Reviewing EPUB Myths

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On August 22, Aptara (@aptara) hosted a Webinar titled “eBook & App Device Compatibility: Separating Fact from Fiction” with Joshua Tallent (@jtallent), CEO and Founder of eBook Architects, and Jean Kaplansky (@JeanKaplansky), a Solutions Architect at Aptara. It was an informative Webinar, and if you missed it you can view the recording by registering here. You should also be able to download the slides from the presentation once you launch the Webinar. I encourage you to watch the Webinar since there is a lot of great content in it on the current state of eBooks and what is and is not supported.

Tallent and Kaplansky looked at reflowable files and fixed-layout files on the major retailers, with Tallent covering Kindle and iBooks and Kaplansky covering B&N’s Nook and Kobo. The Webinar used a Myth and Reality format to share the information. Here are the myths that two of them presented.


Joshua Tallent

Myth: Apple completely supports EPUB3.

Reality: Apple has limited support for EPUB3.

Myth: Kindle Format 8 is the same thing as EPUB.

Reality: KF8 is NOT EPUB or EPUB3.


Myth: The Kindle format supports video and audio.

Reality: The Kindle does not support any embedded video or audio content.


Myth: The Kindle format does not allow color images.

Myth: The Kindle format does not support poetry.

Myth: The Kindle does not support outlines.

Reality: The Kindle format supports all of the above.


Tallent’s key takeaways included:

  • Reflowable filesare the best option for the majority of eBooks.
  • Kindle Format 8 (KF8) is NOT EPUB.
  • Fixed layout: children’s titles work well in Apple, Amazon, B&N; non-fiction fixed layout currently only works well in Apple.


Jean Kaplansky

Myth: NOOK Books are not EPUB books.

Reality: NOOK Books are EPUB books. The difference is in Barnes & Noble’s DRM scheme.


Myth: NOOK devices and apps do not support the same user features found in iBooks, such as zoom and pan.

Reality: NOOK Tablet has Zoom and Pan Support.


Myth: Reflowable NOOK Books do not support embedded audio or video.

Reality: Embedded audio and video are supported on the NOOK Color and NOOK Tablet devices; Enhanced NOOK Books.


Myth: You cannot sideload non-NOOK Books onto a NOOK device.

Reality: You can sideload PDF files and EPUB books (with and without DRM) on the NOOK Color, NOOK Tablet, and NOOK Simple Touch readers; and the NOOK for PC and NOOK for Mac desktop apps.


Myth: Kobo Books completely support EPUB3.

Reality: Kobo has limited support for EPUB3, and only on specific devices.


Myth: Kobo Books supports the same fixed layout features as Apple iBooks.

Reality: Kobo Books supports SOME of the same features as Apple iBooks.


Myth: Kobo Book design and creation documentation is sparse.

Reality: Kobo relies on iPad documentation


Myth: All fixed-layout NOOK Books are created the same way.

Reality: Fixed-layout NOOK Books are divided into three separate product lines

  • NOOK Kids, including Read to Me and Read and Play
  • NOOK Comics (which does not have panel view, but does have pan and zoom)
  • NOOK Page Perfect

Reality: You must work with Barnes & Noble or an approved B&N vendor to create NOOK Kids, NOOK Comics, and NOOK Page Perfect books.


Myth: Users prefer fixed-layout formatting.

Reality: Beware of fixed layout and non-fiction content!


Myth: The quality of your eBook is in the hands of your production vendor.

Reality: The quality of your eBook project requires careful content and project planning and communication.


Myth: You can use off-the-shelf software to create “push button” eBooks.

Reality: Professional quality eBooks require professional quality planning and development.


Kaplansky’s key takeaways included the following:

  • There will never be “one EPUB file to rule them all.” Retailers and device manufacturers differentiate themselves and their product by the details of their implementations. Be aware of the details!
  • Handle fixed layout with care and planning. Know your target devices and do what is right for the text rather than the design‑unless the two are intrinsically linked.
  • Users prefer annotation and highlighting functionality over fixed layout when it comes to textbooks and non-fiction.


The Upshot

So what does it all mean? These were my takeaways on the myths and Tallent and Kaplansky’s takeaways.


1. The only retailers that matter are Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo

While the Webinar looked at fixed layout and reflowable and what each retailers supports, and even more telling item is the four retailers that were selected. There were other out there, but these are the four for whom eBook designers are currently designing. They are setting the agenda, and ultimately, they will determine if EPUB3 in its entirety ever comes to maturity in the marketplace.


