•    Slate Magazine’s Tom Scocca writes: Microsoft Word is cumbersome, inefficient, and obsolete. It’s time for it to die. A choice quote:
    I know only one person who loves working in Word: my 4-year-old. It’s valuable to him to be able to put the names of subway lines in their correct colors, or to spell out “autumn” with each letter a different falling-leaf hue, or to jump from Times New Roman to Comic Sans to Chalkboard in midstory. He also loves to write things on my old manual Smith-Corona. A tool that’s lost its purpose makes a great toy.
    I pity the technologists who still have to convert from Word. There has to be a better way. # (4)
Saturday, 31 March, 2012

The Troubling Dual Nature of Books and Websites

Baldur Bjarnason wrote a really long essay two days ago on interactivity and ebooks, one that I think is worth reading in its entirety. While not entirely related to his central thesis, I’d like to point to a specific section near the end and talk about that instead:

I’m beginning to worry that ebooks won’t have any place in the future of interactive media. Interactive non-fiction will grow to encompass the markets that today are served by print non-fiction and it won’t look anything like a book.

In a way this has already happened. Reference books and cookbooks are being pushed out by reference websites and recipe blogs (emphasis mine). In a few years, non-fiction as a genre will be dominated by apps and websites, the exceptions being the fields that legitimately require long-form text to deliver their message properly.

I can’t think what those fields might be, but I’m sure they exist.
One exception might be textbooks and other fields that are bound by archaic institutional requirements.

Publishing is on a crossroads. It’s not just a question of how the form will develop but also who we want as an audience. As books lose their real-world presence, do we really want to just cater to a minority of voracious expert readers? A casual reader is never going to buy a bespoke reading device, but will buy an iPhone or iPad, where ebooks are competing with games, apps, websites, and comics.

Pretending you aren’t competing with other media on price, accessibility, and value, is a surefire way to kill off long-form reading.

At Books in Browsers 2011, Joseph Pearson of Booki.sh made the rather controversial remark that ebooks are simply ‘websites that are better paginated’. Everything else was better off remaining as a website.

Like many present at the time, I reacted rather negatively to his view. Then I stopped, thought for a bit, and realized that there was nothing I could think of that could be used as a counter example.

Pearson and Bjarnason have a valid point: dictionaries, recipe books and encyclopedias are not better paginated; they have little reason for existing as ebooks. Better that they remain as websites, where they are linkable, searchable, and editable. It is no coincidence that Wikipedia lives on as Encyclopedia Britannica dies.

Pearson’s remark makes more sense when you understand how ebooks work: the prevailing ebook formats are essentially bastardized HTML. And HTML, as we should know by now, is the stuff that websites are made of. If ebooks are but one conversion step away from websites, and the form of the website offers more benefits than the form of the book, why should anyone still publish such books?

(Let’s be clear, though: we’re not talking about fiction here. Fiction is — rather ironically — protected from this change, because the benefits of presenting fiction on a website aren’t as numerous as the benefits of presenting the contents of a cookbook as a searchable recipe site.)

  •    On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent a letter to Charles McCarthy, the head of the board of Drake High School, North Dakota. Charles McCarthy had, a few weeks previously, ordered the burning of all 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five.
    If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.
    Worth reading in its entirety. # (0)
Tuesday, 27 March, 2012
  •    In the easy-to-use eBook tools department: Vook Relaunches as E-Book Publishing Platform. Produces ePub and mobi files:
    The Vook platform is meant to be easy enough so that aspiring self-publishers can use it, but robust enough for enterprise use. It was designed to be able to create and automatically distribute both text-only books and multimedia enhanced e-books to the Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iBooks e-book stores.
    It’s not free, though. But definitely interesting, and much better than their previous business model (making multimedian eBooks called ‘Vooks’) # (0)
Monday, 26 March, 2012

Word Needs To Die

I was working on a eBook conversion workflow for a small publishing house last week, as a favour to the owners. I thought I could get away with a couple hours of work: maybe write a few scripts, chain a couple of existing libraries together, and then email them my code. I was dead wrong. I gave up after two days of work.

The problem was with Word. Word’s doc and docx formats are proprietary, clunky to work with, and incredibly hard to convert to ePub and mobi without weird artifacts and edge cases. It doesn’t help that the standard publishing workflow is in Word — many writers, editors, and publishers use Word source files in their daily lives.

The challenges of working with Word are not new. Smashword’s MeatGrinder engine requires authors to tediously format their doc files; other guides warn authors against using Word to ebook conversions. The Outsell-Gilbane report on Publishing Transformation advises publishers to switch to XML-first workflows ‘as soon as possible.’

