image Can publishers trust ePub as a master format, something to be converted for consumer uses?

Or should it be used only as a consumer format because it isn’t feature-rich enough to encompass all the wrinkles for final formats?

Members of the ePub Community list – sign up at the just-provided link – are mulling over the pros and cons of ePub for master copies. ePub is good as a final format for conventional books such as typical novels and other narratives – much better, in fact, than certain proprietary formats such as Mobipocket and eReader. And I fervently hope publishers will go ahead and use it, whenever possible, as a consumer format.

But what about optimizing ePub further as a distribution and consumer format for specialized reference works, newspapers, magazines, and other nonlinear publications? That means ePub should be able to specify document structure just so, to assure that nothing vanishes in translation.

If you structure documents well for multiple uses, including perhaps conversions, you might even save a pair of eyes – by making it easier to Read the Effing Manual.

Blinded by the (lack of) light

How? Jon Noring, owner of the ePub and eBook Community lists, points to an item in Kurt Cagle’s O’Reilly blog. What grabbed me wasn’t just the technical details but the story of a consumer who went blind because he didn’t see the right instructions for use of an insecticide. The  man should have used the spray with the wind blowing away from him and his eyes.

Alas, the pesticide maker’s site contained incomplete and inaccurate information – the very stuff that could easily have been picked up from a Food and Drug Administration site if a robust master format with appropriate specs for uniformity had been in use at both ends. Because the actual instructions were lacking, the company paid dearly in a lawsuit.

The ePub angle

Perhaps the real issue was that the spray can itself lacked the crucial facts. Either way, however, this little anecdote is a powerful argument for effortless transfer and repositioning of information. ePub ideally can become a standard not just for books but also other types of publications. Suppose an author had been able to pick up the insecticide information for use in a commercial book (with attribution to the FDA).

That’s not the only consideration. If ePub becomes a master format for books but isn’t as versatile as it could be, then people will gravitate away from the book format. Not only that, don’t we want people to be able to go back and forth from books to newspapers? Nonfiction books, at least, and appropriate fiction, should be part of the Net if authors want.

IDPF negligence

Like Jon, I’m endlessly frustrated that the IDPF continues to neglect nonlinear publications – not to mention other issues such as reliable interbook linking. If the IDPF keeps dawdling, some book publishers in the end will not use ePub as a master and instead rely on other XML-related languages such as DocBook (touted for smaller organizations and DITA (larger ones).

I’m not saying that ePub needs to contain everything in DocBook or DITA. But where do we draw the line? Shouldn’t ePub be smarter and more flexible? And how about coordinating efforts with the DocBook people, DITA boosters, NewsML folks or maybe even, gasp, a little XML-related company called Microsoft? Does the IDPF really want to be an island?

Reminder: ePub isn’t just for saving eyes. Because of the ease of repositioning content into Braille and other accessible formats, it also could be a godsend for the blind and those with weak vision – including, in time, the millions of aging babyboomers around the world.

Image: CC-licensed photo from Adactio.


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