September 2014 Meeting Discussion: EPUB Help: A Viable Help Delivery Option?

Presented by Scott Prentice, and reviewed by Riley VanDyke

The first thing to notice is the question mark in the presentation’s title. The most recent version of the EPUB standard, EPUB 3, includes many but not all of the capabilities that could enable it to supplant older single-file help systems such as CHM or HLP. At the same time, the tools and readers required to author and view EPUB Help lack key capabilities.

There’s good news and not so good news

Today there is both good news and not so good news about using EPUB to deliver help content.

The good news:

  • EPUB 3 can deliver text, images, and multi-media content in a single ZIP-like archive file
  • EPUB 3 readers exist for nearly every device and platform
  • The EPUB specification is actively developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)

The not so good news (as of today):

  • Reader support for EPUB 3 is inconsistent or nonexistent
  • Configuring EPUB 3 to behave like an online help system is technically demanding and labor intensive
  • Tools support remains limited and can be pricey

Overview OF EPUB 3 format and capabilities

As a result of the IDPF’s active stewardship of the EPUB specification, many of the capabilities required to use EPUB to deliver help content already exist.

What works now:

  • EPUB 3 can provide a “Web site in a box” that can contain HTML5, CSS3, SVG, scripting, MathML, and multi-media files
  • EPUB readers support TOCs, indexes, search, bookmarking, and Previous/Next browsing
  • EPUB 3 supports responsive layout via media queries
  • Wide tables and images can be made to work

What will work soon (we hope):

  • Context sensitivity
  • Cross-book linking

EPUB Help development capabilities and challenges

EPUB Help developers are challenged by limited tool choices, inconsistent or nonexistent support for EPUB 3 features by most EPUB readers, and to a lesser extent omissions in the current EPUB specification.

What can be done today:

  • Use JavaScript to provide topic-based presentation via vertical scrolling
  • Use many third-party JavaScript libraries
  • Implement responsive layout via media queries

What’s harder (or today impossible) to do:

  • Most readers do not yet support the full EPUB 3 specification
  • Tools don’t support EPUB 3’s “interesting” features–you’ll need to hand-code
  • Context sensitivity via command line parameters is not yet supported
  • Kindle format presents its own separate set of challenges and limitations

What’s next?

As stated above, the IDPF actively manages the EPUB specification. Surprisingly, however, the use of EPUB as a medium for the delivery of technical communications is not at the forefront of the IDPF’s concerns.

To help make the EPUB specification a better platform for the delivery of help content, technical communicators should:

  • Encourage reader providers to support full text search and command-line driven context sensitivity
  • Encourage tools vendors to actively support EPUB 3 features (and beyond)
  • Experiment with the medium, help identify needs and future direction


Use the following resources to learn more about EPUB, EPUB readers, and EPUB development tools.

Specifications and EPUB3 compatibility:

EPUB 3 readers:

EPUB 3 tools:

Riley VanDyke has been a contract and consulting technical writer since 1998.
Riley actively volunteers with STC’s San Francisco chapter.


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