Bloomsbury Academic Broadens Range of Formats for Mobile Reading

Attending a seminar at Oxford Internet Institute about network neutrality I got to know about Christopher T. Marsden’s recent book “Net Neutrality: Towards a Co-Regulatory Solution“. All four speeches at the event were very compelling, and I am looking forward to reading Marsden’s book, which was offered with a 40 per cent discount at the event. A bit tight on budget I also was pleased to hear that the publisher, Bloomsbury Academic, offers a digital version of the book. Although the e-book is available for free under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial (CC NC) license it is offered in a PDF format only, so far.

Therefore I was thinking I would kill three birds with one stone combining my interest in the book, my passion for reading on my iPhone as well as getting an assignment done for the Digital Media Publishing course at Oxford Brookes University. So, I asked the author whether he would mind if I produce a professional EPub version. EPub has floatable text capability and can be displayed on many devices such as Sony’s and Barnes & Noble’s e-readers as well as on smaller screens such as the iPhone.

Christopher Marsden let me know that it wasn’t the first request of this sort and he put me in touch with the publisher. A representative of Bloomsbury Academic immediately responded, not exactly encouraging me, but with some interesting feedback. The publisher will be producing an EPub version of the book along with the launch of its new website in April or May. The CC NC license obviously allows producing an EPub version of the book if it is not used for commercial purposes. This said, the representative stressed the fact that a free EPub version would undermine the company’s business model, which includes charging for EPub versions for various mobile devices. I was recommended to watch a presentation about CC business models given last month at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York. The presentation (24 min.) also gives a good impression on the publisher’s innovative Open Access approach.

Interestingly, Bloomsbury Academic’s new platform will have plain CC licensed free content in HTML format on its core. The CC version will be subsidised by revenues made from layers on top of it. The EPub versions and print editions will be charged for, and there will be a layer of “enhanced e-books” with extra functionality, extra content and extra metadata. The Bloomsbury Academic Digital Cafe offers collaboration features and an experimental lab. Also taxonomic classification, role-based navigation and tools available to allow readers to cite, email, print and share titles will be implemented. “Bloomsbury Academic will be plugged into the world beyond the site itself, with connections to blogs, podcasts and webcasts to accompany and enhance the world-class content inside.”

However, in the first place I didn’t understand the publisher’s reasoning that a free EPub version would “clearly” diminish sales while the PDF version already is freely available. Given the facts above and by spending quite some time trying to get an acceptable EPub version by using converting tools I learned that, after all, the reasoning does make sense. In fact, converting PDF to EPub turned out to be less seamless and results are even more unsatisfactory than I expected. I tried six different tools and four of them failed miserably, although I have to admit that I still went through them very quick – pretty much as a customer would when demanding to read a book, not on his desk, now.

The process I underwent after creating the EPub file to get it on my iPhone was the same for all six tools, although there are other ways to do it. Reading the Lexcycle’s FAQ section was very useful, and led me to the cloud content management provider, which enables storing books on a remote server to then download it to your iPhone. On the iPhone I use Stanza, an electronic book reader and book sharing software offered by Lexcycle which was acquired by Amazon last year. Stanza is a native iPhone app, and beside tools for setting bookmarks and taking notes, provides an extra section for showing the table of content (TOC) and for directly jumping to the respective chapter.

The first converter I tried, EPub2Go, was conveniently usable online, but didn’t provide an EPub file with chapter navigation on the iPhone. This makes the result useless unless one doesn’t need this kind of navigation or wants to set his own bookmarks for chapter navigation. This might be a frustrating process as finding the right text passages within around 2000 iPhone pages (according to 320 PDF pages) without any anchors is difficult.

The second tool I tried was Stanza Desktop offered by Lexcycle. It is a tool free to download for converting and also reading EPub files. The result after the conversion was slightly better having at least chapter navigation. Unfortunately the chapter names in the TOC were a mess. By the way, I don’t write about all these ‘minor’ errors, such as having redundant dates and other metadata within the text – it appeared within all conversion results mentioned in this post.

The third tool, Calibre, also recommended by Lexcycle, provides better results than Stanza. It is also free to download and offers “the one stop solution for all your e-book needs” including e-book management, reading e-books and format conversion. Although also having incorrect formatting and literally no navigation before and after the actual text chapters, with the Calibre version it is convenient to navigate to the beginning of each chapter, and I could start reading a specific chapter straight away.

There are opinions floating around in forums that converting to Mobi, RTF or HTML first and than to EPub using Calibre would bring up better results, but after trying the Mobipocket desktop app and getting frustrating results again I didn’t follow up these tips. Generally the non-proprietary Mobi format generated by Mobipocket is nevertheless very useful as it is compatible with the dominating Amazon Kindle e-book platform and an impressive array of mobile phones. Next I turned to proprietary conversion software hoping for a nice ready to go EPub e-book file.

PDFtoEPUB by DNAML Software offers free trials for up to six e-books to convert and it looks promising in the preparation process. For example you can set a frame which allows you to exclude page numbers, header and footer text to make text seamless where in the PDF file there is a page turn. After six files the software would cost $150. The results though didn’t turn out to be satisfying and again there was no chapter navigation.

The last one I tried, a converter from Dongsoft, offering up to 15 items to convert for free and charging $40 beyond this didn’t make me happy either. Also InDesign doesn’t work terribly well with EPub without having prepared the text manually in advance. Another possibility to generate EPub files out of PDF would be to generate a simple XML first and go for the EPub conversion from there.

Summarizing it can be said that the only tool automatically generating a (barely) ‘good enough’ EPub version for the mentioned PDF e-book is the Calibre solution. Although I know there are more tools available (such as this one), and there might be better results achieved spending more time with the mentioned tools, in fact a proper format for reading Marsden’s book on small screens is literally not existing to date.

Therefore offering a professional EPub version for free indeed would reduce Bloomsbury Academic’s sales figures – at least concerning sales of EPub books after its platform launch. What actually is sold with the EPub versions is convenience and additional functionality particularly for mobile reading. By making a plain HTML version of all books Open Access losses from ‘cannibalisation’ will be balanced out by attracting new readers and enabling value added services based on easy to implement interconnection and integration of the publisher’s content.

The new Bloomsbury Academic platform also shows how publishers are focusing more on technology and services rather than paid content business models – and hurdles such as not being able to read a book on the device one prefers will sound pretty stone-age very soon.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.