On the Slow Adoption of EPUB 3
The slow adoption of EPUB 3 was a major thread to come out of the Publishing Summit at W3C’s TPAC, even though it was recommended in October 2011. I have been trying to puzzle out why it hasn’t been more widely adopted and am still unsure, to be perfectly honest.
But let’s back up a wee bit. What are the major differences between EPUB 2 and EPUB 3?
- One of the primary changes is that the spec allows for rich media: audio, video, media overlays and read-along. People who had been dying to embed a/v content rejoiced, until they found out that playback was supported in only a few reading systems.
- EPUB 3 is also marked by adoption of HTML 5 and CSS 2.1, where EPUB 2 relied on XHTML 1.1 and a subset of CSS 2.
- Support for MathML and SVG in the spine are a foundational part of EPUB 3.
- For people down in the weeds creating EPUB, it means no longer needing to wrestle with the NCX document for navigational purposes. The navigation comes from an HTML document, instead of the NCX – although the latter can still be included for backwards compatibility.
- And finally, navigation. EPUB 3 specifies the possibility for more thorough and multiple means of navigation via traditional TOC, a print-corollary page list, and via landmarks and
The most important benefit of EPUB 3? Enhanced accessibility. EPUB 3 allows for deeper meaning to be applied to the various elements of an ebook via features like
epub:type semantics (which aligns with ARIA roles) and HTML 5 tags. EPUB 3 content is more machine-readable and therefore more legible to assistive technologies.
Barriers? What Barriers?
So what is it then? Why is 70% of what is currently posted for sale on major (and minor) retailers EPUB 2 instead of the more current, more agile, more accessible EPUB 3? Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard while poking around on Twitter:
- There is not enough reading system support for EPUB 3.
- Many tools create EPUB 2 by default.
- The benefits of EPUB 3 aren’t clear and so developers see no reason to change.
- EPUB 3 looks unnecessarily complex.
- Lack of client demand for EPUB 3.
Let’s address these concerns one by one.
There is not enough reading system support for EPUB 3.
All major and minor retailer, distributors, and aggregators support EPUB 3. Please correct me if I am wrong. But I think this is an education issues. I wonder how much people don’t realize that the situation has changed in the last five years. Support was very slow in coming, true, but I don’t think that’s true at all in 2017. And, as EPUB 3 allows for an NCX so that your EPUB is backward compatible when a reader is using an EPUB 2-only reading system. So then a basic EPUB 3 will be fully supported. Go out into the world and do some testing – I promise you will be happily surprised.
Many tools create EPUB 2 by default.
The most broadly used tool in a space like trade publishing is Adobe InDesign, which exports perfectly reasonable EPUB 3. Sigil works with EPUB 3 without difficulty (and, in fact, has a great EPUB 2 to 3 plugin). If you are making EPUBs from Word, it is easy enough to opt for EPUB 3 with most converters. In fact, Kindle Previewer plays well with EPUB 3.
Ebooks are more accessible by default as EPUB 3. They will be easier to navigate and so easier to read.
The benefits of EPUB 3 aren’t clear and so developers see no reason to change.
EPUB 3 is a better, more agile format. If you are making fixed-layout content, you need EPUB 3. If you want bells and whistles, you need EPUB 3. But if those particular features don’t concern you, you might be interested in the fact that your ebooks will be more accessible by default as EPUB 3. They will be easier to navigate and so easier to read.
EPUB 3 looks unnecessarily complex.
Ebooks made with an EPUB 3 wrapper are slightly more complex and will require more attention, particularly in the area of semantics. But like any bad habit, twenty days of practice means that habit is replaced with a new, healthier one. In fact, using the more specific HTML5 tags afforded by EPUB 3 – article, section, figure, figcaption – will provide the semantics and so make a developers job easier as you don’t have to think up endless class attributes for all those
Lack of client demand for EPUB 3.
Lack of client demand for EPUB 3 is a funny one. Publishers are, ahem, a notoriously conservative, slow-to-change group. But they move when pushed, as I know from having done it many times. Bamboozle them with big words, if you have to! I suspect that a big chunk of these EPUB 2 files freshly uploaded into the marketplace are self-published. And self-published authors are not likely to have the technical knowledge to ask for EPUB 3, to be perfectly frank. Waiting for a self-published writer to push developers to be more experimental might not work out for anyone.
Publishers are, ahem, a notoriously conservative, slow-to-change group. Bamboozle them with big words, if you have to!
So What Are You Waiting For?
Do it, jump in! Don’t be scared. The reading systems support you. The distribution aggregators are on your side. Your fellow ebook developers will even hold your hand through the switch over, if you like (see #eprdctn).
It seems to me that reluctance to move to EPUB 3 is driven in part by lack of education about the issue. Do a little testing, poke around in the format. Ask fellow developers about their experience. Test an EPUB 2 with voiceover and compare the results with a well-built EPUB 3 file. The difference in that experience might just be the tipping point.
What’s holding you back?