It’s no secret that I’ve spent an entire career designing and producing books for print: letterpress, offset and now digital printing, but all print.
I’ve been a little uneasy about the rise of the eReaders and the coming of the eBooks, (and the iBooks). I’m excited about the technology, sure. Publishing is changing forever. A lot of the things we can do with digital text make texts useful in ways we never imagined in 500+ years of printed books.
But the reality of those same ebooks has been—let’s face it—ugly. I know I’m not the only book designer who has wondered whether there would even be a place for design in the coming Era of the Ebook. I’ve written often about the lack of iPad font choices, the terrible hyphenation and justification, the ragged word spacing and the apparent lack of any controls to create something that just looks decent. Something that shows there was actually a designer behind it.
With the introduction of the iPad hopes were high that Apple, purveyor of great industrial and interface design, would rescue the ebook from the design purgatory it had fallen into. But no. Sure, the interface of the iBooks app is good, and the look is slick. But the books didn’t look much better.
I’ve also gone off in search of ways we print designers could use our expertise to bring some order—maybe even beauty?—to ebooks.
The Challenge of EPUB
Clients frequently ask if I provide conversion to ebook formats, and I invariably refer them to one or another company where the people already know all about EPUB and MOBI (the variant HTML used by Kindle) and the idiosyncracies of the other ereaders.
Creating EPUB files looked to be the work of specialists. Like a lot of other print designers, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to take it on.
Liz Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point will change all that.
Liz Castro is the author of a number of books on computer software, most notably her bestselling HTML, XHTML, and CSS, (Sixth Edition), Peachpit Press. Published in 2006, it’s number 1 today on Amazon in both CSS and HTML books.
In EPUB Straight to the Point: Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders, Liz has applied her prodigious skills in instructional writing, technical problem-solving and graphic design to the problem of the ugly ebook. (Note: all the screenshots in this article were taken on the iPad using the EPUB version of the book in the iBooks application. You’ll need to click them to see the full effect.)
The book itself is conclusive proof that we no longer have to consider the EPUB books we’ve been reading inevitable, a limitation of the software standard itself. Liz Castro has cracked the code on creating beautiful, functional ebooks.
Liz shows in a lucid, logical and humane style exactly how to do everything you see in the book itself. Here’s the way the book is laid out:
- Introduction—Liz gives a cogent summary of the differences between ebooks and print books. She explains EPUB and the market full of different ereaders. Concentrating on Apple’s iBooks, she explains the anatomy and dimensions for the iBooks pages. At the end, Liz answers the question, “Who is this book for?”
This book is for anyone who wants to publish an ebook in EPUB format, particularly on the iPad, but for any ereader that supports EPUB, including the Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble Nook, Ibis Reader, and Stanza. It explains how to use Word and InDesign—software you may already own and which might already contain your formatted books—to generate the files necessary that make up the EPUB, as well as how to manually create or improve the files in order to take advantage of the capabilities of the most advanced ereaders, without leaving underperforming ereaders too far behind. I believe strongly in following standards so that a book that works today will continue to work tomorrow in the next new ereader that comes along.
- Using Word to Write EPUB—Liz leads the reader step by step, with lots of screenshots pointing out what to do. At some stages, she actually gives you keystroke-to-keystroke steps. Along the way you’ll get a good primer in using Word’s styles, one of the most underutilized parts of the program.
- Using InDesign to Create EPUB—This long section describes in detail how to use InDesign’s powerful formatting and search tools to prepare files for EPUB conversion. Liz explains the mental shift print designers have to make to learn to think of EPUB as a linear format. She gives detailed blow-by-blow instructions with copious screenshots of setting up files, applying paragraph and character styles, and placing graphics in-line with the text. Check out the screenshot in this article that shows the Find/Change box, using the GREP operators (all explained in simple English). Liz is doing a search for the Character Style “Drop Cap” and replacing it with the exact same thing. How long do you think it would take you to figure out this one formula for preparing your text?
- Inside an EPUB file—Here Liz tells you in simple terms how to deal with EPUB files, which are a collection of ZIPped XHTML files. You’ll learn in detail how to create a cover for your EPUB, validate it, take it apart and put it back together, along with the best tools for the job.
- Advanced EPUB Formatting—Well, here’s the bad news, if you (like me) are not an HTML programmer, don’t know much about CSS or XHTML either. You will have to get your hands dirty to clean up EPUBs from Word, to fine tune InDesign’s EPUBs, and generally to make your EPUB book the this one does. Okay, that’s the pain. On the positive side, Liz gives, as usual, step by step, plain language instructions that make the unthinkable, thinkable. This section includes a complete discussion of handling iPad fonts and the implications for iPad typography. And here, in book form is the list of fonts available on the iPad, and samples. Liz explains:
- The mysteries of fonts, text alignment and page breaks
- Adapting to the different ereaders
- Spacing and indents, borders and backgrounds
- Styling text with drop caps and small caps, si
- Working with images
- Creating links, tables and placing video in your ebook
A Guide for the Ebook Transition
At some point in the future we will have tools for working on EPUB files, and less need to know the nitty-gritty that goes on behind the scenes. But now, anyone who wants to create great-looking books for the iPad or any other EPUB reader needs to deal with XHTML and CSS. Liz Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point is the best guide I can imagine, patient and detailed, guiding you every step of the way.
This book is destined to be a great seller, and it deserves to be. Anyone responsible for creating EPUB files, or anyone considering publishing an ebook will want this book. It will guide you through the entire process. And simply owning it will show you just how good an EPUB can be.
Takeaway: Liz Castro’s EPUB Straight to the Point is a fantastic resource with clear instruction and should be in the ereader of anyone whose work involves dealing with EPUB and iBooks.
EPUB Straight to the Point (ISBN: 978-0-321-73468-6) is available for $29.99 (before discounting) before the August 8, 2010 publication date for pre-order on Amazon.com (affiliate), Barnes & Noble and Peachpit Press. The EPUB version is available for $20.00 now from the book’s website. It will soon also be available as a PDF.
Liz is a regular in the #ePrdctn chat on Twitter and you can connect with her at @LizCastro