eBook Design and Authoring: Back to Hammer and Chisel…

Font embedding in an iBook

Been a while since I posted anything here, because I’ve been pretty busy for the past few months…
First, I had a two-month full-time contract, working on a project I can’t talk about but which was definitely pushing forward the future of reading on screens.
Second, I started work on a iBooks version of a book my wife Tanya’s been working on for years. It is the result of years of research, and also years of painting the wetland birds on the island of Kauai. Tanya’s an amazing artist – I’ve posted examples of her work on this blog a few times.
I’ve always wanted to publish the book, but I felt it was time to try to “walk the talk”, and publish the first version for the iPad.
I picked iBooks on the iPad for a number of reasons:
  • It uses the open ePub format
  • It supports color
  • At 133ppi, it has enough resolution to do a decent job of the text
  • It supports eBooks with embedded fonts
Fonts in eBook readers or devices are still pretty primitive:
  • iBooks: Offers six reading fonts. Only two – Georgia and Palatino – are worth using.
  • Kindle: You can have any font you want as long as it’s PMN Caecilia.
  • Stanza: Any of the iOS fonts (which again leaves you with Georgia and Palatino)
  • Nook: Seven or eight fonts, all of them poorly rendered.
However, the saving grace of iBooks is that it does support embedded fonts. Its lovely color screen makes Tanya’s color illustrations sing, and if the rumor mill is to be believed, iPad3 will have a 266ppi display which will set a new standard for onscreen readability (I’m ignoring the Retinal Display on the iPhone. It’s beautiful, but so small it’s not the screen on which you’d want to read a work like this).

We Need Power Tools, Not A Hammer…

Authoring eBooks should be easy. After all, Pages (Apple’s word processor) and InDesign both offer “Export to ePub”, while Word lets you output HTML. I’ve been bitten by Word’s HTML before – it’s incomprehensible to humans. And it’s revealing that Liz Castro’s book: “ePub: Straight To The Point” seems to spend the first 168 of its 228 pages explaining exactly why output from InDesign and Word sucks, and what you need to do to fix it.
It’s worth using one of these tools for one reason – they do generate a unique identifier for your book, and the skeleton structure of an ePub, with its TOC.ncx and content.opf files, etc, all in the correct places.
But I’m afraid that’s about it. Both seem to generate XHTML that’s verbose and hard to follow, and a CSS style sheet with at least three times as many styles as you need – again, all with incomprehensible names.
I tried my best with each of the tools, outputting ePub, using ePubUnzip to break that apart into the editable files and editing them. But it was just too painful. Eventually I ended up retaining only the skeletal structure, falling back to a text editor (I’m using TextWrangler) and doing the whole process by hand. At least that way I might have some chance of understanding what’s going on.
It took me a while, and a lot of experimentation. But I eventually got embedded fonts working. I’d experimented in Pages and InDesign – easier places for prototyping than XHTML and CSS – and settled on ITC Korinna. It comes in four weights, and you can use them to build a nice set of styles. Korinna isn’t the face I would use for all-text books. But it has a nice character which I liked for this particular, nature-based, content – and the headings look great in red.
I had been experimenting with a three-line chapter heading style: a strap line in the roman, a main heading in bold, and a bottom line in italics, used for the Latin name of each of the birds.
Once I had something I was happy with, I created an XHTML page and a set of CSS styles. I played around with the leading of the main heading, to try to tuck the Latin tightly underneath it.
I’m pleased with the result so far – although it doesn’t work if the reader makes the iBook text too big. If the heading wraps to two lines, the negative leading causes ugly problems.
This raises an interesting philosophical question: Does a designer have to create a design that works for all sizes? Just because iBooks supports ten text sizes, does your book have to? My design works for about half of the size choices. I plan to do some more tweaking to see if I can improve on that. But the very largest and smallest text sizes in iBooks are, in my view, unreadable. The five or six “middle” sizes give an adequate range of “large print” options, without forcing design compromises. Of course, I could always specify a single fixed size for all the text – but that would defeat one of the best features of an eBook. It would be nice if the designer could disable some of the reader’s text size options, retaining the ones that worked for the design.
My contention is that Apple is not a “book design” company. Just because you can give the reader ten or more text sizes, that doesn’t mean you always should.

