In which Mia Eaton pokes the giant blob known as ePublishing with a stick.
For writers, there’s much to learn about eBooks and ePublishing, probably more than you care to know. But learn you must.
My first impulse for today’s post was to offer a guide to publishing books in the ePub
format, but I realized I couldn’t begin there. I don’t want to assume my readers understand the significance of the “format
” part of the phrase "ePub format," or that they understand that ePub
is not simply a faster way to say ePublishing, or that all electronic publishing is not in ePub format.
There’s a whole slew of options at the moment. Just check out this run-down of current eBook and eReader options, by Sarah Weinman for AOL Finance: How to Navigate the Confusing E-Book Landscape
Bear with me a sec, it will sound like I’m digressing. We’re just about to bite off a really chewy piece of taffy.
can refer to every manner of electronic publishing: any and all electronic readers, PDFs, including the act of simply “publishing” websites, while ePub
is a special, standardized markup language based on the powerful language called XML, which stands for Extensible Markup Language
Websites, as you may know, all use HTML (even if they use one or more other programming languages to make them fancy or dynamic, the base is HTML), which stands for Hyper Text Markup Language. (For bonus nerd points: the HTTP in your web address stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, and the technology that moves files up and down off of servers and computers is FTP, which stands for File Transfer Protocol. Starting to sense a logic?)
Creating a website in good standards-compliant HTML guarantees not only that the web pages will work across various browsers and platforms (such as Internet Explorer and Firefox, on a Mac,a PC, or the iPhone, etc.), but that they will also be accessible to tools like sight readers for the blind and to the “spiderbots” used by search engines to scour and catalog the pages. Proper semantic HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) markup guarantee not only that the content comes through well, but that there is order and meaning in the presentation, regardless of the “reading” method. There is the page seen with human eyes, and there are the aspects you don’t see visually but you do in fact use... whether you can see the text and content just fine, need to make it larger, need it read to be out loud by another piece of software, or to find its content by typing a few key words into a search engine.
The basic principle (at the risk of oversimplifying) is much the same for eReaders and eBooks.
While, ePub is just one flavor
, so to speak, of the file formats found in today’s ePublishing landscape, it is the open eBook standard created by the International Digital Publishing Forum, designed for use across devices and platforms by any publisher or individual, for distribution and sale, as opposed to a format designed to work on one device, for sale by one distributor, such as the file format used by Kindle or Nook, along with other less obvious limitations or features (such as Amazon keeping a digital record of text passages you highlight, and who knows what else).
Unfortunately, other formats of eBooks and eReaders are still rather Wild Wild West, like when all the territories and states had their own version of printed money.
A proper eBook is infinitely more well-made and more useful than a plain old PDF, which too often is just a glorified image
of a page. By establishing semantic value through the ePub format, not only for the words in the book, but for maintaining the layout and meaning of say, the table of contents, the chapter headings, the index, or footnotes, typography, line-height, margins.... you get the idea.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re not worried about which company is selling what, or what rights management means. Let’s just think about how a well-made eBook would need to happen, because digitally creating and publishing a quality, worthwhile, semantically meaningful eBook or ePublication is much, much more complicated than just taking a snapshot of each page and making sure it’s legible.
One problem writers and publishers are starting to see, particularly with tools that “automatically” convert a Word or PDF file to the ePub format, is a loss of the look and feel (the design) they had in place. This would be because the information is actually not digitally encoded properly in the first place, and so does not get translated into a meaningful layout. A skilled hand must go in and do this (better late than never). Another pressing issue for authors and booksellers is searchability. If the metadata is not properly encoded, or if the search engine is not doing a good job of finding and organizing the content, then books can get rather lost (a major complaint in the iBookstore). This is just one reason (not to mention quality control) that Apple insists that any digital books submitted to its store pass “validation,” just like websites must for any respectable entity that cares to do things right.
If we didn’t have Web standards, everyone couldn't look at the same web pages. It wouldn’t be the World Wide
Web at all.
So you see, these are cans upon cans of worms, but it’s so important for anyone who publishes to at least have a nodding understanding of the gravitas and functionality that things like “electronic format” entail.
How can we have any conversations about publishing eBooks or digital rights, piracy, copyright or distribution without understanding the basics? It’d be like trying to teach a class on reproduction without giving a definition of hoo-has
. You don’t need to have the equivalent of a medical degree in ePublishing, but you must at least have a functional literacy on the matter.
Is all this raising more questions than it answers? Good. Google them, ask me, or meet me here in a week. Better still, do all three.
Anyone care to share their experiences, questions? Please do!