What is with the Obsession with ePub Format?

ePub Logo

Over the years I’ve come across dozens and dozens of articles and emails and forum posts about how great the ePub ebook format is and how much better it is than other formats, especially Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format.

People think that Amazon should switch to using ePub format because it is more “open” and everyone else is using it so why aren’t they.

I, for one, don’t understand the obsession with placing the ePub format up on a pedestal. It’s been cut up and DRM’d in so many different ways it has become more of a Frankenstein format than anything else out there.

Just because an ebook is in ePub format doesn’t make it any more “open” than a Kindle book. At least with Kindle ebooks you know what you are getting. With ePub ebooks there are so many different DRM restrictions it doesn’t even make sense to group all ePub ebooks into the same category.

There are Adobe ePubs, Barnes and Noble ePubs, iBooks ePubs, watermarked ePubs (that’s what everyone should be using instead of Adobe)—all of which have different DRM restrictions that essentially makes them into different formats because they aren’t always going to be supported by or cross-compatible between different ereading devices and platforms.

How does dividing a single format into all these different sub-categories make it better? It’s confusing and it’s nonsense.

The reason ePub format gets all the glory is not because it displays ebooks any better than other formats—because it doesn’t—it’s because people are misinformed by the idea that it is an open format. Just because DRM-free ePub ebooks are open, doesn’t make the entire umbrella of ePub ebooks open.

Try to read an Apple iBooks ePub on a Sony Reader. Or try to read a B&N ePub on a Kobo. It doesn’t work. So how does that make ePub format better than Kindle or some other format?

The majority of DRM’d ePub ebooks use Adobe DRM. Just because a DRM scheme is more widely used than others, doesn’t make it better. Why should everyone have to pay Adobe a licensing fee to use their Adobe DRM ePub format? What’s so great about Adobe that makes them the good guy here? The way I see it they’ve done more damage to the ePub format and the overall evolution of ebooks than Amazon.

At least Amazon’s ebooks have some consistency with formatting and overall presentation; with ePub ebooks you never know what you are going to get. The book might have 2″ margins, or it might have no margins at all. It could be fully justified or left justified. It might have spaces between paragraphs or indented paragraphs. It could have locked fonts and formatting, or not.

There are so many variations with the ePub format anymore that I don’t see how it can be regarded as the best ebook format. The lack of universal formatting guidelines and all the different DRM systems have made it into a monster. Amazon’s DRM is just as bad, but at least it only has one head to bite you with.

53 Responses to “What is with the Obsession with ePub Format?”

  1. 1) It’s not Amazon
    2) Standardized production formatting

    That said, everything you’ve said is true and valid.

    And what you left out is that eBooks books render differently on devices and software, sometimes from the same damn vendor!

  2. David O'Byrne March 7, 2013 at 8:39 am

    I literally drag and dropped my entire epub collection from itunes folder to my sony ereader (prs t1) and it ‘just worked.

    epub does indeed work well.

    try doing that with mobi format.

    • Your epub collection is without DRM. Either you have stripped it or you are just lucky. From the books I bought with iTunes the free ones where without DRM (two), a third one required requiem to strip DRM. If I had bought more books in the iTunes shop, my guess is, that most would be with DRM (if not all), rendering them useless in other epub-programs and readers, except for iPad, iPod and iPhone.
      What I found really strange is that there is no means to read with DRM in iTunes itself, I can play music and display videos, but no books.

  3. Your american centric views have now forced me to stop reading your drivel. I buy from kobo, why? because it works on everything. Remember your comment about kobo not being easily available in the US? Remember Boarders? Well the two problems are related. I bought from kobo and read them on a sony for a hell of a lot of years. I’ve been reading on an e-reader since before the PRS-505 was officially available in my country. I’ve never had a problem with moving ePubs from one device to another. I remember the LRF format, and the day ePub support arrived I cheered and cheered and cheered.

    Using ePubs of course requires a small amount of technical insight since most stores offer ePub downloads over the browser, but push a slightly tailored version to their own devices (k-epub).

    Your argument over consistency is invalid. Publishers and page setters have always chosen presentation, margins, etc. Just because you switch to reading digitally doesn’t mean that the publishers are relinquishing that control willingly.

