AAUP 2013 Preview: What's Next in Digital Publishing

As publishing progresses further into the digital realm, content is increasingly defined by technical standards. We now need to consider the layout, design, and composition not just on the printed page, but across numerous platforms and devices. How will this book look on an iPad? On a Kindle? On an Android phone?

Just a few years ago, most of us were cautiously dipping our toes into the ebook waters, secure only in the knowledge that our production PDFs could reliably serve as the basis of the ebook files for most library aggregators and vendors. Yet to meet the changing needs of our audience, we must now push beyond the PDF as scholarship itself is increasingly moving into digital objects and readers are much more inclined to partake of our books and journals in the digital space.

With the ubiquity of tablet devices and e-readers across platforms, the long-anticipated commercial ebook market has finally taken off after decades of market dalliances. We now publish ebooks in multiple formats as a matter of course. Yet one problem with reflowable formats—which enable typographical content to resize to accommodate the dimensions of the screen—is the fluidity of presentation—which affects both the visual appeal of a book, and in the case of works with complex apparatus, their efficacy in communicating with precision.

Developed by the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum), the EPUB standard has evolved primarily in the service of the trade book industry. The majority of these works are fiction, which by nature are fairly simple in structure and lend themselves easily to a linear reading experience made available on various devices and platforms. More complex works with multiple points of entry or atypical structures present bigger challenges, especially since market diversification (often aided and abetted by a user's personal settings) has a tendency to undermine the structural underpinnings of such work. Page locators and internal referencing systems are the foremost example of this, but large tables also present challenges. And forget about experimental poetry—unless you plan to treat those as large image files, which display better on some devices than others. Scholarly publishers need to take advantage of the emerging electronic markets, yet must be cautious about compromising the integrity of their publications in the digital realm.

What can be done to better present such information, and to support the citations system upon which scholarship as a whole is based? While we're at it, how can we incorporate digital tools and media into our books in ways that can be distributed throughout the supply chain—not just using a single vendor's proprietary system? Enhanced ebook apps are impressive and make great use of the affordances of a touch-based tablet, however these can be quite expensive to develop and beyond the reach of many AAUP presses and independent publishers. EPUB2—the most common version of EPUB now used in the supply chain—supports some degree of rich media integration, but diversification in the marketplace and the relative simplicity of the standard made it difficult for more integrated approaches in robust digital book production to advance. When publishers are producing five-plus versions of EPUB to meet the requirements of each vendor, the utility of the standard is questionable. The good thing about standards, it's been said, is that there are so many to choose from. What to do?

Enter EPUB3. EPUB3 is like the DNA for an electronic book—it contains the metadata for the publication, including information for defining the order of reading and table of contents. It supports complex fixed layouts as well as a host of rich media features such as audio, video, and interactive capability. Although EPUB3 allows for portability and doesn't require connectivity with the Web or the cloud, it works closely with HTML5, the revised standard for online display on the Web and mobile environments. Nettie Lagace, Associate Director of Programs at National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and AAUP panelist, makes the observation that EPUB3 is tightly aligned with HTML5, and that as HTML5 evolves, so will EPUB. One potential benefit of this for many publishers, according to digital publishing innovator and fellow AAUP panelist Liza Daly, is HTML5's capacity to produce accessible, semantically-rich markup language without the systematic implementation of a rigorous XML workflow. Although these are industry standards, and can only be voluntarily adapted, the powerful one-two punch of EPUB3 and HTML5 suggests that more publishers will be able to make the move from digitized publications like the PDF into the truly digital publications with interactive and dynamic components embedded.

Join Avery, Daly, and Lagace along with the University of Chicago Press's Krista Coulson and Shana Kimball of New York Public Library and Knowledge Unlatched at the "What's Next in Digital Publishing: HTML5, EPUB3, and Beyond" session at AAUP in Boston for what promises to be an informative panel discussion on the future of digital publishing with perspectives from industry, policy, libraries, and university presses.

Find the complete preliminary program for AAUP 2013 here, including descriptions and panelists. Presentation notes, slides, and video for select panels will be posted afterward on the AAUPWiki.

Marguerite Avery
Senior Acquisitions Editor, MIT Press

Claire Lewis Evans
Editor for Digital and Electronic Publishing, University of Alabama Press