There are two likely solutions for this:

1) Write a perfect converter from Word to X, where X is any other text-based markup format. This is a technological problem, and is incredibly hard.

2) Get writers to write in non-Word formats. This is a social problem, and is incredibly hard.

The comparison between the two solutions above is, of course, a little unfair. The truth is that the second problem is easier than the first … but only in the sense that nobody has really tried taking a crack at it. There have been many attempts at writing a good Word conversion library, but all attempts have failed for various edge cases. There have not been strong attempts at creating a beautiful writer-focused tool, save perhaps Scrivener. But Scrivener isn’t popular the way Word is – ideally, you’d want something so pervasive writers would be crazy not to use it.

(I could, by the way, be wrong on the first issue – if you know of a good library to use, please hit me up in the comments).

I’m very tempted to take a stab at both problems over the Summer. No promises, but these are huge problems I wish someone would solve. The alternative to a Word-first workflow is a greatly simplified publishing process, one that is accessible to both writers and publishers alike.

Here’s a taste of that alternative world: Matt Neuburg wrote an essay on his book publishing process for O’Reilly Books. It is, admittedly, very technical, and it demands some programming knowledge. But his process is this: he writes chapters in a text-based format; generates HTML for quick previewing (ebook formats are HTML-based, after all) and then, when he’s ready, types a single command to send his source files directly to the O’Reilly server.

Here’s the really cool bit: because he writes all his chapters in a conversion-friendly format, O’Reilly is able to instantly generate a PDF – all properly type-set with fonts and layout as in an actual O’Reilly book. Neuburg then gets a copy of this PDF to preview, walking around his house with the book loaded up on his iPad. If he so wishes, Neuburg may run another one-line command, and all the readers who have subscribed to O’Reilly’s Early Release program for his book gets a copy of the updated book – in PDF, EPUB, or web form (at Safari Books Online). Naturally, his editor is able to plug into this process from the O’Reilly side of things, and every change is backed up in a Subversion repository.

In Neuburg’s own words:

  • I’m working in plain text, lightly formatted; so my writing and editing and revising are easy and nimble.
  • I’m using TextMate, a text editor that makes my use of lightly formatted text easy.
  • I can preview my work as HTML, which makes me a better proofreader.
  • I can “chunk” my book into nice-looking HTML chapter files for public consumption, so the rest of the world can watch me work.
  • Thanks to the O’Reilly commit hook, I automatically get a PDF version of my work. This is fun and encouraging as the book grows, and makes me an even better proofreader.
  • We’re using Subversion, so my editor and I have an easy time communicating changes back and forth to each other.
  • Without any trees being killed, readers can purchase an electronic Early Release edition of my book, and they are kept up-to-date as I continue to write and revise.

My point: moving away from Word enables writers and publishers saner publishing workflows. It doesn’t make sense for the writing/editing process to be done in a format separate from the ones used in the publishing process.

Word is a curse on digital publishing workflows. The sooner we move away from it, the better.

Sunday, 15 January, 2012
  •    L.A. Times interviews the Moonbot Studios, makers of 'The Numberlys':
    Q: The iPad is so new. What is it like working in such uncharted territory?

    Oldenburg: It harkens back to the early days of film. It’s still very Wild West and experimental right now and it is really exciting.

    Enochs: The first movies were a locomotive and a guy running and that was it, and everyone was thrilled. We are still a little bit in that stage, I’m sure.
    Moonbot Studios are the same people behind ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore‘. # (3)
Sunday, 8 January, 2012
Wednesday, 21 December, 2011
  •    Boris Kachka from New York Magazine on How E-books Have Become a New Literary Form:
    The great hidden virtue of e-books—hidden beneath the chatter about their effect on the bottom line—is that they allow stories to be exactly as long as we want them to be. It turns out that many of them work best between 10,000 and 35,000 words long—the makings of a whole new nonfiction genre occupying the virgin territory between articles and hardcovers.
    (Thx, Johnnypat) # (0)
  •    Seth Godin on How much should an ebook cost?:
    This is the wrong question. The right question is: How much will an ebook cost? Because the answer isn’t up to one author or one publisher or even a price-fixing cartel. It’s up to the market, which is a far more complicated entity. There are no shoulds in the market, just reality.
    He makes an interesting argument for dynamic pricing: that unknown authors should release their ebooks for free, and then scale the prices up. # (3)