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E-Book Apps: You’re Doing It Wrong


PUBLISHED: March 25, 2010

Publishers are looking to create stand-alone e-book applications for the iPad. Rather than simply creating an ePub-formatted text to be purchased, stored, and read in the iBooks app, the idea here is to go ignore the ePub standard in order to bundle extras with the book. They’d provide you with an individual computer program to be installed and run just to read a single book. In the case of Penguin Books:

We will be embedding audio, video and streaming in to everything we do. The .epub format, which is the standard for ebooks at the present, is designed to support traditional narrative text, but not this cool stuff that we’re now talking about. […] So for the time being at least we’ll be creating a lot of our content as applications, for sale on app stores and HTML, rather than in ebooks.

Ditto for DFW:

The enhanced Baldacci e-book is one of several projects Hachette will release over the coming weeks, including a NASCAR-oriented app, a synchronized text/audio edition of Michael Connelly’s crime novel Echo Park, and a standalone app version of David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page magnum opus Infinite Jest. “One reason the book is so famous is because of the footnotes,” says Maja Thomas, senior VP of Hachette Digital. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if, when a footnote appears, there’s a symbol in the e-version of the text, and if you tap on it, you can go right to the footnote, and then tap back into the text at any time.”

Even Random House is pushing these stand-alone apps as a class of books, which they call Book and Beyond.

All of this is both a bad idea on many levels and largely unnecessary.

Imagine that, in addition to listening to music in iTunes (or Windows Media Player, or whatever), there were some albums that you had to install. When you wanted to listen to those albums, you’d need to fire up your special Thriller, Dark Side of the Moon, or Rubber Soul program. (Remember “Enhanced CDs,” from the late nineties? Are you getting a lot of use out of yours?) Would you listen to those albums more often, or less often? How many albums do you own? Would you want to install a program on your computer for every one of them? (And, if you did, wouldn’t you want a program to manage them? “iTunes,” you might call it?) Or imagine that some websites could only be accessed by downloading, installing, and running a special program. Want to check scores on ESPN’s site? Run the ESPN program. Looking for something on Amazon? Double-click on that Amazon application. Would that constitute an improvement in your life, or an obstacle?

What about in a couple of years, when Microsoft or Sony or Amazon releases a whizzy new e-book reader that you want to upgrade to after your iPad gives up the ghost? You can take your ePub files with you to that new reader … but your iPad-only, collectors-edition Infinite Jest application won’t run on your new device. You’ll have to buy those books again to read them.

From the perspective of consumers, it’s tough to envision how stand-alone e-book applications are better than simply reading an e-book in your e-book software.

The situation isn’t much better for publishers. Creating an ePub file isn’t particularly challenging (it’s basically a website, each chapter its own web page), with your average novel requiring maybe a few days’ work for a website developer of average ability. Creating one or more stand-alone e-book applications—one for each popular e-reader—for every book? As we programmers say, that’s nontrivial: expensive, time-consuming, and prone to bugs, requiring an approval process from some manufacturers (including Apple—which can be capricious), meaning that there’s always the possibility that all that work could be for nothing. It is an order of magnitude more complex to developing an application rather than an ePub file.

Most of the extras that Penguin intends to bundle with their books can be included with an ePub. Excised passages and research photos can be included as additional chapters, and video and audio can even be embedded by a moderately clever developer. (Hatchette’s vision of DFW-style footnotes can be realized with even the crudest of e-books.) The very modest benefits of a stand-alone application are overwhelmed by the drawbacks. Any shortcomings in the ePub standard are cause for publishers to bring their considerable resources to bear in improving that standard, rather than simply bailing on it. Eschewing stand-alone e-book applications for ePubs will save money for publishers and, more important, make customers much happier in both the short and the long run.

