EPUB 3Much back-and-forth debate has circulated recently about the latest iteration of the EPUB standard, EPUB 3—no surprise with IDPF Digital Book 2013, the International Digital Publishing Forum’s annual shindig, having just concluded in New York City. But whatever the merits of the standard, tardy implementation and half-hearted adoption is likely to stymie efforts to get the international publishing industry to … ahem … standardize on it. Just from the point of timing, some commentators put final rollout of EPUB3 at six to 12 months time … if adoption has any real meaning anyway.

The European Booksellers Federation, for one, is supporting a high-level EU push to standardize internationally on EPUB 3. But the Book Industry Study Group’s handy guide to EPUB 3 implementation, available here, shows a relentless series of “nos” against the EPUB 3 functions it lists, even from the major platforms historically standardized on EPUB like Sony and Kobo, and even though these functions are “only a subset of what is currently available in EPUB 3.” Ironically, one of the best performers is Apple’s iBooks—hardly the definition of an open platform. And if the majors are failing to come fully on board with EPUB 3, what pressure on the rest to do so?

This concerns me because my dearest love, poetry, is poorly served by the current crop of EPUB readers. Even if EPUB 2 has enough formatting features to render reasonable verses, many EPUB reading clients skip the cascading style sheet support and other functions needed to deliver that layout.

Here for comparison are some screenshots of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Tolerance,’ from his Satires of Circumstance collection, using the EPUB file from the same Project Gutenberg edition.


On FBReader, as you can see above, the verse breaks completely disappear.


On Mantano Reader (above), which is CSS-compliant, on my Android tablet, the verses are clear and distinct.

And in Kindle’s client (above), also on my tablet, the verses are properly rendered. FBReader is a popular multi-platform EPUB reader with up to 10 million installations via Google Play alone. And for better or worse, Gutenberg has hardly done a ferociously strict and consistent formatting job with the EPUB poetry files it puts out. Yet FBReader can’t even hit that benchmark.

I took soundings on the issue on the MobileRead Forums recently, and got scant comfort or consensus. For various reasons, I concur with the view of one that most traditional poetry simply needs clear separation of lines and stanzas, and can manage without strict and accurate reproduction of page layouts. But there seems little hope that EPUB 3 will even get that far. FBReader plainly hasn’t. The viewpoint of the Forum participants, as elsewhere, is that the different commercial interests in IDPF are far more concerned with their own priorities than with the standard itself, and will pick and choose from it at their own convenience.

IMHO, and as Amazon obviously thought when they rolled it out, KF8 is going to further undercut the competition, even though Amazon took up the EPUB standard of the opposition. If a publisher no longer has an either/or fork between Kindle and not-Kindle, naturally he’s going to be that much more ready, and willing, to push books through Amazon’s channels. Kindle’s ecosystem and KF8 are liable to win by default.

What price the bells-and-whistles add-ons for a standard that can’t even get the basics right? And whose ostensible backers don’t even bother to take it on board? On this score, for my money—literally—Amazon deserves to win. They may be another Evil Empire, but at least they’ll give me my breaks.


  1. Well, the authors of FBReader refuse to support something as basic as horizontal lines (something even the rudimentary Albite Reader supports), never mind truly advanced features, so it’s hardly suitable for a benchmark.

    That said, it’s no surprise nobody wants to implement EPUB3 properly. First of all, that would require a full HTML5 rendering engine, which is way too much for the hardware specs of a typical e-ink reader, never mind the impossible (for e-ink) requirement to update the screen in real-time. And second, EPUB3 is a solution in search of a problem. Do we really want our books to be apps? The outcry against websites pushing apps onto mobile users suggests the contrary.

  2. LOL, Kindle will be dead long before epub3 or a relative succumbs.
    Kindle is a rip-off containing no technology of any interest, the user doesn’t own the content and you are locked-in to a company of dubious ethics.
    You – the dim-witted writer – show no vision at all. You are like those that wanted to keep using coal on Navy ships until Churchill and Roosevelt told them to disappear.

