It’s the oft asked question: if EPUB is the future of accessible digital reading, when should I migrate?
The easy part is asking the question, the hard part is giving a meaningful answer. I know I don’t have a perfect one to offer up, as a lot of what is most impressive about EPUB is still not implemented at this point. But there are other reasons that make the transition a challenge beyond feature support in reading systems.
The one resonant concern that I hear time and again is that clients of libraries that serve individuals who are blind or low vision are already used to DAISY players and there isn’t a compelling reason to change. The clientele tends to be individuals who have lost their vision later in life, so learning to access ebooks and ebookstores through multi-purpose tablets is a secondary consideration to simple devices that are easy to use and easy to get content for. What some would consider large, bulky and conspicuous players are perfectly fine and usable players to others.
I can throw out all the technical reasons why the EPUB format provides enhanced functionality beyond what DAISY can, but until reading systems catch up with the format, playback will be a consideration. If you’ve deployed DAISY players to your client base — players that aren’t EPUB capable — migration also becomes dependent on an upgrade of those devices. If your whole library is DAISY-based and you haven’t considered a migration path forward and/or are lacking the resources to migrate your content yourself, you’re further tied to what you have. In a cost/benefit analysis, the additional new features of EPUB are likely to lose out to these considerations.
The prime advantages of EPUB over DAISY are also a secondary concern to many readers. TTS voicing of text appeals to a smaller demographic than narrated audio books, for example, even if there are significant download savings to be had for producers by avoiding pre-recorded audio. Without really high-quality synthetic voices on tablets, synthetic rendering also tends to be acceptable more to those who are proficient with screen readers.
When you strip EPUB bare of its markup and rendering capabilities, there’s not a lot to distinguish EPUB 3 with media overlays from DAISY 3 or 2.02 using the same SMIL technology, either. That EPUB 3 doesn’t have an NCX-only equivalent might even make EPUB audio books more of a nuisance to produce and consume (although that nuisance could be mitigated by a reading system on the user end).
And, of course, there’s always the legal issue. Copyright exemption for production of an alternative format collides with a mainstream format like EPUB, at least depending on where you live and what your copyright laws are. The DAISY format never achieved widespread adoption outside of producers and consumers of alternative formats, so skirted under the radar in most cases as a uniquely accessible format. A move to EPUB may mean a change in the way libraries produce/purchase and loan their materials. It might require licensing content from publishers in the same way that a regular library would. It might also mean that consumers have to begin living with crummy markup coming from the source.
But assume you’ve already made the business case to change. You still have the production problem to solve.
From the technology side, where I sit, it’s easy to point out the many advantages that a format like EPUB 3 offers. But shiny new bells and whistles rarely justify a major undertaking like changing production on their own. Especially if you haven’t factored change into your operation.
The impetus for change may only come when you realize that your tools simply no longer work on modern operating systems, a situation that’s been looming for a long time at least for 2.02 production that hasn’t evolved since the format was developed.
Solutions for EPUB production are still varied, so there are challenges even in finding how to produce to the new format. You can find solutions (commercial and not) now that bridge the past and the present, but do you want to encumber your narrators with the business of synchronization? Would you rather store your audio separate from any output and only merge it as you create the EPUB? If so, the production upgrade challenge potentially grows in complexity and cost.
And what do you do with a library full of content in an older format? Do you try to batch convert all your DAISY content to EPUB 3? Do you live with two formats and put the burden on your clients to figure out which device they might need for which, or which app they’ll need for which?
And then what do you do when EPUB 4 comes along? EPUB moves fast, more like the web than a traditional document format. Backwards compatibility isn’t guaranteed, and whenever the next major revision of the format rolls around what results will probably be significantly different from what exists now. Not that DAISY was static, but there’s the perennial question of how closely you tie yourself to one output format, or at what cost you try to develop a parallel output process.
There are a lot of complex questions to be considered when migrating, so it’s really not surprising to me that reception of EPUB 3 has lagged to some extent. I don’t see it as an indictment of EPUB. The accessibility community isn’t alone in being slow to migrate to EPUB 3, after all, as these complexities are faced by all publishers.
The tipping point for EPUB 3 may actually come from the education realm. The new functionality the format provides is much more geared to facilitating educational production than run of the mill novels, and so much of the push for EPUB 3 adoption is coming from education (look at EDUPUB, for example). It’s also in education that so much of the accessibility potential can be realized in meaningful ways.
But while the education push may drive improvements in reading systems and production tools, it’ll never solve the migration problem completely for you. Some problems are always going to be unique to your situation.