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Epub is going to lose

So there’s another Epub activism session going on right now on Twitter, and it inspired this rant. I have a number of points about format, Kindle vs Epub, etc that I want to get off my chest.

Why Kindle will Win

The Kindle format has Amazon behind it. Epub has a committee. When you match a savvy, innovative tech company with a being that has 100 mouths and no brain, who do you think will win?

Epub vs Kindle – Which is better

The Epub advocates like to talk about how much you can do with Epub that you can’t do on the Kindle. This is somewhat true. On scale of 1 to 10 (with Epub being a 10) the Kindle format would rate about a 7.

But if you expand that scale so it reflects all the things you can do with web content, then you have scores of 7 and 10 on a scale of 1 to 50. When you think about all the stuff you can’t do with Epub it suddenly becomes a lot less impressive.

One format must win

Why should one digital format win when no single paper format has done so? There are bunches of standard book sizes in paper. Why should digital be any different? It’s like you’re saying that graphic novels can replace cookbooks, or MMPB can replace reference manuals. Or to give a digital example, CBR & CBZ aren’t going away. They work just fine for comics.

And besides, a single digital format which could do everything would be a "jack of all trades but a master of none". I’d rather stick with the more specialized formats.

Epub as a standard

(I just read this over on Mike Cane’s tumblr blog.) Which Epub standard are you talking about? There are 3 commercially available epub standards: Sony, B&N, and Apple. It’s not one format; DRM has made sure of that.

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Moriah Jovan August 11, 2010 um 11:18 am

You probably already know I agree.

Luqman August 11, 2010 um 12:04 pm

"Sony" is not an epub "standard." Sony uses standard ADEPT drm like everyone else who sells DRM epub other than B and N and Apple, i.e. Books on Board, Kobo, Borders, Books-a-Million, Fictionwise, and all the British ebook stores. This is the same form of DRM that is used by libraries powered by Overdrive. Hopefully, the fragmentation will lesson somewhat when the other eReader makers (Sony, Kobo, etc.) update the version of Adobe Mobile they are using to be compatible with books using eReader style password DRM (which is superior to what Amazon and Apple are using and to the older version of ADEPT in that it doesn’t require a server to authorize the book on the reader). The iRex DR800 series used this version and had access to the B and N store, so it’s not impossible (or probably difficult, for that matter) for Sony and others to follow suit. I don’t have a huge problem with Mobi as a format, other than the limitations it places on graphics and the lack of formatting options available.

Nate the great August 11, 2010 um 12:46 pm

Hopefully, the fragmentation will lesson somewhat when the other eReader makers (Sony, Kobo, etc.) update the version of Adobe Mobile they are using

That’s never going to happen. Sony will never update their e-readers. It’s not worth the expense.

Mike Cane August 11, 2010 um 4:00 pm

Not only isn’t it worth the expense, it might not even be technically possible. Who knows if there’s free space in the Sony firmware? Plus, what’s in it for SONY? Nothing!

Moriah Jovan August 11, 2010 um 12:08 pm

the limitations it places on graphics and the lack of formatting options available

Yeah, that’s a pain, but you can override a lot of it with span styles.

The trick with MOBI and graphics is that you have to use JPG files, not PNG.

I just finished doing a book of plays and the stage direction indentation was a nightmare with CSS. Just WOULD NOT HONOR it. Then I tried inline and all was right with the world again.

Alexander Inglis August 11, 2010 um 5:53 pm

Well, I can see Amazon supporting (that is, playing) ePub the same way it supports txt and pdf — without DRM. Plus it doesn’t sell these formats as e-books, with or without DRM. But there’s no reason for Kindle devices to play DMR ePub or for Amazon to mess things up *selling* any format e-book except Kindle format. Why complicate the customer choice when Kindle format already works perfectly well?

Mike Cane August 11, 2010 um 7:51 pm

If Amazon ever did DRMed ePub, it’d be the same way Apple did it — with their own DRM scheme. It’d solve nothing except give a false sense of victory to ePub advocates. The only reason I can see Amazon ever doing ePub is to tip their hand that they intend to move books from downloadable files to things that reside only on the Net. The inclusion of a Webkit browser in the new Kindle might be a very early sign of that.

epobirs October 29, 2011 um 11:00 am

False sense of victory? Being able to produce a single file with very minor changes for different venues is pretty huge for those of us making these things.