    PS: get rid of the stupid side panel please!

  3. Interesting and challenging engagement with the issues, Mike. I reallly admire your systematic logic. And you want to show me sterling examples of the ethics of the factions behind EPUB who are busy gutting the standard for their own commercial ends? And obviously you’ve forgotten that Amazon has no control over the freebie Mobi content that you can sideload into your Kindle ad infinitum. And who cares if the technology has any formal interest to it or not, so long as it works? Oh, and brave of you to link your comment to your identity.

  4. FBReader indeed is a huge CATASTROPHE.

    But if you take a look at aldiko or nook, for instance, they will still override styles even if publisher’s styles are enabled.

    Aldiko, for instance, will ignore text-indent and margin-top when it comes to paragraphs, which can be a serious issue in some languages as the phrased absolutely requires those styles to be left untouched (you override it, you are changing the logic of the essay for example). They know it, they don’t care — those people just clearly don’t care about books.

    On the other hand, nook changes headings’ styles (like the kobo app) and paragraph styles (like aldiko).

    As a matter of fact, you can bypass the overriding, but you must code your file like s**t, adding worthless markup, classes, etc. Consequently, those freaking overrides, which were meant for improving the legibility of ebooks in the past, are corrupting the quality of files made today… CLAP CLAP CLAP (thank you Indian EPUB factories who just don’t know heading tags exist in HTML and think titles are just another class of paragraphs… But that’s another story).

    Back to FBReader…

    I think the only solution so far has been to openly write [app] is utter s**t and explain why. That’s the only thing they will take into account as every time a person will google it, then he/she will be proposed [app] is utter s**t as a popular search… And to say 10 million people are using FBReader, the less capable EPUB app out there… IDPF should judge FBReader as a crime against ebooks… And if the developer is reading me, I just want to tell him F.U.

  5. Liz Castro of “Pigs Gourds and Wikis” and Catalonia fame, just put out her slides on her talk re: epub3. Her conclusion is the opposite: that it makes sense to embrace epub3 because it is backwards compatible. She has gone to great lengths on her blog to note where and how epub3 falls down, and how to work around it on those platforms that support it.

    As for poetry, you might want to look at the old HHH or Hand Held HTML standard, which in the days before Kindle tried to outline best practices for ebook creation that would survive all the then-existing reading software, including FB. Poetry was included, mostly by using blockquote as I recall, and inserting double [br] to achieve blank lines between stanzas. (But I am not sure that the stricter xml that epub is based on would allow all the stratagems embodied in HHH.)

  6. Thanks for the steer on the HHH, asotir – I’ll look into it. As for Castro’s advocacy, I have no problem with EPUB 3 as a standard in itself, and I wish those who claim to be behind it would embrace and adopt it fully. My issue is simply that the IDPF has failed to keep it on schedule or to get it comprehensively adopted. I suspect if the IDPF corporate members had concentrated on what books need rather than their own greed and fear they might have done better, but that’s a personal gripe.

  7. Yeah, a thought provoking comment about the IDPF.
    It’s all a bit too political, isn’t it? Meanwhile, the walled-gardens rule the way.
    But not forever.

    After all a forked standard of readers will still be more interoperable for publishers and customers than Amazon or Apple’s iBooks.

    And if Amazon and Apple stand in the way of progress someone eventually create another html5 book standard of which those in the IDPf will have no control. So eventually epub3 or descendent will win the war.

  8. The whole concept of a “standard” is undermined by DRM which is still in wide use. From a reader’s perspective, one is unaware and unconcerned about standards since you must “dance with the one who brung you” and no one else. Take away DRM and standards such as ePub 2, 3 or 4 might matter more.

  9. The problem you’ve shown isn’t basically about EPUB. It’s about the ereader. The IDPF cannot impose their rules on ereader manufacturers. They’re just building the standards. Your concern should fall on the FBReader developers not the IDPF. You’re barking on the wrong tree here.

