or organizing in any format. From your browser, go to https://kindle.amazon.com and look at the top of the page for the menu. It has access to your highlights and notes. Enjoy~

      1. Wow! That’s cool. I never knew the notes were accessible online. Of course, it is an extra step to log in to an account via a browser, wait for notes to sync, obtain the contact, write the email to share, etc., when it could all be built into the app. But at least it’s good to know they are available.

  16. Looking at the comments, you hit a nerve. Take heart, however, you’re entirely right. The minor issues are irrelevant, it’s the web that’s important…and you need to know what that means in order to make any sense in this debate.

  17. What a sensationalist headline. Do you know what an ebook is? epub is an ebook FORMAT. There are also mobi, txt, pdf, and even webpages. It doesn’t matter what format they’re it. For all I care, they can be jps taken with a pocket camera.

  18. You’re obviously reading magazines or books with big pictures where the layout is the most important criteria so on a big screen pdf is ok. But for pure text such as novels, especially on small screens reflowable formats are an absolute must. You can’t read a pdf book on a pocket sized device.

  19. Dont exactly agree with the title but agree with the content. Ebooks are here to stay however the market is currently fragmented and as a result causes many pains for ebook readers such as the ones you mentioned amongst others.

  20. While I share the frustration of territorial limitations on ebooks (being in Australia, we also suffer from this), but I think it’s important to note that one important reason publishers implement DRM is author rights. In the present system, authors can sell physical and ebook rights to various territories, garnering better money for their work than what might be offered by most publishers for world-wide rights. Personally, I think it’s essential publishers start thinking globally and paying appropriately for global rights, but until they are willing to take that risk, it’s a big sticking point in regards to global access.

  21. As a senior software engineer for over 38 years I have done a good job of keeping up with all the latest trends in technology as well as keeping my skill-sets in line with current market demands. What I haven’t done is invest any money or time in the complete nonsense that is the current fad of mobile devices.

    Just look at this post and the subsequent responses; not that they are innaccurate in any way but are instead frivolous in the scheme of things. Everyone on this thread who has bought into “mobile computing” is now accurately beginning to see and\or experience the concept of “over automation” at work. On the one hand each one of you has spent several hundred dollars on a piece of hardware as this poster and industry analysts have shown that all of which are designed to become obsolete rather quickly.

    Once they become obsolete the owner is encouraged to upgrade to the latest version of the device leaving the older unit to a friend or relative or most often a landfill. Apple has done wonders for the the envrionmentally unconscious.

    Next, you have the issue as has been described which involves the publishing industry holding on to their intellectual property rights, which by the way they have every right to do since not only do they want to make a profit but they have bills to pay such as the payments to the authors they publish. Even writers have to eat.

    This idea that everything on the Internet should be free or free of such limitations because it is “flat” is absurd from an economic point of view. As an example, the Open Source paradigm in software engineering has also done wonders for the salaries of IT personnel in the past 10 years most which is available looks like it has been written by high-school students; hardly professional material at all.

    The mobile device phenomena may be great for young people and a whopping success for many technology companies but it is also a complete disaster from a sociological standpoint; much of which will be played out in the lifetimes of the current and next generation. If you want to read something, stop hurting the environment with all this junk and buy a paperback! Besides, paper is bio-degradable…

  22. With the right tools, PDFs are e-books. I believe they can be rented out.

    DRM means that kid readers can’t collect all of your work for free, and territorial restriction means that you can charge different prices to Americans and Ethiopians. Who wouldn’t want to do that? You can charge by the length of time that someone keeps a book. You can give discounts to students or to Hollywood producers who might buy the film rights.

    And if you make a stupid mistake when you write an e-book, you can erase it and issue a fixed copy.

    A book doesn’t even have to be a unit. You can charge extra for extended scenes. You can write extended scenes that readers -ask- for.

  23. The whole world is evolving virtually at the speed of light, I am sure ePublisher will find a way to survive and still make profit. It’s almost impossible to teach an elephant to read so people who are used to do “business” with their hand-held are not going to change their habit.

  24. WOW this is much ado about nothing. The problem the author has is not the e-book format’s fault but his poor decision in technology. I bought a Nook from B&N. And yes B&N tries to DRM and regionally constrain THEIR books but I can side load any ePUB or PDF I can get my hands on. The only problem being the fonts supported if the font isn’t loaded into the ePUB. (It isn’t that difficult to add a font to an ePUB if you can get your hands on the correct fort.) I know he can’t get a NOOK where he is at, but there are plenty of e-reader apps for nearly every format, technology combination out there. His complaint should be with the company he keeps. Boycott them until they support the wishes of the consumer and things will change because the boycott will create a niche some competitor will fill. My complaint with both the Nook and PDF reader is that while I can highlight and take notes, I can’t save the highlighted text or notes to a downloadable file.

    This makes them less than optimal for students. But as I said, this is a niche someone will eventually fill. And then school textbooks will probably all go to e-book. (8 yoa kids heaving 20kilos of textbooks really makes them walk funny.) Note that under US law all school textbooks must support accessible e-book (ePUB3 soon) availability. I suggest the author head to the local library; many libraries make e-books available.

  25. Oh, no! Just as I was beginning to accept the death of the printed book publishing industry, I now learn that ebooks will also go the same way!

    As an author, I find this new blow infinitely sad.

    Frank Sanello

  26. I just use Rapidshare & Torrent to get all my books (typically in PDF or DJVU format.)

  27. Um… buy a real book??? Visit a library? These types of “work arounds” have worked for CENTURIES.

  28. Your examples of eboks and devices to read them are terribly inaccurate. An ipad and subscrpption to magazines and the itune of hell? I’ve been reading ebooks in el cheapo readers for about three years and what you describe is absolutelly out of my experience. Epub does not mean drm, reader does not mean apple and you can get ebooks from a lot of sources outside that place enclosed by Apple. I’ts your blog, but you could try to describe reailty in a more… Real way?

    Best regards

  29. I don’t really know why I never liked e-books. I’ve never ever liked them and I always lose my concentration while reading on a screen even with the iPad, I do the same and that’s why I sold my iPad. Printed books will always be #1 and can’t be replaced. If it’s about environment then recycling is here to save the day.

  30. Wow, all this discussion and everyone leaves out a vital issue: You can’t read browser-based (server-based) ebooks, html5 or not, without a connection. If I can’t read on a bus or a train/plane then what’s the point regardless of format? But when it comes to travel books I want them as apps that I can search and that know where I am. Definitely not pdfs.

  31. the other outdated technology is gsm, and actually any type of cellular calls/texts which require carriers. Carriers must become just an internet providers. We can find the ways to communicate ourselves – via jabber, for example.

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