2. We are currently caught in a limbo state between EPUB 2.0.1 and EPUB3

None of these four retailers have adopted the full EPUB3 spec yet. Amazon says they will accept EPUB3 into the current versions of KindleGen and Kindle Previewer (sorry, I have not tested this yet since there is a dearth of valid EPUB3s around), but clearly KF8 is not EPUB3 and never will be. NOOK, Kobo, and iBooks do not support the full spec, just bits and pieces (and some of their additional functionality is achieved in ways that are outside the current EPUB3 spec). It is a rough place to be in. As EPUB creators, should you create EPUB 2.0.1, EPUB2 with enhancements, or attempt full EPUB3 even though no one really supports it fully?


3. The major retailers are moving further apart, not coming together over EPUB3

Amazon is off on their own with KF8. Apple has done what they wanted/needed to do to achieve the functionality they want for iBooks and iBooks Author on the iPad. Much of what Kobo has done with fixed layout is based on iBooks, but they are not Apple so they cannot create the same files. B&N has their own approach to fixed layout and supports different things. This is why Kaplansky said there will never be “one EPUB file to rule them all.” If you are creating fixed-layout EPUBs, you will probably need to create different files for each retailer.


4. The major retailers do not have the same support across their own devices and apps

The major retailers have multiple devices with different capabilities in the marketplace and have apps for all the major platforms. The retailers support of their own implementations is not 100 percent across all of their devices. Providing a single EPUB to each vendor even with media queries to determine what kind of device the reader has is difficult at best.


5. Outside of iBooks Author, fixed layout for non-fiction is probably not a good idea

Apple created iBooks Author to help publishers create textbooks (among other reasons). Because of this creators can make non-fiction titles that have a great deal of functionality. Unfortunately, these files are not EPUB, and cannot and will not work on non-Apple devices. The other retailers just do not support the parts of the EPUB3 spec that would really make non-fiction books sing.


6. This does not scale and removes the cost benefits of EPUB

Publishers can not afford to produce four different versions of EPUB for four different retailers (and more for additional retailers in the future). The cost of EPUB creation will increase as the retailers specs diverge further. This will likely mean many pubs will make a choice of targeting Amazon and KF8, and a single other retailer, likely Apple, with a single EPUB file. The other retailers will have to take what they can get in terms of the EPUB or go without. The future this leads to: Amazon and Apple will be the main, possibly only, eBook retailers.


7. Publishers and the IDPF need to pressure retailers to support and accept the full EPUB3 spec now or it will never be implemented

We are at a crossroads. Either EPUB3 is supported in the marketplace and the full spec is implemented by retailers, allowing publishers to produce one file for everyone, or the retailers will continue to take a pick-and-choose approach to the spec, leading to different formats and different capabilities for each retailer’s devices and apps. It is time for publishers and the IDPF to exert whatever influence they have to right the EPUB ship, convince the retailers to fall in line behind the full EPUB3 spec, and prevent a further splintering of the format.


What do you think about the current state of reflowable and fixed-layout eBooks? Are you having trouble creating files that will render and work correctly on each retailers devices and apps? How do you see the EPUB3 spec moving forward?

20 Responses to “Reviewing EPUB Myths”

  1. Nate says:

    You might want to check the Kindle myths. You wrote that the Kindle format both does and does not support audio and video.

    And if you want to test whether Amazon will really accept Epub3, here’s an archive:

  2. Matthew says:

    Nate, thanks. Missed a reality there. No audio and video embed on the Kindle.

  3. One more Kindle clarification… Embedded audio and video is _not_ supported on the Kindle Fire or any Amazon reading device. BUT… (and this is the part that keeps tripping everyone up…)

    Kindle for iOS _does_ support embedded audio and video in KF8 files. Amazon _says_ that fixed layout is supported in the Kindle for iOS app, but this is true only for books downloaded directly from Amazon’s servers. Those of us who have tested fixed layout files in the Kindle for iOS have seen mixed and varied results, however.

    Here’s a DBW article I wrote back in June (before Amazon announced iOS support for KF8 fixed layout):

    And yes, I’m still trying to keep this straight in my own head without looking it up 2 months later…

    I really do hope to accomplish a win for clarification over confusion here, but I do realize it’s an uphill battle.

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  5. Smoley says:

    I see EPUB3 moving forward with magazine publishers, where the enhanced features of the new format make more sense based on the rich content of a magazine.

  6. Dave Bricker says:

    @Smoley, I agree in general (and my comments don’t contradict yours), but I worry we’ll soon see ePub3 magazines and children’s books that look like a bad day on MySpace. I’m working on an eBook project where the primary content is a standard, written book, but where the reader can click on words in the text to invoke supporting media—videos, photo galleries, interactivity, etc. Much energy is invested talking about fixed layout eBooks, but why not use the capabilities of ePub3 to develop an enhanced reading experience for lovers of traditional, written books? In such cases, the ability to resize and reflow the text is desirable. Magazine layouts are great for magazines but leading traditional book design into the digital world is of equal or greater importance.