    We can’t blame the IDPF for their slow implementation. It is a not-for-profit organization and I believe most of the members have main jobs on their regular time.

    One good thing about the EPUB is it’s an open format. If EPUB dies, you can watch Amazon monopolize and skyrocket the prices of their ebook files.

  10. @Frank – ” From a reader’s perspective, one is unaware and unconcerned about standards since you must ‘dance with the one who brung you’ and no one else”

    One might have said the same about mid-19th century railroad passengers: from the rider’s perspective they were unaware of and unconcerned with emerging gauge standards. Indian gauge, Stephenson gauge or Ohio gauge — as long as the train got them there on time, of what concern what is to the passengers?

    The point being that standards are generally adopted to benefit the industry, not the consumer. It was the likes of Pullman, not the passenger, who benefit from standardized grades by being spared having to produce cars in multiple gauges.

    Arguments over epub from the consumer’s perspective miss the boat. There’s a reason it’s called an industry — not a “consumer” — standard. Epub has always been about meeting the needs of the publishing industry, not you and me.

  11. @ Nathanael, that’s an interesting analogy that you cite but I have to take issue with its aptness to eReading and ePublishing. While it’s true that some standards are of no interest or concern to consumers (the case you cited is a good example), that’s not the case with all standards. I’d argue that the ePub standard is one of those exceptions. Some readers may care very much as to whether their digital reading environment may or may not include audio, video, read aloud, scripted interactivity, speech, vertical text, text on a path (svg) and so on.
    This takes on even greater import where readers are confined by DRM to one silo or another which is the norm for fiction.

  12. Here’s another angle to consider. Consumers who experience faulty display of prose or poetry in ePub-based eBooks may not know who to be upset with. Is it the publisher’s fault (incorrect markup)? Is it the author’s fault (making impossible demands on the medium)? Is it the fault of the eReader (failing to implement the standard properly)? Without consumer feedback (pushback?), all of these folks think that things are just fine. Returning the eBook, where permitted, is the only recourse for consumers and that may or may not include usable feedback.
    If the eBook isn’t encumbered by DRM (fat chance), a consumer might run the suspect eBook against epubcheck (see: http://code.google.com/p/epubcheck/). Normally, running epubcheck involves executing Java from the command line. This rules out a lot of consumers. However, a very nice fellow named Paul Durrant has put together a “front end” that makes running the latest epubcheck much easier (see: http://www.mobileread.com/forums/showthread.php?t=55576)
    It’s a drag&drop AppleScript app for MacOS X 10.4 and later. No doubt, there are similar solutions for Windows.
    Thus, DRM prevents consumers from knowing whether the eBook that they are leasing is standards compliant or not. Analyzing the output of epubcheck need not be difficult. At the very least we can differentiate between a “no errors” message and a long list of unintelligible but countable error messages. If the eBook passes epubcheck but still looks bad, the eReader is at fault. If the eBook is full of errors, then it’s the publisher’s fault. The publisher, who may also be the author, will point to their co-conspitors. Whatever the outcome, these key actors will not be able to maintain their complacency in the face of consumers who have empirical data proving that the goods delivered are sub-standard.

  13. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying consumers have no interest in a standard being adopted. Nineteenth century railroad passengers, for example, benefitted from not having to change trains, and some may even have purchased their tickets on such a basis. Further consumer benefits would include greater competition and lower pricing. And who knows, maybe even a few passenger services thought to advertise such benefits. But they were hardly the driving force behind the adoption of a standard gauge.

    “Some readers may care very much as to whether their digital reading environment may or may not include….”

    But of course. Some do. Some — such as those of us in this discussion — are tech-savvy enough and aware enough to know about things like text on a path or the proper formatting of poetry. But we’re few and far between; we don’t have anything close to the critical mass to sway anybody.

