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Exploring the frontier with ebooks

2013 January 10

I believe that I’m getting close to finishing up the ebook version of Brilliant Deduction, and I’ve got to say that it has been a fascinating experience.

It feels just faintly like learning to create web sites back in the second half of the 1990s, in that I was figuring out how things worked at the same time as everyone else was, including the people developing those things. Oldtimers may know what I mean; the web remains an evolving environment but there’s much more of an established, stable foundation than existed 15 years ago. A good web site from 2008 is considerably less likely to seem dated, feature-impaired or outright broken today than a good web site from 1997 was likely to seem by 2002.

I also have the sense that I may have embarked for the frontier at just the right time. Repeatedly, as I have examined guides and videos and forum conversations, I’ve gotten the impression that the available infrastructure is much improved from just two or three years ago. That definitely seems the case with my primary ebook authoring tool, Adobe InDesign. I was actually all prepared to slog through developing my ebook in Microsoft Word and then using a conversion program, before I even realized that the software I had used to create the printed book versions might be capable of creating the ebook as well. And I saw evidence of some skepticism, also, which makes sense. InDesign does seem an odd tool for building ebooks. But I’m not sure it’s any more odd than using Microsoft Word plus a converter. I can allow that InDesign as an ebook program had some technical shortcomings a couple of versions ago; since purchasing CS6 I have continued using the more lithe CS4 in my print design work, but quickly discovered that for an ebook the very latest version is absolutely the way to go.

It remains an odd process, all the same. I would describe the c. 2013 ebook, at any rate the “epub” format that seems the media’s emerging standard, as both very simple in outward appearance and very complicated in its production. The end result of an ebook is, as a result of the format’s capabilities and certainly of following apparent “best practices” for using them, a very simple document. Consensus seems to advocate that one stick with text, and typography no more (indeed probably less) sophisticated than what prevailed in pre-DTP metal typesetting. Plus maybe a few images, handled with no more detail or precision than the earliest web graphics. Coming from print design or even modern web design, with its rainbow of potential graphic and typographic panache, one is somewhat flummoxed just by the primitive directness, itself. (Imagine a modern 16-year-old trying to make a call on a rotary-dial phone in 1985.)

The majority of the difficulty is, I think, admittedly in the process’s unfamiliarity (to me). But some of it is just plain inherently kludge-y.

One adapts, though; again, I have memories of working with 1990s html and css, so I should be able to figure out epub. I believe I’m getting there, and fortunately resources are available to help. For the authoring, InDesign is of course rather expensive, but I think the only compelling reason to use InDesign for an ebook is if one is already familiar with the program, which implies that one already has access to it. The last one or two versions are very nearly a must, though, and as for explanation of how, um, there is no simple answer. Printed manuals are, of course, passé; this blog post points to various guides scattered around Adobe’s web site, some of which are useful, some of which have been moved or deleted. Fortunately there aren’t that many options in the “export for epub” interface, and once one gets the basic concept of epub structure and formatting, a trial-and-error approach is probably as effective a way to learn as any. For the concept part, I found that lulu’s ebook creator guide was fairly useful (even though it’s mostly geared toward MS Word authoring), as were some sample epub-format ebooks, many of which are available freely from places like Project Gutenberg.

For the trial-and-error part, having one or more actual e-reader devices is probably ideal; I have none but a number of tools seem to offer helpful alternatives. Adobe Digital Editions is very good; the EPUBReader plug-in for Firefox is a nice “second opinion” for evaluating how an ebook may appear to end users. For checking the internal “health” of an epub file, it seems that there are a couple of programs; ePubChecker combines both the “check” and the “preflight” tools into one relatively user-friendly application.

Alternately, I guess one could just find someone to provide personal instruction, or simply do the whole thing on a freelance basis… as of this week I would feel comfortable performing just such services, for modest and reasonable fees; FYI.

3 Responses
  1. January 10, 2013

    I feel better now having read this. 🙂

    I was having problems trying to convert Fanthropology to an ebook format back in 2009, so I feel a bit vindicated by your notes about the improved infrastructure. At the time, I wound up throwing up my arms and just saying, “Screw it! I’ll just do a PDF!”

    Although I also had some additional format/layout complexity in that book with the interstitial pieces between chapters that broke up the reading flow. I think it more or less only worked because I was able to treat those sections visually differently than the rest of the narrative. I wasn’t happy with any results where I wasn’t able to showcase those pages in a distinctly different manner.

    Also, good to know InDesign has some built-in functionality for that now. I was doing most of my book layouts in CS3 (I think) which obviously did not have that capability. I don’t doubt that would have made things immensely easier! Although I mostly had to teach myself InDesign just for the project in the first place, so that couldn’t have helped!

    Mayhap, I’ll revisit the Fanthropology as a proper ebook. Although, more likely, I’ll just keep moving forward on the 100 other projects on my plate! 🙂

  2. Matt permalink
    January 10, 2013

    Yeah, based on what I have learned, I would not blame you for giving up on the ebook format at the time. Even now, doing something like your book would require a lot of compromises.

    I think the epub format is, right now, mainly good for structurally straightforward trade novels (i.e. the kind of books people traditionally pack for a trip, or other circumstances where an e-reader is particularly convenient), and anything else has to take its chances.

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