Web Informant #251 , 8 June 2001:
Creating eBooks


There is nothing like writing a book to give you the perspective on how Byzantine the entire publishing industry is. Even though I am a former magazine editor and have one book under my belt, the book-publishing world seems to me to be stuck in the era just shortly after Gutenberg arrived on the scene. This isn't meant as a knock on my new-found friends at McGraw Hill -- it isn't their fault that they have to transform dead trees into something that will carry my beautiful prose. (You can preview the preface to the book here.)

So it was with some interest that I caught up with the current state of affairs when it comes to electronic publishing. And things aren't much better than the printed side of the world.

Let me give you a brief rundown of the production process to get my book out. First, I write my chapters in Microsoft Word. This gets emailed around to various people, who insert their comments in the document (one of Word's nicer features) or email me back just their thoughts in plain text. I then take out the illustrations and send my publisher the text, with a few markups here and there to indicate special pieces such as figures, tables, and the like. McGraw Hill then takes the Word document and converts it into Ventura Publisher, which is what they use to produce the final film (I am guessing) that goes to the printing plant. I am skipping a couple of steps here for clarity reasons: there are people who do copy editing, indexing, marketing, and numerous other tasks (and I am grateful to all of them, too).

Given the number of steps and people involved, you would guess that there are lots of places you can introduce mistakes into your perfect manuscript (not that mine is perfect, but I try to assume it is, at least before an editor gets his or her grimy hands on the thing). And given that there is so much software involved, wouldn't it be nice if I (or anyone else for that matter) could just take the Word document and transform it into something that many people could read online, or in some little portable electronic gizmo?

Well, it would be nice. And so far, it still is pretty much a pipe dream. There are several problems: the various reader devices are still primitive; there are too many content formats for my taste; and it is too hard for authors to publish content with any of the software tools available. Let me explain each of these issues.

Yes, there are eBook readers of various shapes and sizes that have been out for several years. (You can read a review I wrote nearly two years ago for Computerworld, and not much has changed since then.)

RCA/Gemstar now owns two of the companies that formerly made eBook devices, and it is unclear what they will do with them. There is software that allows you to read eBooks on various general-purpose PDAs from PeanutPress and MobiPocket.com.

Reading on one of these things is not as easy or as enjoyable as reading a real paper book. The screens aren't terrific, the amount of text per screenful is smaller than even the smallest paperback page (meaning you'll have to flip screens frequently as you are reading along), and the things are still too pricey for the general public to get interested.

So much for the hardware. What about software tools to create your own eBook? Well, this isn't such a joy either. Your choices are to use tools from Microsoft, Adobe, or a phalanx of smaller companies.

Microsoft's Reader is perplexing. It is freely available as a download from their web site, but the download that I found is only available for ordinary Windows PC operating systems. You would think that the company that makes Pocket PC and Handheld PC operating systems and applications would also bundle the Reader software with these devices, but no, at least not that I could find. In addition to the reader software is an add-on utility that can convert Word documents into Reader format. This works pretty well, other than including the darn "W" logo as the book cover. Still, I should be thankful: at least they didn't use Clippy as the default cover art.

Adobe Acrobat is interesting, and lately has gotten some improvements. The PDF format has become the one format that I use regularly, and creating PDFs can't be any easier: you can use a print driver from Word to create the file, and then do a little bit of cleaning up with the Acrobat program itself. Note this isn't the free Reader software that you download from their web site: you have to pay $250 for this software to create your PDFs.

Acrobat v5 adds the ability to digitally self-sign your document, so that others can verify it came from you or track the changes that have been made to the document. It is a pretty neat system, and while a bit cumbersome (you have to send your correspondents your digital signature files, and they have to be running version 5 of the software), it isn't as difficult as manipulating other digital certificates. Version 5 also adds the ability to prevent others from copying your content, from printing the file, and a few other niceties in the security department.

While we are talking about Adobe, you should know the company purchased an eBook hardware vendor Glassbook and has done a few nice things to help eBook potential authors understand how to use their tools to produce eBooks, available naturally on their web site.

And that brings us to the final issue, that of file formats. If you are a potential author, you want to have as wide a distribution process for your eBook. That means you'll probably end up producing any eBook in several formats, including PDF, HTML, the Microsoft Reader (if it ever becomes available on more PDAs) and probably at least one additional format for the Gemstar readers as well.

What about ordinary HTML, or at least XML formats? There are plenty of tools that will create these kinds of documents, but they aren't really suitable for producing books. Do you have each chapter in a separate file? Each page? The upside is that just about everyone can read your work in their browser, if they are willing to put up with the various links and pagination and have an appropriately-sized screen to view your text. The downside is that it is incredibly easy for anyone to steal your work with a simple cut and paste, and the web isn't really good for reading books since it is so page-oriented.

If you are still with me so far, you'll notice that what all of these vendors have done (and Adobe probably better than anyone else to date) is replace the virtual army of people that are working on publishing the printed books with -- well, with just yourself. You have to be part graphic designer, part indexer, part librarian, part publisher, and of course, an author to wear all the various hats along the way of getting your creative words into print, however and whatever form that print might take. That is a tall order, even using the best software tools and products. With the current state of the eBook market, it is almost impossible to do well.

If you want to learn more about eBooks in general, and a good treatment about what it takes to publish your own eBooks, check out in print the copy of Poor Richard's Creating eBooks by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell. In the meantime, look for my Home Networking Survival Guide in your favorite bookstore this fall.

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David Strom
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