March 22, 2017

EPUB’s used for more things than you realize

EPUB logoMy assignment, in keynoting the recent EPUB Summit in Brussels, was to make people realize how deeply and broadly embedded EPUB has become in the publishing ecosystem.

I had no idea. Really. I’ve been involved in the development of EPUB since its inception, and I’m known as—some would say I’m accused of being—an evangelist of EPUB for educational publishers. But until I put together my presentation for Brussels even I hadn’t realized how many different ways EPUB is being used today, and how essential it has become to publishing of all sorts.

It wasn’t that long ago that people were thinking EPUB 3 wasn’t ready for prime time. Many people still think it’s just for straightforward trade books—fiction and popular nonfiction. Sure, that’s where it’s used the most. But even in that context, many people don’t realize quite how successful it has become.

One of the main goals for EPUB was to get us out of the quagmire of having to make special versions of ebook files for each and every retailer and aggregator. Well, guess what: the biggest trade publisher in the world, Penguin Random House, now sends the same EPUB file to every trading partner. Even to Amazon. It gets turned into Amazon’s proprietary format by KindleGen, but PRH sends them the same EPUB file they send everybody else.

EPUB has become essential to publishing of all sorts.

And we’re not just talking about North America, or the English language. EPUB is the standard format for e-manga in Japan. That’s probably not how you were picturing EPUB, was it?

But those are still trade books. What about other kinds of books?

The story on EPUB for educational publishers is quite different. Educational publishers aren’t using EPUB so much as a distribution format—they don’t typically distribute their books through the retail channels that PRH does—but as part of their infrastructure, and for interchange. It’s more about platforms than ebooks for them.

When I began work with Cambridge Education, I discovered that their Cambridge Elevate platform was designed to require EPUB as input. Why? Because modern platforms need to be based on Web technologies, and the most widely used specification for how to manage publication content based on the Open Web Platform is EPUB. (Plus it’s accessible. More on that in another blog.)

EPUB is “built in” to Pearson’s new information infrastructure, and Macmillan Learning’s, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s. VitalSource, the world’s biggest aggregator of educational content, prefers EPUB as an input. And they have created an easy-to-use authoring platform, VitalSource Content Studio, that enables not only publishers, but even classroom teachers to create rich, multimedia, interactive EPUBs, without knowing any code. Very cool.

This all still sounds like books, though, right? The biggest revelation to me was how much EPUB is being used for non-book content. I’ve done a lot of work with the EU Publications Office in the past few years. They have the most mind-bogglingly diverse set of publications of any organization I’ve ever encountered—legal, judicial, and parliamentary documents, budget documents, scientific studies, publications for schools and tourists, you name it, in many or all of the 27 languages of the EU. It wasn’t until I did the presentation for Brussels that I realized how extensively they were using and promoting EPUB. (There’s a video in my presentation about this, which shows how extensively they have promoted EPUB to the EU’s institutions.)

And they’re not unique: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) creates EPUBs; all Japanese official documents are EPUBs. IBM has switched from PDF to EPUB as the standard format for the distribution of all their documents. Google Docs even exports EPUBs!

Here’s a news flash that I was frankly thrilled to discover. I’ve been involved in scholarly publishing my whole career. One thing that has bugged me is that because scholarly journals realized the benefits of digital publishing so early (one of the many ways scholarly publishers have been ahead of the rest of publishing), they basically got stuck in PDF.

In today’s increasingly mobile world, journals have to get accessible and reflowable.

So here’s the news flash: Atypon, one of the leading platforms for distributing scholarly book and journal content (they host 40% of the world’s peer-reviewed journals, and have long supported EPUBs for books) is not only implementing a Readium-based EPUB reader in the browser, but more significantly, their upcoming release will automatically generate EPUB for any article submitted to their standard specification. Nothing required on the part of the publisher other than checking the box saying they want EPUB as a deliverable.

That’s especially notable because journals are based on NLM/JATS XML, not HTML. (Articles submitted as PDFs will be rendered as Fixed Layout EPUBs.) This will be huge. Soon millions of journal articles will be able to be available as EPUBs—at last!

Of course, having an EPUB doesn’t mean it’s always easy to view the EPUB, right? I admit I still assume you need to open up an EPUB in an EPUB reader—I use the Readium Chrome app, for example. What I hadn’t stopped to realize is that because iBooks in iOS supports EPUB, every modern iOS device can render an EPUB. EPUB is supported in Google Play for Android, too.

Another news flash: the upcoming release of Microsoft Edge, which is in late beta, supports EPUB, which means that you can click on an EPUB in the browser and it will open up just like PDFs do. If it’s in Edge, will the other browsers be far behind? And Microsoft’s Windows 10 Creators Update coming in April supports EPUB, too. As my friend Bill McCoy remarked, “EPUB support from Apple, Google, and Microsoft means we’re getting close to ubiquity.”

Finally, and most important: EPUB is essential for accessibility. But as I mentioned above, that’s a topic for another blog. Maybe more than one. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can see my keynote presentation for the EPUB Summit here.

EPUB Is Here to Stay from Apex CoVantage