Saying there are multiple EPUB standards because of DRM differences is just nonsense. I don’t deal with DRM. That is the venue’s problem. MY concern is how much additional work each venue imposes on me. Adding ' Edition' to the title page takes a few seconds. Dealing with all of Amazon’s quirks takes hours.

Yesterday I had a book with a section that was easily done as a table on the Nook. Looks fine, almost exactly like the original paper version. Can’t use it on Kindle. I have to generate a graphic to use instead, taking up time and adding bulk to my file.

The difference in functionality really matters.

epobirs October 29, 2011 um 10:51 am

Sorry, I’m not buying it. I don’t give a damn what zillion things the latest web browser support. The majority of that doesn’t have much bearing on producing a good looking book. That 7-10 gulf between Kindle and EPUB is very important. Things that are trivial on EPUB become a LOT of additional work on Kindle. And some of it isn’t even MOBI’s fault. It’s how Amazon implemented the Kindle menus that imposed unnecessary restrictions. (There are things that work on Kindle Previewer that break on an actual Kindle, which gives a hint to what is happening.)

Amazon’s format has had very minor updates since 2001, half a decade before the Kindle was first announced! And the spec wasn’t up to date with HTML standards even then. Meanwhile, EPUB devices that cost no more than the Kindle made it clear this was completely unnecessary.

Amazon has announced K8, a major update of their format but outside of the Fire and products dedicated to it, it will be at least two years before the bulk of the installed based of Kindles supports the new format, thus making it unusable for quite a while. Amazon won’t even confirm if the firmware update will be available for K3 models yet.

Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla of e-book sales, so we’ve no choice but to live with MOBI but it doesn’t mean we have to like it. Yes, firmware updates are always a pain to deploy and make sure are in place before allowing products to ship which require the update. But Amazon had years before the first Kindle and years since to address this stuff. It’s finally happening with K8 but in a way that makes it worthless for most of us for the foreseeable future.

fjtorres October 29, 2011 um 5:32 pm

Actually, you don’t have to limit yourself to mobi.
Things have changed since 2010.
When you get to the oct 2011 posts you’ll find Amazon also supports HTML5/CSS3 with Kindle Format8.

Nathanael December 16, 2011 um 4:47 am

It’s some fourteen months on, and Nate’s predictions of ePub’s demise seem, well, a bit premature. ePub3 is out, while the "Kindle standard" has now fractured into three incompatible formats (Kindle 1, Kindle 2/3 and the new KF8).

epobir’s points are, I think, the salient ones. Just as it’s web designers, not web surfers (most of whom haven’t the least clue about html or css), who drive web standards, it’s publishers, not ebook consumers, who are most affected by ebook standards.

And thus a plethora of competing DRM schemes is simply not relevant to the equation. DRM is applied by the distribution channel post-production, and whether Sony, Apple and B&N use the same or utterly incompatible restriction management schemes is of less relevance to publishers than the fact that they can simply send the same ePub file to everyone (except, of course Amazon; and which Kindle format to use?).

Historically, from the Stephenson gauge to TCP/IP, industry standards have rarely been about benefiting the consumer, but about benefiting the industry.

fjtorres December 16, 2011 um 7:43 am

Funny that you should bring up TCP as it negates your premise that it is the industry rather than consuers who dictate marketplace winners.
One word: OSI.
For all that all the equipment providers, academics, and even government wanted to *force* OSI on the consumers, TCP ended up winning because the implementers, even in government, ended up with the most effective and cost-efficient solution.

The lesson for ebooks is similar: it is fine and dandy for insiders and techies to define a "universal" ebook spec (just as OSI was a universal networking spec) but specs don’t compee in the marketplace, products do.

And the product that people buy is ebooks, and commercial ebooks do come wrapped in DRM just as ebook readers don’t buy bare circuit boards but rather circuit boards encased in molded plastic. DRM is an integral part of the product publishers sell, as may are as paranoid about piracy and insist on it; it is an integral part of the product retailers sell, as it it is part of the transmission and authentication process involved in delivering the book to consumers, and it is the front lines differentiator that consumers experience, as the *first* decision a consumer makes when buying an ebook reader is *who* is going to be their primary source of commercial ebooks; Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Sony, or "other".

