HomeBook DesignWhy Ebooks Belong in the Web Browser


Why Ebooks Belong in the Web Browser — 26 Comments

  1. I just published my first eBook on Amazon and even include a chapter on innovation where I suggest that eBooks should support some means of public annotations (and ideally, a methodology to “negotiate” annotations) so that the end work product can grow over time. This allows community support and often can lead to an even better work product than originally authored. Now I realize that Wikis and Blogs have been around for ever (and I do in fact have a wordpress blog). And yes, Facebook and Twitter could also be used, but I like the notion of an eBook being the “consolidator” (where the author “owns” the scope of expression on the given title – after all, the author owns the original book). So I like the notion of supporting full web browser mechanisms but would like it to join a methodology which allows some level of control by the author. And I certainly would want this to be browser independent. Now I am certainly curious why the underlying content is html and CSS, yet the eReaders have such a limited and dissatisfying user experience). And as you point out, companies trying to preserve their “empires” is the answer. If I had a vote, I would say that all eReaders should support full browser features where the user could toggle settings and either have a limited eReader view (i.e., simple page up/page down), or have the full web at their finger tips.

    So I definitely like the discussion. BTW, I stumbled upon this page because I was trying to figure out why Chrome Readium plugin wasn’t working when trying to display my mobi file.

  2. Reading a book on a monitor is hard on the eyes so people use ereaders.

    • You’re correct that e-ink is easier on the eyes but those devices are being surpassed in popularity by color displays. More people now read books on tablets than eReaders.

  3. “EPUBs Belong in HTML5” would be a better title. Who cares whether they are consumed in a browser or not? I agree HTML5 is the universal platform, but whether content is delivered as websites vs. as mobile apps (built on frameworks like PhoneGap) vs. as eBooks (built on EPUB) is to me a detail not something fundamental that we should be arguing about. And so far very few people have successfully monetized premium content delivered as websites: adverts don’t work unless you have huge traffic and consumers resist paywalls. Whereas billions of dollars were made last year distributing HTML content as eBooks and on mobile apps, many built on Web technogies One reason eBooks via the browser hasn’t taken off is that consumers who pay $10 for an eBook want to get the file and have offline access. I’m pro-browser but it’s a fact that consumer time spent in browsers has been decreasing in recent years, while time spent in native apps (inc. eBook readers) has been increasing.

    Authors & publishers can start distributing HTML5-based EPUB 3 eBooks now to channels that already support EPUB 3 (Apple iBooks, Kobo, Google Play Books, VitalSource, etc.), content that also works on existing EPUB 2 reading systems. O’Reilly has “flipped the switch” to EPUB 3 using this technique.

    Finally, the Readium.org open source effort will accelerate getting EPUB 3 to everyone, for cloud readers (Readium Web) and for native apps (Readium SDK), without any dependencies on a single vendor. Many of the key players in the industry are collaborating in this effort which could have similar impact to Apache for web servers and Mozilla & WebKit for web browsers.

    • Bill, I’m honored to have you weigh in on this. I have no problem with ePub3 or eReaders; they’re here to stay. However, the business politics underlying vendor decisions to support or not support certain features remind me of the “this site optimized for Netscape/Explorer” browser wars of the 1990s. ePub may be an open standard but eReaders are proprietary devices controlled by proprietary interests.

      Web-based content can be downloaded as a web archive and viewed offline. Moreover, if ePub3 books are not to become bloated with media files, added content will likely have to be stored on services like Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Picasa, Google Maps, etc. and made available to online viewers only. Rich media is simply too large to bundle effectively with “core” content whether that’s an ePub3 file or a zipped archive full of HTML5 files. In this regard, the advantage/disadvantage of web vs. ePub is a wash. They face the same challenges and are basically the same thing.

      You will find nothing but support on my part for the goals of ePub3, but when it came time to start working on a very innovative eBook design, I found too many incompatibilities—not so much with the ePub3 format—but with the devices that claim to support it. I’m not ready to release my eBook yet, but when I do, I hope it can serve as a wakeup call for those whose financial interests are standing in the way of progress. eReaders won’t support those experiments yet but the browser will, and though that’s disappointing, my disappointment is with eReader manufacturers who think that the current state of eBook typography and rich media display is “good enough.”

