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June 9, 2010

Getting EPub wrong every possible way

I spent too much of yesterday and today trying to placate EPub, the God of Finickiness.

EPub (which the creators would prefer I spelled EPUB, but I figure there’s no need to shout) is the ebook format that iPad and many other readers like. I have a young adult novel that I give away in html, pdf, and Word .doc, but I figured I should modernize it up to the EPub standard.

First, I converted all 26 chapters to XHTML. XHTML is HTML’s obsessive-compulsive younger brother. The sloppiness that made HTML a success — you could sling together code of the ugliest sort and browsers would still display it for you with red blush and lipstick — drives XHTML nuts. So, you’d better close every tag and make sure you don’t start any of your inner ID tags with a number. The W3C has a useful validator that will tell you every thing you’re doing wrong. (Under options, turn on “Show source” and it will show you your original text with the mistakes flagged.)

I downloaded a bunch of automatic EPub creators, many of them listed at JediSabre, but I couldn’t get any of them to do what I wanted. A lot of people really like Calibre, which does much more than just compile EPub files, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it to treat 26 chapters as one book; dumb of me, I know, but I didn’t see that basic point covered in the documentation, and I was too embarrassed to ask it in the user forum where the creator generously responds.

I also tried eCub. I couldn’t remember why I gave up on it, so I just now tried it again, and of course it worked perfectly. Instantly. Easily. Dammit! It must have been something wrong in the XHTML files that I fixed after I’d given up on it.

I also tried Sigil, which is quite full-featured, but it kept crashing before making it through all 26 chapters, very likely because of the same irregularities in those files. So, try the automated systems before you venture down the hand-coding path.

I spent many hours with TextWrangler — a text editor that can do search and replace across multiple files is a requirement if you’re going to end up doing this somewhat by hand. EPub files are actually zip files, and, astoundingly, the files in them have to be in the proper order. Why ebooks are too dumb to be able to randomly access the contents of a zip file is beyond me, but then, so is using an easy-to-use EPub compiler. So, you need to download a sample (I used Sigil to create one), unzip it, put in your content, and zip it back up. WebVivant tells us the three magic command-line commands to get the zip file to rezip itself correctly. I did that dozens of times today. Now it’s time to test the resulting file…

ThreePress has an online EPub validator that shows you what you did wrong this time. Very helpful, although the error messages can be a bit cryptic, mainly because there are so many freaking ways to go wrong.

If you need to handcode how to get your EPub to display your cover, here’s a very helpful step-by-step guide to cover markup, by Keith Fahlgren at ThreePress.

The upshot? Make sure your XHTML is valid, and that your id values do not begin with numerals, and then try the automated systems. The one’s I’ve mentioned are free. (Thank you!) (Bowerbird posted a comment to my earlier post about EPub about a system Bowerbird is developing that outputs lots of book/document formats.) If you find yourself preparing or tweaking it by hand, expect to spend some time at it.

The upshot’s upshot? I spent a day creating a crappy version of my YA adult in EPub format that I’m not even sure works beyond with Wordplayer on my Droid. If you care to try it and let me know if it works on your device or software ebook, let me know? (You can get the pdf and .doc versions here, and here’s Bowerbird’s epub version.)


June 5, 2010

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.


April 2, 2010

[2b2k] The book of the future has arrived!

Yikes. All this talk about the future of books and the future of ebooks. Will it be like the Kindle? Will it be like the iPad?

The book of the future is already here. It’s been here for about 15 years. It’s called The Web.

That’s taking books as the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate ideas and knowledge. The Web is already that book — distributed, linked, messy, unstable, self-contradictory, bottom up and top down, never done, unsettled and unsettling, by us and of us. The book of the future has a trillion pages and trillions of links, and is only getting started.

If, however, you mean by “book” a bounded stretch of an authorial monologue, we have plenty of those on the Web, and some have great value. But they now get their value by being linked into the roiling universe of their peers.

The book of the future isn’t on the Web; it is the Web.


