Enhancements anticipated but workflows still print-focused

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There are plenty of ambitious plans for e-books, especially using the new EPUB 3 standard but some publishers are still geared towards print books, writes Sian Harris

One of the highlights of the Frankfurt Book Fair for many people is expected to be discussions about the new EPUB 3 standard. ‘We are very much looking forward to EPUB 3,’ said Alex Schrijver, VP of sales, EMEA and APAC, for MPS Limited. He is excited because of the potential impact of the standard on what becomes possible with e-books.

Currently, most e-books are in the PDF or EPUB formats. However, both have their limitations. As a PDF is a static piece of text, there can be difficulties with it scaling or rendering properly. And, although EPUB brings in the advantages of XML, there are restrictions to what it can do. For example, currently non-Roman characters have to be included as images. This limits what can be done with mathematical text as well as languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

In contrast, EPUB 3 allows the use of MathML, which enables formulae to render better and be used in a more consistent way. It also means that characters can be scaled, and that text can be searched properly. The flexibility to cater to non-Roman languages will open up new markets, according to Schrijver of MPS. ‘Publishers who publish in those languages are asking for e-books now,’ he said. ‘The opportunities are endless. There was lots of interest from publishers in EPUB 3 at the London Book Fair and many publishers are thinking of converting old EPUB files to EPUB 3.’

The new standard also promises to support video, audio, interactivity, multicolumn layout, hyphenation, embedded fonts, enhanced metadata and improved accessibility.

‘As e-books inevitably become more interactive and media-centric, EPUB 3 will be important in ensuring cross-platform compatibility for new titles that offer these enhanced user experiences,’ noted Gary Coker, vice president of strategy and research for MetaPress. ‘I think we’ll see e-book platforms supporting EPUB 3 almost immediately, certainly early in 2012. The challenge then will be publishers’ readiness to produce content that takes advantage of the capabilities of the format.’

However, Coker believes that the challenges of formats are fewer for the companies that provide the publishing technology: ‘Producing e-books for different formats is not as difficult as it may seem. We’ve always had to deal with dynamic and emerging formats in the scholarly space, so the various e-book formats currently in play are really no more challenging to support than what we’ve seen in the e-journals realm,’ he said.

The greater challenges, he said, lie in distributing e-books to the different devices. ‘Publishers need to understand the habits and environments of their target user bases in order to target the right devices and formats. Many publishers and vendors will need to invest in new skillsets, such as app development for smartphones and tablets, in order to offer the expected user-experiences,’ he added.

Part of understanding user-needs includes considering extra functionality that might be required. As Hervé Essa, vice president of international sales at Jouve observed, ‘Animations and social tools add the most value to non-fiction and educational content and tablets and PCs are the target devices. Dedicated e-readers are highly optimised for the consumption of narrative content that may include such features as search and the provision of definitions.’

Challenges along the way

Of course, we are no longer at the beginning of the e-book story. Over recent years, enormous numbers of research, reference and textbooks have been released in electronic format and are now widely used in research and education. Along the way, there have been many challenges for publishers and for their technology partners besides format and devices.

‘To a certain extent the big challenges are actually very similar to those faced by print, namely investment and gauging the potential extra sales that will be achieved versus the amount of investment required in sourcing / creating the enhanced content,’ commented Fawzia Nazir, product manager, advance for Publishing Technology.

Wouter van der Velde, eProduct manager of eBooks and eProduct marketing for Springer, agreed on the challenge of investment: ‘Springer publishes about 7,000 e-books every year so, when we started with e-books, the conversion was a major investment. Production and fulfilment systems had to be setup and / or be reprogrammed in order to handle the amount of titles, and to produce titles to the standards that our authors and customers require,’ he explained.

Discovery and access

However, he went on to say that the upload and maintenance have not been the largest challenges from Springer. Instead, the challenge with such a rapidly growing body of information has been to make these titles findable and discoverable for customers. ‘As SpringerLink usage studies show that more than half of our e-book usage originates from library catalogues, Springer takes most care of keeping the metadata to the highest possible standard. Initially the production of MARC records was a ‘bumpy ride’, but shortly after the launch of the Springer eBook programme, we partnered with organisations such as OCLC to serve our customers with OCLC MARC records, next to in-house created MARC records, which are now of good quality,’ he added.

Alex Schrijver, MPS

A related challenge to consider in the early stage of e-book production is that many researchers want to cite information by including the page numbers of a specific chapter or article. ‘If the “original” (as they were in the printed material) page numbers are not included, it could be hard for users to cite,’ van der Velde explained, adding that chapters in Springer eBooks come with DOIs.

Chris Kenneally, director of business development for Copyright Clearance Center, also sees discoverability as a challenge: ‘There is a difficulty in differentiating all this material,’ he noted. He anticipates that more will be made of author branding, rather than particular titles, in the future. He highlighted the approach of JK Rowling with the Pottermore website in the fiction space as a good example to watch.

Such changes in the way content is used also have repercussions for the traditional approach to copyright. ‘What I think is going to be very interesting is the challenge of the container. By setting a price for a single music track, iTunes effectively evaporated the container that was the CD. Music is a little different from e-books but I believe we’re going to see similar shifts,’ continued Kenneally.

‘There is a misunderstanding that, if it’s online and digital, you can do whatever you want with it. There is a continual tension between availability and recognising value and it’s an extremely complex scenario.’

This was one of the issues observed by Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka, at the ALPSP conference in September: ‘Libraries don’t really understand the notion of recommended books for courses bought by individuals and how important they are to publishers’ revenue when they talk about e-books and DRM.’

He went on to observe that library consortia want to share books in order to ‘buy’ fewer copies. ‘Unless there’s DRM of some sort it’s not really a loan between libraries. It’s natural for libraries to ask these questions but it can’t be as extreme as simply applying the print world model to online,’ he added.

Publisher workflows

Another challenge with e-book production is publisher workflows. ‘One of the big challenges from a publishing services perspective is the way that publishers work. Most still have print as first in their minds and consider the e-book at the end of the process,’ explained Alex Schrjver of MPS. ‘They’ve been working digitally but geared to something in print so we often have to reconvert a PDF to an e-book and this is always a challenge.’

He advocates having publishing processes geared towards creating e-content. ‘Then they would have a more e-first workflow where the result can easily be converted into a PDF for printing and an e-book, making the time to market quicker,’ he said. ‘Attitudes of publishers are starting to change about workflows but it’s very slow. They all see the benefits but adopting it probably requires quite a paradigm shift.’

‘Publishers vary widely in their readiness to offer e-books, both in their ability to generate the proper technical formats such as EPUB and in the maturity of their business models for offering e-books,’ agreed Gary Coker of MetaPress. ‘If a publisher’s e-book collection exists solely as book-level (as opposed to chapter-level), image-only PDFs but the publisher wants to offer chapter-level sales and reading on mobile devices and e-readers, then it’s a bigger technical challenge to create an e-book offering for the publisher.’

Fawzia Nazir of Publishing Technology added that a print-centric approach can place constraints on digital products, such as not having the relevant data fields to be able to hold the metadata required specifically by e-books. ‘Publishing companies as a whole are trying to use print-based tools and systems to create digital titles and this is not working,’ she said. ‘Publishers now need to think of themselves as media companies and not as book or print companies. They need to invest in good workflow tools that help them make this transition.’

The future

These are the types of issues that publishers and their partners need to continue addressing as new standards and user expectations continue to push the definition of the e-book. With interactivity and mobility likely to be two of the top expectations of e-books, along with cheaper prices, constantly-updated content and instant availability, all eyes will be on the market over the next few months to see what the first EPUB 3-based products will deliver.