Posted on by & filed under Digital Publishing, Product Updates & Tips.

by Andrew Savikas

Safari Books Online has been delivering digital books on the Web for more than a decade now, beginning long before widespread commercial eBooks and the adoption of the EPUB eBook standard. While it’s always fun to be ahead of the curve, that also means a lot of Safari Books Online’s systems were built before reading on mobile phone and tablets was commonplace.

Now that the vast majority of new books are available in EPUB, we’ve made the decision to drop some legacy baggage when it comes to content delivery and rendering. Very soon a majority of books that come into Safari Books Online will come in only as EPUB. What does that mean for you?

  • More of the books available in Safari Books Online will be in web-native, highly accessible, and mobile-friendly HTML.
  • Performance will improve significantly for many titles when viewed on our iPad app (and our upcoming iPhone and Android apps, which are entering beta testing now).
  • You’ll start seeing new titles in Safari Books Online much sooner, often before they’re available in any bookstore.
  • As publishers begin deploying some of the great new capabilities available in EPUB 3, Safari Books Online will be one of the first reading systems to support many of them.

Making the transition to become a true EPUB reading system also lays some important foundations for us to build a new generation of features and products. Our acquisition earlier this year of EPUB pioneers Threepress (and their Ibis Reader) brought with it some of the strongest engineering talent around when it comes to building useful and beautiful reading experiences in the browser, and that’s already been a tremendous complement to our existing team and our technology partners. I am seriously excited about what’s ahead for Safari Books Online, and I can’t wait to share more of it with you in the months to come.

Making changes like this to a large-scale system serving tens of thousands of customers all over the world at any given time also presents some challenges — proverbially changing the tires while the car is moving. We’re doing our best to avoid sudden and significant changes to content that’s already in Safari Books Online.

Here’s some of the changes you’ll begin noticing in the weeks and months to come:

  • New titles won’t include the option to toggle between viewing modes. New books will be available as either reflowable HTML or as PDF-derived “Print Fidelity”; the vast majority of new titles will come in as EPUB and be rendered as reflowable HTML. For the remaining titles that simply aren’t available as EPUB, we’ll continue to make them available using the Print Fidelity view while we keep an eye on how things develop around the “fixed-layout” variant of EPUB.
  • Titles currently in Safari Books Online that offer both reading modes will continue that way for now; you’ll see the HTML version by default. This is a per-book user-specified preference, though, and if you’ve changed it we’ll honor that.
  • Some existing books with Print Fidelity mode may eventually be replaced with the EPUB version. We know we need to take care not to disturb your notes, bookmarks, and other annotations, so we’re taking our time evaluating our options around making that transition.

We’ve been a web-centric reading and learning platform for more than a decade. Becoming an EPUB-centric and more mobile-web-friendly platform means we can begin moving faster to respond to our customer needs and to support the latest and greatest digital content from our publishers. We’re always eager to get your feedback, and on a personal note and with next week’s London Book Fair on my mind, I am, as the Brits say, rather “chuffed” about what’s to come!


25 Responses to “EPUB FTW!”

  1. Terence

    I’m glad to hear about supporting ePub.

    I must say that ePub is not quite ready for primtetime. I download most of my eBooks in both formats. PDF format simply looks better for technical material. Publishers haven’t made ePub versions good enough to compete.

  2. Andrew Savikas

    I’ll agree that some publishers aren’t making EPUBs that are as good as they could be, but many others are already producing fantastic EPUB content (I’m thinking of O’Reilly, Peachpit, and A Book Apart as some examples), and that will only improve as EPUB 3 adoption spreads. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem right now with EPUB 3, where publishers aren’t ready to invest in producing some of the most interesting features because reading systems don’t yet support it — and many reading systems are holding off on building in EPUB 3 support because there’s not a lot of EPUB 3 content.

    Our intention here is to “skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been” so while we’ll continue a degree of support for PDF, it’s clear the ebook puck is going mobile.

    Thanks for the feedback, Terence!

    • Terence

      I have several O’Reilly titles in PDF and ePub and generally prefer the PDF versions. It’s one of the reasons I adopted the new iPad’s high resolution screen.

      Choice is good. I hope that you will support both reflowable ePub *AND* print fidelity PDF.

  3. Thomas

    Yeah, ePub is much better for mobile reading and reading in a web browser, but I think PDF is still really important as a lot of books are just not as useable in their ebook versions. I hate the print fidelity versions of books that are displayed as images, but I was really hoping that the iPad app would get support for PDF versions of books as well as better reflowable text versions. The iPad is really great for viewing PDF files and on the larger screen print fidelity PDFs can be a lot better reading experience than ePub for some content.