February 3, 2010

[2b2] Long-form, wide-form

I woke up this morning with an idea to develop. I’m posting it here prematurely. Ironically (as you’ll see), I want more time to argue for it and tease it out. In fact, in part because I have to prepare for (= rewrite) a talk I give this morning, I’ll leave it at something like Twitter length: We will of course continue to write book-length, long-form arguments, but wide-form arguments are becoming more important (more important than they were and perhaps more important than long-form arguments). Wide-form arguments are spread out across the Web, and develop and apply an idea.

Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages, gains and losses. But, the assessment of them should (in my opinion) begin with an honest look at how important long-form arguments actually have been. It seems to me that most of the long-forms we think of as examples are actually a type of wide-form performed by a single person: Here’s an idea, and here’s some of its implications. The idea itself frequently is a short-form argument. Wide-forming the argument can develop the idea in unexpected ways and can apply it in unexpected circumstances.

Anyway, gotta go.


November 24, 2009

eBook on eGov

You can download a free PDF of a new anthology about egovernment, called State of the eUnion, edited by John Gotze. I haven’t read it, but there are some excellent contributors. (Disclosure: I’m one of the not-so-excellent contributors.)


November 21, 2009

Will books survive? A scorecard…

New media generally don’t replace old media, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out. After TV we still have radio. After telephones we had telegrams for a good long while. So what about books? After we have networked digital books, we’ll still have and produce physical books. But will physical books be as ubiquitous and culturally important as radio? Or will they be as cherished but infrequently attended as live theater?

In my interview with Cory Doctorow, I wondered, in the midst of an overly-elaborate three-part question, whether ebooks will provide enough of what we value about physical books (pbooks) that pbooks will lose the historic significance Cory had pointed to.

We won’t know the answer until we invent the future. But, I’m going to hypothesize, predict, or stipulate (pick one) that at some point we will have ebooks (which may be distinct hardware or be software running in something other device we carry around), with paper-quality displays that are full-color and multimedia, that are fully on the Net, with software that lets us interact with the book and with other readers, that are a part of the standard outfitting of citizens, and within a physical environment that provides ubiquitous Net connectivity.

Those are a lot of assumptions, of course, and each and every one of them could be disrupted by some 17 year old at work in her parents’ basement. Nevertheless, if the future is something like that, then what of pbooks’ value will be left unreplaced by ebooks?

Readability. I’m assuming paper-quality displays, which may turn out to be unattainable without having to wheel around batteries the size of suitcases. But, even without that, the ability of ebooks to display text in various fonts and sizes should remove this advantage from pbooks.

Convenience. I am assuming that ebooks will be more convenient than pbooks: as good in sunlight as pbooks, at least as easy to hold and use, easier to use for those with certain disabilities, long enough battery life, possibly self-lit, etc. The biggest open question, I believe, is whether it will be as easy to annotate ebooks…

Annotatability. The current crop of ebooks make highlighting passages and making notes so difficult that you have to take a break from reading to do either of those things. But, that’s one big reason why the current crop of ebooks are pathetic. With a touchscreen and a usable keyboard (or handwriting recognition software), ebooks of the future should be as easy to annotate as a pbook is. And those annotations will then become more useful, since they will be searchable and sharable.

Affordability. The marginal cost of producing ebook content is tiny, which doesn’t mean prices will drop as dramatically as we might like. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a world in which ebook content costs more than pbooks.

Social flags. You probably carefully choose which book you’re going to bring with you on a job interview, and which books get moved to the shelves in your living room. We use the books we own as tribal flags, as Cory points out. Ebooks can serve the same role when introduced into social networks, including social networks explicitly built around books, such as They obviously don’t work in physical space that way; if you want to show off your books to people who visit your home, you’re going to have to get physical copies.

Aesthetic objects. Many of us love the feel and smell of books. While ebooks might be able to simulate that in some way — maybe their page displays could yellow over time — it’d still just be a simulation. While ebooks will undoubtedly develop their own aesthetics, so that we’ll call people over to see how beautiful this or that new ebook is, they can’t replace the particular aesthetics of pbooks. So, those who love pbooks will continue to cherish them.