  7. Len Feldman says:

    If you’re waiting for the IDPF to “pressure” retailers to support EPUB3, you’re going to be waiting a very long time. The Executive Director of the IDPF, Bill McCoy, has been quoted as saying that he supports Apple’s position of going ahead with incompatible extensions to EPUB 2 instead of waiting for EPUB3. The IDPF won’t challenge the decisions of any of its members, even if those decisions result in incomplete or incompatible implementations of EPUB “standards”.

  8. Bill McCoy says:

    Len, I’m have no idea what quote you are referring to. But, IDPF has worked closely with Apple on development of a standard way to do fixed layout in EPUB 3 (Apple ended up being a co-author of the spec). This has substantial compatibility with what Apple were already doing with their extension to EPUB 2 (using the viewport meta tag) but expresses the metadata in a more general and EPUB 3 appropriate way (see: ). Whenever a vendor does an extension to a standard that gets traction in the market, I feel it’s an important job of the standards group to see that a standard solution emerges, and in the case of fixed-layout I think that we are in pretty good shape.

  9. Bill McCoy says:


    Your conclusions #3 and #5 (and therefore corollary point #6) seem unwarranted. Apple’s iBooks Author format is currently not EPUB compatible (it was developed before EPUB 3 was released) but that’s kind of beside the point. 99%+ of titles on the iBookstore are EPUB content and Apple has since May officially supported EPUB 3 for reflowing content. Apple’s fixed-layout spec is substantially compatible with the official IDPF spec for how to do fixed-layout in EPUB 3 (which Apple co-authored), in fact as Liz Castro has documented, it’s possible to make an EPUB 3 fixed-layout file with both the iDPF standard metadata and Apple’s legacy metadata that works fine in both fully compliant EPUB 3 implementons and iBooks. So while there are still some gotchas it’s entirely possible to have fixed layout EPUB that is ready for distribution to current channels, the market is converging to a single solution, and certainly there’s no reason to invest in the proprietary single-device iBooks Author platform just to get fixed layout.

    I also personally disagree with your point #1 that only Apple, Amazon, B&N and Kobo count. On a global basis of course this is absolutely false: in Netherlands, Germany, Korea, etc. etc. these retailers are not dominant and in some cases not even present. And if you look at markets like e-textbooks it’s also false, with folks like VitalSource (already supporting EPUB 3) being important players. And even if you care only about trade books and only about North America it’s arguable given vibrant smartphone apps from folks like Bluefire and Alkido and the likes of Sony and Google and others, and more and more publishers selling direct.

    I’m not saying the situation is rosy – we are in a transition state as per your point 2 and therefore I agree with your concluding point #7: pushing for reading system developers to consistently and completely support EPUB 3 is critical to getting through this admittedly painful transition. But when we do get through it we’ll be in a much better place: modern (HTML5) Web browsers are far more compatible with each other than in the bad old days, and HTML5-based EPUB 3 implies renderers will be browser-engine-based. So we should ultimately get to a much higher degree of compatibility than we had with EPUB 2 which was based on 10-year-old Web standards and implemented via custom renderers.

  10. Matthew says:


    Thanks for all the information you shared. I appreciate IDPF responding in a meaningful way to this post.

    I am very much in support of EPUB3. I agree with your last paragraph, and believe that by adapting HTML5, CSS3 (sort of), and JavaScript, the IDPF has positioned EPUB3 to be a viable format for the foreseeable future. The problem is the present.

    As you say, we are in the midst of a painful transition. EPUB designers and production people are not moving to EPUB3 because the major retailers don’t support it yet. We are in a “chicken-or-the-egg” situation. While I don’t believe fixed-layout is the best format for most content, it certainly is for some books. In order to create some viable fixed-layout eBooks, designers are using the hybrid formats that are available in the major retailers. But this is a short-term solution at best; no publisher can afford to make multiple versions of eBook files for every title it publishes. Yes, my point about Amazon, Apple, NOOK, and Kobo being the only reading systems that matter was U.S.-centric, but to be fair the U.S. eBook market is ahead of other markets and U.S. publishers will continue to feed content to foreign markets. These are also the four companies that have invested heavily in both hardware and retail Websites and have been successful doing so (again, with an emphasis on the U.S./Canadian market).

    Further, as much as I like the work the the IDPF has done with Readium and Infogrid Pacific has done with Azardi, they are not at this time strongly influencing the trade market; they don’t lead to sales. Ingram’s VitalSource is another reader platform that could play a bigger part in trade sales and have more influence on the adoption of EPUB3, but it just is not in the same conversations on the four companies mentioned.

