Interview: Hachette on the Web and Digital Publishing with Pierre Danet

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In June 2013 W3C launched a new Digital Publishing Activity so that experts in the digital publishing ecosystem can hold technical discussion, gather use cases and requirements, and bring electronic books and Web technologies closer together. I recently spoke with Pierre Danet, Senior Digital Technology Officer at Hachette about the trend.

IJ: Let's start with a word about Hachette.

PD: Hachette is global publisher #3 worldwide, and active in many countries including emerging markets. We have activities in all publishing segments (e.g., fiction, illustrated, textbooks...), and their size depends on the market.

IJ: What led Hachette to become a W3C Member?

PD: It has been a long trip, beginning in 2008 when we adopted the ePub standard for all of our digital publishing. ePub is based on W3C technologies (HTML, CSS, SVG). We want to use open formats that can address consumer needs and are adapted to accessibility. We have been active in the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and today I serve on the IDPF board. More recently Hachette decided that we needed to be involved at the source of Web standards, so we joined W3C, which is very complementary to our strong IDPF support. It is important that we bring our use cases to the table and see them translated into the standards. Now we are involved in the W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group, and Working Groups on HTML, CSS, and SVG. I am proud that Hachette is among the first participants from our industry in W3C's publishing activity. It's very exciting and it's a great opportunity. The stake is important: globally around 10% of our sales are digital and in the US the figure goes up to 35%.

IJ: W3C has been working more closely with IDPF for the past year. From your vantage point on the board, do you see a clear delineation between the activities of the two organizations?

PD: yes, the W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group is co-chaired by Markus Gylling; Madi Solomon from Pearson is the other co-Chair. Markus is also the CTO of IDPF, so interests are well represented in the group. Increasingly, use cases and requirements are leading to specification development in Working Groups. For instance, because publishers are the kings of pages, Hachette's Dave Cramer will be taking the lead on a pagination specification in the CSS Working Group.

IJ: Let's assume the Web will support pagination and other publisher requirements. Doesn't that suggest apps and eBooks will converge? If you think they won't, how will they differ?

PD: I think the differences will evolve over time. We've developed a lot of apps at Hachette Livre. Apps are good for services, including translators, dictionaries, and travel guides. But if the main activity you are enabling is reading text, apps do not add that much and ebooks do a very good job. When it comes to fiction and non-fiction, I think that people have the best experience reading text when the text is respected, including the layout, the notes, the index, and the spirit of the author.

IJ: What about the lure of media, social, and so on? Don't you think the Web experience offers many advantages?

PD: Today the reading experience in the browser is very poor. For 500 years, publishers have thought about the reader experience. In the browser it's so easy to "get lost" when reading. You are touching here the heart of the industry discussion. I think that browsers have to improve a lot in terms of the quality of text they display.

IJ: What about the new opportunities to mix text with video and audio?

PD: Enriched ebooks are attractive for given segments, like education and children’s books. Fiction and non-fiction do very well in black and white and accounts for most of our digital sales.

IJ: What about other benefits of the Web's interconnections?

PD: Links are good for references but not for traditional literature. Reading is an “inner” process and a lot of things can disrupt it on new devices. Having said that, there are times where we want to offer immersive content to keep the reader interested; this is particularly the case with young people.

IJ: If reading in the browser is not what it should be, what are the most important areas for improvement?

PD: To me, three tracks seem worth investigation:

  • The display of content must be perfect. This includes respect for pages, colors, layout, and typography. There are other challenges around the psychological aspects of reading: how much a book weighs, its thickness, and the relation of that sensory experience to the price. Choosing a font is part of author’s and/or publisher’s creativity.
  • We are working a lot on how to enhance the relationship between the author and the reader, such as comments, digital autographs, updates from the author.
  • Sharing. Once again when it comes to book publishing, we need a specific approach. The editorial segments have their own specifications : sharing is an opportunity for academic books used by researchers, students, and others.

IJ: On the last point, do book clubs count as sharing a reading experience?

PD: I think of book clubs as a way to evaluate or rate a book. By "sharing" I mean something like the act of sharing a sentence you have just read with someone you love or care about.

IJ: You mentioned fonts.

PD: In a traditional ePub, fonts are on the reader, so you always use the same fonts.

IJ: I am hoping the Web will grow richer in this regard with the advent of Web Fonts. In what other areas do you see opportunities for W3C?

PD: Metadata, discovery, ensuring a quality experience across devices, accessibility, and internationalization, just to name a few.

IJ: Do you see hurdles to doing this work within W3C?

PD: A potential obstacle is that vendors will not prioritize publisher needs. Another is that there are many editorial segments: comics and literature have different needs. I could see the education segment having a Working Group for itself. An additional challenge is a split between XHTML and HTML5; I would like to see eBooks support both, but there is still a split between the "generations." Lastly, we need to ensure we have more involvement from others in the publishing industry.

IJ: What topics do you think Hachette will focus on at W3C?

PD: In addition to pagination, we are interested in SVG, metadata simplification, content protection, and MathML for textbooks. We are interested in protecting the content that our authors and creators imagine and entrust us with. This is why we are very interested by the EME video initiative and will follow this in detail.

IJ: Earlier you mentioned emerging markets. Is that primarily about reaching more devices?

PD: It includes that, but also the need to address regional requirements when representing language. If the Web is the way that humanity will access the world's knowledge, we must be able to handle all the ways of reading and writing.

IJ: Pierre, thank you so much for your time!

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