Full-page illustration in the iBook © Tanya Hill, 2011

I began the book with a single XHTML file containing all the text. I knew that was not practical in the long term, but it let me get started getting the text formatting right. However, debugging a single huge file is painful.
In addition, I wanted to use Tanya’s illustrations full-page, as large as possible. I’d found a Public Domain version of the Arthur Rackham-illustrated edition of “Alice In Wonderland”. The text of this book, and the way it’s wrapped around some of the black-and-white illustrations, leaves a lot to be desired and breaks badly when the reader scales text size.
However, it had a nice trick for creating full-pages of the full-color Rackham illustrations, so I poked around until I found out how it was done. It involves creating a separate XHTML file for each illustration, and using the ePub’s NavMap and TOC to call them in the right order, between chapters.
Some of Tanya’s longer chapters have up to five illustrations. So I guess I’ll be breaking those into sub-chapters…
Today, I got the first 17 illustrations into place – one at the start of each chapter. And I also ran the excellent ePub Validator at http://threepress.org/document/epub-validate/ – many, many times, until I’d killed off the last of the initial 96 errors the first run found.
Then I put the ePub into iTunes and synched my iPad. The illustrations worked great! But in the process of breaking my initial single XHTML file into 17 parts, I somehow broke font embedding again. So it’s back to debugging until I get that fixed.
If you hadn’t already gathered by now, this post looks like being the first in a series – the book is a work in progress.
It shouldn’t be this hard. If Tolstoy came back today, and wanted to write War And Peace as an eBook, he shouldn’t have to become an XHTML and CSS jockey in order to do it. Writers should just be able to write, without needing to learn scripting or programming.
Watch this space, as the saga continues…


Kindle: From "Library Of The 21st Century" to "Landfill" In One Easy Lesson…

One dead Kindle eInk display. You can see a fragment of the old “screensaver” display at the bottom right.

I’ve hardly used my (Version 2) Kindle at all since I got my iPad. The larger, brighter iPad screen makes the Kindle display look positively Victorian. I installed the Kindle app on it, transferred all my books, set up synchronization so I could read on the Kindle if I needed to, then promptly forgot about it. It’s been sitting in a corner of our bedroom.

Well, today Tanya wanted to use the iPad. For some time, I’ve been meaning to get an iPad 2 – for this very reason – but haven’t yet got around to it. I thought I’d wait until the rush died down a bit. On reflection I should have tried to pick one up at the company store when I visited Apple in Cupertino a few days ago 😦

Anyway, there’s a book I bought a couple of days ago that I want to read, so I thought I’d resurrect the Kindle and make do with that for a day or two.

It hasn’t been charged in a while, so I knew I’d have to do that before anything else. I plugged it into the wall, waited for a while until I knew it would have a charge, and opened the cover to switch it on.

I knew right away there was a problem, even before I hit the power switch. In place of the full-screen screensaver image Kindle normally displays when you shut it down, or when it powers itself off after a period of inactivity, you could see only a fraction of the original image. The rest of the display was split into two rectangular areas, each a different shade of gray.

The Kindle support site on Amazon suggested that low battery might cause this problem. The suggested remedy is to charge the device for a few minutes (did that), then unplug it and reset it by sliding the Power switch and holding it in that position for 15 seconds.

The screen flickers for a few seconds – seeming to go through the XOR flashing familiar to anyone who’s ever turned a Kindle page, but then goes back to the same display as before. It’s as if the fragment of graphic is burned into part of the display, while the rest of the display has ceased to, well, display anything…

So there we are. Another useless piece of plastic for which I paid $249.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog will know I’ve never been very impressed with eInk, which I view as a technological dead end. Since it depends on aligning millions of tiny black-and-white balls in the display by physically turning them, IMO it’s a technology which cannot be taken far enough to give us the kind of display brightness, contrast, color and performance to which we’ve become accustomed.

Sure, it gives great, great battery life. But the 10 hours between charges on my iPad is not merely an Apple claim – it’s real, and it’s plenty for anything I’ve ever wanted to do. And it’s a great display – among the best I’ve been. The use of in-plane technology gives a crispness that belies its 132ppi resolution.

And for me that was a killer factor in iPad v. Kindle. I don’t have to pay the price of a sub-optimal display in order to get the battery life I need.

If the display can’t be left to itself for a while without degrading to the point where it’s useless, that makes Kindle completely unacceptable.

The Kindle’s still working. When I connect it to my MacBook Pro with USB, I can see the Kindle drive. All my books are still there. I just can’t read them any more because the display’s dead.

I’ll try one more thing: leaving it on to charge until the “charging” light goes out and I know the battery’s fully charged. Then I’ll try another reset. I’ll let you know how that goes, but I’m not hopeful.

