Posted on by & filed under epub, ipad.

Now that I’ve got the hardware iPad, I was able to do some comprehensive reviews of the iBooks application and its treatment of the ePub format.

  1. As noted earlier by Dave Thomas, when an ePub file is added to iTunes, the file is modified in place to add a file called iTunesMetadata.plist. This is really obnoxious, but it doesn’t render the files invalid. You can look at the file to see the values that iTunes has derived from the metadata of the epub; initially it won’t be readable — change the file permissions, if that’s something you know how to do.

    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
    <!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
    <plist version="1.0">
            <string>Doctorow, Cory</string>
            <string>lcsh: Novels</string>
            <string>Little Brother</string>
            <string>Little Brother</string>
            <string>Doctorow, Cory</string>
  2. As expected, you can add ePubs that won’t actually be readable in iBooks. Most of the cases are totally understandable: missing container files and other severe problems. It also seems that omitting a dc:title is a fatal error. All errors are reported generically as “This book cannot be opened,” so check with the ePub validator to look for the real cause.

  3. One nice feature of Feedbooks content is the recommendations for related titles, with links directly to those ePub files. In Ibis Reader, accessing an ePub file link will prompt you if you want to add that book to your library, and let you start reading right away. In iBooks, it will open Mobile Safari and then return an error.
  4. Hyperlinks, either internal to the book or external to the web, otherwise work normally.
  5. Flash video does not work (of course). HTML5 <video> also does not work, though that’s outside of the spec and therefore unsurprising. I don’t know if it’s possible to embed multimedia into an iBook ePub using some other method. [Edit: subsequently Apple has released updates to support HTML5 video through use of the video tag; note that this will produce an invalid EPUB file at this time.]
  6. [Edited to remove incorrect statement about justification; does seem to be under CSS control.]
  7. CSS support seems good, as expected from a WebKit-based reading engine. I haven’t rigorously tested it but I assume it will support CSS outside of the required ePub subset, just as a normal web browser would.
  8. Embedded fonts don’t appear to work. This is consistent with @font-face not being supported on Mobile Safari. It was also what I expected.
  9. Extremely long books with limited breaks seem to fail. At least, Ulysses does not work at all: page numbering is random, and reading the book is basically impossible.
  10. Text that cannot be line-broken (like code) runs off the screen. This is true of both portrait and landscape mode:

  11. Tables sometimes break in the middle of text when paginating. (In Ibis Reader we try to ensure that text doesn’t get cut off even when it occurs inside a table.)
  12. My favorite test book looks fine:

Overall I’d say iBooks is pretty good for a first-generation ePub reader. The biggest concern is of course that once you purchase books from iTunes, you’re locked in to only reading them in iBooks.

I also hope to see an ePub style guide from Apple to help publishers and designers understand more fully what is and isn’t supported in iBooks.

Update: Liz Castro has some good observations too.


62 Responses to “iBooks and ePub”

  1. Jens Ayton

    I note that the screen shot under point 10 contradicts point 6.

  2. David Rosenvall

    Does iBooks support the display:oeb-page-head for headers?

  3. Steve Shepard

    Liza, iTunes also adds a file named “iTunesArtwork” (no extension) if you drop cover art on the artwork viewer. iTunes doesn’t read cover art from the normal ePub mechanism, but from this file instead.

  4. Liza Daly

    Timothy: I’ve been told that no embedded fonts are supported in iBooks at this time, even if they were SVG (and SVG fonts are currently very uncommon in the ePub ecosystem; they’re almost always TTF or OTF).

  5. sfmitch

    “Overall I’d say iBooks is pretty good for a first-generation ePub reader. The biggest concern is of course that once you purchase books from iTunes, you’re locked in to only reading them in iBooks.”

    Do you recommend a better place to buy book in the ePub format that will be usable on the iPad bought also usable in other readers?

    Don’t all booksellers (selling current book / bestsellers) use copy protection?