      While “key industry players” collaborate toward developing tools like Readium, the web browser is ready, today, to display eBooks that are constrained only by the developer’s imagination and technical abilities. Ultimately, we’re both talking about deploying a package of HTML5 files. As you say, “who cares whether they’re consumed in a browser or not?” I don’t care where they’re consumed but I care that they can be consumed. Right now, for my purposes, eReaders are too limited and therefore, an ePub3 file will produce inconsistent results that reflect negatively on me, the publisher. Readers won’t conclude that their device doesn’t support feature X; they’ll conclude that my eBook is junk—and that’s not acceptable. Web browsers aren’t perfect either—they’re fraught with their own inconsistencies and incompatibilities—but they’re ubiquitous and not controlled by corporate interests.

      Bill, please don’t interpret my preference for the browser as a disparagement of your important and visionary work with IDPF and ePub3. As soon as eReaders support my content, you’ll see an ePub3 version of my book. Thanks again for your comments here.

  4. I found this interesting. I have one novel published by a small press in the USA, essentially a one-woman band. She has not provided a royalty statement after two years. I live in New Zealand, left wondering how to extricate myself and my book. I got into this deal about the time Amazon began their self-pub service, so I missed that boat. But maybe that was no bad thing. I know my book hasn’t earned much, so the money owed to me is not a big issue. My book is essentially ‘buried’ deep in the Kindle and Nook stores. Getting people to buy it from those sites at $6.99 is just not easy.

    • Self-publishing is hard enough. Worse is having to do the marketing yourself and then give revenue to a publisher that has contributed zero.

  5. Great article Dave! Thank you. I would just say that html5 and css3 at least aren’t “owned” by a corporation, such as Adobe or Apple. Hopefully more vendors of ebooks will be pushed in the direction of complying with an industry standard, when there is one. The tools and means to create content-rich ebooks will develop and become easier to use as well. I remember the browser wars, growing pains of the WWW in the 1990s and the push for standards to be followed, which is evolving pretty well, if not perfect. Flash was destined to fall by the wayside in favor of open source non-proprietary approaches to disseminating information. I am glad to see it go.

    • The important word being “compliance.” I’m tired of corporations stalling progress and limiting creativity. The web is the only unregulated and open platform. For what it’s worth, my flash flipbook page still accounts for a good chunk of my web traffic. People are still using flash and they want to put their books on the web. Thanks for your comments.

      P.S. The .swf file format was made open a long time ago. Flash has its disadvantages but it will be a long time before anything else shows up that can match its capabilities. Five years from now, we’ll see a precompiled file format developed that gets executed by the browser natively in the same way that the flash plugin executes flash files now. Flash will get reinvented and the new format will be billed as “innovative.”

  6. I neglected to mention that, if your goal with that image was to seriously disturb your readers, score at least one point. It’s like something my little brother would have thunk up on his worst day.

  7. Very interesting and persuasive, Dave, and way over my head technologically. I’m a pilgrim with a dumbphone, for cryin’ out loud. And I’ve got a book I’m on the threshhold of epublishing in the here and now — and leaning to Smashwords.

    Am I correct in assuming you’re “blue-skying it” with this manifesto, and that for the short-term I’m just gonna have to work with what’s available in the here and now?

    • For the short term yes, more or less. http://www.booki.sh has pretty nice looking HTML5 books up and running, and http://www.turnjs.com offers a workingHTML5 flipbook. I don’t think that web-based books are going to knock Amazon/Kindle off the map, but they’re a viable alternative channel that we’ll see more of. As publishers create content that eReaders simply can’t display, the web browser will become more a more compelling choice. The technology is here today but we haven’t seen much content yet that justifies the alternative format. Innovation in book design and capability will be the best catalyst for getting web books noticed.

