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Innovation Act. 18 Aug 2017

Future trends in e-book technology

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Three facts were made known recently: in Spain, despite the difficulties facing the Spanish publishing sector due to the economic crisis and falling sales figures, e-book sales (which still account for a small percentage of the total) grew by around 8%. At the same time, the consultancy firm PwC released a forecast for the United Kingdom: in some fields (such as 'genre writing') e-book sales will catch up with printed books within 4 years. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, e-books and audio-books combined have already reached the volume of online sales of paper books.

But apart from the figures, there are many technological developments in the field of e-books that give us a glimpse of how they may evolve in the coming years.

Development of standards

The recent endorsement by the IPA (International Publishers Association) of the new generation of the epub format (EPUB 3, which for the first time incorporated HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript into this field) as the new global standard for e-books was the first step in the current evolution of the EPUB format being undertaken by other organizations. These include the DPIG (a working group within W3C), which takes into account the needs of e-book publishers in the development of HTML 5, and the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum), which is drawing up a series of complementary specifications for this format:

Dictionaries and indexes: guidelines are being laid out for this type of documents that will make it possible to overcome the obstacle posed by the absence of a fixed layout (and thus of pagination) for referencing information within the document, and also to enhance the reading experience, for example, with pop-up definitions of terms in the text included in a specific glossary.

Notes: social reading via notes is an undeniable appeal of e-books and most reading platforms offer some kind of mechanism to enable them. However, these mechanisms have often been mutually incompatible. To solve this problem, a standard based on JSON is being discussed that will enable the notes to be packed within the EPUB file or distributed separately.

Widgets: a study is being conducted on the use of HTML/Javascript widgets packed as ePubs independent of the e-book, which represents the first step toward a modular architecture for e-books.

The slow but steady decline of DRM

At the recent IPF Digital Book 2014 it was announced that Tor Books had eliminated DRM from its e-books without sustaining any negative impact on its sales figures. Previously, Ediciones B, Casa del Libro (owned by Planeta) and the Planeta Group itself had launched their own digital seals (B de Books in 2011; Ediciones Tagus in 2012; and Click Ediciones in 2014, respectively), ruling out from the outset the use of DRM.

This, combined with an entire sector of small independent publishing houses that have always called for the elimination of this “protection system”, are signs of an announced and necessary decline of a technology (still predominant thanks to Amazon and Adobe) that turns downloads into mere rentals and enables e-book providers to determine the choice of reading software and/or hardware, thus undermining the competitiveness of the sector.

We should bear in mind that the demise of DRM (a process that in other industries has reached the major players in the sector, such as Valve in video games) will make it possible to bring into general use the note standards we mentioned earlier, or to improve accessibility for the visually handicapped, by being able to tailor e-books to the needs of readers.

Open source rendering engine

Today, we can display EPUB 3 files directly on our Chrome / Chromium browser thanks to the extension developed by the Readium Project (with the participation of Google, Sony, Adobe and IBM, for example, but also of the Hachette Livre Group and the New York Public Library). But this is not the only development being promoted: the next step is SDK Readium, an open source rendering engine for EPUB 3 that can be built into existing e-book reading platforms. For example, early July saw the launch of the new version of Adobe RMSDK with support for EPUB 3 through Readium technology.

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