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Impressions of DIY eBook Publishing After CALI 2012

This week, I attended two compelling workshops related to publishing “books” in academia. The first was about the process of creating .epub files for use on eReaders such as iBooks or Nook. The second completely destroyed the ePub workflow and used Chrome Apps to distribute HTML pages that operated like books, with the added functionality of JavaScript.

ePubs are essentially websites zipped up. They’re really not that complicated at all. Coupled with a plethora of different open source tools, I think anyone (with a little HTML know-how) can create and distribute one. I can see why, in academia at least, this is a high value goal. The limitations of the epub standard (keeping in mind that there is a new revision on the horizon) makes publishing slightly more difficult. ePubs are not universal. Kindles, for example, have their own standard. This proposes a challenge.

Creating a simple website and turning that into an offline Chrome app is a viable alternative. What isn’t to like about being able to create a fully immersive (portable) experience? While it sounds like a fantastic alternative, it isn’t the answer, either. The good news is that both methods involve the same starting point; creating a simple website. The ultimate goal remains the same as well – create portable versions of documents that can be read anywhere.

We live in mobile times – I’m not going to chisel out the numbers for mobile (and, more importantly, connected) use. With the advances that we have made with browser technology across all devices, we should be thinking about mobile first, including things like Nooks, iPads, or Kindles. Along with phones, these devices are in the wild. To not consider designing for all platforms is to go down a long path of heartache, pain, and obsolescence.

As a developer, the first thing I thought of when seeing the workflow was that it is Bootstrap’s time to shine. I was in a room with University-grade Librarians, many of which are well versed in basic coding. They could easily create these documents using HTML markup from scratch better than some frontend developers that I know. I couldn’t help but think that these should be using HTML5 boilerplates first, published to the web and made viewable across all viewports, and offered as a Chrome app or ePub after that base is covered. Bootstrap makes this incredibly easy, so it just makes sense to start there.

Yes, viewing a website requires an internet connection. There’s really no getting around that for those who don’t have access to ePubs or Chrome. Coverage is the key to success, though – maximum device coverage with minimal effort. Creating an ePub, Mobi file, and whatever else needs to be made for the various ereaders out there isn’t a fun process. Agility is lost, because if that book is ever updated, going through the process again won’t be easy. I’m not talking about books, either. Things like syllabuses and white papers could all use this format. In the academic environment, the scale becomes huge.

I’m not sure what the best approach is yet. Responsive design is still a pretty cutting edge technique, and while subject matter experts could be made out of non-developers, automating a lot of the process would help. Of course, automating any redundant process is a large part of the development of technology, but doing this programmatically would require quite a bit of creativity. Maybe I’ll wake up with the answer. Until then, I just don’t think ePubs are it.

Published in Academic Technology

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