  6. Lew Kopp

    I converted a large number of ebooks using Calibre and got pretty good results. So far I’ve only come across one book that didn’t work properly (just the first several pages and then 1000+ pages blank) but I haven’t had the time to check all of the 300 books I loaded up. :-)

    The majority of the conversions were from HTML versions to ePub and while there is some funkiness at the front of the book (previous, next, frameless show up as chapters) all of the pages are there and the books are readable.

    My biggest disappointment is that the books show up on the shelves in iBook in the order added. You can change the sort for the list view, but I haven’t found a way to change the shelf sort yet. :-

    The dictionary lookup feature is very nice and works quite well.

    The speed and responsiveness of iBook as well as the rest of the iPad apps is wonderful. Much more usable than my Sony Reader. The jury is still out though on the weight issue. :-}

  7. Jonathan Rochkind

    What’s obnoxious about the reader sticking a plist file in there? I’m not disagreeing, it’s just not clear to me and I’m curious what you’re thinking.

    If the reader needs to store it’s own metadata about a particular epub, what would be the better way than adding a file to the epub package?

  8. Liza Daly

    Jonathan: That’s a good question, and I did have to think for a minute about what I found objectionable.

    The issue for me is that it’s intrusive and unnecessary. iTunes could store metadata about the file somewhere else. Or it could modify its own copy. When I move a resource into iTunes, I’m asking iTunes to read it, not edit it.

    Software should have to ask permission explicitly to make a change to a resource, if changing the resource isn’t implicit in what I’m asking it to do (like editing a document). I’m only asking it to ‘play’ the ebook file, so this behavior was unexpected.

  9. Jonathan Rochkind

    Yeah, I see what you’re saying Liza. I’m not entirely convinced it matters that much — and I doubt most readers (who aren’t used to thinking ‘preservation’ like some of us) will care that much.

    The model of modifying the file to store application metadata is pretty established for other media types — especially mp3 files, the iTunes precedent. I guess iTunes doesn’t neccesarily automatically change metadata just by importing (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it did in some cases), but if you edit a genre or other tag in iTunes, it puts it right in your mp3 — in the metadata section. You open up a JPG in an image editor — I wouldn’t be too surprised if some image editors add their own metadata inside the JPG.

    In fact, in iTunes, users are often annoyed when iTunes stores it’s metadata (for metadata that has no place in an mp3 file) _outside_ the file! Why? Because then when you take the file and move it to different software, you lose the metadata!

    So the other side of the coin is, Apple is storing metadata in the ePub not in some weird hard to decode proprietary format, but in a pretty transparent (semi-proprietary :) ) plist format. Anyone else’s software can easily read that plist too and do what it likes with the metadata. You take your epub out of iTunes and move it to some other reader — that reader can make use of the metadata iTunes added if it wanted.

    As someone who deals with giant quantities of metadata representing library holdings, there is definitely something appealing about storing metadata in a transparent standard (or semi-standard) format embedded in the object so it can’t get lost, it doesn’t need a seperate export-and-merge, it’s right there in the file and travels with the file wherever it may go. Every time metadata gets lost, an angel loses it’s wings. Well, maybe not, but a metadata librarian cries about it.

  10. Liza Daly

    Jonathan: I totally agree that users should be able to add and edit metadata and have that propagate back into the file. But there’s already metadata in the epub! There’s a whole specification about it!

    The plist file is purely for Apple’s convenience and won’t make the epub “better.”

  11. Thom

    Yes, locked into reading the book in iBooks, and therefore only on the iPad.

    Kind of like when I buy a hardback novel I’m locked into reading it only in the hardback. I have to buy it yet again in the paperback version to read it outside of the hardback version. Yet, that paperback version is just as locked as the hardback.

    At least with the iPad, screenshots are immediate and cheaper than copies from copier machines, and highlighting doesn’t bleed through the page. But then again, I guess that means the highlighting is locked onto one side of the page and not allowed to bleed through to the other side. Oh no. More locking. Someone stop them.