Real world experience has shown that 90+ percent of the market is choosing to buy their ebooks from Amazon, Apple, or B&N and at least half of the "other" camp are buying from Kobo, which uses its own proprietary kepub. If epub had the upper hand, generic ADEPT epub wouldn’t be relegated to at most 5% of the market. If epub had the upper hand, you wouldn’t see owners of epub-based readers fuming that Amazon only sells their ebooks to Kindle owners.

The real world evidence is that DRM decides what consumers buy and who they buy from. The real world evidence is that commercial ebook products are defined by their DRM not the publing inside the data file. And your mention of the multiple flavors of Kindle books and KF8 *validates* that position: a Kindle ebook is whatever amazon says it is. Mobi7, Topaz, Print Replica, or KF8 is just plumbing. What the consumer sees is a Kindle ebook.

Just as the consumer sees Nook 1 ebooks as a distinct product regardless of whether they are epub or ereader and just as consumers see Kobo ebooks as a distinct product regardless of whether the file they are reading is kepub or epub.

The real world evidence is that, as long as epub supporters remain obsessed with file structure and production issues instead of the customer experience, epub will remain, as oeb was and as epub currently is, primarily an industry standard for *backend* workflow and archiving and *not* a universal consumer product.

Like it or not (and I hardly like it myself, though I am not particularly outraged by the inconvenience) DRM is an integral and defining feature of commercial ebook products. And as long as epub is delivered as multiple incompatible product lines from multiple vendors it will have a hard time convincing consumers to buy into the spec.

As an insightful post on Mobileread summed it up: "People don’t buy epub, they buy ebooks."

There *is* a difference

Nathanael December 18, 2011 um 7:03 am

[Part 1]
TCP/IP was just an example, so I won’t get into that discussion except to say the article you link doesn’t support your characterization. The OSI model was never a "universal industry spec"; it was an abstract proposal (and a moving target at that), growing out of the academic discussions of the 1970s, which, as far as I’m aware, even its authors never expected to see implemented as-is. As a real-world solution it was overly complex, inflexible (it didn’t support any of the common network topologies, whereas TCP/IP ran on all of them) and would have been prohibitively expensive.

"epub will remain … an industry standard for *backend* workflow and archiving and *not* a universal consumer product."

Well, yes, I do believe that was my argument: it is the "backend" which will determine the industry standard ebook format. Consumers, as you eloquently argued, couldn’t care less what the "underlying plumbing" is.

But I think you undercut your own argument:

"a Kindle ebook is whatever amazon says it is. Mobi7, Topaz, Print Replica, or KF8 is just plumbing. What the consumer sees is a Kindle ebook."

And were Amazon to decide tomorrow to adopt epub, you could toss epub into the above list without affecting your argument a jot or a tittle; the consumer would still see just "a Kindle ebook". You seem to want to simultaneously say that consumers aren’t concerned with ebook formats and that consumers have chosen against epub.

Nathanael December 18, 2011 um 7:04 am

[Part 2]
"DRM is an integral part of the product publishers sell"

Irrelevant. Whether DRM is added in-house by the publisher, up-chain by the wholesaler, or by the vendor, it is added post-production. Buy Stephen King’s "Full Dark, No Stars" from Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Sony, strip the DRM and you’ll have exactly the same epub book. And *that* is the advantage to the publisher – it doesn’t have to produce three different versions of the book for three different retailers.

"If epub had the upper hand, generic ADEPT epub wouldn’t be relegated to at most 5% of the market"

I’m not sure what you’re metric is, but you’re treating Amazon as a monolithic entity while subdividing epub according to DRM. Isn’t that a bit sloppy? First, of course, DRM has nothing to do with the success or failure of epub as an industry standard, as I demonstrated above. Second, "Kindle" circumscribes at least three different formats. Third, the success or failure of any particular DRM scheme may be completely unrelated to the success or failure of epub as a whole. Fourth, (or point 3b, if you will), four of the five vendors you reeled off support epub.

We could, as you seem to have done, limit ourselves to a) the North American market and b) only commercially sold ebooks, but why? Conversely, we could count the number of vendors who support epub vs. Kindle (Kindle: 1, epub: everybody else). We could count the number of publishers who support epub, (epub: everybody). We could count the number of ereading devices that support epub (everybody minus 1). We could count the number of titles available in each format. Or we could count total number of ebooks downloaded (in which case Apple claims to have at least 130 million epub downloads to toss at the equation; yeah, I don’t believe Apple’s numbers any more than I believe Amazon’s).