9 Comments

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Marshall Vandegrift's picture
“What about in a couple of years, when Microsoft or Sony or Amazon releases a whizzy new e-book reader that you want to upgrade to after your iPad gives up the ghost? You can take your ePub files with you to that new reader … but your iPad-only, collectors-edition Infinite Jest application won’t run on your new device. You’ll have to buy those books again to read them.” Except that DRM prevents consumers from legally taking advantage of this mobility. From the perspective of DRM-minded publishers, the lack of portability – even in the face of DRM circumvention – may be a *benefit*. Such publishers may well want to force readers to “buy those books again” as much as those readers are willing to stomach.
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Mike's picture
Mike · 10 years ago
I’m confused by Hatchett’s footnote remark; as though this is some amazing new feature. All the books I provide at epubBooks.com use linkable footnotes and have done so since I started realsing them. This feature was not difficult for me to implement so if few publishers already do this, then commercial eBooks are really in a bad way.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Except that DRM prevents consumers from legally taking advantage of this mobility.
That’s absolutely right, insofar as DRM is used, but DRM is neither inherent or necessary. Although the iTunes Music Store started with DRMed tracks, at the demand of labels, Apple was able to persuade labels to drop that demand, and now the bulk of the tracks for sold via iTMS are unencumbered, as straight MP3s. Amazon.com likewise sells only MP3s. If there’s any reason why the same pattern won’t repeat itself with e-books, I don’t know about it.
I’m confused by Hatchett’s footnote remark; as though this is some amazing new feature. All the books I provide at epubBooks.com use linkable footnotes and have done so since I started realsing them.
I’m with you, Mike. That’s both mystifying and discouraging.
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Joe Clark's picture
Footnotes per se cannot be created in ePub; XHTML 1.1 does not have a structure for them. Arguably you could use the alternate markup language, that of DTBook. I strongly doubt Wallace’s three-plies-deep footnotes could be accommodated by any existing XML-like document type. Hence whatever those “linkable footnotes” may be, they aren’t “footnotes.”
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Whether or not there is a semantic structure called “footnotes,” I can’t envision any technical obstacle to the provision of footnotes (or, strictly speaking, endnotes) as an end user would recognize them. (HTML likewise has no structure for footnotes, yet here we are. :) Here are Mike Cook’s simple instructions for footnoting in an ePub:
The final editing needed was to set up links for the footnotes. As I’m storing the footnotes in a separate file I marked up the entry in the spine with linear=”no” as this should be considered an “auxiliary” file. Now all that was needed was to add the filername to the a tag in the footnotes.xml file, which in this case became chapter001.xml#fn-place-1 and In the chapter001.xml file I added a link to the footnote file, footnotes.xml#fn-1.
To somebody enthusiastic about providing semantically-pure data, no doubt it’s a bit horrifying to provide data that looks right but has no meaningful metadata behind it. (i.e., blockquotes piled three deep.) But the alternative–moving to a stand-alone application–means that no metadata is exposed, so providing something visually accurate but metadata-poor is surely a better route.
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Mike's picture
Mike · 10 years ago
Joe, your comment seems rather negative towards HTML for eBook use, though in your own article; Web Standards for E-books (http://www.alistapart.com/articles/ebookstandards/) you were all for it. Certainly we need proper “book” markup (DTBook could be a good option) and we also need the meta data. Now not everyone wants all that fancy stuff–as Waldo said, “Remember ‘Enhanced CDs,’ from the late nineties? Are you getting a lot of use out of yours?”–absolutely not. I love using my E-Ink reader because I know when I’m doing so I’m doing just one thing; reading. With our connected world it’s hard enough concentrating on reading without my “book” interrupting me too. I fully believe there is a place for “Enhanced content” but creating it all in one special app is not it. Perhaps we can have the option of buying the book (EPUB) and if/when we want the extra content, we buy/download at that time.
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Michael's picture
Michael · 10 years ago
In reply to the many questions asked in your article: First, I would love to have albums as applications. Albums, particularly the ones you have listed, were designed to be listened to as a unit, not as a broken up list of songs. Granted I am over 40 and remember LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes and when sound engineers still hadn’t figured out how to make a CD sound decent. And albums were written in such a way that you wanted all the songs on them not just one. If you include things like lyrics, artist interviews, live performances or music videos, I would find them as interesting as I do the “added content” on DVDs. As for Enhanced CDs, they are hardly comparable to an iPad, or other tablet (none yet but hopefully soon) app. Try curling up with your tower and 19” LCD screen on the couch or even a laptop, then try it with a iPad and you will notice the difference. Would I listen to the albums more or less often? Listen to them probably neither more or less often, utilize the “extra features”? probably