UPDATE: The Kindle was charging as I was writing this. The charge light turned green, which means the battery’s fully charged. And the display’s behaving exactly the same. From “Library of the 21st Century” to “Landfill” in one easy lesson…

UPDATE 2: Called Amazon. They volunteered an immediate replacement, although my Kindle’s out of warranty. Great customer service, great service representative. A company can’t really do better than that…

Flipboard: Your Own Magazine For News And Social Networking On The iPad

The Flipboard front page(s). You can add as many sources as you like; Flipboard creates new pages to hold them.

Forgive me if this blog is starting to look like it’s all about the iPad; that’s where all the most interesting developments in on-screen reading are happening right now. The appearance, not only of a great device for reading, but almost overnight an installed base of millions, has triggered a flood of iPad reading apps for newspapers, magazines and books. I’d be interested to find out, for example, what proportion of Kindle books bought from Amazon are – being reading in the Kindle app on iPads…

I just counted “reading” apps on my own iPad. There are 18, including a number of “generic” eBook readers, as well as apps for individual magazines like Wired.

I’ve been reading the New York Times every day for weeks now. The iPad app is a great experience. It really is like reading a newspaper, with professional content – except that it’s even better, since I no longer have to fold and unfold it, manipulate huge sections. etc.

Whether it’s good enough that I’ll be prepared to pay a subscription for it from next year is another question.

I’ve been spending a lot more time every day on my iPad than on my laptop. One of the reasons is the Flipboard app, which not only allows you to aggregate your own news and social networking sites, but displays the content in very clean, pleasing layout with lots of white space.

Facebook, given the Flipboard treatment.

Reading the posts on my Facebook page is a lot more pleasant using Flipboard. It’s like a magazine; I flip through “pages” of posts, rather than scrolling down through an endless window. Double-tapping on an entry zooms it to a full page, where you can read others’ or add your own comments.

Flipboard does fall down on video. Since the iPad does not support Flash, videos in Flipboard won’t play. Apple itself got around this issue for YouTube with a YouTube app; it’s not outwith the bounds of possibility that this could be somehow hooked in to Flipboard to enable video, but it’s definitely an issue right now.

The BBC News website

The BBC news website is simply a joy to read this way. Again, instead of scrolling, you flip through pages like you’re reading a magazine. When you want to read a full piece, double-tapping takes you to a full window, where you have the option to “Read on Web”. That dumps you back into Safari. It would be nice to see Flipboard go a level deeper, and give you a paginated version of the story, with the same clean layout it uses for headings.

However, for an app which launched only in July, it’s made a huge leap forward in combining news and social networking websites in one, easy-to-use and comfortable UI. I have a lot of ideas on how Flipboard could move forward to become a premiere app for iPad users. It would also be interesting to see how the lessons of Flipboard could be applied to websites viewed and laptops and desktops.

I’ve included some more screen shots from my iPad below to show just how attractive Flipboard makes these sites.

Flipboard’s own news aggregator.

New York Times World News.

Another magazine-style layout of news from the BBC website.

Facebook: the social networking magazine, Flipboard-style.

Nice treatment of photographs posted by one of my FB friends.

iPad eMagazines: HTML5 Takes Us Another Step Forward…

Esquire: Using HTML5 instead of JPEG and Flash. Beautiful layout and typography. Pity the content’s so targeted to rich, self-indulgent males…

Three posts ago, I showed a collection of different magazines and newspapers in their newest iPad versions – which I pointed out were beautiful castles built on sand, in that they all used JPEG representations to create their onscreen pages.

The version of Wired magazine I showed was a whopping 590+ Mbyte download. Even with the daily-increasing availability of storage, it’s hard to see how anyone could keep their iPad storage from becoming cluttered after a few months.

However, one of my typography friends on Facebook posted a fascinating link to a company called Scrollmotion, which is creating thousands of applications for the iPad, many of them highly quality magazines.

One of the magazines now available in the iPad App Store is Esquire. I have to say, as far as content is concerned, it’s really not my cup of tea. However, it is beautifully typeset and laid out, with very high quality photographs, graphics and advertising, and it’s a great demonstration of what you can do.

It was created with HTML 5 – not JPEG and Flash pages – and is about a sixth of the size of the issue of Wired magazine which I reviewed in my earlier post.

It’s highly readable. It looks beautiful. There are some problems: it still doesn’t scale, for instance. But the fact that it’s created using HTML means that setting and layout can become more flexible and adaptable in future. With the JPEG pages used in wired magazine, there was absolutely no way forward; the pages might just as well been cast in stone.

