Publishing EPub and Standards

Count your blessings.

I started to write a post that was filled with minutia and trivia. About halfway through MY eyes glazed over – I figure I’d have lost you in the first couple of paragraphs. Instead, a (comparatively) more general post.

It’s a fairly common thing for authors and users to say they want ebooks. Many will even go a bit further and recognize there are formats, some of which are not used by various other readers. Kindle uses a standard particular to amazon’s device, for example. Apple has iBook, Microsoft went with Lit, and there are several others.

As of 2011 the most widely supported vendor-independent XML-based ebook format is ePub. The only major reader that doesn’t read it natively is Kindle, and there are several converters to change ePub to Mobi (another nominally vendor-independent format which forms the basis of the Kindle format).

Now, the organization that administers standards for ePub (the IDPF: International Digital Publishing Forum) just finished agreeing upon the standards for ePub 3.0. What, you didn’t know there were different editions? Well, that’s ok. If you weren’t publishing ebooks it might not matter. Oh, wait, we’ve gone into indie publishing. maybe…

No, actually, you don’t have to know the standards in depth, any more than you have to know the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium)’s standards to make web pages. Of course if you’re going to be a good webpage designer you might want to at least have some familiarity. And if you’re really going to push ebook publishing you might…

Actually, the only thing you really need to know is that the standards changed. Some of the changes are pretty significant, a lot are of minutia level, but they’re all essentially technicalities. What it all means for you the writer/self-publisher is that for a while you’re going to have to double-check your ePub generator. Ideally it will produce ePub 3.0 with fallback chains for ePub 2.0.1. For the next year or two if you can’t have that, look for ePub 2.0.1.

Of all the changes, I think there’s really only one that will stand out to the non-computer geek. That is the fact that navigation is now mandatory. No more “just the text, ma’am” books. The navigation can be absurdly simple – as little as to the start and end of text (though if you the publisher have a brain you’ll include at least chapter navigation). Of course the hard part is setting it up; once you’ve done that adding chapter links is easy. That hard part meant an annoying portion of older ebooks didn’t have any navigation.

The other thing I’m going to do is point out that ebooks do not have to be solely text. The old version allowed other things, the new version allows them in different (and arguably better) ways, plus one or two extras.

Your ePub ebook, regardless of version, is an integrated package of text, graphics, audio, video, and (limited) scripting to be packaged so as to be navigated and viewed in a reader. Boy, that was a mouthful. Let’s try it a separate way.

You can have a book that has, as supplements, video, picture, and sound overlays and inclusions. If you want, you can have an audiotrack that advances the text in read-along fashion, that brings up pictures and short (or longer) video segments either as they are accessed OR as the reader requests.

You can have a book on sewing that, on your reaching of a potentially tricky thing like, oh, flat fell seams, lets you run a short video showing how to do it. You can have a cookbook that lets the reader access a separate video on making a roux in the middle of every recipe that uses one. You can have a children’s book that displays the picture that is tied to a block of text which scrolls and displays over it, which also has an optional read-along track.

Of course you can still have a novel, no pictures, no charts, just a solid straight read. (If you happen to want to key access to an appendix or a couple of maps, well, it’s there if you want it.)

These are the things your publisher should be able to help you do. My opinion is that the good publishers of the future will insist on them, and the people to help you do this (or do it just as you’d use illustrators and indexers and editors in print) will be part of either the publisher’s stable or contact list. In the meantime you just need to know it’s possible and seek out your own expert(s).

I’ll end this with a link. If you “get” computer standards, the new (as of a few months ago) standards can be found at idpf.org. If you’re familiar with ePub 2 and want to see what’s changed for ePub 3, go here.

If you’re serious about wanting to publish your own ebooks, you might want to try and plow through some of the literature. The things you can do, even if you’re writing a text novel with no multi-media elements, are worth knowing about. If nothing else, know that text-to-speech is part of the allowances, and that if you’re making a new word (sf and fantasy), it might be worth knowing how to add a pronunciation cue for the system.

Have fun.

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