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The misery of the ePub format

I often assume that most of the people reading my blog have been reading it for a long enough time that they know a few of my quirks, one of which is my “passion” for digital distribution, and in particular my liking of eBooks over printed books. This passion actually stems from the fact I’d like to be able to move out of my current home soonish, and the least “physical” stuff I have to bring with me, the better.

I started buying eBooks back in 2010, when I discovered my Sony Reader PRS-505 (originally only capable of reading Sony’s own format) was updated to be able to read the “standard” ePub format, protected with Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM (ADEPT). One of my first suppliers for books in that format was WHSmith, the British bookstore chain. At the end I bought six books from them: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (which I read already, but wanted a digital copy of, after giving away my hardcopy to a friend of mine), and four books of The Dresden Files.

After a while, I had to look at other suppliers for a very simple reason: WHSmith started requiring me a valid UK post code, which I obviously don’t have. I then moved on to Kobo since they seemed to have a more varied selection, and weren’t tied to the geographical distribution of the UK vendor.

Here I got one of my first disappointments with the ePub “standard”: one of the books I bought from Kobo earlier, Douglas Adams’s The Salmon of Doubt I still haven’t been able to read!

(I really wish Kobo at least replaced the book on their catalogue, since even their applications can’t read it, or otherwise I would like some store credit to get a different book, since that one can’t be read with their own applications.)

Over time, I came to understand that the ePub specifications are just too lax to make it a good format: there are a number of ePub files that are broken simply because the ZIP file is “corrupted” (the names within the records don’t match); a few required me to re-package them to be readable by the Reader; and a few more are huge just because they decide to get their own copy of DejaVu font family in the zip file itself. Of course to fix any of these issues, you also have to take the DRM out of the picture, which is luckily very easy for this format.

Today, Kobo is once again the protagonist of a disappointment, a huge one, in terms of digital distribution; together with WHSmith. But first let’s take a step back to last week.

While in the United States with Luca, I got my hands on a Kindle (the version with keyboard); why? Well, from one side I was starting to be irked by the long list of issues I noted earlier about ePub books, but on the other hand, a few books such as Ian Fleming’s classic Bond novels were not available on Kobo or other ePub suppliers, while they were readily available on Amazon… plus a few of the books I could find on both Kobo and Amazon were slightly cheaper on the latter. I already started reading Fleming’s novels on the iPad through Amazon’s app, but I don’t like reading on a standard LCD.

Coming back home, we passed through London Heathrow; Luca went to look for a book to read on the way home, and we went to the WHBook shop there… and I was surprised to see it was now selling Kobo’s own reader device (the last WHSmith shop I was at, a couple of years ago, was selling Sony exclusively). This sounded strange, considering that WHSmith and Kobo were rivals, for me in particular but in general as well.

I wasn’t that far off, when I smelled something fishy; indeed, tonight I received a mail from WHSmith telling me they joined forces with Kobo, and that they will no longer supply eBooks on their webshop. The format being what it is, if they no longer kept the shop, you’d be found without a way to re-download or eBooks, which is why it is important for a digital distributor to be solid for me.. turns out that WHSmith is not as solid as I supposed. So they suggest you to make an account at Kobo (unless you have one already, like I did) so that they can transfer your books on that account.

Lovely! For me that was very good news, since having the books on my Kobo account means not only being able to access them as ePub (which I had already), but also that I could read them on their apps for Android and iPad, as well as on their own website (very Amazon-y of them). Unfortunately there is a problem: out of the six books I bought at WHSmith, they only let me transfer… two!

Seems like that, even though WHSmith decided to give (or sell) its customers to Kobo, as well as leaving them to provide their ebook offering instead, their partnership does not cover the distribution rights of the books they used to sell. This means that for instance the four Dresden Files novels I bought from WHSmith, that were being edited, even digitally, by the British publisher, are not available to the Canadian store Kobo, who only list the original RoC offerings.

This brings up two whole issues: the first is that unless your supplier is big enough that you can rely on it to exists forever, you shouldn’t trust DRM; luckily for me on the ePub side the DRM is so shallow that I don’t really care for its presence, and on the other hand I foresee Amazon’s DRM to be broken way before they start to crumble. The second issue is that even in the market of digital distribution, which is naturally a worldwide, global market, the regional limitations are making it difficult to have fair offerings; again Amazon seems to sidestep this issue, as it appears to me like there is no book available only on one region in their Kindle offerings: the Italian Kindle store covers all the American books as well.

Comments 4
  1. Although it doesn’t really solve your current e-book issues, I think it could be quite interesting for you in this context…”Booktype: An Open Source, Cross-Platform Approach To E-Book Publishing”:

  2. While I don’t care since I prefer reading books in paper, this kind of idiocy from the distributors makes it hard to say anything against those that decide it’s easier to just get the books “for free”.And I don’t understand the complaints about the ePub specification. When a publisher sends their files to be printed they don’t just go “hey, let’s just dump this into the press and sell the first 10000 books however they come out!”.It’s hardly asking too much for them to have around one reader from every major producer and simply _test_ that it works. At least for being able to open that’s a one-time investment of a few $1000 and a few minutes per book, that can hardly be expecting too much.Or if it is then they’ll just have to build up a compatibility test-suite like everyone reasonable doing standards does.

  3. Elias, I still like DocBook for this kind of stuff… although it has a few problems, as O’Reilly is making clear with their cargo-cult processing of ePub files… more on that in the future.Reimar, there is already one “testsuite” for epub files, to a point; it’s “epubcheck”:… which is developed, as far as I can tell, by Adobe as well. This is not solving much for two reasons: * it does not make a difference between warnings and errors, and you know as well as me that if you just print out everything as errors, most people will not care; * it is _very_ slow, which even accounting for Java is not very understandable.But the reason why I blame the ePub specification is that it allows producers to use non-XHTML content and still call it ePub, and on the other side allows the device manufacturers to claim ePub compatibility but not support all of the specified markups for the content. Case in point, DTBook/Daisy.Honestly I can see that there are a number of smaller, knock-off ebook readers out there that publishers wouldn’t want to spend their money on; or that for some (smaller) publishers even going on to invest a few thousands dollars is just too much, but the current format situation is all ludicrous. I agree, it’s much easier to get pirated books “for free” and be done with it …. or simply succumb to where the market is going and get a Kindle.I don’t like monocultures, especially in technology and formats, but at least with Amazon you go for sure that the content is going to work on their devices.. and the fact that they have apps available for every operating system (beside Linux, sigh!) means that you really have little to worry about their DRM, for now.

  4. <offtopic>Dawkins is a tool. He has beatiful details, which work for a perverted big picture. Much like Apple I guess. Caveat emptor.</offtopic>

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