    One of the reasons I often buy copies of O’Reilly books from the O’Reilly Books site even though I can access them through Safari Books Online is because I get a really excellent PDF version of the book that is great for reading on the iPad when I want to see the book the way it was published. I also load the mobi version up to my Kindle Personal Documents folder for the ebook experience on my Kindle with syced notes and bookmarks between devices. It’s nice that the PDF versions from the O’Reilly site don’t have the extra whitespace that is added to Safari Books downloads to make them 8 1/2″ x 11″, so they display better on the iPad screen.

    As for some constructive criticism: reflowable text versions of books in the iPad app and on the website need better options for enlarging images. When you try to expand an image on the iPad, like a diagram that is too small to read for example, it shows up in a small window in the middle of the screen that is barely larger than the image was already in the flow of the text. Ideally It should be displayed full screen similar to the way iBooks expands images. As far as I remember from reading books on the web site, you can’t even see a larger version of an image.

    It would also be nice if the ebook versions of books used more SVG images and less bitmaps. In a book like Algorithms, Fourth Edition (, for example, the PDF version is about 10MB and the diagrams are all vector based and very sharp at any level of zoom. The ePub version of that book is about 50MB and the diagrams are fuzzy even at small sizes. These kinds of things will need to be fixed for ePub to be a better reading experience than the PDF version.

  4. javamark (@javamark)

    I have been with Safari since the early days – and along the way have grokked boat loads of books, and during this time service evolved to provide near 1:1 typographically equivalence to the actual physical books. In recent times the addition of hyperlinking has taken the digital form of the book into a new place.

    Content is ALL about Typography Google Bill Hill and Channel 9 for some awesome background on this), and the some of the books recently added to the Safari site only in the new re-flowable EPUb HTML come “no where” near the same Typograpic quality as the existing PDF-derived “Print Fidelity” – the result is that these titles are now much much harder to consume.

    Now I’m with you on “move with the times – or the times moves you” however the EPub format has a long way to go to get to the 1:1 typographically equivalence of some other existing formats. For your recent TOC video it is clear that non-mobile platform still makes the largest proportion of your users, and whilst supporting the new mobile channel please maintain the highest standards in the other formats/channels.

    So in a nutshell please keep the existing formads **AND** EPub because of the 1:1 typographically equivalence to the book. There is power the whitespace.

  5. Andrew Savikas

    Thanks for the perspective, it’s particularly helpful coming from a longtime customer. It’s true that EPUB isn’t really capable of (nor intended to) reproduce a printed page. We’ve also seen that many publishers don’t produce PDFs that are intended for digital consumption (and most commercial printing workflows explicitly forbid things like hyperlinks and intra-document navigation, so if the publisher isn’t taking the time to produce a separate web-friendly version, then the one we get won’t take advantage of some of the best things about reading in the browser). We’re taking this change slow so we can adjust and tack along the way, and I’m confident there’s also a lot more we can (and will) do to improve how the EPUB content is presented. Thanks again for weighing in!

    • javamark (@javamark)

      Thank Andrew – for working with ‘us’ on this.

      Bill Hill video [1] remarks that as Homo Sapiens “1.0” the hardware and software is millions of years old – where as the civilization stuff is a mere 13,000. So when you consider this against the eBook timescale we have a lot of evolving to do.


      My interest in this area stems form the endless days leafing through the university periodicals whist doing my PhD – back then I thought there must be a better way to access such information.

      Keep up the fantastic work Andrew.

  6. Terence

    I am also been with Safari since the early days and a library subscriber. Without PDF print fidelity going forward, I would most likely shift my efforts to buying eBooks directly from the publisher.

    Direct publisher purchases have the most choice in formats: mobi, epub, and PDF. I can use Kindle, iBooks, and more. This would far outweight access to a large library through limited application or mobile website.

  7. Edward Boyhan

    I’ve been a Safari subscriber for a lot of years — I find that my usage is “at the margin” only as I prefer to read on my numerous kindles (which don’t easily support epub). I mostly buy my books directly from the publisher (including O’Reilly) in either pdf, or mobi, or both depending on the nature of the content. To me epub has always seemed to be more an issue of “religion”, and publishing industry business “positioning” v Amazon — as opposed to any benefit the format might deliver. As to quality nothing beats PDF. Most publishers use some form of PDF in their internal prepress workflows — it would seem more logical to adapt what already exists rather than using something with a decidedly mixed track record.