a lot more. How many albums do I own? Over 1,000. Would I want to install an application for each of them? Yes, memory is cheap particularly if we can offload the “none core” albums to memory cards. Wouldn’t you want a program to manage them? (ITunes?) Yes I would, but not ITunes. Just something that would let me browse the collection and “chain together” albums to play one after the other. To answer your website as app questions: I do exactly that. If I want to check the weather on Weather.com, I utilize the Weather.com app on my phone. If I want to read the news on Thompson-Reuters, I use there app to do so. Why, because I don’t really need the other content on the site so why waste my time firing up the browser, surfing to the site, navigating through it just to find what I can get on my app with a single click of an icon? As for obsolescence, what guarantee is there that ePub will still be a standard that anyone is supporting in the next 5 years. Haven’t we seen enough “standards” rise and fall to be just a little skeptical about the longevity of any one of them? If you are looking for a standard with a long history of acceptance and improvement pick PDF. As for portability, it would be just as easy for a device creator or third party creator to provide backward compatibility or a “reader” for Flash or PDF (and I will wager that most book apps will be written in one or the other) as it would be for them to provide one for ePub. If not, perhaps the publishing culture will embrace a desire for brand loyalty (how many people know who created their applications? How many know who published their books?) and provide “free” upgrades to customers. It would be good business. As for why people might want books as apps rather than books in a standard reader formats: Epub, and all formats that allow resizing/re-flowing, of text are by their nature horrible: typographically and for protecting content. Typography is a mature art that has determined certain “rules” for how to make text not only legible but enjoyable to read. A badly designed book is rarely worth the effort to read no matter what the content. For a wonderful overview of this art I suggest Robert Bringhurst’s the Elements of Typographic Style. Just try word spacing or letter spacing or kerning characters in HTML. It can be done but only by completely abandoning the “nature” of the ePub format. You can embed fonts into ePub files but many of the most beautifully designed fonts are, by their manufacturers, expressly NOT to be embedded in any media from which they can be “easily” extracted. So while it is true that “most of the extras that Penguin intends to bundle with their books can be included with an ePub.” It is also true that the content could then be easily misappropriated. It is much more difficult, though not impossible, for most people to un-compile an app than it is to unzip an ePub. As for: “[Mr.]Hatchette’s vision of DFW-style footnotes can be realized with even the crudest of e-books. I find that questionable at best. What he is talking about is no longer a foot note or an end note but just a note that displays, on click, at the point at which it is referenced then is closed when no longer required. It can be done in ePub with javascript and/or title attributes or some combination of them but this, again, violates the spirit of the ePub standard. Now, just to be fair, the ePub standard includes the ability to include, and reference, other formats within the package file. Therefore, it would be possible, perhaps even preferable for publishers to distribute ePub packages that include an ePub format along with several different apps/pdf files that are formatted for various size screens.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Albums, particularly the ones you have listed, were designed to be listened to as a unit, not as a broken up list of songs.
And there’s nothing preventing you from listening to them as a unit in any MP3 software.
How many albums do I own? Over 1,000. Would I want to install an application for each of them? Yes, memory is cheap particularly if we can offload the “none core” albums to memory cards. Wouldn’t you want a program to manage them? (ITunes?) Yes I would, but not ITunes. Just something that would let me browse the collection and “chain together” albums to play one after the other.
Congratulations–you’ve just reinvented the album and iTunes and called it something else. :)
To answer your website as app questions: I do exactly that. If I want to check the weather on Weather.com, I utilize the Weather.com app on my phone. If I want to read the news on Thompson-Reuters, I use there app to do so.
But you haven’t abandoned the web browser, have you? The notion of having an individual program for every single website that you might ever want to visit is ludicrous. You would need thousands of them. Ditch your browser on your phone. Install apps for everything you want to do on the internet. Let me know how that goes. :)
As for obsolescence, what guarantee is there that ePub will still be a standard that anyone is supporting in the next 5 years. Haven’t we seen enough “standards” rise and fall to be just a little skeptical about the longevity of any one of them? If you are looking for a standard with a long history of acceptance and improvement pick PDF.