Sentimental objects. For my bar mitzvah, some friend of my parents gave me a leatherbound copy of A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” and other poems. It was a beautiful aesthetic object, but I also understood that it had a personal meaning to the giver. I doubt that that particular copy did — I don’t think it came from his own collection — but the physicality of the book was itself a marker for the personal meaning it had for the giver. As Cory says, the books your father read — the very copies that were in his hands — probably have special meaning to you. It’s hard to see how ebooks could have the same sentimental value, except perhaps if you are reading the highlights and notes left by your father, and even then, it’s not the same.

Historic objects. Likewise, knowing that you’re looking at the very copy that was read by Thomas Jefferson gives a book an historic value that ebook content just can’t have. It’s hard to see how an author could autograph an ebook in any meaningful way.

Historical objects. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have pointed out, as has Anthony Grafton, books as physical objects collect metadata that can be useful to historians, e.g., the smell of vinegar that indicates the book came from a town visited by cholera. Ebooks, however, accumulate and generate far more metadata. So, we will lose some types of metadata but gain much more…maybe more than our current norms of privacy are comfortable with.

Specialized objects. It will take somewhere between an improbably long time and forever for all collections of pbooks to be digitized. Thus, books in special collections are likely to be required well after we can take the presence of ebooks for granted.

Possessions. We are headed towards a model that grants us licenses to read books, but not outright ownership. (This is Cory’s main topic in the interview.) If we lose ownership of ebooks, then they won’t have the sentimental value, they will lose some of their economic value to readers (because we won’t be able to resell them or buy them cheaper used), and we won’t be as invested in them culturally. Whether ebooks will be ownable, and whether that will be the default of the exception, is unresolved.

Single-mindedness. Books are the exemplar in our culture of thinking. We write our best thoughts in books. We engage with the best thoughts of others by reading books. Books encourage and enable long-form thinking. Ebooks, because they are (ex hypothesis) on the Net, are distracting. They string together associated chunks and tempt us with links beyond themselves. It is easy to imagine ebooks providing the singleminded pbook experience: “Press here to remove all links.” But, of course, you could always unpress the button. Besides, since your ebook is on the Net (ex hypothesis), all that’s stopping you from jumping out of the book and into your email or Facebook is self-discipline. So, while ebooks can provide the singledminded experience of pbooks, some of us may prefer the paper version to keep the distraction of the Net at bay.

Religious objects. Some books have special meaning within some religions. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that an ebook is going to replace the Torah scrolls in synagogues. In fact, orthodox Jews can’t use electronic devices on the Sabbath, so they are certainly going to continue to buy pbooks. But, this is the very definition of a specialty market.

So, what does all this mean for the future of books? It depends.

First, are there other values of pbooks that I left off the list?

Second, I haven’t listed any unique advantages of ebooks. For example, ebooks will allow social reading: Engaging with others who are reading the book or with the traces left by those who have already it. That’s pretty important. Also, ebooks are likely to radically reduce the cost of reading, especially of some categories of overpriced pbooks (e.g., textbooks). Also, ebooks will make it much easier to understand the content of books through embedded dictionaries, search capabilities, and links to explanatory discussions. Also, as more of the corpus gets digitized, ebooks will make it far easier for scholars to pursue the footnotes (except they’ll be embedded links, not footnotes). Also, ebooks will incorporate multimedia. Also, reading ebooks will build a searchable personal corpus that is far more useful to us than bookcases filled with out conquered pbooks. Also, we’ll always have our entire library with us, ready to be read or reread, which is good news for readers.

I leave it to you to decide how this mix of values is likely to play out. What will be the social role and meaning of pbooks as we go forward into the ebook era? In twenty years — giving ourselves plenty of time to develop usable ebook readers, to digitize most of what we need, and to built an always-available network — will pbooks be used mainly by collectors, and scholars working with unique texts? Will they be sentimental objects? The poor person’s medium? Will physical books be the equivalent of AM radio, of the road company of “Cats,” of quaint objects in book museums — and/or the continuing pinnacle and embodiment of learning?v


June 7, 2009

My kid’s novel is now an e-book

My $100 Million Dollar Secret, my novel for young adults, is now available for free on your Kindle. In fact, it’s available in multiple e-book formats, thanks to ManyBooks. It’s available there because it went through ManyBooks’ rigorous vetting process, which consisted of me filling in a form that basically required me to say “Wanna list my book?” I submitted it in html format, and ManyBooks converted it to a dozen other formats. Thank you, ManyBooks! And, yes, at ManyBooks you’ll find many books worth reading.

