Munsey's home pageIf any e-book Web site could benefit from the new .epub standard for digital publications, it’s Munseys—the mostly public domain site where David Moynihan strives to offer “Over 20,000 rare and hard to find titles in 10 formats.”

The big word here is “strives.” David M is still wrestling with Mobipocket hassles, for example, despite the months of work he has already put into the site.

Alas, David appears to be burning in a Dantesque Format Hell, beyond his other woes (I still can’t find Babbitt—database problems?).

Here’s a screenshot from a typical Mobipocket book as now offered by David. In most cases, at least in Mobipocket Desktop 6.0, you won’t see a full page. And that’s sad since I miss David’s Blackmask site and, as a reader, am rooting for his forthcoming “five-figure” formal launch of Munseys to go well.

Wacky jihad against .epub

David’s bizarre little jihad against .epub, then, which now has shown up in a wacky opinion piece in The Register, is all the more disappointing considering how much .epub could eventually simplify life at Munseys. He shrugs off .epub as just a wicked conspiracy to diminish competition in the e-book business and pave the way for sales of Adobe software.

Who knows what David is thinking? I’m surprised, however, that the Reg would publish his rant without mentioning a pesky little detail—namely that David in effect makes his living in part as a format converter.

Like an oil company zealot writing on global warming

Relevant? This is something for the reader to decide; but David’s column appeared without the slightest direct hint of his role in the e-book business, just a little link to Munseys at the bottom. Having David hold forth on e-book standards is a little like asking an anti-solar nut at an oil company to comment on alternative energy or global warming. Consider how he tarred .epub by at least implying that it “would support .pdf.” While Adobe’s Digital Editions can read both .epub and .pdf, that’s hardly a requirement for other .epub-capable readers. Time for David to take Syllogisms 101?

More importantly, .epub could help sites such as Munseys to focus less on technology and more on content and commerce. That’s what open standards will make possible, along with a greater selection of books for readers. It’s time to raze the Tower of eBabel forever.

I’ll make David an exception since I like his site, glitches notwithstanding, but otherwise a chute should goes straight from every floor in the Tower right down to Format Hell for any resident who resists .epub.

Even translation houses—the real ones, not just site-specific conversion operations like David M’s—will come out ahead. Big publishers wanting to farm out technical details will be able to throw them a lot more business, now that e-books are on the way to having a stable, trusty format optimized for the medium.

Wealth of conversion tools in time

Small publishers wanting to do the job themselves, moreover, will hardly be left stranded. Over at Book Glutton, a tiny new startup whose coffers aren’t exactly Google sized, Aaron Miller has coincidentally just written to the TeleBlog: “Because OEBPS is based on open standards, many…people will be creating conversion tools. The building blocks have already been around for some time, on many platforms and in many programming languages.

“Unlike proprietary formats, there’s no extensive sleuthing or building from scratch to have a basic conversion tool. The real challenge comes in creating .epubs that work across systems. Systems need to be fairly fault-tolerant of the standard, especially this early in the game, or people will give up on it pretty quickly. Fortunately the standard is fairly thorough about how to provide fallback mechanisms and handle unknown or unsupported types of content.”

Significantly, Aaron has found that the popular .rtf format, which OpenOffice among others can deal with, is a great format from which to convert to .epub.

Clearly, then, .epub tools will be be on the way, and I’m amazed that David M would shrug off the format in part just because the freeware and low-cost solutions don’t exist to augment Adobe’s pricey InDesign.

Open source FBReader already .epub capable to an extent

Meanwhile, one of my favorite freeware readers, the open source FBReader, which I constantly use on my little Nokia linux handheld, can already read .epub files. The reliability is far from perfect, and FBReader will need to address issues such as CSS. But you can bet that improvements will be along.

So why isn’t David Moynihan, identified as David Leach in papers in a copyright suit related to his ill-chosen and failed fight with Conde Nast, doing a happy jig in celebration of .epub?

Might he just might be a little worried about competition from other commercial and public domain sites that will take advantage of the new simplicity in satisfying the needs of pub domain lovers and other readers?

David M’s Adobe conspiracy angle

Now back to David’s Adobe conspiracy angle. The real story is that, while Adobe would probably love to control the .pub standard by itself, other companies within the IDPF have been around to watch out for their own interests. Even Jon Noring, founder of the OpenReader Consortium, which has often played mongoose with the IDPF as the cobra, has participated in the IDPF’s standards process.

The TeleBlog weighed in, too, on Jon’s side—hardly a surprise since I was a cofounder of the consortium and wanted a standard more encompassing than the one the IDPF finally emerged with (I’m no longer active in OpenReader, preferring to focus on influencing the IDPF).

But even I would laugh at the notion of the final .epub standards being just for Adobe. They reflect the needs of many companies.

Not perfect, but…

The IDPF standards are not perfect, and as a nonXML programmer but a reader and writer, I’m going to keep pushing for wrinkles such as an annotations standard and reliable interbook linking.

What’s more, I want IDPF to come out as soon as possible with a logo to help assure the standards-compliance of nonDRMed e-books displaying it. A universal logo covering all books could follow. Along with the logo, there should be open source authentification software to foster compliance, and neutral third party experts need to be able to vet it.

If those conditions are followed, then David’s anti-.epub rant will seem even more risible.

Right at your side, David, side if the IDPF lets us down

Yes, if the IDPF disappoints us and ends up as no more than an Adobe tool, then I’ll be right at David’s side, and meanwhile I would encourage constructive criticism of the IDPF standard, which Robert Nagle and I will eagerly publish here. Hello, Tamas? Keep up your healthy skepticism: The TeleBlog is open to you as a place to express it, whether in comments or full postings.

But for now, I personally see good faith on the IDPF’s part. Look, there’s a difference between a standards crusade and a jihad. To know when to back off, OpenReader having failed to draw enough interest from prospective implementers, is what distinguishes the two. So I’ll root for .epub while at the same time doing my best and encouraging others to scrutinize the standards-setting process.

Thanks for the credit, Dude

Oh, well, it was nice of David in his Register article to credit Jon and me with spurring the IDPF to take standards again for real. Duke, you made my day!

Now get back to work on your Mobi problems (may the beginning of this post soon be obsolete!) and prepare for the coming of .epub.

Detail: I’m pleased to give Munseys some further publicity even though David Moynihan, for now, hates my guts. Here at the TeleBlog, Robert Nagle and I try not to play link-love or link-hate games at the expense of readers. Despite David’s current format Hell with Mobi, we’ll try to mention interesting titles when they show up on Munsey’s.


  1. I thought it was cool that someone was working on a standardized ebook format. When I realized Adobe was the driving force behind it, I was skeptical. Then I read your article (without even reading the article you criticize) and it made me think less of epub.

    After looking at the epub format (nothing more than zipped html with a mess of xml tacked on to it), I’m not impressed.

    It seems to me like it could have been better optimized for ebook content.

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