KF8 and ePub3: New Standards for EBooks
Things are about to get interesting for readers, designers, and the e-book publishing business as new formats bring improved format and interactivity to e-books. Amazon has just announced a new format KF8 (Kindle Format 8). The KF8 format replaces the Amazon.mobi format and adds over 150 new formatting capabilities, including fixed layouts, nested tables, highlighted text, sidebars, and scalable vector graphics. The new specifications for the ePub format (used by Apple, Google and many others) were recently finalized, but were barely mentioned by the media.
The idea that a book is nothing more than a container for textual data is anathema to anyone who appreciates the art of composition. Graphic design exerts a powerful influence on readability, and also on more abstract considerations such as how the choice of typeface affects the mood of the writing. Today’s e-books sacrifice appearance for flexibility, allowing text to resize and flow from screen to screen without any relation to the original page number or typographic design. ePub and .mobi files are little more than bundles of basic HTML pages. They are especially bad for educational texts where sidebars and multi-column layouts are common. KF8 and ePub3 standards will greatly improve the aesthetics of e-book design.
KF8 and ePub3 mean better ebooks
KF8 and ePub3 formats allow book designers to take advantage of powerful formatting technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3. Embedded fonts, caps, floating elements, text on background images, numbered and bulleted lists, and fine start control (spacing) are just a few of the new design features that already improve the look of millions of websites. Now, they will give their strength to e-books. Add audio, video, and interactivity to a well-displayed e-book, and you’ll find publishers who count on the premise that e-books can be better than traditional books (although this premise will be much 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 in Adobe Flash. Tools like Adobe Muse make it easy for designers to focus on aesthetics without having to handle cumbersome code. While print book publishers pack text tightly on the page to save paper and ink, ebook publishers have no qualms. Once design is not limited by economics, ebooks (of all things) will be free to restore the glory of hot metal type. Will the editors have the vision? We’ll see soon.
KF8, ePub3 and the e-book business
Amazon chose to use a proprietary.mobi format while its competitors (even Apple) publish e-books using the open ePub standard. The advantage is clear; Amazon’s ability to control its own e-book format positions them to innovate and deploy new standards quickly without having to wait for specifications 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 rather than mobile apps. Also, because Apple has restricted the use of Adobe Flash on its iOS (iPhone Operating System) mobile devices, Adobe has business incentives to develop design tools that support Amazon’s advantage. However, the ePub3 specification (also based on HTML5 and CSS) was recently finalized on October 11, 2001. We can assume that Apple and other ePub eReader developers have been working to integrate the draft standards for some time to their technologies. Tool makers will find opportunities to meet the needs of ePub3 publishers.
How this will play out in the competitive e-book market is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that e-books are changing (and at least when capable designers are involved, they’ll be changing for the better). In the coming 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 (such as cameras, microphones, and web access) that we’ve come to associate with the tablet. devices such as the Apple iPad. Adobe InDesign already exports to a variety of mobile formats; it is logical to believe that these capabilities will conform to current publishing standards.
What is capture?
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 to the Kindle Publishing Guidelines. Amazon will release KF8 support for the new Kindle Fire eReader in November 2011. KF8 support will be added to the latest generation Kindles and software Kindle readers in the coming months. Older Kindles will not be updated to support KF8.
Strahinja Markovic, the developer of the Sigil ePub editor, makes some compelling points about ePub3:
I know I’m a cynic, but I can’t help myself. The iPad came out, was declared “the savior of the publishing industry” and now everyone seems to be losing their minds.
Again, “HTML5?” Great for the web. Really great for the web. For e-books? I can’t remember the last time I thought “this book really needs some video”.
The ISBN factor
If different eReader devices require different versions of ePub files, then in theory each will require its own unique ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Publishers are already grappling with the added costs and hassle of assigning unique ISBNs to an ever-growing list of book variants in a publishing world where the requirement to associate e-books with ISBNs is up for debate. (Amazon does not require ISBNs for e-books, and Google will assign an eISBN at no cost upon request.) This will either be a benefit to Bowker (the administrator of ISBNs in the US) or a trigger for a full ISBN of electronic books. rebellion, especially among small publishers. To what extent will the need to purchase another ISBN discourage small publishers from deploying ePub3 files to multiple platforms?
So who’s first?
The new ePub3 and KF8 standards represent major advances for book design and the publishing business. Designers will have new opportunities to make more beautiful books. Competition is driving innovation as it should. Writers and editors will see their work presented elegantly and professionally in all kinds of media and, of course, readers will benefit most of all.
It remains to be seen how eReader devices, software tools, and designers will adopt the new ePub3 standards. ePub3 could be a major setback if different eReaders and content authoring tools support different parts of the general standard. Undoubtedly, it will take a lot of development work to make eReader devices comply with such a broad feature set. Of course, this will make the current generation of eReader devices obsolete. How e-book consumers will react to this is another unknown factor.
Where all this is headed is still a matter of speculation; there are many variables. The standards have gotten ahead of the technology that will display them and the tools that create content for them. Ultimately, we may see a true blurring of the lines between mobile apps, websites, and e-books, a kind of globalization of online content. Until the new eReader devices and the accompanying hype hit the shelves, Amazon seems better positioned to provide a consistent e-book experience while its competitors choose between subsets of the ePub3 standard. Amazon is free to innovate and support all of their own KF8 standards; It’s a safe bet that a Kindle book will display properly on a Kindle eReader, and as mentioned in a previous post, Amazon is much less restrictive about the types of content its users can access in their browser than Apple with their iPad users. If Amazon continues this spirit with their KF8 books, they’ll have an advantage…for now.
It wasn’t that many years ago when no one wanted their own computer or cell phone or iPod or e-book reader device. While it would be comforting to settle for a bunch of firm promises, standards, and expectations, e-books are evolving too quickly for that. It’s a brave new world. Editors need to keep their eyes on the ball.
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