    The curious thing is that any of these retailers would benefit from adding full support of EPUB 3. NOOK and Kobo could potentially increase market share by making their point of difference the full support of the EPUB spec. It is a huge opportunity for someone who is brave enough to go for it.

    Apple will make sure that innovative content that highlights the capabilities of the iPad and any other of its products is available and tools are available to developers to create such content. That is why they released iBooks Author. Will iBooks Author become a full-spec EPUB3 creation tool or continue to create eBooks in a proprietary format? Amazon has shown how to be successful with a walled garden and a proprietary format; don’t think Apple hasn’t noted the model.

    Ultimately I hope that EPUB3 can become the robust common format for publishers of books, magazines, and all written content; but for a specification to become the standard, it needs to be fully implemented in the marketplace. I believe we need to see this full implementation soon. I support you and IDPF in making this happen.

  11. Matthew says:

    Tom, have you seen the actual IDPF fixed-layout document: I believe it is a more robust solution that is currently in the marketplace.

  12. Matthew says:

    The EPUB3 spec is certainly intended to include digital magazines. The IDPF is to be commended for including magazines and other formats besides books in the consideration of the spec.

  13. Bill McCoy says:

    Thank you Matthew – I think we see pretty much eye-to-eye on this. I do have a more global perspective (IDPF having 350 organizational members in 36 countries). But also I don’t think that what happens short term in U.S. market is necessarily indicative of how global standards will ultimately play out, even if the U.S. market pops first. In fact it might well go the other way, as with cell phone technology that evolved more rapidly elsewhere based on GSM while the U.S. was stuck with incompatible first-generation proprietary systems, and then the global standards came back to take over the U.S. later.

    And, I do see all the vendors above moving towards full EPUB 3 support. Rakuten/Kobo’s CEO Mikitani for example was a keynote speaker at the Tokyo International Book Fair where he was vocal and clear about Kobo’s support for EPUB 3. iBooks Author hasn’t taken the world by storm and since then Apple’s formalized their EPUB 3 support. And even Amazon really has no choice but to continue down the HTML/CSS/JS path of Web Standards which means they can’t really stray far from EPUB 3. But as we both are aware there’s a whole lot of work yet to be done (so I’d better get back to it…)

  14. Erik says:


    Your project sounds interesting, but the challenge with ePub3 is going to be device support. Until we have greater support from devices, apps, etc, you’ll be developing separate versions or setting up for degrading backwards.

  15. Dave Bricker says:

    Yes, device support is the biggest issue but more and more eReader devices have webkit browsers and support for Android OS apps. The move to proprietary standards (where device manufacturers support only a subset of features, require conversion to unique formats, retain power to approve/disapprove content, and charge 30% commissions for which they take no risk and offer nothing in the way of promotion) is a step backward from the open web where any developer could develop and distribute software for any platform. If eBook Reader manufacturers won’t support the ePub3 standard, I can deliver a superior experience inside the browser where I don’t have to work around third party business interests.

    Hundreds of thousands of indie books are published every year and ultimately, device manufacturers will have to offer value to those publishers or risk losing business to open distribution channels. I’ll pay Apple or Amazon a commission if they help my distribution, but I’ll only do so much extra work to earn the “privilege” of being in their stores.

    My book may end up being more of a challenge to eReader manufacturers than a live demonstration of what ePub3 can offer, but the reasons for my work not appearing in the Kindle or iBooks store are compelling. The ePub3 standard was developed to empower writer/designer/developers like myself to do precisely what I’m doing. EReader manufacturers will get on board when more publishers distribute through alternative channels.

  16. R.S. Vern says:

    Yes, life would be a lot simpler if more ebookstores can adopt 1 single standard epub3 books. When we published our book series “Haee and the other middlings”, we had to create 2 versions: 1 basic version and 1 animated enhanced version. Since these are all fixed layout formats, just on the basic version, we had to create a KF8 file, epub for iBooks, epub for Nook. It was truly quite a challenge.
    Needless to say, many were a lot more excited about the animated enhanced version but could only get it on ibookstore, and readable only on iPad/ iPod Touch. Well, check it out at

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  19. Steve says:

    Totally agree with this article. What is promised is very different than the reality.

    We’ve found that enhanced epub files work fine in certain readers, but when they are published they lose the interactive elements. For example, an epub with animation and audio embedded works fine in the Kobo app. But if that very same file is published to the fonts, audio and animation are all stripped out of the file.

  20. […] came across this great article from ePUB Secrets the other day – Reviewing EPUB Myths. It sheds a little light on the differences between Kindle, Apple, Kobo and Nook by summarising the […]