There’s no guarantee of anything in life, but the benefit of EPUB is that it is an open standard, making it pretty close to a guarantee. If I want to do something new with Flash, I need Adobe’s permission. PDF used to be a closed standard, like Flash, but it was opened up eighteen months ago. The difficulty with PDF is that it is impractical for use on most devices for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is created around the concept of faithfully reproducing a page in a single format. It has no concept of rescaling text (as all e-readers support) without rescaling the entire page outside of the bounds of the device’s screen. Design and content are one and the same. Without divorcing those two, such as in the HTML/CSS division, the format isn’t sufficiently flexible to be of much good on e-books. It’s fundamentally wrong for e-books. Any publisher can use the EPUB format without paying a dime to anybody, knowing that’ll work on most any e-reader, no strings attached. That’s a very powerful force in the market. The fact that Apple has embraced EPUB to the exclusion of all other formats shows how dominant EPUB has become.
As for portability, it would be just as easy for a device creator or third party creator to provide backward compatibility or a “reader” for Flash or PDF (and I will wager that most book apps will be written in one or the other) as it would be for them to provide one for ePub.
Nope, not for the previously outlined reasons. Flash and PDF are awfully complex. EPUB is very, very simple, with dozens (hundreds, probably) of existing tools to manipulate, update, batch modify, and otherwise work with its contents. If I had to transform 1,000 EPUB files in some arbitrary way (increase the size of images, add a few new CSS rules, and update the HTML to XHTML 1.0 Strict, for instance), I could write some code to do that in an hour or two. Doing that for Flash or PDF would present a significant challenge to any programmer.
As for why people might want books as apps rather than books in a standard reader formats: Epub, and all formats that allow resizing/re-flowing, of text are by their nature horrible: typographically and for protecting content. Typography is a mature art that has determined certain “rules” for how to make text not only legible but enjoyable to read.
EPUB is silent on typography, as it well should be—that’s a function of CSS and of the rendering engine (i.e. WebKit on the iPad). You and I might look at a page of text on the Kindle or iPad and cringe at the widows and orphans, the word spacing resulting from excessive justification, the lack of hyphenation, etc., but face it: the vast majority of consumers don’t care and won’t consciously notice. This sort of aesthetic matter has no impact on buying decisions and, thus, the market. Apple will no doubt add a hyphenation dictionary, propose some EPUB extensions to provide typographic hinting functionality for content creators (as an open format, such modifications are easy), and typography will be improved enormously in 12-24 months.
Just try word spacing or letter spacing or kerning characters in HTML. It can be done but only by completely abandoning the “nature” of the ePub format.
That’s not true. Letter spacing (that is, tracking) and word spacing have been functions of CSS for a decade now, using the “letter-spacing” and “word-spacing” properties. EPUB happily supports them. Kerning is a CSS3 Web Fonts proposal, liable to find its way into CSS (and, thus, EPUB) within months, although only for those fonts that include kerning data, of course.
So while it is true that “most of the extras that Penguin intends to bundle with their books can be included with an ePub.” It is also true that the content could then be easily misappropriated. It is much more difficult, though not impossible, for most people to un-compile an app than it is to unzip an ePub.
That’s what DRM is for. Every book that Apple sells is wrapped in DRM, making impossible the scenario that you describe.
It can be done in ePub with javascript and/or title attributes or some combination of them but this, again, violates the spirit of the ePub standard.
I can’t see how it violates any spirit. EPUB is HTML. JavaScript popups have been viable in HTML since…well, I remember creating them using Mocha in Netscape 2. Mocha began JavaScript, and Netscape ultimately begat Firefox, so not much as changed. If I were doing this, I’d include the footnotes in an endnote DIV at the end of each chapter, and then use JavaScript to suppress their display at the end and summon them by ID as a floating DIV when somebody selects the footnote. That’s totally within the spirit of HTML and EPUB.
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Michael's picture
Michael · 10 years ago
A lot of good points there Waldo. I don’t know enough about the ePub standard, as you have pointed out, to argue for or against it. And I appreciate your taking the time to explain some of the features that I have misunderstood or been unaware of. However, when I answered the question about preferring an album as an application vs. just the list of MP3 files, I don’t believe I was mistaken to assume that there would be some ‘extras” involved with the album as app that would make it much more than just such a list. Based on such an assumption, comparing the two things would be like comparing apple slices and apple pie. The latter contains the former but is much more than that. –But you haven’t abandoned the web browser, have you? The notion of having an individual program for every single website that you might ever want to visit is ludicrous. You would need thousands of them. Of course no one would abandon the web browser. On my phone, I utilize apps to view and interact with the web services that I find useful on my phone: Weather.com for weather, UrbanSpoon to answer that most troubling of questions: where do you want to eat?, Thompson-Reuters for news feeds and as an all around feed reader, a maps application to locate myself and places of interest (using the Google Maps web service), etc. Some of these utilize the browser to enhance themselves for example Thompson-Reuters uses the browser to open the full article for viewing and UrbanSpoon utilizes the browser to display the reviews for restaurants. I almost