I’d be interested to know from anyone technically-inclined out there whether these apps are using common system resources to do their text composition and layout g. I certainly hope so. It would be insane if each magazine or newspaper had to do its own.

This issue of Esquire magazine has an interesting opening gimmick, using out-of-focus video which sharpens and then freezes to become the front cover. I presume – since Flash is outlawed on the iPad – that this also uses HTML5. It works very well.

This is a big step forward. Be interesting to see where it leads. It still seems weird to me that each magazine and newspaper is its own iPad app, unlike eBook, for instance, in which there’s a “Library” with titles. I’ve no doubt someone will figure out the “personal magazine rack”.

Publishers, though, are still giving themselves an easy life by focusing on the iPad alone. We’ll have to see how they cope – or whether they even try – when Android-powered tablets begin to appear, and also the new Windows 7 tablets.

A lot will depend on whether enough of them are sold to create a competitive platform to the iPad.

I have to say that the more I use my own iPad, the more I think Apple has got it right, and the Windows-powered tablets are not really competing in the same space at all.

I use my Pad now much more than I use my laptop; for reading books, magazines, the New York Times, checking Facebook and my Windows Live Mail. If I want to type a document, or create video, then I go to the laptop. But when consuming, the iPad wins every time. I sit in a recliner and read, comfortably.

I have two devices, where I used to ask one device to do two jobs – and of course ended up with an unsatisfactory compromise. I didn’t know that until I began using the iPad intensively. It’s definitely my first “goto” device, and the laptop’s a fallback. The iPad’s “touchy-feely”, but in an imprecise way. I don’t want to do detail with my fingers – just find what I want and turn the pages.

There are some great apps out there. One of my favorites is the PBS app – great nature and history videos to watch in bed, using headphones if you don’t want to wake your partner. I’m getting quite addicted to the New York Times. I guess that’s what they’re counting on by making it free just now, with plans to convert to paid-for subscription next year. The TED app’s another favorite.

A Windows TabletPC is still both devices in one. Apple has taught me that’s not what I want. I was extremely skeptical that Apple could really demonstrate a new product niche in between the mobile phone and the laptop. But that’s exactly what they appear to have done. You’d have to prise it from my dead fingers if you wanted to take it away now.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook Goes LCD – While Amazon and NYT Go iPad…

The new Nook, announced yesterday, with an LCD screen: B&N claim 8-hour battery life.

I forecast quite some time ago that when the first LCD screen-based eBook reader with acceptable battery life appeared, it would blow away eInk-based devices like Amazon’s Kindle. A few posts ago, I wrote about how Apple’s iPad had done exactly that.

It seems Barnes & Noble agree. Yesterday B&N announced a new LCD-based version of its Nook reader. The device has a claimed 8-hour battery life, and its seven-inch screen has 1024 x 600 pixels.

The previous incarnation of the Nook seemed like a crazy device to me. With a tiny LCD screen so you could browse your library of books with colored jackets, and shop in color – but an eInk screen for reading – it seemed to be neither one thing nor the other.

The Nook, which uses the Google Android operating system, has already come in for some criticism because it is not an open development platform, but will attempt to establish the kind of AppStore at which Apple has been so successful.

B&N isn’t Apple, which not only has millions of iPad customers, but hundreds of millions of iPhone customers who buy apps from the same store. It’s hard to see B&N’s closed app store effort succeeding. Only time will tell.

The device itself is attractively priced at $249. Be interesting to watch how this unfolds. I would not be surprised to see an iPad price drop eventually – although with devices flying off the shelves as fast as Apple can manufacture them, it doesn’t seem like there’s much incentive to cut prices at the moment…

Speaking of iPad and eReading, Amazon did a nice piece of work this week in improving its Kindle business on Apple’s device.

As I’ve already mentioned, I find the Amazon Kindle Reader app the best reading experience on the iPad so far. I use it every day.

One of the least satisfactory features of Kindle on iPad, though, was when you pressed the “Shop in Kindle Store” button, and ended up on the Kindle section of Amazon’s website. The website was fairly awkward to navigate on the iPad; its UI was definitely not optimized for that scenario.

Yesterday I installed Amazon’s new “Windowshop” app on my iPad – and that’s a pretty, easy-to-use way to shop for books that’s much more suited to the iPad’s touch screen.

My theory is that Amazon has seen a huge uptick in sales of Kindle books due to the appearance of the iPad, and it’s going full-out to capitalize on that.

Another great new reading app on the iPad is the full version of the New York Times, replacing the former NYT “Editor’s Choice” app. Now you get a full newspaper, with all the different sections. I’ve been reading it every day, and it’s a joy!

