Books More Digital

Posted On Mar 28 2007 by

I’ve always had a hard time explaining my position on e-books. Some of my esteemed colleagues are quick to point out the minor dent that e-books have made in overall book sales in this country and others. But when I started evangelizing about e-books back in the late 1990s, we were still talking about what I call the “curl-up factor.” I grew so tired of hearing people complain about not wanting to curl up with an e-book, or the inability to take an e-book to the beach, that as soon as I read either phrase in e-book commentary, I simply stopped. [WARNING: rhetorical question ahead. No need to flood comments.] How many laptop owners can say they’ve never curled up with theirs in bed, and who hasn’t seen a Blackberry at the beach?

The interesting thing to me is that much of the debate about whether to do e-books ended when Google made its now-famous announcement. “Whether or not” to digitize became “how, which, and whose books” nearly overnight. I still find it ironic that despite publishers and middleware providers’ valiant efforts to digitize books, it took a press release about Google digitizing millions of books for which it had no rights to turn the tide of e-book production.

There are a couple of interesting new things out there. First, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) is announcing a conference in New York City for May 9, 2007. Digital Book 2007 will feature digital publishing and mobile device innovations. Librarians might remember the IDPF as the OeBF, or Open eBook Forum. It dropped the old moniker when it became clear that the group was essentially a trade organization, and not primarily an effort to create an open e-book standard—a goal that I still believe was thwarted by the conflict of interest of some of its participants in maintaining the strong footing of proprietary technology in the e-books market space. Anyway, the conference will likely include a better look at e-ink technologies, Adobe’s new Flash-based e-book reader, and more.

The conference’s confirmed speaker list includes the Digital Library Federation’s new executive director, Peter Brantley. Brantley recently shook up the e-book world a little with a Google e-book apologia related to recent library dealings with the Google Books project. The original post is a poetic read; its follow-up, “Reprise with Clarity,” is also excellent.

Back to my position on e-books. It’s not a “more digital books” position, but what I like to call “books more digital.” That is, the more digital the book is, the more options publishers, libraries, patrons, and shoppers will have for consuming them and building services upon them. Whether e-ink, cell-phone, or print-on-demand paperback, a more digital book is a more readable book. Now that the “whether or not” debate is coming to an end, it may be time (or it may be too late) for libraries to reinvest their time in investigating standards, pressuring publishers to release content for digitization, and playing with the technology that will soon be (or already is) in the hands of our patrons.


[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]

Last Updated on: January 19th, 2024 at 12:22 am, by Andrew K. Pace

Written by Andrew K. Pace

7 responses to “Books More Digital

  1. Has anybody told you lately that you’re too smart for your own good? Because you are. I wish I’d come up with “books more digital” years ago.

    FWIW, I was there in the old OEBF days, and you’re quite right about the proprietary-versus-open conflict of interest. To be perfectly clear, all the people on the actual working group, whether they worked for a proprietary-type company or not, really did want an open standard that worked.

    That doesn’t mean their employers did. And their employers won, by the simple expedient of redefining the OEBF as a trade organization and choking off support for further technical development.

    I was there. I saw it happen. There’s a book to be written about that whole thing… but I’m not the one to write it, though I’ll happily be interviewed for it.

  2. “I grew so tired of hearing people complain about not wanting to curl up with an e-book, or the inability to take an e-book to the beach, that as soon as I read either phrase in e-book commentary, I simply stopped.”

    Thank you. My “click” moment was an article in the New York Times by Annie Proulx going on and on about paper. I think I read it online.

    I would like to think that “books more digital” includes “formats more portable.” The Sony reader will fail because it is yet another proprietary device. Though if Apple did it, much as I hate to admit it, they’d probably pull it off.

  3. Andrew,

    It’s good to hear from you and thanks for your excellent post. I’d like to expand on a couple of points you make and also give you an update on IDPF technical work.

    Regardless of the reasons why technical work stalled in the organization from 2003 through 2004, the organization did produce an XML file format standard for eBooks, the Open eBook Publication Structure (v1.2 was released in August 2002), which is widely used in the digital book industry today. There are literally tens of thousands of electronic books in the OEB format on the servers of publishers and their distributors and partners. The standard is non-proprietary, open and free of intellectual property claims.

    Starting in late 2005, the organization implemented a series of reforms in order to achieve greater industry representation and involvement from publishers, accessibility advocates, libraries, technology companies etc. The reforms gave all IDPF members full voting privileges, allowed all member representatives to lead Working Groups and Special Interest Groups, allowed all members to serve on the Board of Directors, and implemented a membership agreement which, among other things, obligated members to adhere to a new Intellectual Property Policy.

    The reforms had immediate positive effects. Our voting roles expanded from 13 members to 93 members, Board of Director elections became competitive again and technical work restarted in the organization.

    In November 2005, a Working Group was formed to create a container format so that publishers could package all of their digital book files into one file to send through distribution. Over 30 companies and organizations participated in the effort. The result was the OEBPS Container Format (OCF) which is a ZIP-based specification compatible with the container technology used in OASIS’ Open Document Format 1.0. The specification was approved by the IDPF membership in October 2006 with a vote of 47 FOR, 0 AGAINST and 11 ABSTAIN. The official spec can be found at:

    In February 2006, a Working Group was formed to create the next generation OEB file format specification. The clear goals of the group were to update OEB 1.2 to improve the adoption of viability of the standard as both a cross-reading system interchange and production format as well as (and this is important!) a final publication delivery format. The result of this effort is the Open Publication Structure 2.0 (OPS 2.0). A draft version has been released to the public and can be found at:

    Open Packaging Format:
    Open Publication Structure:

    Today, the Working Group is voting whether to submit the final specification to the official IDPF output process which will include a 30-day public review.