    Yes Amazon specifies their books be very specific, but try reading a book from a publisher not pushed onto that book store.

    That’s enough ranting. You have no sense of international market or other use cases beyond the NYT best sellers. Good bye

  4. Epub is open. It is a zipped archive, if I unzip it, I get a directory structure, images, and a few simple text-files xml, css, html. I can use any editor I want. And being most code is html-like, I can understand the basic meaning of it.
    I cannot do the same with mobi or azw/azw3-files. The format may be well described and in the case of mobi even free, but I cannot use any editor I want. But even that has nothing to do with the quality of the format.
    The mistake is, to view the ebooks with DRM. DRM is a an addition, but has nothing to do with epub being open or not.
    Still the viewpoint that epub is better or not, is of no interest to me, I buy anywhere they let me (in UK they stopped selling to me), strip DRM and convert mobi/azw to epub and epub to kindle, for a possible future switch to a Kindle Paperwhite.

    I think that Amazon switching to epub would make some things easier, but I cannot see that happen.

    • ePub is the format – it’s a free and open standard.

      DRM is applied to the format – by a variety of distributors.

      Mobi isn’t an open standard (Mobipocket were acquired by Amazon)

      DRM is applied to the format by Amazon

      Note:some publishers refuse to allow their ebooks to be DRMed regardless of format – hooray for them. Non DRM epubs work on lots of eReaders, non DRM epubs work on Kindles.

      That’s the point of epub, and that’s why it’s been more widely adopted, and so has had a number of DRM’s applied. That’s an argument for why open standards are better; move devices=more choice=better(IMHO).

      DRM can, but doesn’t always, mean less choice:

      I’d categorise the DRM into two camps:
      1. restrictive organisations (like Apple) who want to lock you into their ecosystem (as do Amazon) who will then take the open standard and restrict it or extend it in proprietary manners.

      2. People like Adobe who are trying to make a buck because publishers want to protect their content (misguidedly IMHO but that’s a whole different argument)

      The type 2 organisations mean that, because epub is open and widely used my wife can, and has, moved from a Sony to a Kobo ereader – & since both support epub and Adobe DRM her book collection has moved with her. That allows competition and comsumer choice – and that is the engine of capitalism.

      Not to mention the fact that with Adobe DRM and epub there are many online bookshops she can buy from. That is also competition; a good thing in a working economy.

      (With restrictive type 1 lock-in DRM you buy at their price for their device or not have it – that is a sellers “market”).

      [Now, as you seem to imply you do, I buy strip and translate my books from a variety of sources, so the original article seems to be a big trolling exercise]

  5. DRM is required by many rights holders (eg pubs.) As such, any file format, whether EPUB or some other format would run into the same issues. Apple, Amazon, Kobo don’t let others use their proprietary DRM, so as long as that requirement continues there will always be this fragmentation. Certainly would be better if there were an industry standard for that – as with DVD (…for as long as DRM is required by the rights holders.)

    Fragmentation of rendering is a real, but different problem. Browsers suffered this for quite some time, still do, but it is getting much better over time. EPUB reading system implementors will hopefully improve on this too as the industry matures. But that can only happen with the existence of open standards.

    EPUB is certainly not a silver bullet, nor is it perfect (HTML is deeply flawed itself in many ways, often related to legacy/evolution – as in the bio world). A reasonable argument could certainly be made for the need for other file format standards for certain use cases, as well as continuing to refine EPUB.

    Though I would argue that an open standard, with transparent governance processes, and cross industry participation is in fact inherently superior to a proprietary standard, which will by its very nature primarily serve the interests of its master over the community at large.

  6. The various formats AND various DRM schemes are perhaps the biggest think holding back eReaders. Using a tablet makes it somewhat better because you can install various eReader apps and read multiple formats on the same device. However, you still have the BIG BUYS (Amazon and B&N) making it hard to put the other guy’s eReader on their tablets. The only way the ebook format is really going to catch on is for a change in attitude among all of the publishers and distributors of ebooks. When I can go onto Amazon (or B&N) and discover that it will cost me more for a non-transferable license to read an ebook than it would cost to purchase a physical copy of the same book, something is far wrong with the industry. If they truly want ebooks to catch on, they will have to fix their pricing models and create a way for consumers to read anybodies ebook on anybodies ereader.

