Artists Ebooks’ and (what is wrong with) ePubs

April 6, 2010

Artists' eBooks

I’m very pleased to announce two new Artists’ eBooks: Niven Govinden’s L’histoire de Bexhill Baudelaire and Kenji Siratori’s Guerilla Sex Generation.

L’histoire de Bexhill Baudelaire includes links to YouTube videos which comprise the book’s soundtrack. I’ve been a fan of Niven’s work for some time, and he approached me to see if there was something we could do with one of his stories. While the limitations of the ebook format – discussed below – didn’t allow the full expression of the ideas we had, I’m pleased to get a soundtrack in there.

Guerilla Sex Generation includes an introduction to Siratori’s work by the Iranian theorist Reza Negarastani. Siratori’s writing was one of the main inspirations for Bookkake and I’m pleased to be able to finally publish some of his works – in such a suitable format – as well as that of Negarastani, who I first commissioned at 3:AM a number of years ago.

Both eBooks can be downloaded from the Artists’ eBooks site.

Artists' eBooks

And now I really must declare the thing that’s been bothering me most since I started this exploration of ePub: the key finding.

ePub is rubbish for anything that’s not a book. And by book, I mean a traditional, packaged, fixed, unchanging, single-vision book. And while that’s fine (even obvious), it seems… a pity.

ePub is basically a restricted set of XHTML. That’s all, wrapped up in a package which can be protected with DRM (and we’re not getting into that here). It’s basically a collection of saved, unconnected webpages – but webpages you have less control over than the real web. You can’t embed stuff from elsewhere, for example, as I wanted to do with Bexhill Baudelaire.

Sharing, embedding, extending, is what gives promise to the networked book. Without it, we are reduced to linking out, which, while more simple for the reader on a digital device, is really no different to giving a source in a footnote in a printed book. In a closed container, we deny everything that the possibilities of electronic books bring; we’re limited to the syntax of the static web page and the boundaries of the printed book.

Which is fine for the translation of the traditional book into a digital format if that’s all you want to do. But it really underlines that ePub is a format designed for publishers and retailers first, and readers second: closed, protective, inflexible. Which is, y’know, fine… but. But but but.


  1. Well, thankfully, this is all fixable. EPUB is currently up for a major overhaul and the technology behind EPUB – XHTML and XML – is flexible.

    Addressing your other concern, for a networked eBook, one of the problems I see is the need for some sort of scripting language and a then an infrastructure that can facilitate the scripting. It would seem to make more sense to have that scripting take place on a server (or as they say today “in the cloud”) and push updates down to clients (i.e. the various readers) – but doing so would mean that some sort of authority is required. Who is going to host the servers?

    Ideally, such a system would evolve in a P2P method, where trackers can easily be setup, and the information load can be shared, but this would also mean that controlling interest in what gets pushed down, and what gets pulled back up would be lost by publishers.

    Comment by P. Bradley Robb — April 6, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  2. Well, yes, it is all fixable in context, but I think there’s a bigger question about the approach. A restricted set of anything is still going to be a restricted set.

    I’m not sure why we need a new scripting language or infrastructure: we have those already. In this example, I wanted to embed a YouTube movie, but it’s the epub format, not the environment, that doesn’t allow this.

    Comment by James Bridle — April 6, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

  3. Ah, I was referring to the scripting language/infrastructure in terms of creating a networked eBook – not in terms of being able to access external information, but in being able to change and adapt – shifting from a static system to a dynamic one.

    Comment by P. Bradley Robb — April 6, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

  4. OK, but that’s a different argument, for another post.

    Comment by James Bridle — April 6, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

  5. Yeah, I guess I had the EPUB comment period on the brain.

    Comment by P. Bradley Robb — April 6, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

  6. I have been having the same issues. If you are taking raw text from one book to make an ePub file, then fine, but as you say, it isn’t that interesting and it is more limited than regular HTML. I have been experimenting with HTML5’s manifest option, which caches all the files locally. So on an iPhone you can save the “book” (which is just an HTML file or series of html files and images) to the screen just like any other app. Then it works offline just like an ePub, sans the restrictions (and is even updatable much easier).

    I think publishers know this too, so it puts then into two possible outcomes. A poor “duplication” of the book experience on an iPad/iPod/iPhone or as publishers want to do rich content, drive them to creating custom apps outside of ePub. That’s probably worse for the consumer because then you can get ANYTHING out, you have cross-platform issues, pricing, etc.

    After tinkering with ePub, I am much more in the HTML camp. Except for offline (which HTML5 Manifest seems to solve) there is little extra benefit. Except the DRM and distribution channels, but for an individual those are pretty much off limits already. So why spend the money to make a custom app or ePub when HTML is probably better for the customer and better for the entire web!

    Comment by Brian — April 6, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  7. I’m probably with Brian. There are a bunch of writers who’ve skipped the publishing industry, and are currently plying their wares on the Internet – who’s to say that they can’t have their work read on the iPad, via the Safari browser?

    Comment by Eli James — April 9, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

  8. […] Artists Ebooks’ and (what is wrong with) ePubsFrom James Bridle, an alternate view of the limitation of EPUB. Like. […]

    Pingback by The Daily Square – Gravity’s Bringing Us Down Edition | Booksquare — April 10, 2010 @ 2:51 am

  9. […] Artists Ebooks’ and (what is wrong with) ePubs The National Data Catalog is Live Is File Sharing Okay As Long As The Files Are Shared Widely? […]

    Pingback by iPad Links: Friday, April 23, 2010 « Mike Cane's iPad Test — April 24, 2010 @ 12:28 am

Comments are closed. Feel free to email if you have something to say, or leave a trackback from your own site.