KF8 and ePub3: New Standards for EBooks

KF8 ArtistThings are about to get interesting for readers, designers and the eBook publishing business as new formats bring enhanced formatting and interactivity to eBooks. Amazon has just announced a new KF8 (Kindle Format 8) format. The KF8 format replaces Amazon’s .mobi format and adds over 150 new formatting capabilities, including fixed layouts, nested tables, callouts, sidebars and Scalable Vector Graphics. New specs for the ePub format (used by Apple, Google and many others) were recently finalized but barely mentioned by the publishing media.

The idea that a book is nothing more than a container for text data is anathema to anyone who appreciates the art of typesetting. Graphic Design exerts a powerful influence on ease of reading, and also on more abstract considerations like how the choice of typeface affects the mood of the writing. Today’s eBooks sacrifice appearance for flexibility, enabling text to be resized and flowed from screen-to-screen without any relationship to the original numbered page or typographic design. ePub and .mobi files are little more than bundles of basic HTML pages. They’re particularly bad for educational texts where sidebars and multicolumn layouts are common. KF8 and ePub3 standards will greatly improve the aesthetics of eBook design.

KF8 and ePub3 Mean Better Looking EBooks

KF8 and ePub3 formats allow book designers to leverage powerful formatting technologies like HTML5 and CSS3. Embedded fonts, drop caps, floating elements, text on background images, numbered and bulleted lists and fine control over leading (line spacing) are only a few of the new design features that already improve the appearance of millions of websites. Now, they’ll lend their strength to eBooks. Add audio, video and interactivity to a well-displayed eBook and you’ll find publishers banking on the premise that eBooks can be better than traditional books (though that premise will be hotly debated).

The potential for a new renaissance in book design is very real, and for designers, the timing is good. Adobe has already seen fit to include powerful HTML5 export capabilities into Adobe Flash. Tools like Adobe Muse make it easier for designers to focus on aesthetics without having to manipulate cumbersome code. While publishers of printed books pack their text tightly on the page to save paper and ink, eBook publishers have no such concerns. Once design is unconstrained by economics, eBooks (of all things) will be free to restore the glory of hot metal type. Will publishers have the vision? We’ll see soon enough.

KF8, ePub3 and the EBook Business

Amazon chose to use a proprietary .mobi format while its competitors (even Apple) publish eBooks using the open ePub standard. The advantage is clear; Amazon’s ability to control their own eBook format positions them to innovate and deploy new standards quickly without having to wait for specs to be proposed, approved and developed by an external standards body, setting them up to be the first to market “rich eBooks” that are delivered as actual eBooks instead of as mobile apps. Moreover, because Apple has restricted the use of Adobe Flash on its iOS (iPhone Operating System) mobile devices, Adobe has business incentive to develop design tools that support Amazon’s advantage. However, ePub3 specs (Also based on HTML5 and CSS) were finalized recently on October 11, 2001. We can assume Apple and other ePub eReader developers have been been working  for some time to integrate the draft standards into their technologies. Toolmakers will find opportunity in filling the needs of ePub3 publishers.

How this will play out in the competitive eBook market is anyone’s guess, but clearly, eBooks are changing (and at least when capable designers are involved, they’ll be changing for the better). In the next few years, we’ll see a slew of new eReader devices that incorporate the new standards along with innovations like color eInk displays and many of the features (like cameras, microphones and web access) we’ve come to associate with tablet devices like the Apple iPad. Adobe InDesign already exports to a variety of mobile formats; it’s only logical to believe those capabilities will be brought in line with now-current publishing standards.

What’s the Catch?

Amazon’s Kindle Publisher Tools do not currently support KF8, but  all currently supported content will continue to work. Information on how to update existing titles to take advantage of KF8 capabilities will be available in an upcoming update of the Kindle Publishing Guidelines. Amazon will be rolling out KF8 support for the new Kindle Fire eReader due in November, 2011. KF8 support will be added to late generation Kindles and software Kindle readers in the following months. Older Kindles will not be upgraded to support KF8.