You can also read it for free online, or download it in .Doc or .PDF formats free at its own site. You can also get a paper copy (and pay me a couple of bucks) at Lulu, where it has sold well into the low dozens of copies.

The book is about a kid who wins $100,000,000 in the state lottery, through a contrivance because his parents are philosophically against the idea of lotteries. Because he’s a good kid and gets along well with his parents, he decides he will not lie about having won it. But he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he (more or less inadvertently) bought a ticket. So, he has to hide the fact that he now is rich. The book is about him figuring out how to spend the money, and more importantly, what good money can do.

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June 2, 2009

Why did E Ink sell?

E Ink has sold itself to Prime View International, a large Taiwanese display manufacturer, and I don’t understand why.

Now, it’s not surprising I don’t understand why. I have no info about E Ink’s financial state other than this article by Robert Weisman in the Boston Globe, and in any case I’m not a great financial guy (and I have the bank statements to prove it). So, my surprise may well be due to nothing but ignorance. Nevertheless, here’s why I was taken aback by the announcement.
E Ink is on a roll in a market that is about to explode (in the good sense). After ten years of work developing a low-power, highly legible display, it’s got something that works. Thanks to Kindle, it’s proven itself in the mass market and it’s in lots of people’s hands. And the market is about to take off now that we have digital delivery systems, a new generation of hardware, and a huge disruption in the traditional publishing market. So, why would E Ink sell itself?

The price — $215M — seems relatively low for such a hot product. If they need the money to fund R&D or to build manufacturing facilities, surely (= it’s not at all sure) there were other possibilities. Apparently the market crisis made an IPO implausible, although, to tell the truth, I — with my weak financial grasp — am not convinced. Investors are looking for places to invest, and E Ink looks like it’s exactly the sort of company they’d love to back: a proven leader in a market that’s obviously on the verge of explosive growth. It’d be like getting in on the early stage of iPods, only potentially bigger, since everyone who reads eventually will have an e-reader. But, if an IPO was out, why wouldn’t E Ink have preferred other forms of investment, including giving a partnership and equity stake to Prime View?

The most likely explanation by far is that I don’t understand what I’m talking about. Another explanation is that the company and its investors simply wanted to cash in by cashing out; the Globe article suggests this. But, that again raises the question of why they’d want to exit a company with a product in a market that’s about to take off. Perhaps they have reason to think the market is not going to take off , but that seems wrong; note that Google yesterday announced it’s going to enter the online book sales business. Or maybe they have doubts about E Ink technology. Maybe they worry the cost won’t drop fast enough for a commoditized market. Maybe color isn’t on its way fast enough. Maybe they’re worried about the inability (or so I’m presuming) of their tech ever to handle video, since the winning e-reader will eventually be multimedia. Maybe they know about ebooks on the way — Apple iPad or whatever the presumed product will be called — that will make static, black-on-gray pages seem obsolete.

So, I don’t know. But it smells fishy to me…although, as I may have mentioned, my financial sniffer has never been very reliable, and I’ll be happy to be set straight about this.

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May 23, 2009

Degenerative computing

Here’s a future I fear:

Apple comes out with the iBook, a netbook that’s also perfectly designed as an e-book. It’s a Kindle-killer because it’s an actual computer, as well as being way cool in the way of things Apple.

Apple extends its App Store approach to this seemingly semi-special purpose device: The only apps you can get have to come through Apple.

The Apple iBook becomes a huge success. It is the future of reading the way the iPod is the future (well, the present) of listening.

The iBook replaces many laptops. It becomes the primary computer for many people.

Thus we go from generativity to locked down computers.

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December 20, 2008

On air: My love-hate relationship with my Kindle

Well, hate is too strong a word. But so is love.

Anyway, here’s a segment I did for the public radio show [Tags: ]


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