I've decided to put out a free e-book compiled from the "read online" section of my website--it's going to be called "Video Game Hints, Tricks, and Cheats" and it should be available for download sometime next week. If all goes well, I'll be offering it in epub or pdf formats.
The experience of trying to generate an e-book, however, has gone a long way towards showing me why the publishing industry has shown such reluctance to get on board with this technology. epub, it turns out, is a very slippery standard. I've got the book to a state now where it looks excellent on the iPad...but much of the formatting doesn't want to show up on Adobe Digital Editions. (This is ironic, as I'm composing the thing in InDesign CS3, and following its byzantine formatting rules.) It may look completely different on the Sony Reader, too. The whole process of creating this document has involved hours and hours of mind-numbing troubleshooting and frustration...and if I buy CS5 in the coming months, I'm sure I'll have to unlearn everything I just taught myself, if I ever want to do this kind of thing again.
It occurs to me that, with print, you can choose among different papers, binding styles, cover materials, jacket designs...but in the end, what you have is a book, and it works exactly like all the other ones. The technology is simple, reliable, and universally accepted. It can adapt to any method of use. Wherever you bring it, it's the same thing. It's definitive.
The e-book, on the other hand, is going to look different everywhere. It is code--CSS and XHTML, specifically--and code is open to interpretation, depending upon where it lands. The Wikipedia Page for epub (or EPUB, as seems to be the preferred designation) lays out the problem: "One criticism of EPUB is that, while good for text-centric books, it may be unsuitable for publications which require precise layout or specialized formatting."
But...isn't layout part of a book? Isn't specialized formatting part of a book? A book is not just what the words say. It's how the words look on the page, and the feel of those pages. Apple's iPad addresses feel quite nicely--the way one page curls onto the next, the way you can see, very faintly, through the "paper." But those are the app's characteristics, not the work's. And ultimately the work has to take precedence.
I think this format has a ways to go before it feels mature, before it enables the technology to disappear and the story to move to the fore. My e-book, by contrast, will be ready soon, whatever twisted version of it happens to reach your inbox.
(the piece of book art shown above is by Georgia Russell.)