    • I usually read books in epub as it was almost the only format i know for androids.I really like the epub rendering.May be its just me ,anyways kindle paperwhite series claims to support epub format also,right?

      • Kindles are the only ereaders that don’t support ePub format, except the Fire tablets do via apps. The ePub has to be converted to Kindle format or the Kindle has to be hacked to install a different program to display ePubs.

  7. The problem is DRM. If you want to use files without restrictions, don’t buy from retailers that use DRM. Even if you break the DRM, the companies already have your money and they have no incentive to change. The only way to stop their behavior is to stop supporting them through purchases.

    I have no sympathy for those who whine about DRM and simultaneously enable companies to continue to impose restrictions that they complain about.

  8. Seems like the Beta/VHS wars all over again. It does not matter who has the best technology, only who can sway the market.

    I like my Nook but hate the reader. It has so few features and is so limiting, geez.

    Is it rocket science to make a reader that lets me set the display order of books the way I want them, not alpha or by author? Is it an impossibility to be able to link series books in the actual series order?

    The answer is: it depends on who wins the marketing war.

    We all lived with crappy VHS recording because they won the war.


  9. I have a Sony reader. I don’t have a problem with epub however I also don’t buy books from Amazon, B & N or Apple. I usually download ebooks from the library or buy from sony. I don’t know anything about this stuff but I do think there should be a standard across all platforms. As usual I guess it comes down to money and turf.

  10. We have Sony readers and I buy books from Amazon all the time. Only had 1 issue and that book was a Topaz.

  11. Epub is actually just a ZIP file containing HTML pages. So I’d suggest that your beef actually isn’t with ePub, it’s with the DRM that locks you into one platform. If the DRM was removed, all would be good.

  12. So…it’s DRM you have a problem with, not ePub, right?

    • Exactly. Epub is being torn apart by DRM in so many directions it’s not the “open” format everyone seems to think it is.

      Apple’s iBooks for example are ePub, yet they are more locked down than Amazon’s format because at least Amazon has apps for different platforms and different devices.

      It’s not ePub that’s so glorious and great, it’s the ability to have one singular format that is cross-compatible with all ereading devices. Clearly ePub cannot do that in itself. It’s the DRM that has to change. That’s why I think watermarking (Harry Potter ebooks for example) is the best route to go because at least the buyer of the content has complete control over how they choose to view their purchase. Until DRM changes ePub can never be what it is supposed to be.

      • Wrong. The epub format IS an open format. DRM is not. People, such as the author of this article, need to stop confusing the two. The author’s complaints apply to DRM, not epubs.

        • I think that’s been well established by this point. But that doesn’t change the viewpoint of saying ePub ebooks are better than everything else because of the misconception that all are more “open” than other formats.

  13. The real issues are a reproducible format and fidelity scalable across a multiplicity of devices. The DRM issue is moot as anyone with a modicum of technical skill can crack the DRM and retrieve the DRM-free publication for conversion to other formats.

    What I would like is a scalable PDF-like universal format that would allow me to use relative spacing, fonts and formatting that would produce a decent looking product — one without widows and orphans or strange line-wrapping.

    Other than using an electronic version of a PDF file, I see little progress in providing a product for the author as well as the reader. Of course, it would also be nice to be able to transition between high resolution CYMK and lower resolution RGB graphics.

  14. FYI, Amazon’s new KF8 format for the Kindle Fire and newer e-ink devices is actually a compiled ePub file.

    When I bought my first Nook, I preferred its specs over the Kindles available at the time. When I had to replace it, I went with another Nook because a) I still preferred the specs, and b) because I was tied into the B&N ecosystem. Fortunately, I’m savvy enough to know how to strip the DRM and convert formats if I ever need to.

    I agree that the DRM is a pain in the tush, but some publishers are beginning to see the light and are beginning to release DRM-free books.

    • Hum, you can’t really say that. There is a sum of small differences which are making a huge difference in judging kf8 as a compiled EPUB file (by the way, EPUB 2 or EPUB 3? If you can’t tell, here comes one proof those two are technically different).