The New York Times on the iPad is currently free. They plan to start charging for it sometime next year. Not sure how well that’s going to fly. It is good enough that I’m almost tempted; we’ll see what price they plan to charge…

Voice Recognition: Blogging With My Eyes Closed – And No Keyboard!

This blog entry is an experiment. I’m going to try speaking it instead of typing it, using Dragon Dictate voice recognition software for the Mac. I don’t expect it to be perfect, but if it gets even 95% of the way, then it will make writing very different.

I bought a copy of the voice recognition software only yesterday, so I’m still coming to terms with it. But it seems to have no trouble at all dealing with my Scottish accent, now I’ve gone through a couple of voice training exercises to teach it my pronunciation. You can also use this recognition software to execute commands, although I haven’t tried that yet.

My friend Peter May, who has been professional writer for many years, and was a colleague of mine on the Scotsman newspaper in Glasgow in the 1970s, says he had a very unsatisfying experience with the same software. However, I have to say that my own test has been pretty amazing. The process of writing has become much easier.

I began working with this voice recognition software using the Macintosh’s built-in internal microphone, which is not recommended, and I was really surprised how well it worked. Then, I remembered that I had a LG-30 Bluetooth headset which I bought for my mobile phone and no longer use. Again, this is not one of the recommended headsets for the software. But I thought I’d give it a try anyway.

You have to hand it to Apple. You really have to hand it to Apple. I switched on the headset, the Macintosh recognized it right away, and asked me if I would like to use it as the preferred audio device. As soon as I confirmed that I did, it began to work. Then I did a microphone test using the voice recognition software, and that worked, too. After that it was just a case of doing a couple of voice training exercises, and the accuracy began to get really amazing.

I’ve been a writer since I was about seven years old. But I’m a terrible typist. Anyone who’s ever seen me at work knows I use only two fingers, and hammer a keyboard into submission. I never learned touch typing. I’m also a terrible mis-typist. I always have to go back over what I wrote and correct it. The word-processor was an incredible improvement over the typewriter for me for its editing ability alone.

There’s something else about typing. Somehow, I can never write conversationally when I’m using a keyboard. The process gets in the way. So, even if what I speak isn’t transcribed with 100% accuracy, it still removes a layer between the thoughts and the words on the screen with which I’ve always struggled to some extent…

So I’ve been dictating this whole blog while laid on my back on a sofa, with my eyes closed. How cool is that?

One of the things I’ve always noticed about my writing is that it has a character completely different to my speech. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, to audiences as large as 25,000. I’ve managed to keep an audience of 3000 people in their seats for more than an hour while talking about typography, the future of reading, and some of the work I’ve been involved in over the years. I’m hoping that the ability to just speak will bring some of that dynamic to my writing.

The future of writing concerns me almost as much as the future of reading. The whole process of publishing has changed dramatically. Anyone can publish on the web. This is a good thing – very good – but it also means that the amount of noise has gone up incredibly. Finding the good from amongst the mediocre gets harder all the time.

When publishing meant printing, the would-be author had to fight his or her way through many layers and filters before the printing press began to roll. Perhaps that battle was too hard. But at least there was some kind of filtering system that more or less worked. If a story got to the front page of the newspaper, you could pretty much guarantee that it was important.

One of the disadvantages of this much more open publishing environment is that it’s becoming more and more difficult for someone to make a living as a full-time creative person. It’s not just that you have to claw your way to the top of a much bigger heap of material. The Internet has spawned a whole generation which believes all content is – or should be – free.

It’s great that amateur writers can now get published. But writing a book, for instance, is a commitment that might involve someone spending a year or more working full-time on it. People have been willing to make that kind of commitment in the past, because they view it as a long-term investment that will eventually pay off.

It’s the same with music. Yes, of course people do it out of love. But they do eventually need to be able to make a living from it.

Okay, that’s the blog post done. It did take a bit of editing, but no more than I would normally do anyway. I have to say I really like this process, and I’ll be using it again. I’m pretty sure that it can only get better the more I use it.

Unfortunately, there is no trial version of the software. So if you want to try it for yourself, you’ll have to pay the $180 for the online download version, or $199 with the boxed product, which includes a USB headset. Dragon Dictate for the Mac. http://www.macspeech.com. I can only say I’m very happy with my investment.

System Requirements: Intel-based Mac with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Internet connection required for product registration. Nuance-approved USB microphone for Mac (included with new boxed-product purchase).