What Will EPUB 3 Actually Do?

There’s been a lot of talk about what EPUB 3 is capable of: video and audio, embedded fonts, fixed-page layouts, greater accessibility. What will be interesting in the next, say, 6 to 12 months, is watching how publishers push the boundaries of this technology. Not just: what can EPUB 3 do, but what will it do? What can we make it do? Some things are going to be gimmicky and not well-executed. Others, however, may provide a window into some innovative uses of ebook technology.

I’d like to suggest a few possibilities based on what I’ve already read of the EPUB 3 specs. (Full specs are available from the IDPF here.) Some of these have been suggested elsewhere, but as I’m coming at this from a mostly academic perspective, I’m going to focus on the kinds of things a university publisher might do.

(Of course, Amazon does not support EPUB 3, but their new format, KF8, will support HTML 5 and CSS 3, just like EPUB 3. Which doesn’t mean all of this will apply to Kindle, but much of it will.)

As an example, let’s imagine you’re an academic publisher putting out a new edition of Hamlet. There are, to be sure, more editions of Hamlet out there than the world has use for. Even if yours is among the very best, you’d like to make your mark in the ebook world. What can you do with EPUB 3 to make it stand out?

(Caveat: This is a purely hypothetical example. My press publishes no editions of Shakespeare, and I’ve no idea how other presses who do are approaching their lists. I picked Hamlet because, well, it’s Hamlet. Don’t you want a nice EPUB 3 of Hamlet to go along with your Project Gutenberg and your half dozen print editions of Shakespeare? Or is that just me?)

Video/Audio Enhancements. So, yes, EPUB 3 fully supports HTML 5, which means it’s going to be incredibly easy to embed video and audio into an ebook now. And with tablet prices dropping, this is going to be more and more of an enticing possibility.

Our hypothetical Hamlet, for example, could include clips of various performances next to a block of text. Want to watch both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh grieve for Yorick? Maybe you could also include an audio clip of an early twentieth-century performance? Voilà, performance studies!

If your edition is intended for pedagogical purposes, these clips could be brief explanatory annotations of particular lines or references. When the Players arrive, perhaps there could be a brief look at the lives of traveling actors in early modern Europe, complete with interviews from scholars (kind of like a “behind the scenes” featurette on a DVD).

The key to making all of this effective is how you can hide these enhancements or make them unobtrusive. If you just want the text, you should be able to access just the text. Also, if you’re going to produce video you need to actually pay to have production values which aren’t embarrassing. Nobody wants to watch scholarly interviews which look like they were shot by a high school A/V club. Naturally, this can get expensive.

I should also add that none of this would necessarily have to replace the traditional footnote or endnote. These elements should definitely remain, and their functionality and accesibility can even be improved. (If you’re not already linking between your endnotes and your text, you’re doing it wrong.)

Media Overlays. EPUB 3 is also supporting something related to multimedia enhancements which could make “annotated audio” even more powerful. It’s called media overlays, which allows text to sync up with an audio clip as it’s playing. (Video is not currently supported in this way.) This is intended mostly as an aid to accessibility, and it will certainly be used in that regard. However, it strikes me that you can also use this for a similar pedagogical purpose as video/audio enhancements. The overlay, spec, after all, doesn’t require the audio clip to be the exact same thing as the text. It could, instead, simply be a close reading or other explication of a block of text. It could be a performance. It could be music. Point is, with media overlays you could essentially create “audio commentaries” for a text much like what filmmakers record for DVDs. This could supplement, not replace, the textual commentaries of footnotes, etc. Perhaps a particularly memorable conference roundtable discussion could be embedded into a text? Or a series of actors discussing how they worked on a scene?

Javascript. I know that this is a little controversial, and I’m not saying anyone should be porting Doom into their ebooks, but Javascript definitely adds a lot of functionality that is going to be useful for more interactive books. You could build assignments and lessons directly into a text. Students reading Hamlet, for instance, could attempt a metrical analysis of the verse by checking off stressed and unstressed syllables (creating something like this), which could then be emailed to a teacher for review or discussion. This is really a wide-open area, and creative teachers and editors should really collaborate on the kinds of interactive assignments which might be beneficial. Beyond literature, there’s a lot which can be done in languages, math, or science that could benefit from Javascript-enhanced content.

The web. Like Javascript, there’s some hesitation here, the idea being that the book is a complete package, and access to the web should be discouraged. But as I’m primarily thinking about tablets here (since they can best take advantage of most of the enhanced content anyway) I don’t see the problem with using the web as an additional resource. Tablets are usually going to be wirelessly connected (mostly…where art thou Kindle Fire 3G?), so building a bibligraphy or notes around all the content already available on the net is a simple but obviously beneficial idea. We needn’t go crazy and hyperlink every other word, but a judicious collection of links is exactly what we should be doing. It’s just taking the bibliography, already acting as a curated network or knowledge, to the next step.


Those are just some thoughts based on thinking about a critical edition of  a play, a fairly standard but important type of publication common among university presses. Obviously, EPUB 3 can do a lot, and I plan to look at it in much more detail in the coming months as it begins to be implemented. For now, however, I’d suggest one good way for approaching EPUB 3 is to do what I’ve begun to do here: think about new projects, and what you’d like to be able to do with new projects. And then ask yourself what EPUB 3 can help us do to implement these projects, and what can we make it do?


  1. […] is still king, and POD allows the little guys to stay in the game. I’ve discussed before the many things ebooks have the potential to do, and I stand by that, but the digital age in publishing is still primarily a story about the means […]

  2. […] is not exactly the same thing as what I discussed some months back, but it’s similar. For one, it’s not an Epub, but an app, which I really don’t […]

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