      What kf8 is is an output which is adapted to EPUB as the vast majority of the files provided by publishers for amazon to convert are in the EPUB format. They’ve collected data, demands, expectations, code and built kf8, which shares quite some resemblance to something like EPUB 2.333333 at some level but is a different beast (another proof…well, just take a look at fixed layout). Considering kf8 something perfectly similar to EPUB leads to lower quality.

      Let’s get back to the article now.

      Dear writer, do you know why there are so many differences in rendering? Because 1) EPUB specs are way too loose (far more than web standards) and 2) the overall quality of files is crap.

      1) some basic specs are optional in EPUB 2 and 3, which means vendors, apps and services developers may not support them. When it comes to basic things like CSS, you are opening the gates of hell.

      2) some main conversion houses which publishers outsource their ebooks too are selling utter crap. The files are so badly coded, disrespecting so many standards that they become unmanageable. As a consequence, vendors and app devs override styles or even alter the files themselves so that they may be readable. You’ll find some of those pigs in the list of IDPF members. They have contributed to specs they just won’t respect (accessibility is a big issue in EPUB 3, those pigs don’t give a shit to accessibility as they can’t even get basic — I should say staple — HTML markup right. Those pigs are ruining the standard, they should have been punished long ago. But because they were not, EPUB has just turned into a living hell and the whole ecosystem is running on patches (vendors are hiding the incompetence of those pigs instead of doing things properly — you think apple cares about quality, just take a look at their outsourcing partner, which is notorious for producing crap in Indian EPUB factories, and think again; it is a proof apple doesn’t care about quality as long as customers can’t see, smell and feel it… In the iBookstore, and maybe journalists and bloggers could ask why in order to change things and stop this masquerade, apple is just selling 90 % crap today).

      But alas, a proprietary format doesn’t help as amazon is notorious for rendering the same exact file differently on its devices, apps and services, and there is no coherence in the way those files are managed between those ones. Even worse, amazon is providing with the very worst typographical experience (they are offering the worst possible choice as a default : justification without hyphenation, which is an error only a beginner will do). Nobody at amazon has a clue about book design. Period.

  15. My suggestion to most of the people on this forum is to pick up an IPAD or Tablet, since all the mentioned issues are really focused on pure e-readers by these companies. Personally I don’t worry about the format that the book comes in or if it uses DRM protection. Price dictates where I shop and who will be receiving my dollar (apps are free to download from all of the eBook sellers). There is no need for forced standardization, which has been mentioned several times. If I want an electronic library, I can build it on my IPAD (or at least until my hard drive is filled ).

    • Fundamentally, your admonition is correct. However, it does not take into account the fact that for some (myself included) long reading sessions on backlit LCD devices results in pounding headaches. While I am impress with the sharpness of the text on my wife’s Nexus 7, reading on it for more than 30 minutes will give me a major headache. While my Nook ST does not have the sharpness to its text, it is still better than most PRINTED books and I can read on it for hours without developing a headache.

  16. Yep I agree, at least with Amazon you know what you’re getting yourself into & know exaclty what your going to get.
    I see Amazon & its eBook ethos being much like Apple & its IOS…

    Some like (love) it, some dont!!!

  17. You mean some people actually pay for their e-books?

    • Uh, yeah…I also pay for other things such as a car, food, cable, internet…DRM sucks, but theft is theft.

      • You should not be so quick to assume Graham is stealing his ebooks. There are 10’s of thousands of free ebooks out there. No one needs to pay for the classics.

        Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/), for example, has thousands of books free to anyone and everyone.

  18. One section where ePub is really, really much better is the inclusion of math. And citations. And quotas. And code section. And different languages. And sound fragments (that are word by word synchronized with the text so that you could highlight the word as it is being spoken). Try to do that with azw…

    I know, the lack is on the device side – but the ePub format is superior in nearly every respect I could think of.

  19. Nathan, you’re correct in your observations with the Harry Potter books and watermarking. Harvard Business Publishing has taken this implementation a step further. When you buy and e-book from them now, you get the e-book in three formats, .pdf, .epub and .mobi but without DRM. Therefore their e-books work on any e-book platform. What’s in it for Harvard Business Publishing? They are charging the same price for e-books as traditional book paper format. More profit without the inventory issue.

