Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad, ePub and the Future of Bookreaders

I had been waiting for the announcement of Apples tablet computer, not particularly because I wanted one, but because the rumor mill had been talking about deals between Apple and various book and magazine publishers. Being in the backwaters of the publishing ecosystem, I wanted to be ready to piggy-back onto whatever new opportunities opened up.

So, the announcement came, and iBooks was demoed. I had definite mixed feelings. It looks nice, of course. I expected that, but Apple's own book store/reader combo was to be based on the existing ePub standard. I had half expected Apple to set a new, higher quality, standard. I wanted the e-book reading experience to evolve.

At the same time, I have already been in the process of supporting the ePub format with my novels, so this meant that I would not be shackled with the effort of supporting yet another format. This is good. I already support mobipocket/Kindle and ePub, in addition to the print editions. Making corrections when typos are discovered is a pain, and it's not a matter of correcting some master copy and generating the various distinct versions, not without putting sloppy text out there for the readers.

Thinking about my feelings on the issue, I realized that I have no way to solve my goal of producing e-books that match the quality of the print. It may be solved, but if so, it will be done by software engineers, not by book publishers.

When a paper book is laid out with the industry standard tools like InDesign, expensive software justifies and shifts the text in large blocks, with manual corrections to make sure that the two page spread looks smooth and evenly balanced, with no distracting artifacts of spacing to get between the reader and the words. Once it's complete, the text is frozen in place into a PDF and marked onto paper.

When an ebook is displayed, the source material has no layout, and relatively inexpensive web browser like software quickly lays out the text line by line. An individual line of the text may look good, but the screen as a whole may look poor. Add to that, a limited font selection, chosen by a reader based on the whim of the moment or personal taste rather than with an eye to compliment the words, and even a perfectly created source ePub file can never be expected to look as good as a well designed paper page.

I struggle against this, but I know I can never fix it. Some software engineer, with a knowledge of the 500 years of technical development since Gutenberg, maybe deep in the depths of Adobe, will have to take the sophistication of the high end layout programs and make a version that will run blazingly fast on cheap handheld computers. Then, some enhancements will have to be added to ePub version whatever to allow knowledgeable designers to at least hint what should be done in terms of fonts and textual variation.

What's sad is that I'm not a good layout designer. I'm new at this. Yet, I'm already hitting my head against the limitations of ePub and the other ebook formats.

That's why, in spite of the fact that I may be able to sell more books sooner because Apple has chosen ePub, I'm a little disappointed they didn't expand the technology. Maybe in version 2.


Joe Clark said...

If you’re hitting your head up against limitations, experience leads me to believe you’re marking up your ePub nonsemantically and your CSS stinks.

Maybe you could publish a sample.

Ben said...

You can embed whatever fonts you want in your ePub files, as long as you think it’s worth paying for the rights to use the font, as well as the huge bloat it’ll add to the file size. And, as the above commenter said, you can do quite a bit (like drop caps, columns, etc) with ePub and CSS.

While it is certain that ePub is a bit weak in some areas of formatting and advanced layout, the statements above just demonstrate your ignorance of ePub or the weakness of the tools you are using.

Chris Meadows said...

And remember, everyone, you should always insult someone if you want him to agree with you!

Jae Baeli said...

Wow. is it really necessary for you commenters to be so mean? Get laid or have a glass of wine, fer chrissakes.