Listen to the People: The Future of EPUB and New Directions for Publishing @ W3C

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Securing a strong future for EPUB. Exploring new ideas for every sort of digital publication. Bringing business needs to the technical community: These are the goals of Publishing@W3C. In the last few weeks, we've heard from both the broad digital publishing community and the leadership of the Publishing Business Group. We'd like to share with you our renewed commitment to our mission, and some changes in our organizational structure to better achieve these goals.

Most importantly, thank you to everyone who took the EPUB Survey. We are surprised and delighted that 270 people so far have responded to an admittedly very long survey. Even better, the in-depth and thoughtful responses have provided us with a wealth of information and insight into the needs and wants of the community. EPUB remains critically important to the digital publishing world. If you haven’t yet taken the survey, go to the survey and let us know what you think!

Going forward, we hope to have three groups working on the various facets of digital publishing: 

  • An EPUB 3 Working Group to secure the future of EPUB. 
  • A Publishing Community Group to explore and incubate new ideas, as well as collect feedback from the broader community. 
  • And finally, the Publishing Business Group to advocate for business needs, work on communication and outreach, and coordinate with the other groups. This structure provides many different ways for organizations and individuals to contribute. 

Let’s look at each of these groups in more detail.

EPUB 3 Working Group

We plan to create a new EPUB 3 Working Group, focusing on making EPUB 3 a W3C Recommendation and the continuing maintenance of EPUB 3. The group would be chaired by Wendy Reid (Rakuten Kobo) and Dave Cramer (Hachette).

What is now EPUB originated more than twenty years ago with OEB 1.0. OEB was quite simple: HTML with CSS and a single XML file to describe the metadata. It wasn't even packaged. The packaging mechanism, and the name "EPUB", arrived in 2007. EPUB 3, first released in 2011, added HTML 5 support, audio, video, an ability to “fix” the layout of a page, and so on. EPUB 3 was more powerful, more accessible (thanks to contributions from the DAISY Consortium), and could handle more of the world's languages with better integration of W3C standards. The latest update, EPUB 3.2, was completed only last May by the EPUB 3 Community Group within the W3C. EPUB 3 has been a tremendous success. It is mature, widely adopted around the world, and the foundation of a billion-dollar industry. EPUB is gaining a foothold in the corporate and documentation worlds, and is becoming easier to create. Soon you will be able to export EPUB from most common word processors.

So why do we want to create an EPUB 3 Working Group, and why make a W3C Recommendation for EPUB? In a word, interoperability. Standards are a contract between content creators and reading systems. If I make an EPUB following the standard, your reading system should display it correctly. But, for interoperability to be more than wishful thinking, we need tests. Tests demonstrate that the implementation does what the specification says. Tests are the tool that sharpens both the spec and the reading system. We hope that the much-more-rigorous W3C process will make a cleaner, clearer, more easily-implemented EPUB 3 specification. We hope that the existence of tests will make it easier to demonstrate interoperability, to illustrate when reading systems fall short, and to help those that fall short to catch up. We want EPUB 3 to work predictably everywhere.

We want to make the spec better, yes, but we won't be changing the foundations of EPUB. We are very focused on backward compatibility, as we demonstrated with EPUB 3.2. Every valid EPUB 3.2 file should be valid to the new REC-track EPUB 3 spec unless it uses a feature that was never implemented anywhere. We understand the importance of preserving the existing ecosystem. But we hope to also add a few features that were requested by survey respondents.

Having EPUB 3 as a formal W3C Recommendation also helps us with government adoption of EPUB, and provides a solid foundation for legislation around EPUB’s native accessibility.

We are energized by the enthusiasm of the broad EPUB community, and excited about the future of EPUB 3. Together we can make EPUB even better!

The EPUB 3 and Publishing Community Groups

We are profoundly grateful for the many contributions of the EPUB 3 Community Group over these last several years. Although the new Working Group will take EPUB 3 to REC, that does not diminish the need for the EPUB 3 Community Group. In fact, we hope to broaden the scope of the Community Group to evaluate and incubate new ideas, both for EPUB and for digital publishing in general. Please consider this an invitation to share your exciting ideas about how publishing should evolve!

Community Groups play a critical function in W3C, as the birthplace of new ideas. These ideas need to be examined, incubated, and shared to see if they are both technically viable and serve a real need. If an idea is truly viable, the CG can even create draft specifications, which would then be passed on to the appropriate working group to become W3C Recommendations. This process ensures that we can encourage and maintain broad community participation in the strategic development of Publishing ideas before they are funneled into the formal standards track.

There are many publishing-related community groups that already exist, and we invite you to bring your ideas to the Publishing Community Group as well.

Because of the broader scope of the Community Group, we propose that it be renamed as the Publishing Community Group, and also take over the responsibility of the existing Publishing Community Group. In addition to working on the future of EPUB and digital publishing, be prepared to help with documentation and testing. Like all CG’s, the Publishing Community Group will be open to anyone.

The proposed chairs for the Publishing CG are Mateus Teixeira (W. W. Norton) and Jeff Xu ( Rakuten Kobo).

Publishing Business Group

The Publishing Business Group will serve as a place to organize the community and gain the perspective of the industry. The CG may ask the BG to evolve its ideas to help gain an understanding of the business case behind certain ideas before passing them along, even if the technology seems fantastic. Much of what we have seen from the survey is that there is a need for more information as people grow catalogs of content and consider how to maintain them over the long term. The BG will work on community expansion, communication, and outreach to ensure that people have a place to share and get information both globally and locally.

The Business Group is going to create an EPUB Reading System Bug Tracker in GitHub to catalog the known issues that can be shared among all parties to move toward better implementation and conformance to the EPUB 3 standard.

The BG will continue to be chaired by Liisa McCloy-Kelley of (Penguin Random House), Daihei Shiohama (Media Do), and Cristina Mussinelli (Fondazione LIA).

Publishing Steering Committee

The Steering Committee will continue to coordinate the working group, the business group, and the community group, as well as liaise with other W3C groups. The Steering Committee consists of the chairs of all three groups and representatives from W3C along with other invited members, such as emeritus chairs. This effort will be led by Tzviya Siegman of (Wiley) and Ralph Swick (W3C).

The Publishing Working Group

The Publishing Working Group is nearly finished with its work. The Audiobook specification is a Candidate Recommendation and is in the midst of implementation and testing. The Publication Manifest is also a Candidate Recommendation and will serve as the backbone of audiobooks as well as future derivatives. This group’s charter will expire on July 1, 2020, and the group will disband, after achieving many of its goals. Many thanks to the chairs—Wendy Reid, Tzviya Siegman, and Garth Conboy—as well as all the group’s participants for these great accomplishments.

We Want to Hear From You

We have heard your requests for communication, for participation, for openness, and want to continue to hear from you and to speak with you. If we have not gotten this right, and you would like to see a change in the direction of these plans, there is time to reach out to us. We have started reaching out to the community, group by group, and would like to stress that these decisions are not yet firm. These are proposals based on feedback from our community. Please contact us individually or at and tell us what you’re thinking!

There are a lot of exciting things happening in the publishing community. We look forward to continuing to work with you. Look for more blog posts from the Publishing@W3C team!

Many thanks to my colleagues on the Steering Committee for their assistance in writing this post, especially Dave Cramer.

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