When it comes to ePub3, things are less cut and dry. Certainly, the ePub3 format is standardized—eBooks can ideally be developed to those standards—but there is no standards body governing the extent to which eReader devices have to support those standards. Apple, for example, doesn’t support Adobe Flash in their mobile browser. It’s likely they won’t support Flash content inside eBooks, even if the ePub3 standard does. ePub3 supports optional technical additions like javascript; not bad in principle, but creating eBooks using features that eBook readers optionally implement makes it difficult to deploy one file to multiple vendors.

The IDPF (in charge of ePub3 standards) refers to an ePub3 file as a “website in a box.” Therein lies the problem. Notwithstanding the fact that an eBook is an altogether different kind of animal than a website, there are enough variances from one web browser to another in how they render and display HTML, Javascript, CSS and other “standardized” technologies to suggest that eBook Reader devices will likely each support different subsets of the ePub3 standard. Standards may be supported but displayed differently. Please, God. don ‘t let Microsoft come out with an eReader. Many publishers will either bypass ePub3’s sparsely supported “special features” and keep their ePub offerings simple, or they’ll develop separate ePub3 files that match the supported technologies of different devices. For more information on (rather techie) ePub3 specifics with lots of nerdy acronyms, read a (very coarse) rant about ePub3 from Strahinja Marković, a developer of the Sigil ePub editor.

Marković does make some compelling points:

I know I’m being a cynic, but I can’t help myself. The iPad came along, was declared “the savior of the publishing industry” and now everyone seems to be losing their mind.

Again, “HTML5?” Great for the web. Actually, awesome for the web. For e-books? I don’t remember the last time I thought “this book really needs some video.”

Bob Kasher of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) offers a rosier outlook for ePub3 here.

The ISBN Factor

If different eReader devices require different ePub file versions, theoretically, each will require its own, unique ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Publishers are already chafing at the added costs and hassles of assigning unique ISBNs to an ever-growing list of book variants in a publishing world where the requirement to associate eBooks with ISBNs is up for debate. (Amazon does not require ISBN numbers for eBooks and Google will assign an eISBN at no cost when requested.) This will either be a boon for Bowker (the administrator of ISBN numbers in the US) or a trigger for a full-blown eBook ISBN rebellion, especially among small publishers. To what extent will the need to purchase yet another ISBN number deter small publishers from deploying ePub3 files to various platforms?

So Who’s On First?

New ePub3 and KF8 standards represent big developments for book design and the publishing business. Designers will have new opportunities to make better looking books. Competition is driving innovation as it should. Writers and publishers will see their work presented elegantly and professionally across all types of media, and of course, readers will benefit most of all.

How eReader devices, software tools and designers will embrace new ePub3 standards remains to be seen. ePub3 could be a huge backfire if different eReaders and content creation tools support different chunks of the overall standard. Certainly, a great deal of development work will be required to make eReader Devices compliant with such a broad set of features. Of course, that will render the current generation of eReader devices obsolete. How eBook consumers will react to that is another unknown factor.

Where this is all headed is still a matter of speculation; there are many variables. The standards have arrived ahead of the technology that will display them and the tools that create content for them. Ultimately, we may see a real blurring of the lines between mobile apps, websites and eBooks—a sort of globalization of online content. Until the new eReader devices and their accompanying hype hit the shelves, Amazon appears best positioned to deliver a consistent eBook experience while its competitors pick and choose from subsets of the ePub3 standard. Amazon is free to innovate and support all of its own KF8 standards; it’s a safe bet that a Kindle book will display properly on a Kindle eReader, and as mentioned in an earlier post, Amazon is much less restrictive about the kinds of content its users can access in its browser than Apple is with its iPad users. If Amazon continues that spirit with their KF8 books, they’ll have an advantage…for the moment.


It wasn’t that many years ago when nobody wanted their own computer or a mobile phone or an iPod or an eBook reader device. Though it would be comforting to settle back on a heap of firm promises, standards and expectations, eBooks are evolving too quickly for that. It’s a brave new world. Publishers should keep their eyes on the ball.


Leave a Reply