Before we can start counting ebook market share, we have to decide what we’re going to count, and where. And nobody’s come up with a good — or at least implementable — answer to that yet.

"If epub had the upper hand, you wouldn’t see owners of epub-based readers fuming that Amazon only sells their ebooks to Kindle owners."

Really? My experience has been rather the opposite, at least if the Mobilread crowd is any indicator: epub proponents seem to be rather insufferably of the "why would I *want* to buy from Amazon?!" mindset. Conversely, lack of epub support has been one of the more consistent complaints of Kindle owners — particularly those who tend to patronize their local libraries.

My take is that in the near term in the North American market neither epub nor Kindle is going away. Outside the North American market (where I live), it’s a very different story.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2011 um 7:44 am

Actually, the Kindle standard has fractured into 4 standards (Mobi, audio/video in iOS, Kindle Print Replica in PC/OSX, and KF8 on the Kindle Fire). But your point is valid.

And no, Epub3 is not out. The format is complete but no tools can make it nor can any apps or devices read it (besides iBooks).

Nathanael December 18, 2011 um 7:12 am

I think that’s just a matter of semantics. By "out" I mean it has been finalized and published (as of October). As always, it will take some time for the tools to catch up.

Nathanael December 18, 2011 um 11:51 pm

Did a bit more searching, and have found several apps that claim epub3 support: readers from ACCESS Col., Ltd., Azardi and ThreePress, Bookworm, and of course iBooks, all render epub3. On the production side, Pages on the iPad can save to epub3 format. A bit thin, yet, but it’s not true there’s nothing out there.

That’s what I got from a quick ten-minute google. Don’t know whether Calibre or Sigil support epub3. However, since epub3 is basically html and css, one *could* create an epub3 with nothing more than a straight plain text editor (not that I’d want to).

Nate Hoffelder December 19, 2011 um 7:09 am

Calibre and Sigil don’t make Epub 3 yet, no. Access never even released their Epub Reader, so there’s no reason to expect to see their Epub3 reader. And iBooks/Pages don’t support Epub3; they support Apple’s proprietary format which resembles Epub 3.

Nate Hoffelder December 19, 2011 um 7:15 am

And Ibis (the reading app developed by Threepress) doesn’t support Epub 3 yet – not that I can tell. I also cannot find any sign that Bookworm does, either.

Luqman December 19, 2011 um 11:49 am

Five. You forgot Topaz.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2011 um 10:49 am

My prediction might not have come true yet, but 14 months later Amazon’s single store, even though it sells multiple formats, still dominates the ebook market.

Nathanael December 18, 2011 um 7:17 am

Amazon still dominates the North American commercial market, true. But is that the relevant metric? Nonetheless, it’s still a very long hike from there all the way to "epub is going to lose".

Nathanael December 20, 2011 um 12:07 am

As I said, I just did a quick 10-minute search, and my comments re: Bookworm and iBis were based on the claims of a blog which was rating ereading software. I can’t even find the blog again, so I withdraw my comments on those.

ACCESS Co. put out a press release in October ( claiming its NetFront 1.0 reader is available and supports epub3. Of course, since ACESS sells to device makers, not the public, there’s no way to test the claim.

Azardi 7 (, however, is out, supports epub3, and can be downloaded from the site together with three sample epub3 ebooks. I don’t know how complete Azardi’s epub3 support is but, at least in my XP VM its sample books looked pretty impressive.

Yes, I see Sigil Epub3 support is slated for somewhere around v0.6; a ways off yet. My statement re: ACCESS was based on their press release of 13 Oct. ( and this ( ) which claims NetFront 1.0, with Epub3 support, is "currently available". However, ACESS sells to device manufacturers, not the public, so "available" doesn’t mean you and me. Beyond that I claim no specific knowledge.

As to Pages, I have created a couple of quick-and-dirty epub3s and loaded them into Azardi. I only tested a few epub3 features — embedded WOFFs, a couple of math equations and headers — but (after a bit of tinkering with the mathML) they displayed well in Azardi, so I’m not sure what Apple is supposed to be doing proprietarily.

Yes, I see Sigil is putting off epub3 support until at least v0.6.

Nathanael December 20, 2011 um 12:12 am

Apologize for the mess of that post; I encountered a server error when I posted the first time, then wound up with two versions of my comments concatenated together.

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