The point of Digital Editions

Bob Russel writes:

I’d like to get a better feel for how you see Digital Editions from within the company. Not the polished formal or comprehensive and official description, but in your minds what’s the main point of it, what’s the intent, and where would you like to see it progress in the future? What sort of (realistic) hopes do you have for it’s adoption, and how can that be encouraged along?

This is a bit loaded question to ask a tech guy like me, of course. Success depends on much larger set of things than just technology alone and I’d rather concentrate on the technology.

To me the point of Digital Editions is quite clear. There are these things called books and they are not going away, even if they have to morph to fit into the digital world. Reading books today on paper is still much nicer than on an electronic device, but it does not have to be that way. We need these things to happen:

  • we have to agree on a eBook format which is open, easy to author, adapts to the reading environment form factor, but still rich enough to look good;
  • we need software which renders eBooks, so that they are pleasant to read and easy to manage; it also needs to provide new functionality that paper cannot do well (e.g., links, search and annotations – or embedded interactive content);
  • we need handheld devices which are small, easy to read from and have long battery life;
  • we need good authoring tools so that it is easy to create eBooks
  • we need publishers to treat eBooks as first-class citizens.

I think that we are getting there. PDF would have been a perfect eBook format if it could be reflowed to a small screen without quality loss, but at least it is easy to publish an existing content in it. So we had to try again. ePub, I think, as it is now, is quite good (and I think it will evolve – we need to add MathML and perhaps some extra layout and typographical features). We are, as you know, working on the software ;-). We see devices coming (e.g. Sony Reader). The hardest part is to convince publishers that eBooks are the future, but I think we can do it, maybe slowly and case-by-case, but things are moving there as well.

2 Responses to The point of Digital Editions

  1. Mike Perry says:

    Part of the difficulty with ebooks is the lack of a healthy distribution system, one that offers buyers some sense of certainty about what they are buying. Anyone who can create a pdf file can create an ebook of sorts, which blurs the line between what’s commercially viable and what’s merely playing around on a rainy afternoon. Imagine print publishing in a world where potential customers couldn’t tell if what they were buying was carefully laid out and properly bound or simply stapled pages that look awful. Printed books require enough investment in a print run to keep up quality. Ebooks require no such investment and the result is often junk.And why labor to create something that, for all your effort, isn’t distinguishable in the muddled ebook marketplace from a slightly prettified Project Gutenberg document? Customers can’t tell, so they won’t pay. The closest I’ve seen to an answer was Amazon’s idea to allow people who by a print edition to also own an online etext that they could search or cut and paste from. But Amazon seems to be moving away from that.I’ve put about a dozen ebooks on the market, legitimate ones with a corresponding print version that sells much better. But even I can’t tell someone how to reliably locate an ebook edition of a certain title or if it will be worth anything. And if I can’t, how is the average consumer to know?In short, no market exists, so nothing for that market is being created. It’s the classic chicken and egg problem.Copy protection is another issue. I’d rather not burden my readers with messy copy protection. I’d rather see Digital Editions support a better form of electronic text, one that adapts to a display, but does not hassles customers when they get rid of an old computer. It should also allow better cut and paste than PDF and a clickable index. Good text to speech would also be a plus. People could read when that’s easiest and switch instantly to an audio book mode when they need to take a walk or drive. The old adage that a new technology has to be ten times better than the old to replace it holds true here. Except for a few niches, ebooks not only aren’t ten times better, they’re not even as good as a printed editionI’d suggest creating a series of industry standards for a quality ebook, standards that fit with what consumers want. Add to that a online database (roughly corresponding to ISBNs) that lists and links to all books meeting that standard. Otherwise, ebooks aren’t competing with printed editions, they’re competing with web pages that cost nothing, and there’s no market for that.–Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

  2. Jon Noring says:

    As one of the independent, long-time technical contributors to the IDPF OPS/OPF/OCF open specifications (all of which underly the IDPF EPUB “standard”), let me say that Peter’s blog article nicely touches upon a range of important issues, and hits the nail on the head on many of them. (A few years ago I wrote an article presenting, in a similar manner, a “requirements” list for the ultimate open ebook and digital publication standard — that article is temporarily offline, but if anyone is interested in seeing it, contact me.)Rather than giving my thoughts on the points Peter describes (most of which I agree with), I’d like to instead address one aspect of the comment by Mike Perry.Since IDPF’s EPUB is a completely open “standard” (its component specifications are completely open), we can, and have to, separate the specification from the reading system. That is, we cannot judge the standard by existing reading system implementations, and vice versa.Let me note that EPUB is capable of quite rich expression of primarily linear works [see footnote below]:Content is contained in one or more XML documents, each of which may use either the XHTML 1.1 vocabulary (with a mechanism provided for adding custom tags), or the Digital Talking Book (DTB) vocabulary developed by DAISY. DTB is a lot like XHTML, but extended in some ways, and constrained in other ways, to force more rigorous document structuring and better identify important content semantics.Formatting is expressed by supporting CSS2, which is more powerful at typographical expression, especially for reflowable material, than many give it credit. And the partially completed CSS3, which may be used in EPUB although reading system support is not yet mandated, provides powerful capabilities for page-oriented layouts. One can build typographically advanced, page-based PDF ebooks using XML+CSS, as proven by YesLogic’s powerful Prince application — EPUB is simply a powerful XML+CSS framework. EPUB is currently the state-of-the-art of “liquid” ebook formats. (The word “liquid” used in this context was coined by Bill McCoy at Adobe.)Thus, I know what EPUB is capable of expressing, so Mike’s comment perplexes me, and I hope he considers being a little more specific as to where the EPUB standard falls short in terms of publication expression, and how it can be improved.Now, with regards to reading system implementations of the EPUB specification, that’s another story. I won’t give my thoughts here on one particular EPUB implementation: Adobe Digital Editions — that’s for a different time.Another company, OSoft, is working on their open source implementation, dotReader, using the Mozilla engine. And I know of at least one other company which is contemplating jumping in and adapting their product to directly render EPUB because it would be relatively easy for them to do so. In essence, the sky’s the limit as to reading system implementation of the EPUB standard, and we must not let one particular implementation mislead us into thinking EPUB is itself somehow deficient and thus not a good ebook standard.— Jon Noring, DigitalPulp Publishing[Footnote: A lot of publication types are quite non-linear in structure, such as “topic based” publications (which DITA excels at expressing). Unfortunately, the current EPUB falls short in supporting such types of non-linear publications. However, a next version of EPUB can certainly be expanded to better represent such non-linear content since the components are there. It’s like having a 440 cu. in. engine under the hood of a car, and putting a governor on it so it can’t drive faster than 50 mph.]