Members of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) met for a Publishing Summit last week, the organization’s first annual meeting since combining forces with the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) in February. The two-day conference drew more than 200 participants from around the world, a mix of publishing professionals, librarians, developers, executives, and digital creatives working with a now shared sense of purpose.
The W3C has spent more than 20 years creating global standards for the Web and Web-based technologies. IDPF developed the EPUB format to be the “universal accessible interchange and delivery ecosystem for eBooks and other digital publications,” a goal that aligned with W3C’s mission.
“We need to have a dialogue within the publishing industry about the future of publishing and the web platform,” said Bill McCoy, the former executive director of IDPF and the executive tasked with guiding the organization’s merger with the W3C. “But that dialogue can’t be a bunch of Web engineers in a closed room. It has to be with the actual people building products, building solutions, and creating content. We have all those people here.”
The pressing need for a common standard in digital publishing was made clear during a panel discussion about global eBook adoption. In Japan, the majority of eBooks comply with the EPUB3 format, the most flexible and future-facing iteration of the EPUB format. In contrast, Argentinean digital book producer Julian Calderazi said that “low quality eBooks” abound throughout Latin America and most publishers have no desire to update to the EPUB3 standard.
“We built the EPUB format essentially for books, but that we always wanted it to be usable for other things,” said Liisa McCloy-Kelley, VP, director eBook product development innovation at Penguin Random House and IDPF board member. “Now we’ve brought the format to this bigger community in this bigger environment—where hopefully we’ll get greater adoption.”
During a presentation at the summit, McCloy-Kelley shared a long list of print formats that publishers currently can’t adapt as digital books—mostly due to the technical limitations of eBook formats. These included pop-up books, flap books, touch and feel books, and books with more than 3,000 images. “We hope that our working with the W3C moves to the place where we have more control for these formats,” she said, looking forward to a day when a shared digital standard could include digital publishing with virtual reality elements, augmented reality add-ons, or other innovations yet to appear.
Accessibility was another major theme at the summit, as speakers argued that single digital book standard would make it much easier for more readers to access content. “Digital publishing has been really important in the disability community,” said George Kerscher, chief innovations officer for the DAISY Consortium and former president of IDPF. “Access to information is a fundamental human right. We are working to make sure that standards and technologies support that access.”
Many speakers looked ahead to the future of content, exploring how data analysis, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality will reshape content in the future. O’Reilly Media founder and author Tim O’Reilly summed up these opportunities in his keynote. “Publishing is a marketplace problem of matching up the people who know something or have a story to tell with the people who want to find them,” he said, expressing hope that artificial intelligence and analytics would help publishers target readers with the efficiency of Amazon.
Abhay Parasnis, the chief technology officer at Adobe, hinted at how Adobe’s “Sensei” artificial intelligence platform will someday help publishers craft “deeply personalized content” for readers. Macmillan Learning chief operating officer Ken Brooks shared slides showing how the company already uses digital reading data to tailor learning to individual students.
The most futuristic example came from Bluefire Productions founder Micah Bowers. The creator of the Bluefire Reader imagined what reading will look like in a future where virtual reality tech is portable and ubiquitous. The company has created a prototype virtual reality environment for reading EPUB books in a soothing simulated environment. “Imagine being on a noisy bus,” he said. “But you could be sitting on a beach reading your favorite book in virtual reality.”
At the end of the conference, Maurice York, an associate librarian overseeing digital preservation as the University of Michigan Library/Publishing, offered some technological context. The librarian read a quote from a 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine describing a 30-ton computer with 19,000 vacuum tubes—an unimaginably huge machine that is now eclipsed by the power of a single smartphone. “From a library perspective, we actually have to wonder,” he said, holding up his smartphone. “In 60 or 70 years, is this going to be the equivalent of 19,000 vacuum tubes? Will everybody look back at this and say ‘What on earth were they thinking? That’s super weird.”
York’s library has preserved everything from papyrus to rare books to carefully standardized digital books, but the librarian reminded publishers to prepare for a future where technology might remove the need for screens and paper altogether.