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Book formats and formatting books

AKMA points to an excellent post by Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica about the fragmentation of ebook standards. AKMA would love to see a publisher offer an easy way of “pouring” text into an open format that creates a useful, beautiful digital book. Jacqui points to the major hurdle: Ebook makers like owning their own format so they can “vertically integrate,” i.e., lock users into their own bookstores.

Even if there werent that major economic barrier, itd be hard to do what AKMA and we all want because books are incredibly complex objects. You can always pour text into a new container, but its much harder to capture the structure of the book this is a title, that is body text, this is a caption. The structure is then reflected in the format of the book titles are bolded, etc. and in the electronic functionality of the book tables of contents are linked to the contents, etc.. We are so well-trained in reading books that even small errors interrupt our reading: My Kindle doesnt count hyphens as places where words can be broken across lines, resulting in some butt-ugly layouts. A bungled drop cap can mystify you for several seconds. White-space breaks between sections that are not preserved when they occur at the end of page can ruin a good mid-chapter conclusion. Its not impossible to get all this right, but its hard.

And getting a standard format that captures the right degrees of structure and of format, and that is sufficiently forgiving so just about anything can be poured to it is really difficult because there are no such right degrees. E.g., epub is not great at layout info at least according to Wikipedia.

All Im saying is: Its really really hard.

14 Responses to “Book formats and formatting books”

  1. I expressed myself inexactly, David. Yes, surely there’s not going to be an application that one can just paste text into and it magically produces attractive copy, very true. On the other hand, a book-producing app need not by any means be as complicated as, for instance, InDesign. InDe has to allow for people to use it to make a thousand different things, from catalogues to posters to dictionaries to. . . ummm, other things. But it must be possible to design an app that aims much more narrowly at supporting the book-publication process, the normative gestures of which would follow pretty simply from pouring a river of text into the app.

    I don’t have a copy of My 100 Million Dollar Secret at hand, but I’ll bet that the work that went into making the pages look good could have been simplified. And there are a lot of other books like that one. Most of my books are more like My 100 Million Dollar Secret than like a Sears catalogue or People magazine; if Hypothetical App could handle footnotes, almost everything I’ve published could be poured through it.

    That’s what I meant, and if the world can make more-complex page layout apps, I reckon they can make simplified apps. Part of the reason “it’s really really hard” is that the apps we rely on are more complex than they need to be for simpler publications. Aren’t they?

  2. By coincidence, over the past few weeks I’ve been struggling to publish My $100 Million etc. in Epub, and have found it incredibly difficult. I’ve converted it successfully to XHTML, but hand-coding the XML is quite frustrating for one who only understands it a bit. It’s unforgiving, let’s say. Plus, even for a simple book like that, there are many many details I’d like to get right. So, I’m echoing your complaint.

    But, I’m wondering whether the simple solution we all want will turn out to be enough for anyone, or whether most books when put through the simple process will come out the other end looking too shoddy, given our long-bred sensitivity to shoddiness in printed materials.

    So, my answer to your final question is: I’m really not sure. The apps are too complex, for sure, but books are really complex, too…even simple ones like YA fiction and deep theological/philosophical works.

  3. […] post by davidw and software by Elliott […]

  4. I guess I take AKMA side in this discussion.

    Of course, David is 100% right that books, in their todays variety are extremely complex — and ebooks only added to this complexity (let’s render one on iPhone, another on Kindle, yet another on my big 24″ monster screen).

    But in the past, in the beginning of all this, we witnessed standards that coped with all such complexities, and WERE truly generic, general, and for non-experienced users — easy to use. Let me point only at TeX (By Donald Knuth). The very existence of such solutions, and their features tells me, that the standard is possible, and the problem is more “political” than technical. The need for “vertical integration” ? Possible.

    I guess, when it comes to our thinking about such format, we are a bit spoiled by PDF — but it seems an another topic :-)

    BTW books/eBooks/pBooks, I read, with curiosity “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts (The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age)….

  5. It may not be perfect, but HTML (or MHTML) supports enough formatting, structure, and linking for a lot of books – certainly enough for novels. Device-specific CSS can make it look really good, too.

    But asking publishers to sell unencrypted, device-independent books is a lot like asking them to sell unencrypted MP3s.

  6. […] Joho the Blog » Book formats and formatting books […]

  7. But Eric, most the mp3s you buy these days are unencrypted.

  8. i’ve built such an app, as part of a larger system,
    which includes a light-markup system that can
    handle the structural elements common to books.
    (currently working on a web-service equivalent.)

    my system converts this plain-text light-markup to
    pdf (if you like that) and .html (for web-mounting,
    and conversion to other formats), but the aim is to
    use it natively in its (already-programmed) viewer,
    which offers functionality superior to other viewers.

    i won’t be releasing it for a couple of months, but
    if you’d like to have me run your book through it,
    just shoot me an e-mail.


  9. thanks to the creative commons license
    on david’s “hundred million dollar” book,
    i was able to transfer it to my format and
    generate some output for y’all to evaluate.

    here’s the basic text file:

    here’s the auto-generated .html:

    here’s a sample version of the .pdf:

    and here’s an .epub version as well:

    as i did some minor copy-edit corrections,
    these versions are _not_ for redistribution,
    not unless david authorizes the changes…

    although it looks fairly nice nonetheless,
    i didn’t bother with any finesse on the .pdf,
    such as nice headers, links, or widow control,
    so let me do another version if you want to
    _judge_ me on it, ok? ;+)

    again, once you’ve created the .zml version
    — which i have labeled here as a .txt file, and
    which you can see is quite simple to create —
    the conversions are just a button-click away.

    i don’t know what kind of problems that
    david was having with his .epub generation,
    or what platform he was targeting, or what
    kind of “look” he wanted from his .pdf, so
    i cannot say i solved his problem or gave him
    anything that he can use. but my intent was
    simply to show that a file can be generated,
    and easily…


  10. Thanks, bowerbird!

    I’m trying to generate an epub file that can be read on an ipad and the other ebook software clients. I am finding it incredibly difficult. I’ve tried multiple auto-converters. I’ve gotten my content into valid XHTML (which is a huge pain in the butt, by the way). I have spent much of today mucking about making batch changes to 26 chapters and recompiling the zip/epub file. As of now, it works on WordPlayer on Android, but the Adobe book reader only shows the first page of each chapter, and none of them will display the cover. I have done way more mucking about in the xml files than any non-robot should ever have to, and I’m still not done.

    So, an easy to use tool that actually works would be very welcome. I already have pdf, doc, and html files up on my site, but they are all kludgy, and yours are very likely way better. So, thanks!

  11. In my gratitude at your generosity, bowerbird, I neglected to notice that you’ve included an epub version. I look forward to taking it for a run.

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