    These specifications bring our industry immediate benefits:

    1. Lowering Publisher Cost – with OPS and OCF, publishers can deliver one file format (as opposed to the current X number of formats) which will either be rendered natively by reading systems or converted in a “lights-out” way in reading system software from the standard format to a platform-targeted format. The result is drastically reduced conversion costs for publishers and, as a result, more content produced and selection for consumers.

    2. Fulfilling Legal Obligations – K-12 publishers have a legal obligation under NIMAS to produce accessible files in the NIMAC database. One of the vocabularies one can use to create an OPS file is DTBook (DAISY format) which will satisfy the technical requirements for submission into the NIMAC database. Therefore a publisher can create a digital file for sale using OPS and fulfill their legal requirements under NIMAS at the same time with no additional cost.

    3. Consumer Interoperability – For reading systems who implement OPS and OCF (Adobe, eBook Technologies, Mobipocket/Amazon, iRex Technologies, Osoft to name a few have either already implemented or plan to), consumers will enjoy full interoperability between reading systems for unencrypted content. Obviously a good thing for consumers and our libraries.

    At Digital Book 2007 ( in May, I expect there will be additional significant announcements regarding the adoption and implementation of these specifications. I encourage you and all of your readers to get acquainted with these specs, attend the conference (if you can) and get involved in the organization. Specification forums open to the public can be found at

    We now have an excellent opportunity to achieve the goal of full standardization for digital reflowable books.


    Nick Bogaty
    Executive Director
    International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)
    (212) 924-9081 direct
    (212) 208-0978 fax

  4. Andrew – excellent post. It’s absolutely true that the discourse about ebooks has forked over the Google books issue. I’ll tell you my interest in ebooks: most digital texts suck. You can’t mark them up, you can’t easily attach notes or bookmarks or comments. You should be able to do all of this and more, and those notes should be exportable and shareable. Ebooks were getting to that point a few years ago, and then…

    The ebook crash had to do with the market, IMHO — and with DRM. It’s the iTunes story, but in reverse. Apple is using the tunes to sell the device. In the ebooks case, the devices were often being sold below cost. The money was (supposedly) in the provision of the content. When the proprietary device market failed, the vendors began giving away ebook reader software — proof that the market hoped to make money off of the ebooks themselves.

    The impetus for ebooks comes from the technology players, not the publishers. And an ebook that has no proprietary software around it isn’t making money for the technology companies that format them, protect them through their technology, and sell the books (Microsoft Reader format, MobiPocket format, Adobe protected format, etc.) And of course competition can only take place if there’s something significantly different about the different products, some enhancement or constraint that keeps your customers coming back for more.

    So the market for ebooks has not been a success. At the same time, the players do not yet seem to have identified the best role for standards in this market. The early OEBF standards were ostensibly to create a universal ebook format. When that was revealed to be antithetical to making money on the product, the standards became aimed at giving publishers a single production format that could be used to feed the proprietary production streams. That is not a bad idea because it brings some efficiency to the process. But it doesn’t seem to have brought any advantages for consumers.

    These aren’t criticisms of the players in the ebook market — that’s just the way it is. The folks I’ve interacted with in the ebook technology space are generally great people who are very enthusiastic about their products.

    Here, however, are some things that puzzle me deeply:

    1) Why hasn’t the academic community shown more interest in better text formats for ebooks and other e-documents that it produces and does not restrict access to? Why am I still cutting and pasting into a text file, or printing out my documents so I can annotate them? Surely we can do better than that!

    It would be worth looking at the OEBF/IDPF standards to see if they could be used, since there is already software that can read these books and provide services around them. Note that I don’t think that we will end up with one single ebook format, but if well-designed they could be crosswalked, as we do with metadata. The advantage of the IDPF standards is that they are very simple (as compared to, for example, TEI). They are the kind of thing that you could use in a simple wysiwyg editor in a courseware package.

    2) Why are people so happy with Google books, which are terrible in so many ways (readability, accessibility, and their total lack of basic ebook features like annotations, dictionaries, and bookmarking)? People hated the best of ebooks, and now love the worst. Is it because it’s Google? Because it’s free?

    I still feel like the library world should be more active in the work on the more digital book. It dismays me to see libraries embracing bad digitization and poor user service. Although I’m glad that Google is using its pocket change to experiment with mass digitization, if the future of the book is a blurred scan with a few missing pages in PDF format with no useful structure (page numbers, chapters), it’s going to be very sad.


  5. Karen, I agree with you, and back in the mists of time I said some very similar things (for example, and ).

    In my optimistic moments, I suppose I think that Google Books et cetera are necessary because they will highlight in stark relief how bad they are. This, if we are lucky, will goose people into looking for better ideas.

    I don’t know if what used to be the OEBPS is the right idea ( ), or even a right idea. As simple as it seems to you, Karen, I had to try to explain it to publishers and — well, don’t get me started. I got out of publishing and into librarianship because I got so tired of the bottomless cluelessness in the higher tiers of publishing-admin.

    But if libraries become publishers, another possibility I’m on record about… ( )

  6. I recently spent three weeks on a sailboat cruise to Maine. One of the other sailors had a Sony ebook. He loved it. He “curled up” with it in his bunk where he could choose (or flip between) a half dozen books it held (a history, a biography, several novels, etc., and a 10-page PDF document on racing rules he was studying because he had been elected to run a race by his club.

    His book had a friendly, well-worn leather cover, and the text was easy to read in any light, because he could change the contrast. He liked it a lot! I had managed to bring two books, which I read the first week. It is a no brainer: All community libraries should offer ebook titles.

  7. The advantage of the IDPF standards is that they are very simple (as compared to, for example, TEI). They are the kind of thing that you could use in a simple wysiwyg editor in a courseware package…

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