  12. Norm Margolus

    Since it seems that there are currently no plans to make an iPad version of the Amazon-owned “Stanza” app (see “”), I decided to convert all of my Stanza ePub’s to work in iBook.

    The conversion itself was fairly easy, though the script supplied by Stanza ( only found about 5% of my books in the iPhone backup. I had better luck used the free/donation-ware “iPhone Backup Extractor” to pull out the Stanza data in a normal directory structure, and then constructed a very simple script just to zip up the “exploded” epub files, which each appear as a separate directory. Note that a few of the epub files were stored in unzipped form by Stanza, and although most directory names used by Stanza for unzipped ePub’s ended with “.explode”, some were missing this extension. What to zip is explained at “”. Artwork can be reattached to epub’s using iTunes, as Steve Shepard mentioned above.

    As Lew Kopp mentions above, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to control the order that the books are put on the iBooks bookshelf. When you add a bunch of ePub’s to the iTunes library and then sync, the new ePub’s get sent to the iPad in title-sorted order. This means that, since iBooks puts the most recent items first on the bookshelf, the added books get shelved in reverse title order. For a large number of books, I much prefer alphabetical order by author’s last name.

    To achieve this, I let iTunes reorganize its library (File>Library>Organize Library), so all the books are in a single “Books” directory, with a separate subdirectory for each author. I then deleted all the books using iTunes but didn’t let it move the files to the trash, and synced with the iPad to get rid of the books there. I then added back in each author (File>Add to Library), one at a time in reverse alphabetical order, syncing the iPad after each addition. I had about 300 books to add from 71 different authors, and this took about 30 minutes to do manually. Not a great solution, but the books are now all in iBooks, with artwork, and in the desired shelf order.

  13. Norm Margolus

    I meant to say above that a few of the epub files were stored in *zipped* form by Stanza (most of mine were unzipped). Probably Stanza keeps them in zipped form until the first time they’re read.

  14. Rodti

    Liza, when you add an ePub file to iTunes doesn’t it create a new copy of that file in its iTunes Library, so that in fact it’s not modifying the original file but creating a new one for its own use with extra XML? I’d argue that this is perfectly acceptable as long as the original file is unaltered.

  15. Stephen Fleming

    Hey, reading Ulysses is “basically impossible” in any format, including paper! You can’t blame that one on Apple! :-)

  16. Liz Castro

    @Rodti and Liza, what I don’t get is why it doesn’t just add the metadata to that copy that it makes (and stores in the iTunes Music library). I also find it obtrusive that it would add data to a file without telling you, and without letting you Save, or Cancel!

  17. sfmitch

    @ Lew Kopp

    “My biggest disappointment is that the books show up on the shelves in iBook in the order added. You can change the sort for the list view, but I haven’t found a way to change the shelf sort yet. :-”

    I have no problem changing the order of the books on the shelves or in the list view. Maybe they updated Give it another try.

  18. Chris

    Yes. One CAN manipulate the order of books on the shelf.

    1) Make sure you are in the Bookshelf view.

    2) Touch Edit in top right corner

    3) Touch and HOLD on the cover of a book until it “floats” out of the bookshelf.

    4) Move said book wherever you want it to be.

  19. Charles

    The lack of support for embedded fonts is a catastrophic failure. It’s a massive black mark against Apple for anyone who’s interested in seeing publishers improve the standard of epubs (and Threepress has been quite active in that regard).

    So much for any hopes that Apple would provide seek to compete on the basis of quality. The only redeeming aspect is that the native fonts appear to cover the bulk of the Latin extensions, Hebrew, Arabic and a variety of miscellaneous symbols (CJK wasn’t tested, but the iPhone has had that for a while now). There seems to be a bit of a problem with Cyrillic though.

    We can only hope that this was a result of the iPad being rushed out ahead of proper OS support and that iPhoneOS 4.0 will correct this gaping flaw.

  20. william

    Instructions to make iTunes read a cover inside EPUB files and use it in iTunes

    As discussed in, I have summarized what to do here.

