Open Ebooks

By jakehartnell | 22 October, 2013

Digital publishing is one of the most exciting and most depressing areas on the web. “Exciting” because we are witnessing the dawn of a revolution in communications, and “depressing” because the revolution is too often proprietary.

At, we want the revolution to be open.

My goal this summer was to enable open annotation in ebooks, and with the help of my Berkeley colleagues Fred Chasen, AJ Renold, and the whole team, we’ve managed to accomplish this. I’m writing this post to announce a new open-source reader using epub.js,[1] which transforms an ebook into an enriching social experience that includes the ability to annotate, share, and—for the author/publisher—engage.

Open Publishing

Like paper books, e-books should be open—free for anyone to read at any time—not locked away with proprietary formats or devices.

Similarly, annotation should not be siloed based on devices or apps. A world of “Kindle” annotations existing separately from “iBook” annotations is not a world conducive to collaboration, sharing and open knowledge. At, we want to see annotation flourish into a healthy web standard, a shared space.

On the Internet it should always be free to comment, discuss, and learn.[2]

That would be revolutionary. Kathleen Miller, my editor, says it nicely: “The potential that the communal dimension of annotation offers for discourse is something that we’ve only perhaps recently begun to see thanks to the web. Regardless of medium (book, site, etc.), the ability to create and curate and sift through and recombine the layered voices that emerge as a result of (and embedded within) the content as well as each other is what excites me most about all of this [open annotation] work.”

Reading in the browser is by no means new; the browser is the greatest publishing application ever created. Epub itself is comprised of open standards—HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript, to name a few—which are the results of immense efforts of individuals and organizations large and small.[3] Somewhat surprisingly, while all modern browsers have a native way to read pdfs, no browser currently has a way to read epubs.[4] We hope this will change.

There were projects that came before us, and doubtlessly there will be more to follow. Other projects such as the Readium Foundation, have inspired our thinking and have shown us alternative ways of doing things. Importantly, we share much of the same vision: books in the browser. With a web-reader, any device with a modern browser can read books published on the web— which helps reduce the redundancies and inefficiencies of having to publish on multiple proprietary platforms.

At Berkeley, our focus on the epub.js project is not to just to create a reading app but rather an open source JavaScript library that could be used to render and work with epubs in a wide variety of web applications and use cases. Ultimately, we want to see experimentation with the document beyond the confines of all-text fiction ebooks since in many ways Epub (a zipped up collection of web resources) could be very useful in other domains such as scientific publishing. Epub3 has many great features and we’d love to see people start using them for distributing and packaging everything from educational games to semantically marked up scientific articles. It is our goal to support it and help it grow into an awesome packaged document standard for the web: a document that is open, unhindered by proprietary baggage, and more powerful than a PDF.

It is our hope that in the coming years, it is as easy to publish a book as it is to publish a blog.

The Demo(s)

There are currently two demos up for public use. It should be noted that the code is in Alpha (there will be bugs), but should work in the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE 10.

First, we have the traditional selection of Moby-Dick, where you are free to play around and experiment with the interface.

The cover for 23rd Century Romance. A man wearing virtual reality gear envisions himself with a beautiful woman.The second demo features 23rd Century Romance (click the “Read now” button to get started), a sci-fi romantic comedy I’ve written about the future of sex and relationships. The book is free to read and annotate, and I’d love to hear your thoughts![5]

As an author, I cannot express how exciting it is to have discussion layered on top of a book which you’ve written.  It truly is a chance to engage with (and learn from) readers in a new way—and indeed, as someone who knows how to code and build applications, I’m as interested in new ways of interaction as I am in in metaphors.

We would greatly appreciate your feedback and help in making both epub.js and robust open source projects. Feel free to email me with feedback on the demo, file a bug report on the epub.js-reader github page, or join the epub.js developer mailing list.

Big thanks to Robert J. Glushko for advising us on the project, and for using our reader with his book The Discipline of Organizing in his class INFO202: Information Organization and Retrieval. Also, big thanks to Randall Leeds, who has been working hard at restructuring internals on to make it easier to integrate. The technological solutions he’s worked on should be widely applicable to other web readers such as Readium.js and pdf.js.

“All knowledge annotated.”

Books are information, and our mission at is ultimately made possible by projects like epub.js. To achieve this, we must embrace open standards, both in publishing and annotation, so that anyone can publish and interact with content.

The Internet presents us with a revolution in communications, one that goes beyond primary content, to the dialogue around that content… which itself is new content. This cycle continues on and on, and therefore it is important that this entire chain of information doesn’t get siloed into proprietary apps and systems. Do we really want a world where the Internet works like cable TV? Where there might exist books that are only available for iPads? Or only available for Kindle? Do we want to have our annotations bundled up in proprietary reading software so that we aren’t free to remix, migrate, and use our own thoughts and annotations as we please?

Luckily, good people from all over the world are working hard to see that that doesn’t happen.

Happy annotating,


[1] Note: Epub is a registered trademark of the IDPF.

[2] In the twenty-first century, we may just come to found a new ‘Bill of Rights for the Internet’ in which we might include things like Freedom to Publish and Equality for Data Packets (Net neutrality). See John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

[3] Kudos to the IDPF for creating such a great standard.

[4] Yes, there are many extensions, but none of them are packaged with the browser.

[5] And to Remix! It’s published under a “Free Culture” Creative Commons license.

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