Much back-and-forth debate has circulated recently about the latest iteration of the EPUB standard, EPUB 3—no surprise with IDPF Digital Book 2013, the International Digital Publishing Forum’s annual shindig, having just concluded in New York City. But whatever the merits of the standard, tardy implementation and half-hearted adoption is likely to stymie efforts to get the international publishing industry to … ahem … standardize on it. Just from the point of timing, some commentators put final rollout of EPUB3 at six to 12 months time … if adoption has any real meaning anyway.
The European Booksellers Federation, for one, is supporting a high-level EU push to standardize internationally on EPUB 3. But the Book Industry Study Group’s handy guide to EPUB 3 implementation, available here, shows a relentless series of “nos” against the EPUB 3 functions it lists, even from the major platforms historically standardized on EPUB like Sony and Kobo, and even though these functions are “only a subset of what is currently available in EPUB 3.” Ironically, one of the best performers is Apple’s iBooks—hardly the definition of an open platform. And if the majors are failing to come fully on board with EPUB 3, what pressure on the rest to do so?
This concerns me because my dearest love, poetry, is poorly served by the current crop of EPUB readers. Even if EPUB 2 has enough formatting features to render reasonable verses, many EPUB reading clients skip the cascading style sheet support and other functions needed to deliver that layout.
Here for comparison are some screenshots of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Tolerance,’ from his Satires of Circumstance collection, using the EPUB file from the same Project Gutenberg edition.
On FBReader, as you can see above, the verse breaks completely disappear.
On Mantano Reader (above), which is CSS-compliant, on my Android tablet, the verses are clear and distinct.
And in Kindle’s client (above), also on my tablet, the verses are properly rendered. FBReader is a popular multi-platform EPUB reader with up to 10 million installations via Google Play alone. And for better or worse, Gutenberg has hardly done a ferociously strict and consistent formatting job with the EPUB poetry files it puts out. Yet FBReader can’t even hit that benchmark.
I took soundings on the issue on the MobileRead Forums recently, and got scant comfort or consensus. For various reasons, I concur with the view of one that most traditional poetry simply needs clear separation of lines and stanzas, and can manage without strict and accurate reproduction of page layouts. But there seems little hope that EPUB 3 will even get that far. FBReader plainly hasn’t. The viewpoint of the Forum participants, as elsewhere, is that the different commercial interests in IDPF are far more concerned with their own priorities than with the standard itself, and will pick and choose from it at their own convenience.
IMHO, and as Amazon obviously thought when they rolled it out, KF8 is going to further undercut the competition, even though Amazon took up the EPUB standard of the opposition. If a publisher no longer has an either/or fork between Kindle and not-Kindle, naturally he’s going to be that much more ready, and willing, to push books through Amazon’s channels. Kindle’s ecosystem and KF8 are liable to win by default.
What price the bells-and-whistles add-ons for a standard that can’t even get the basics right? And whose ostensible backers don’t even bother to take it on board? On this score, for my money—literally—Amazon deserves to win. They may be another Evil Empire, but at least they’ll give me my breaks.