Digital Publishing Just (Finally) Got An Upgrade

A Kindle inside a stack of traditional dead-tree format books

What most of us know already, is that eBooks have been around for quite a while. The mighty Kindle, and the “Oh, I’m so fashionable” — iPad, made sure of that. Some of us, like myself, have been early adopters, but the reality is that 9 times out of 10, no matter how much we looked endearingly at eBooks as the next potentially big thing, these always felt underpowered, clunky and full of untapped potential, never really replacing the dead-tree format. Those of us who spent at least some time in digital publishing, be that individually or as part of a company, we are aware what’s behind the often boring, and frankly, way too print-resembling digital books: it’s web technology. Good ole HTML, CSS and Javascript. All bundled together into a bunch of folders and files, some compulsory, while others completely arbitrary, and 99% of the time clueless of IDPF standards.

Clueless, because much like the web development industry gave up — aka, actively ignored — caring about W3C standards, the digital publishing industry never really took a huge interest in meeting IDPF requirements, and therefore, as a standard, it never really got the proper exposure.

Not to mention, it’s quite a pain to think in two sets of standards when writing web code. There’s W3C because it’s — doooh — web, and then there’s IDPF (say what?), because it’s ePub. And the two don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything either. Just check out the ePub 3.1 documentation and if all you’ve developed in the past is regular web content, you’ll cringe at certain aspects of the coding requirements and best practices. Why? Because it will suddenly feel like you’re working with a subset of tools, and stepped a few years back in web development history.

And stepping back any amount of years, unless it involves a flux capacitor, the girl that got away, Trump or Brexit, is simply not a very good idea.

You don’t believe me? Build a time machine or an ePub and try it for yourself.

Hint: the latter may not be less of a rocket-science than the former, so choose wisely… ;)

Anyhow, Marty McFly or not, that all changes now. Because regardless of all the Javascript fatigue, complete lack of accessibility on the web, and all sorts of other web-developmental shortcomings, good things happen too: IDPF is now part of W3C. This is what all of us have been waiting for. Or maybe it’s just me that cannot contain my joy over this news, but it’s great news nevertheless and here’s why.

One standard to care about, and keep track of …

Given the fact that now both WCAG (accessibility) and IDPF are part of W3C, it arguably means if you’re W3C compliant, you have a good chance of being WCAG and IDPF compliant as well, or at the very least you’ll have less docs to cross-reference. Two shortcuts less in my favourites bar. Woop woop!

Transferable web development skills …

‘Cause, you know… that’s a good thing. Ask any recruiter. Web developers who until now laboured over websites, hybrid apps and whatnot, can now turn “whatnot” into “ePub development”. Sounds cooler, gets you hired, possibly even overworked if you’re in a tiny agency trying to please 100 customers with a part-time developer, but nevertheless, it adds an extra skill under the belt. Sure, you’ll need to understand the basics of an ePub’s structure, but that’s easy-peasy compared to say learning an entire new development framework. I am expecting W3C to merge standards into a holistic and universal one over the next few years — though please don’t blame me should that not happen.

eBooks and bookstores in the browser …

I like Readium, it’s open source, easy to use, to set up, works well and it’s feature-rich but I always felt it was unnecessary and browsers should have had built-in ePub reading capabilities. After all, it’s using technologies browsers already understand. I am expecting this to change very soon. In fact, based on what Microsoft is planning to release in Edge, this is now near-reality and I expect all browsers to follow suit shortly. It’s a thing of convenience, efficiency and good UX really. Frankly, I am surprised it took us so long to get here.

Abandoning PDF in favour of ePub …

It may be just me and my frustration with Adobe, but much like Flash was shunned forever from the web — die Flash, diiieee! — , so should PDFs be. The amount of work, money and effort that goes into creating them, and the inconsistency of the output in different browsers (Mozilla Firefox, I am looking at you…) and operating systems is downright infuriating. Opting for ePub over PDF would open a lot of new doors for innovation, while — theoretically at least — ensuring compatibility across browsers and operating systems. Another benefit would be getting print publishers up-skilled to technologies that are — as mentioned previously — transferrable. Professionals who previously focused solely on print-style development, poking around in InDesign and the likes, would have a whole new world of publishing opened to them, boosting productivity and creativity alike.

A much more innovative approach to eBook design and development …

A natural conclusion to my previous points is innovation. Why? Because we can. Why can we? Because ePub. Why ePub? Because it’s HTML, CSS and Javascript — see where I’m going with this? — and those three together render an already awesome (and you know it!) internet.

So why would we not want to take all that awesomeness, slice it, dice it, give it a front-matter, a back-matter, a spine, and turn it into a mind-blowing reading experience?

Having the IDPF standard part of W3C could and should enable innovation, and modernise the boundaries of ePub development and design. Having access to modern tools that grow at the same pace as the W3C standard can only be beneficial, and will contribute to a much more homogeneous online experience.

I invite you to join the new EPUB 3 Community Group which is free and open to all. Simply go here to sign up. W3C also looks forward to participating in the EPUB Summit, 9–10 March 2017 in Brussels, Belgium and the community’s participation is encouraged. The EPUB Summit program agenda is now available.

Writer of code, blogs and things that live on the web. Pragmatic doer, Lego fan, Mac user, cool nerd. JavaScript and Flutter enthusiast. editor.