    • Andrew Savikas

      Edward — I’ll agree there’s plenty of room for improvement in the quality of EPUB from some publishers and for some titles. There’s been a tremendous change in the last 24 months as publishers shift their production and design energies toward EPUB (which in nearly all workflows is the precursor to the Kindle format). It’s true that PDF is used for printing; those PDFs are often not suited for digital consumption. Books are now expected to behave like the Web they’re connected to, and in the same way very few websites insist on fixed-layout presentation even for long-form content, I expect HTML-based presentation to quickly become dominant for books as well. The true “benefit” to EPUB is that book content can behave like the rest of the Web, and that’s something we welcome at Safari.

  8. Alex Sirota

    There is one other effect of abandoning PDF – less piracy. This I believe is the biggest benefit, not just usability. I must say I don’t have an ePUB reader on any of my PCs. Although I do have Adobe Acrobat PDF everywhere.

  9. John Sails

    I have been checking many of the new titles since your post, but I could not find any in EPUB format. I get the usual PDF through the Flash plugin with HTML option or only the PDF.

    Can you point to any book published in EPUB, so we can experience the new format?


    • Andrew Savikas

      Hi John,

      Whenever you’re viewing the “HTML” view for one of these newer titles, you’re seeing the EPUB content (unpacked from the EPUB container and delivered to the browser). We also preserve and respect the publisher-supplied CSS (though we’re discovering few publishers are including style rules to handle wide screen widths, and we’re working on a fix). EPUB is available for download if the publisher has enabled it.

  10. admin

    Am I missing something here? How can I actually “reflow” these reflowable books? How can I modify the CSS? How can I change the (currently god-awful on iPad) pagination? I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that thinks this is a massive step backwards in terms of readability on any device a sane person would use for reading. Please, please someone provide me a link showing an ePub book that even approaches decent levels of typography and page-flow so that I can restore a tiny bit of faith that I will continue to use this service.

    • Andrew Savikas

      Hmmm, try bumping up the text size (using the little magnifying glass icon at ). That setting is sticky, so should follow you around to other EPUB/HTML titles. I’m concerned your default is so small; I’ll have the team take a look and see if we need to make an adjustment to the default. Thanks for sharing the screenshot, that was very helpful (and hope a few ticks up the scale improves things for you).

    • admin

      The zoom certainly helps make it legible. I’m clearly having some sort of font issue though. In any case, at least there’s hope that at some point ePub will be functional even if it will never be as nice as print fidelity.

  11. Terence

    I have tried a comparison for the 3rd edition of iOS Programming: Big Nerd Ranch Guide. It is available through Safari (ePub), iBooks (ePub), and Kindle (mobi). The content was essentially the same across the 3 editions.

    The reading experience on iPad, 3rd gen. was best on Kindle followed by iBooks and Safari To Go. The fonts used in the Kindle reader just makes the text look great. I hope Safari will consider this comparison and quickly improve their efforts. The yearly cost of Safari buys a lot of content.

    • Terence

      Here’s where Safari outshined the competitors. I looked for a PDF version of iOS Programming: Big Nerd Ranch and could not find one. However, Safari Books website had the print fidelity version and I could see exactly how the book would look. Bravo!

  12. codes4free

    Thank you for writing to explain Safari’s new direction. I’ve got a Nook so I’m happy that you’re supporting the EPUB format. What I’m concerned about is the cost. I’m a loyal Safari subscriber but I’m paying for it (not my company) and I can’t afford to upgrade to the unlimited support.

    I use the chapter download feature extensively. You didn’t mention anything about changing the number of chapter download tokens per month. I depend on Safari to enable me to download a chapter or 2 to read offline. With the new EPUB format will I have wait to accumulate enough tokens or fork over $$$ to buy extra tokens to be able to download the new book? Will there be any way to download EPUB book chapter(s)?

    Have you considered allowing tokens to pay for “rental” time on a full EPUB book? I wouldn’t be real happy but it might solve my dilemma of not having to spend $$$ to get an immediate read. I’d be ok with having the book disappear when the time was up – my library books do that. I’ve stayed with Safari for so long because it has allowed me to get information IMMEDIATELY for the price of a monthly subscription. Please don’t lose this.

    Thanks for soliciting my feedback.

  13. Anonymous

    Can we have an update on the Android app please? ETA?