    1. open EPUB file
    2. locale content.opf (likely location, root, or inside OEBPS folder)
    3. extract and open content.opf
    4. inside , add this

    5. inside , add this

    href basically points to the file you want as cover, not sure if media type has to be jpeg or any MIME graphic type

    6. replace content.opf inside EPUB file
    7. drag/add into iTunes

    *IMPORTANT NOTE/My own observation*
    -iTune will add the plist file into you –original– EPUB file, THEN add to iTuen. Therefore if you don’t want iTunes to touch your original file, you better use a copy of the EPUB file to import which you can delete later after import
    -adding cover to EPUB inside iTunes using “Get Info” and “Art work” have one downside. If you look at the content table on landscape mode, the cover image added inside artwork DOES NOT SHOW UP on the left. The above pre-import modification is the only way I know which will make the image show up there.
    -during the import of the above modified EPUB, basically iTunes will add these two attribute into plist. I am not sure if you can add them AFTER they are imported into iTunes because I am not sure what that hash does…

  21. william

    I am sorry, but I guess the comment system does not take tags very well, here is step 4 and 5, i replaced as *

    4. inside *metadata**/metadata*, add this

    *meta name=”cover” content=”cover-image” /*

    5. inside *manifest**/manifest*, add this

    *item id=”cover-image” href=”images/Cover.jpg” media-type=”image/jpeg”/*


  22. Gerd Kamp

    Does anybody else have the problem that .epubs that worlk well on other reading systems do not show up in tunes. Some of our epubs work some don’t

  23. bowerbird

    oh geez, now liza has joined the dark side and
    started banning comments from her blog when
    they dare to question the emperor’s new clothing.

    it seems the blind eye toward .epub failure is
    not just a willful one, but quite determined too.

    how sad.


  24. Keith Fahlgren

    @william: Sorry about the stripping of HTML from the comments. I’m trying to get WordPress to allow more HTML like <code> and

  25. Michael Jahn

    Is there a way to convert graphically books like this one to EPUB (yes, I have the original PDF file) – or is EPUB simply the wrong approach? As this is a free book – I am considering creating an image for each page at 1024 x 768 px, 132 ppi (just to be done with it)

    And I have no idea who bowerbird is, but who ever it is, please, find someone else to pester – many of us grew so tired of your badgering of Bill McCoy on his blog at Adobe. If you have something useful to contribute, please, be helpful – otherwise, please spare us.

  26. Liza Daly

    Michael: The ideal approach (from an epub perspective) would be to convert the whole book into something that’s reflowable, and of course it’s not accessible to the visually-impaired if it’s just a series of images.

    But as a stop-gap, sure, converting an image-intensive PDF into a series of XHTML pages with page-sized images is not unreasonable. It’s what many people do for comics, for example.

  27. william


    My own opinion is that if you want to have a series of graphics as a book, you are better off with a picture viewer, like using Photo on iPad.

    I have never dealt with anything beside iBook, but from what I observe using iBook, the border is not something you can control.

    ie. if you image already have border, you will be seeing double border spacing. You have to crop all you images so it’s just against the edge.

    An extension of the above problem is that you cannot have a full page graphic. Anyone who has the chance looking at the free Winnie-the-Pooh book that comes with iBook, do you notice that the first page of the book, is the actual, original cover of the physical book? but it’s within a border set by the application.