  8. I’m reminded of Alton Brown’s rule for his kitchen tools: no mono-taskers.

    A tool that only does one thing is either for specialists, or it’s a waste. (That, from my father the auto mechanic when I was a kid.)

    An ereader does one thing. A computer does anything. A web browser comes pretty close to “anything” as well. Books in browsers just makes sense.

    I haven’t kept my web skills current, now that I’m specializing in WordPress. I wonder how we offer our readers the ability to highlight, add annotations, etc. ? Any ideas?

    • I’ve been doing lots of WordPress work now that my Flash skills are no longer in demand, but I use the Weaver theme quite a bit and spend time hacking custom CSS to produce some of the design characteristics. HTML5 is a poor substitute for Flash but that’s reality; I’m polishing up my coding skills and moving forward.

      Highlighting, annotations, etc. should all be possible but getting a good HTML5 eReader working is the first step. From there, the possibilities are endless. Why not add social features that allow readers to view/exchange notes and criticism? Virtual book clubs could share comments within their specific groups. To your point, the one-function tool is limiting. Freedom will be found in the open web with enhancements driven by developers who are trying to fill in the gaps left by the exclusion of Flash.

      • There’s really no technical reason we can’t bring every aspect of the web to online books, as you suggest.

        In fact, even media we usually consider online-only, like video, can be made available offline with the right synchronization tools. Requires the bandwidth when the use *is* connected, but tools to download a browse entire websites offline have been around for a decade or more.

        The trick for the coder is not to be able to create the be-all-end-all today, it’s to make a good guess about which skills will be on the path to that b-a-e-a result. Ten years ago, the scramble was to find ways to compress video so it could be streamed over a 56K modem.

        The folks who simply plowed ahead creating the best quality video won, because broadband became ubiquitous.

        HTML5 may be behind the curve today, but I think we can assume that in 5 or 10 years, we’ll have the tools to do whatever we want.

        • You’re right, Joel, but I like to look at this as a musician. Let’s say we’re going to improvise—to compose spontaneously—over blues changes. An argument can be put forth that the chords are limiting; they prevent us from exploring certain keys and scales. But those restrictions give rise to creativity as well. We have a century of masterful music to consider that engages and leverages that musical schema. And we have new instruments and sound processors that can contribute new voices to that old conversation. I do agree about trying to guess where the ball will bounce. I bet on Flash back in 1999 and it carried me a long way. I bet on WordPress and it’s grown and become an income stream. Now we’ve entered a sort of “dark ages” where some of the major trains of innovation got derailed and we have to backtrack and figure out what’s coming next with new technologies that are more difficult and complex than some of the old ones. I’m watching carefully to see what media and tools are going to turn into, but I’m also trying to innovate within the limitations of the “changes.” The goal is still to communicate a certain message by changing the colors of a matrix of pixels on a screen. I can still do that today, albeit with clumsier technologies, but I’m not waiting 10–15 years for Adobe to sell me new design tools. At least a few hours of every day go toward innovating with HTML and javascript and CSS. It’s slow work and it’s expensive as I’ve had to hire some tech help to do things I used to do myself with ActionScript, but every frontier is both a wasteland and an opportunity. I listen to Flash developers gripe on the forums every day about how Apple and Adobe fumbled Flash. I don’t disagree with them but my motivations are fundamentally creative; if I’m not making something inspirational happen on the screen, I’m not happy. I figure it’s a matter of either adapting or dying off, and as I approach 50, I’m going to adapt as much as I can while I still can.

          Check out some of the technologies linked to in the article. EBooks in the browser are possible right now, today. What’s needed is for readers to wake up and question why it should be any other way.

          Thanks as always for your comments here, Joel.

          • D’oh. Forgot the links. Monocle looks smashing, though I don’t see info on highlighting or annotations.

            Markup (http://markup.io/) has potential as well.

            Better to be moving forward on SOME path than to be sitting and waiting. I need to accept that I’m a writer these days, not a web guy, and leave the innovation to those who are more focused on it.

            And then use their stuff.