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In addition to selling its digital comics and graphic novels through its own app (which is based on iVerse’s technology), IDW is now offering some books for sale through Apple’s iBooks store. Good for them. Robot6 has an interview with IDW’s Jeff Webber, where he talks about the reason for this move: “putting the books in the iBooks Store will ensure that Anne Rice, readers, for instance, will find IDW’s graphic adaptations of her work in the same search as her prose novels.” This is absolutely true, and a smart move.

The worrisome part (emphasis mine):

The epub format is entirely different from app development. It’s much more rigid and allows for little specialized navigation. IDW has released epub-formatted books before, we have over 200 single-issue books in the Amazon Kindle store. Those are panel-by-panel books, because the same file has to work on a Kindle or inside Kindle apps on other devices. It works fine but isn’t as perfect as using an app. The reason for the big push now is that Apple recently introduced new epub formatting tricks specific to iBooks. That has led to the great looking full-page approach we’ve developed.

For those who don’t follow these things, the .epub format for ebooks is an open standard, maintained by a not-for-profit standards body, rather than a corporation — just like .html and C++.

It’s true that epub was never intended to be used for graphically-intensive works like comics. Anybody who has tried to format a comic for epub distribution is probably thrilled that there have been changes made to the format to accommodate the sequential art medium. Those of us who care about open standards, though — and while I don’t care as much as, say, Richard Stallman, I do care quite a bit — would have preferred to see these kinds of extensions introduced into the standard itself, rather than being added unilaterally by one particular vendor.

There are reasons for this preference. If you lived through the browser wars of the late 90s; if you’ve ever had to write five hundred lines of Javascript code to do something that five lines should have done, in a world where standards were respected; or even if you’ve ever encountered a webpage that said to you, “This site is only viewable with Flash,” then you have some inkling of why proprietary “standards” are less preferable than open ones.

Please note: I do not blame IDW for taking advantage of this! I’m worried about Apple’s actions, not IDW’s.

Here are my questions for Apple:

  • Are these new extensions to the .epub format documented in a public place, or is the information about how to use them only available to Apple’s partners?
  • What, precisely, do they do?
  • Are they going to be submitted to the International Digital Publishing Forum for consideration to be included in the actual epub standard, so that other ebook readers (hardware and/or software) can take advantage of them, or will they remain proprietary Apple technology?

When Apple announced the iBooks store, they made a big deal out of the openness of the .epub standard. They certainly sold me (and a lot of other Apple fans) on the concept of an open standard! I’d hate to find out that that’s all it was — a sales job.