EPUB: The next PDF?

EPUB, an XML format for reflowable text composed of three open standards and developed by the Toronto-based International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), is quickly becoming an e-book industry standard as support from publishers and tech giants such as Adobe Systems Inc., Sony Corp. and Google Inc. continues to grow.

This is good news for both publishers and readers, according to Evan Leibovitch, open source architect at York University who recently presented a session at BootCamp Toronto titled, “Kindle Shmindle: The future of eBooks in Canada.”

Currently involved in a York University project called The Homeless Hub that aims to provide information and resources to the public on homelessness using e-books in EPUB format, he anticipates the open standards format is about to play a huge role for eBooks in Canada.

Leibovitch attributes former e-book struggles to the lack of standards and about 20 different formats, but the standard is now here with EPUB, he said. “I see a lot of opportunities,” he said.

The publishing industry is hurting, but this isn’t the case with e-books, said Michael Smith, executive director of IDPF. E-book sales are the fastest growing segment of the industry, while U.S. book sales are declining across all markets, he pointed out.

eBooks got a big boost when Amazon.com Inc. entered the market with the Kindle in 2007, according to Smith, but recent investment in the e-book space by large companies have also helped the market take off. This includes Sony’s Reader Digital Book, Google’s release of a half million public domain e-book titles to Sony, and publishers such as Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. leading the space.

Penguin Group USA reported an increase in e-book sales of nearly 500 per cent from 2007, according to a March 2009 release on Penguin Group 2008 profits. The publishing company has 6,400 e-books currently available in the U.S. market.

Stanza, a free eBook reader app for the iPhone and iPod touch, was downloaded by two million users in its first year on the market. Developed by Seattle-based Lexycycle Inc., which was acquired by Amazon in April, the native EPUB reader has supported over 12 million book downloads since it launched in July 2008.

Five electronic book formats are utilized in North America, although publishers in the U.K., Germany and France have taken an EPUB-only approach, noted Smith. “The use of a standard always helps for a healthy ecosystem, so I can see EPUB continuing to grow,” he said.

EPUB became in standard in September 2007, but the big step came in May 2008 when the Association of American Publishers (AAP) issued an open letter to IDPF announcing their support of the open standards format, said Smith. EPUB titles started hitting online bookshelves early this year.

What the EPUB standard has done is help get publishers more involved in the space, said Smith. It’s an open and non-proprietary standard, which means it doesn’t cost the publishers to use it, he noted. Another benefit is they don’t have to rely on the benevolence of another company who might offer proprietary formats that could potentially close down and cause them to lose their files, he said.

Also, because EPUB is XML-based, it can be converted into other proprietary formats, which means publishers create one EPUB file and distributors convert it behind-the-scenes. This saves publishers conversion costs, which allows them to enter more titles into the supply chain and create that critical mass of content necessary, said Smith.

EPUB is based on other open standards that already existed and are already familiar, which is another reason for its success, according to Smith. “No one is recreating the wheel and that is a big step,” he said.

A key feature of EPUB, according to Leibovitch, is that digital rights management is optional. “If a publisher wants to put (DRM) on, they have that option. Adobe sells a tool that allows somebody to control how their DRM works on the EPUB format. In Amazon, you don’t have a choice – DRM is mandatory,” he said.

“The industry has gone into two camps: Amazon and everyone else … You have Amazon and they’ve got their proprietary, closed standard, DRM, one-source-for-everything (approach) and you’ve got the rest of the world trying to agree on an open standard for which you can have multiple book stores,” said Leibovitch.

The music industry just went through a very painful decade and came to the conclusion that DRM is consumer-hostile, said Leibovitch. “If the book world doesn’t move in a different direction, they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that the music industry had over the last ten years,” he said.

“I come from the world of Linux open source, so to me, having open standards, having multiple vendors and solutions is the way to go. I don’t think twice about it,” he said.

While converting from PDF to EPUB is a difficult process, Leibovitch said publishing from a Microsoft Word document or Open Office file is relatively simple. Adobe InDesign also features a built-in EPUB publishing tool.

But PDF isn’t going anywhere soon. EPUB is well suited for heavy text-based materials, but as it resizes, the format doesn’t lend itself well to documents that rely on a fixed design with heavy graphics, said Leibovitch.

The main difference between PDF and EPUB is the former displays exactly as the publisher initially printed the title, whereas the latter adjusts according to the screen size – whether it’s a 30-inch monitor or a Sony Reader or an iPhone, said Smith. PDFs will still be used for content that has to be read and viewed exactly as the publishers created them, such as titles for higher education, he said.

Adobe, an active member of the IDPF, is working to establish EPUB as a broad industry-standard e-book format, said Adobe spokesman Stefan Offermann in an e-mail interview.

“EPUB is complementary to PDF and we believe it will accelerate the availability of e-book content on mobile devices and computing platforms worldwide. Support for EPUB is built into a series of existing Adobe products and technologies including Adobe Digital Editions, the Adobe Reader Mobile SDK and InDesign CS4,” said Offermann.

Online retailers selling EPUB titles include Fictionwise, which was recently purchased by Barnes & Noble Inc., and Toronto-based Shortcovers. Project Gutenberg is also providing its massive collection of public domain eBooks as free EPUB downloads. Bookworm, a free eBook reading platform for mobile devices and desktops, is promoting the use of EPUB. The format is also supported by Sony’s Reader device.

The Kindle, which doesn’t support EPUB, isn’t an option for Canadian eBook readers, as the Amazon device is only available in the U.S. and accessible through the Sprint network.