  20. Please… DRM is not a problem with the EPUB format; it’s a problem with competing companies who want to lock things up in different ways. The EPUB format itself is just a ZIP file with some standardized files and bits of info in it.

  21. Thanks for, what may very well be, the most sensible discussion on this subject that I’ve seen to date.

    The whole “ePub is so transferable” war cry that is constantly raised is just nuts.

    It has been a very handy stick to beat Amazon with for some time now. In reality, it’s the publishers who are doing their best to stop ebooks being fully portable.

    As for ePub being the “industry standard for everyone except Amazon” – sorry but no. Amazon has pretty well defined the industry standard – by the simple act of wiping the floor with every “Kindle killer” that has hit the market for the last 3 or 4 years.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see some strong competition for the Kindle, if only to keep some downward pressure on the price – but the whole ePub thing is getting borderline sanctimonious.

    Again – thanks for a great post.

  22. What? DRM-free ePubs are what people are praising, not “epubs” in general. The problem is the DRM, not the epubs.

  23. I don’t know much about the technical advantages of ePUB and others have already given some good and convincing comments about that.
    What I like about ePUB is that it is so easy to edit them, ad new info to them, update them etc. Free community tools like Calibre, Sigil etc. make things easy.

    The biggest problem is (like others said before me) DRM. If I buy a book I want to be completely free in my use of MY book, without being harassed, and whatever the format of the ebook.

    I never buy books with DRM. The last year I have bought at least 30 ebooks, all of them DRM free.

    From my point of view the problem with Amazon is that they want to hold your book collection hostage. You are tied in to the Amazon system. What if you like other ereaders better, because they have more features, or are cheaper? You are not free to switch to another brand once you have bought into the Amazon system.

    Personally I love the feeling of being totally free and unrestricted with my non-Amazon ereader and my non-amazon epub collection.

  24. A simple point to add to the many good comments: contrary to what Nathan says, you DO NOT know what you are getting with a Kindle book. It can be either mobi or topaz, both of which Amazon has applied their own DRM to. While un-DRM’ed mobi is convertible to epub and other formats (e.g. by Calibre), topaz has embedded graphics files and converts poorly (minus most formatting). The issue of formats (epub vs mobi vs fb2, etc.) is, as many note, completely separate from DRMing or watermarking, and should not be confused. Those companies like Amazon, as well as Apple and Barnes & Noble, that deliberately make it difficult for readers to use their ebooks on other ereaders besides their own, are all, in my opinion, unethical. I wish government would prohibit them from doing that. Fat chance though!

  25. Open means it’s well documented and standardized from the technical part of view. This means you can program your own application to access the data, and this even years later. With closed formats you may own your book a lifetime but you can read it only as long as the company allows (supports) you to read it.
    There is a reason why archives and scientists in the area of long term digital preservation insist on only using open formats.

  26. Dear Author of this post,

    Nothing you complain about has to do with the epub standard. Your complaints are actually about the various DRM schemes out there that mess up the ebooks.

    • That is true, but what I’m saying is people give too much credit to ePub as a whole saying that it is better than every other format by reason that it is more “open” and transferable, when that is clearly not the case with all the different DRM schemes attached to it. Just because an ebook is in ePub format doesn’t make it better than a Kindle ebook for instance. Apple’s ebooks are ePub and they are more locked down than any other ebooks in existence. Calling ePub ebooks “open” is misleading. That’s the point I’m trying to make here. It has nothing to do with the technicalities of the format, just the representation of it.

      • Sigh! Nathan, you are the most obtuse writer I’ve ever encountered. Amazon’s formats is proprietary and therefor not open or transferable even without DRM. I can read Amazon books only one vendors hardware and software.

        When DRM is applied to ePub becomes equivalent to the Amazon formats.

        However, ePub is an open standard and can be used by software vendors and publishers. I can use buy DRM free ePub books and read them on any device or software supporting the format. The Amazon formats can NOT do that.

        ePub therefore is more transferable and portable and better than ANY format Amazon has.

  27. The article wrongly merges two separate concepts. ePub is one thing and DRM anotther different thing.

    Is like saying red cars suck because they are inherently red. The car is one thing the color that the car manufacturer APPLIED TO THE OBJECT is another separate thing.

    So is not ePub that sucks, it’s the DRM. Long live the watermark !