    Who does? My mother. *She’s* a typical ebook reader. She buys a book from Amazon or Apple, it downloads to her iPad, and she reads it. It doesn’t bother her that the poetry could have been better formatted. She doesn’t know about text flow. She isn’t all that hot and bothered about typos or line breaks. She wouldn’t have a clue about how to run an epubcheck or why she should care. She’s never heard of HTML or CSS. She *may* have some interest in, or use for, a read-aloud feature, but she’s no purist or aesthete. All she wants to do is read the book. She’d be just as happy with a Project Gutenberg-formatted text as with a B&N Digital Edition. Just so long as the words are large enough (it’s why she switched to ereading in the first place).

    And my mother outnumbers all of us here by at least a couple orders of magnitude.

    The point, once again, is that sure, publishers could fix all these issues if they put just a modicum of effort into it (and yes, these problems will eventually get fixed, but on the publishers’ timetable, not ours), but how many more ebooks would it realistically help them sell?

    In any case, epub isn’t about selling books. It’s about reducing publishers’ costs by reducing complexity. That’s what standards do.

    Nor is DRM relevant. Publishers make decisions about epub based on their needs, not ours (though occasionally there may be some overlap). DRM is added downstream, by resellers. Yeah, publishers want DRM. But they don’t particularly care *which* DRM, how many competing DRMs there are, or that incompatible DRM schemes complicate the user experience (unless you can convince them that hurts their bottom line; good luck with that).

    Yeah, from the users’ perspective you could argue DRM fractures epub into competing standards. But it’s not the users’ perspective that’s decisive here. From the publishers’ point of view — upstream from DRM — there is only one epub. And it’s *their* standard, not ours.

    Which brings up the other issue: control. The reason that epub will continue — all the problems you’ve enumerated here notwithstanding — is publishers own epub. Given the animosity between publishers and Amazon, publishers aren’t likely to adopt an Amazon-controlled standard any time in the near future.

    Oh, and thanks for using the word “lease”. No, we don’t buy ebooks. We lease them. Something we’re all going to have to get used to, I’m afraid.

  14. Thanks Nathanael. My use of the term “lease” was intended as sarcasm directed toward the newspeak definition of “buy” employed by Amazon and others. Why can’t they simply say what they mean?
    As for mothers and their ilk, though usually not inclined toward first person geekery, many do consult their sons, daughters and other thought leaders. They may even attend to whatever Consumer Reports and other, more formal, reviewers might have to say.
    Thus the problems I described afflict the naive by proxy when even the digital cognoscenti are prevented from knowing what exactly is going on and thereby preventing them from offering better informed opinion to the rest of us.

  15. I absolutely empathize with your points. However, I think that any realistic discussion of epub must predicate on the fact that epub is an *industry* standard, created by publishers for publishers, to enable them to create product to sell, not to improve ereaders’ user experience. Thus any attempt to influence the development of epub must make a business case or risk falling on deaf ears.

    As to leasing vs. buying, legally speaking Amazon is correct. The reason we could buy dead-tree books was because they were an indisoluble union of intellectual content (which we don’t own) and a physical medium (paper, ink, glue) which we did. Legally, once purchased, we are legally entitled to do whatsoever we wish with the physical medium (with certain minor restrictions) — resell it, give it away, lend it to friends — and the intellectual content goes along for the ride. But we don’t own the IP.

    With ebooks (and other purely digital products such as downloadable music and streaming video), there is no physical medium to own. It’s 100% pure intellectual content, and hence there is nothing tangible for us to own — just an ephemeral pattern of electrical/magnetic signals transferred to our computers or stored in our ereading devices.

    Analogically, ereading is akin to streaming movies from Netflix, not to buying DVDs at a store. We all recognize that when we hand our money over to Netflix we aren’t “buying” anything; we’re simply getting the right to view the IP which the Netflix service provides access to.

    That’s the legal model publishers and resellers are adopting with respect to ebooks. None of us likes it, but legally it does make sense. Since there’s nothing for us to own (no paper and ink; no plastic DVD) then it’s not a sale, it’s a contract entitling us to view the intellectual property.

    If you want to own a book, you’ll have to stick with the dead-tree variety.

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