The Digital Book – Why ePUB Is Only Part of the Equation

The electronic book. Fantasized about for decades by sci-fi authors and readers alike, yet one of the last analog mediums to enter the digital realm. Why is that?

What is it about a book that makes it so difficult to translate the experience into a digital medium?

I think it has to do with the way we define a book, and how broad that definition really is. The problem is that we’re looking for one solution to the digital book problem, one answer that packages our bookshelves into bits and bytes. The ePUB standard has been proposed as that answer. But it isn’t the complete answer, and I’m not sure it ever can be.

The things we today call books have fundamental differences that can’t be reconciled by any one standard that’s currently been proposed. Why is that? What’s missing? And how can we fix it?

ePUB – What It Offers

Before I get too far along in this little rant, and start harping on about the inadequacies inherent in the ePUB standard, I want to make sure I get this little fact out there: I like the ePUB standard. I think it’s a huge leap forward in digital book construction and distribution. It’s gained traction throughout the publishing community, and programs that read ePUB files are available on nearly every platform.

The issue I have with ePUB is that it’s being portrayed as the solution for digital books everywhere, the one format to rule them all. But, ePUB only shines in one area of books – the purely text ones.

What am I talking about? I mean novels, novellas, short stories, biographies, and the list goes on. In truth, the large majority of books published in the world. But, not the only ones.

These types of books are built with their foundation in one thing, the text. The words on the page are the most important thing. As long as they’re allowed to maintain their sequential order, the way they’re displayed on the page is essentially immaterial to the reader grasping the information being presented.

That’s why the ePUB format has gained so much ground. The problem a digital book runs into is that the size of the “page” changes with each device that opens the ePUB file. With pure text books, that’s no problem, simply reflow the text. And ePUB supports this quite nicely.

The issue is when the size and layout of the page is inseparable from the meaning of the text. Books that use images, charts and diagrams to impart more meaning than the words alone could, are left out in the cold.

It’s All About The Experience

Ask anyone who uses an iOS device why they enjoy it so much, and they’ll tell you: the experience of using it is better than anything they’ve used before. The user experience of software is something that’s gotten a lot press lately, and in my opinion the term is on the verge of becoming a buzzword.

But, with all this talk I fear its meaning is being diluted. That can’t happen. Because crafting the best possible experience when using something is so important to creating great software. And it’s what is lacking when you convert certain styles of books to the ePUB format.

You see, book layout and design is an art form that’s been perfected over centuries. And now, many books that use content other than simply words, rely heavily on the way that material is presented to communicate a point.

If you’re reading a cookbook for instance, and it’s describing step-by-step how to de-bone a chicken, it’s really important that the photographs depicting those steps are laid out so they correspond with the text. The ePUB format simply doesn’t allow for this kind of control over layout (and I don’t know if it ever will) because flexibility of layout is such a big feature of ePUB books.

What To Do?

Ok, so I don’t have the answer. Sorry. There are options out there though, there just isn’t one clear answer yet.

If you want to limit yourself to the iOS platform, you can create a native app and sell it through Apple’s App Store. This has some distinct advantages, most notably an easy payment system with a large user base that’s willing to buy, and also the ability to craft the best user experience possible, allowing for all the control of the previous analog medium with all the advantages of the digital realm.

If you’d like something more platform agnostic, but with still more control over presentation then ePUB offers, you can build a web app. Web apps can be engineered to run on nearly anything with a web browser, and the techniques used to build websites lend themselves to both textual and visual content.

But, if you’re in the business of selling books, the Web probably isn’t for you. No simple, easy micro-payment system has reached critical mass yet.

From an experience standpoint, perhaps building native apps is the way to go. But that locks data into a small bubble, it ignores the incredible power of linking, the potential network that could be created of readers and authors engaging with one another. The web could provide those things, but there’s no sustainable business model, and without one, there will be no content.

A Wide Open Future

After all that, I’d still like to end on a positive note. The age of the digital book is only just beginning. I think it’s taken us this long to finally commit to bringing the book out of the analog age because we wanted to make sure we did it right.

Books represent our heritage as human beings. They’re arguably the most important part of growing a civilization, of investing knowledge into our culture. We didn’t want to screw this up.

Now we have the technology to do things right, and we know the questions that need to be answered, ePUB is the first step, not the final word. There’s more work to be done, there are more possibilities to explore. I, personally, can’t wait to see what happens. I have little doubt that what unfolds will be an astounding story in and of itself.

Your Thoughts

We’d love to hear your thoughts of the future of digital books – simply leave a comment below! Are native applications where the future lies, or does the web hold the answer? What do you think of ePUB?