KF8 and ePub3: new standards for electronic books

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Things are about to get interesting for readers, designers, and the e-book publishing industry, as new formats bring improved formatting and interactivity to e-books. Amazon has just announced a new KF8 format (Kindle Format 8). The KF8 format replaces Amazon’s .mobi format and adds over 150 new formatting features, including fixed layouts, nested tables, legends, sidebars, and scalable vector graphics. New specifications for the ePub format (used by Apple, Google and many others) were recently finalized but barely mentioned by publishing media.

The idea that a book is nothing more than a container of textual data is anathema to anyone who appreciates the art of typesetting. Graphic design is a powerful influence on readability, as well as more abstract considerations such as how typeface choice affects the mood of writing. Today’s e-books sacrifice appearance for flexibility, allowing text to be resized and flowed from screen to screen with no relation to the original page number or typographic design. . ePub and .mobi files are little more than sets of basic HTML pages. They are particularly bad for educational texts where sidebars and multi-column layouts are common. The KF8 and ePub3 standards will greatly improve the aesthetics of e-book design.

KF8 and ePub3 mean better looking eBooks

The KF8 and ePub3 formats allow book designers to take advantage of powerful formatting technologies such as HTML5 and CSS3. Embedded fonts, drop caps, floats, text over background images, numbered and bulleted lists, and precise line spacing control are just a few of the new design features that already improve the appearance of millions of websites. Now they will lend their strength to eBooks. Add audio, video, and interactivity to a well-displayed eBook and you’ll find that publishers are betting on the principle that eBooks can be better than traditional books (although this premise will be hotly debated).

The potential for a new renaissance in book design is very real, and for designers, the timing is right. Adobe has already seen fit to include powerful HTML5 export capabilities in Adobe Flash. Tools like Adobe Muse make it easier for designers to focus on aesthetics without having to fiddle with cumbersome code. While print book publishers pack their text tightly on the page to save paper and ink, e-book publishers have no such concerns. Once design is no longer constrained by economics, eBooks (of all things) will be free to restore hot metal type glory. Will publishers have the vision? We’ll see soon enough.

KF8, ePub3 and e-commerce

Amazon has chosen to use a proprietary.mobi format while its competitors (even Apple) publish e-books using the open ePub standard. The advantage is clear; Amazon’s ability to control its own e-book format allows it to innovate and rapidly deploy new standards without having to wait for specifications to be proposed, approved, and developed by an external standards body, making it the first to market “rich e-books” which are delivered as actual e-books instead of mobile apps. Additionally, since Apple has restricted the use of Adobe Flash on its iOS (iPhone operating system) mobile devices, Adobe has a commercial incentive to develop design tools that support Amazon’s advantage. . However, the ePub3 specifications (also based on HTML5 and CSS) were recently finalized on October 11, 2001. We can assume that Apple and other ePub reader developers have been working for some time to incorporate the draft standards into their technologies. . Tool makers will find the opportunity to meet the needs of ePub3 publishers.

No one can guess how this will play out in the competitive e-book market, but it’s clear that e-books are changing (and at least when competent designers are involved, they will change for the better). Over the next few years we will see a slew of new eReader devices that incorporate the new standards as well as innovations such as eInk color displays and many of the features (such as cameras, microphones and web access) that we associate on the tablet. devices like the Apple iPad. Adobe InDesign already exports to a variety of mobile formats; it is logical to believe that these features will be aligned with current publishing standards.

What’s the catch?

Amazon’s Kindle editing tools do not currently support KF8, but all currently supported content will continue to work. Information on how to update existing titles to take advantage of KF8 features will be available in an upcoming Kindle Publishing Guidelines update. Amazon will roll out KF8 support for the new Kindle Fire eReader planned for November 2011. KF8 support will be added to next-generation Kindles and software Kindle readers in the following months. Older Kindles will not be upgraded to support KF8.

As far as ePub3 is concerned, things are less clear cut. True, the ePub3 format is standardized – eBooks can ideally be developed to these standards – but there is no standards body governing the extent to which eReader devices should support these standards. Apple, for example, does not support Adobe Flash in its mobile browser. They probably don’t support Flash content in eBooks, even though the ePub3 standard does. ePub3 supports optional technical additions like javascript; Not bad in principle, but creating eBooks using features that eBook readers eventually implement makes it difficult to deploy one file to multiple vendors.

The IDPF (in charge of ePub3 standards) refers to an ePub3 file as a “website in a box”. This is where the problem lies. Notwithstanding the fact that an eBook is an entirely different type of animal than a website, there are enough variations from web browser to web browser in the way they render and display HTML, Javascript, CSS and other “standardized” technologies to suggest that eBook reading devices will likely support different subsets of the ePub3 standard. Standards may be supported but displayed differently. Please, my God. don’t let Microsoft release an eReader. Many publishers will bypass the poorly supported “special features” of ePub3 and keep their ePub offerings simple, or develop separate ePub3 files to match the technologies supported by different devices.

Strahinja Markovic, the developer of the Sigil ePub editor, makes some compelling points about ePub3:

I know I’m cynical, but I can’t help it. The iPad arrived, was declared “the savior of the publishing industry” and now everyone seems to be losing their minds.

Again, “HTML5?” Ideal for the web. In fact, great for the web. For e-books? I can’t remember the last time I thought “this book really needs a video”.

The ISBN Factor

While different eReader devices require different versions of ePub files, each will theoretically need its own ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Publishers are already chafing at the added cost and hassle of assigning unique ISBNs to an ever-growing list of book variants in a publishing world where the requirement to associate e-books with ISBNs is the subject of debate. (Amazon does not require ISBNs for e-books, and Google will assign an eISBN at no charge upon request.) This will either be a boon for Bowker (the US ISBN administrator) or a trigger for an ISBN comprehensive for e-books. rebellion, especially among small publishers. To what extent will the need to purchase another ISBN deter smaller publishers from deploying ePub3 files across various platforms?

So who’s first?

The new ePub3 and KF8 standards represent great developments for book design and the publishing industry. Designers will have new opportunities to create more beautiful books. Competition stimulates innovation as it should. Writers and editors will see their work presented elegantly and professionally across all types of media, and of course readers will benefit above all else.

It remains to be seen how eReader devices, software tools and designers will adopt the new ePub3 standards. ePub3 could be a huge blowback if different eReaders and content creation tools support different elements of the global standard. Admittedly, a lot of development work will be required to make eReader devices compatible with such a wide set of features. Of course, this will make the current generation of eReader devices obsolete. How e-book consumers will react to this is another unknown factor.

Where it all heads is still a matter of speculation; there are a lot of variables. Standards came before the technology that will display them and the tools that will create content for them. Ultimately, we could see a real blurring of the lines between mobile apps, websites and e-books, a kind of globalization of online content. Until the new eReader devices and their accompanying hype hit shelves, Amazon seems best positioned to deliver a consistent eBook experience while its competitors choose from subsets of the ePub3 standard. Amazon is free to innovate and support everything its own KF8 standards; it’s a safe bet that a Kindle book will display fine on a Kindle e-reader, and as mentioned in a previous article, Amazon is much less restrictive about the types of content its users can access in its browser than Apple is. is with its iPad users. If Amazon continues in this spirit with its KF8 books, they will have an advantage…for now.


Not so long ago, nobody wanted their own computer, cell phone, iPod, or e-book reader. While it’s comforting to settle for a bunch of firm promises, standards, and expectations, eBooks move too quickly for that. It’s a brave new world. Publishers need to keep their eyes on the ball.

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