    • I get your point. Now stop re-typing it fifty times (I’ll keep deleting this comment as many times as you want to re-post it). Besides, people need to know that in most cases you can’t get an ePub without DRM. So they are inherently tied together. With DRM ePub isn’t the same and cannot thrive, which proves my point even further.

  28. Sorry for the fifty times in a row repost. I seemed to encounter a bug, the website gave me a message telling me that I reposted the article but the comment didn’t appear even with CTRL+F5.

    I agree with the fact that “with DRM ePub isn’t the same”. That is why publishers need to listen to this kind of complaints so they know that DRM sucks for the legitimate customer and cannot even stop a mediocre hacker from breaking it. So is not only useless but an obstacle for the market.

    I mantain my position when I say the problem is the DRM not the format in itself.

    Some publishers begin to understand this as this article states : http://blog.the-ebook-reader.com/2011/02/07/where-to-get-drm-free-ebooks-for-kindle-sony-nook-and-other-ereaders/

    Sorry to come to your blog and cite other blogs (╯︵╰,)

    • Uh… That’s this website. Feel free to link to it all you want :).

      Generally with WordPress blogs such as this one, a comment has to be manually approved by a moderator the first time you post a comment, so there’s usually some delay. After the first time you’re comment is approved there won’t be a delay unless there are several links in it—those always get flagged automatically. Sorry for the confusion.

  29. I don’t buy DRM’d stuff because it’s like buying a concert ticket with my name on it.. and sorry, no rainchecks… If this blogger doesn’t understand that the problem is with DRM and not with epub, God help him.

    • If everyone would stop hailing epub as the greatest format ever because it is “open” then I wouldn’t be complaining about it. It’s the fact that people think it’s so great because they think it is an open format, but because of DRM it isn’t. So it’s no better than other DRM crippled formats unless you go DRM free, which is a small percentage of epub ebooks as a whole.

  30. Wow, what a thought-provoking discussion. I came here as part of my research to consider buying the Atlantis Word Processor, which converts doc files to the epub format. My goal is to create ebooks and there was a rumor that both Smashwords and Amazon would soon allow uploads in the epub format.

    That has not happened yet but my reason for wanting to upload in that format is because many indie authors have had major problems uploading their ebooks in the doc file created by Open Office. (I don’t own a copy of Word.) Not only do I better understand the epub format now but why DRM is an issue I need to consider. Thanks everyone for an interesting thread.

  31. Downloaded Atlantis, Kindle Previewerand Adobe Diogital Edition VCiewer, saved my e-book in epub format (w/Atlantis) converted it to mobi (w/KindleGen), viewed how my e-book looks in the various Kindle devices (w/Kindle Viewer), then compared that to how my e-book looks in epub fomat (w/Adobe Digital Edition reader).

    It looks a thousand times better in the Adobe epub reader. Does that mean epub is a “better” format than mobi? I say Yes! because that was my experience, not my opinion. Your mileage may vary but it sure tempts me to sell my e-book on sites where readers have a choice to download it in the epub format as well as the mobi format.

  32. The real problem with epub is that it’s just a wrapper for html files.

    What you get at the end is what the html rendering engine buried in the particular software running in your reader device decides to render.

    It’s the same problem that web browsers had (Explorer vs. Firefox vs. Chrome vs. Opera…), although it is not as severe now as it was five or six years ago.
    With epub we’re back to the prehistory of web browsers.

    So, besides the annoyance of DRM, the problem is that when you get an epub you’re dealing with html which, by itself, does not allow for great typographical fireworks and, on top of that, it is rendered by a wide variety of (in general, very) poorly designed html engines with a few additional non-standard functional layers which usually result in rather poor user experience.

  33. Well yeah it’s just a wrapper of html sites. The structure of the files are often bad.

  34. EPubs are smaller files and often render better to boot.

  35. Actually i never undestand what is the epup and what is the benefits of them. I am using PDF everytime 😀

  36. The number one reason why I despise EPUB books – at the very least in their current formats – is because they are absolutely useless for scholarly research requiring you to cite page numbers and different editions/translations of a text. As a literary scholar I gave up on EPUB because not a single one I have seen conforms to the dimensions of the original. I am more than happy with scanned PDFs!