never, unless desperate, use the browser on my phone to just browse the internet. I do, however, use the browser on my laptop to browse the internet for hours at a time. Different tools are for different uses. And while some sites are actually much easier to use as an app or a widget for that matter, other sites do not lend themselves to “appification” (just made that up). Now, while I don’t have as clear an understanding of the ePub format as you do, I have seen quite a few of the books in ePub format, some free and some paid for. In my personal opinion I find them unimpressive and while I could read one, I have yet to find myself wanting to read one. If all of the functionality is available as you describe I suppose that it is just a matter of time before some one spends the needed time to properly format, for reading, an ePub and, when I find an ePub that will not send a typographer or book designer screaming from the room, I will be forced to change my opinion about the format as a whole. Until then, I only know what I have seen and, as I have said before, it was unimpressive. “The fact that Apple has embraced EPUB to the exclusion of all other formats shows how dominant EPUB has become.” This could mean a couple of things. First, Apple could just be trying to punish Adobe for being more successful then they in “taking over” the internet. Flash is much more popular than QuickTime for interactive sites, streaming video, etc. PDF, particularly multimedia PDF, is another format whose support would put money in Adobe’s pocket so that would be out too. Second, it could be that Apple realized that by providing a platform for a format that has a lot of free content already available (thank you Project Gutenberg), they could increase the likelihood that more people will buy their device. While ePub may be dominant, in the sense that it is more prevalent than books as apps or even multimedia PDFs, I do not believe that it will be any more successful in the commercial market than Linux or OpenOffice. Neither one of which has fulfilled their promise of taking over the market from their commercial counterparts. “That’s what DRM is for.” If you allow DRM in your ePubs than some of your other arguments become problematic. Just as you would need Adobe’s permission to “do something new with Flash” you would need Apple’s permission to do something new with a DRMed ePub. You would no longer be able to write code to modify your ePubs “in an hour or two” unless that code included breaking the DRM which would be a copyright violation. Of course if you needed to upgrade or migrate your ePub files, I’m sure Apple would make it quite simple, or would they? And then there is the incompatibility issue. Does Amazon’s Kindle recognize Apple’s DRM? Does Apple’s iBook app recognize Kindle’s DRM? Might we then need to buy two different files if we want to read our books on two different devices? It seems ePub, in order to be useful to publishers might just have to become quite a bit less open and portable. “The difficulty with PDF is that it is impractical for use on most devices for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is created around the concept of faithfully reproducing a page in a single format.” How, exactly, does this make PDF impractical. Once a designer knows the size of the screen/page they are designing for, they could create multiple versions of the book from the same source. With minor, or major, redesigning of course. The argument would be they couldn’t possibly design for every screen size. Which is true but they wouldn’t have too. I anticipate that devices will, or have already, settled down to a handful of screen sizes. Thanks in no small part to Apple, whose iPhone and iPad will most likely become the standard, or close to the standard, screen size for those types of devices because they were first. “Design and content are one and the same. Without divorcing those two, such as in the HTML/CSS division, the format isn’t sufficiently flexible to be of much good on e-books. It’s fundamentally wrong for e-books.” Actually, design and content are not one and the same thing, which is why they can be separated into HTML and CSS. Design is informed by content and our ability to read and understand content is aided or hindered by design, but they are not one and the same thing. The only reason ePUb needs to be so “flexible” is because it is display neutral. It requires the reader software to make it work right. A PDF page can be designed to fit any screen as can a Flash page. There might be different versions available for different screen dimensions. One optimized for viewing on an iPhone, another for viewing on an iPad, a third optimized for viewing on a computer screen. Would you need to buy one of each? I wouldn’t but then I don’t read documents of any real length on my laptop or my phone. So I would really only need one for the device on which I read (some tablet device of the future, I suppose). And, I assume that such a device would be in one of a handful of screen sizes. Others might or they might stick with a DRMed ePub that they can use on multiple devices (or could you?). Now, just to be clear, I am unimpressed with ePub at the moment. I like the books as apps that have been developed for the iPad which doesn’t use Flash or PDF. For all I know they could be ePubs with a dedicated reader built in or another flavor of HTML/CSS, Quicktime and Javascript with a build in browser. But, without knowing that, I can only say, in my personal opinion, I would most definitely prefer these books as apps to what I have seen of ePubs. If it turns out these are ePub or related types of formats, I will most humbly beg forgiveness of any ePub experts out there that I have offended in my ignorance.
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