    I had to deal with an illustration that span across the center, full page on each side. There is simply no way I can make them touch in the middle in landscape mode or the edge on portrait mode. In the end, I have to rotate it 90 degress and insert as portrait into one page. Reader will have to rotate 90% in order to look at the illustration

    Is this acceptable? No. But can you do anything about it? At least I have no idea how to do it…

  28. SirFr

    Dear Liza, thank You for your post and all the comments, it’s so useful!
    I just wanted to ask, did someone of you found a way to see videos in epub files in iBooks?
    and what do you use to create epub files? is indesign cs4 a good decision?
    I’m in Italy, and here it’s much more difficult to have access to first technologies … I heard that dramatically iBooks store will be avaible in Europe only really later, like at the end of 2010 …
    Last questions to everybody: what do you think about Zinio platform for magazines? I searched for others stores of digital magazines but I didn’t found anything interesting other then this, but I don’t like the fact that everything they publish is readable only by their own software, even if it’s free…
    Thank You again for your quality informations,

  29. Liza Daly

    Francesca: I don’t believe there’s a way to do video in iBooks at this moment.

    InDesign CS4 (soon CS5) is probably the easiest way to create epubs right now, though you may still need to do some hand-work to make it a valid book that will work well in most devices. I do recommend it, but its epub output isn’t always perfect.

  30. william

    i am having this ONE nagging problem with inDesign CS 4 exporting to EPUB. it’s very frustrating. So far I haven’t been able to find any documentation or anyone else with this problem.

    I would have a book file with multiple documents. Each of those documents contain one textpath with text and anchored graphic inside. When I export, the epub file would come out with empty xhtml files inside OEBPS. It’s almost as if the book file just ignored everything I have in there.

    The weird thing is, 50% of the time, if I open the document file through the book file, copy everything out from the existing textpath, create a new textpath and paste everything in again, viola! the export to EPUB would now include those.

    I’ve tried finalized every documents then add to book file, and create empty documents in book files and edit documents while book file is open. Either method will still produce empty xhtmls in EPUB until I try my luck at replacing the textpath.

    Unbelievably frustrating and time-consuming.

  31. Andrew Akeroyd

    Video in iBooks was mentioned in the iPad presentation. To get video in an ePub they would have to do something non-standard, I assumed it would be HTML5.
    Maybe they skipped that part for now and will add it later.

  32. Francis McCarthy

    Thanks for the comments Liza :D
    I was wondering if anyone could point me in the right direction… I’ve converted my dad’s book to an ePUB format and now I’m trying to get it buyable from the iBookstore and readable via iBooks. Apple has apparently zero support for self publishing authors to get their content running on the iBookstore as I’ve made several calls and made zero progress.

    Sorry if this doesn’t add directly to the discussion but when Liza wrote “I also hope to see an ePub style guide from Apple to help publishers and designers understand more fully what is and isn’t supported in iBooks” I wasn’t surprised, there doesn’t seem to be any guides for content providers at all.

    I’ve noticed in my own experience and in lots of other forums that no one can figure out how to get their own work on the iBookstore.
    The link above is to the iTunes connect where you apply to provide book content, it says to “Please provide the application code generated and provided to you by your iBookstore representative to apply for iBookstore.” No one knows who to talk to or how to get one, that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

    I’m a pretty tech-savvy 22 year old guy raised on computers and I’m ready to pull my hair out. Any help would be much appreciated!

  33. Tal

    Does anybody know the correct image size for epub cover image so it shows properly on the iBooks app shelf. More precisely what should be the width/height ration for such image.

  34. uhuznaa

    Francis, try, and — they seem to have deals with Apple and will help with getting your book in the iBooks store. Apple doesn’t seem to deal with individual authors yet (or ever).

  35. Andy Phillips

    Problems with cover seems to happen if there are spaces in name of the cover image file.

    Removing the space in the image name seems to work fine. I did this in sigil, but remember to change the name in the code on tyhe cover page as well as the image file, so both match up.


  36. mp3, wav file

    Dear all,

    I have a question about related to epub process.
    I don’t know that is ok or not. I have some mp3 video file, Than i want that my all mp3 video file should be run in epub. If video file is runing in epub that what i use for this.

    Please send me answer query shortly.


  37. kamal

    Dear all,

    Please suggest me what can i do for it. how can i run mp3, mp4 file in Epub.


  38. diana

    I have a book with lots of tables, is there any way to export them into an epub from indesign cs5? Right now the only way I found was pasting them like images…


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