Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The trouble with EPUB

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.)


bigscarygiraffe said...

I don't even want to talk about what e-readers to do poetry.

emily said...

sorry, this has nothing to do with this post--- i am trying to reach j. robert lennon about his "how to" with the unicolor c41 kit. i am just wondering where he got the airtight containers to store the chemicals and if he stored them in the fridge or just at room temp. let me know. thanks.
sorry again for the randomness.
(you can hit reply or my email is

Hope said...

I think it's so important that you are doing this and writing about it.

jrlennon said...

emily--room temperature, though a cold largely unheated room...I got the airless containers from Freestyle Photo, online. Good luck!

Oh, God, giraffe, the thought of formatting poetry in an ebook...a nightmare...

Thanks, Hope!

jon said...

You can't format poetry easily for Wordpress, either. Writing poetry with Microsoft Word is a drag too, because of the horrifying defaults (try preserving single space, or creating different margins, spacing etc. It's a lot more work than typewriter ever was).
Epub formats are evolving, and there are different standards. The book, which seems so simple comparatively has evolved for centuries. It used to be that you bought unbound pages, and then had to pay a binder. It took hundreds of years for the book you buy and take home and read to evolve. The came paperbacks, then trade paperbacks etc. And, of course, before moveable type they had to be hand copied by scribes. Fonts evolve, margins, bindings, the size of printings, the type of paper used. Hopefully the irritating technical problems with e-books will be resolved in the direction of simplicity. Right now each device has its own demands.

rmellis said...

JR -- Who's going to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?

Just askin'!

jrlennon said...

jon--that's interesting to think about...that the early history of print is in fact comparable to the development of the e-book. You publish online, right? What format(s) do you use?

Rhian, dear, consider this little experiment a visit to the kissing booth. But if you want to get in bed with me, you gotta pony up.

Zach Cole said...

Okay, I've gotta ask--then what's a library in this analogy?

Hope said...

To RM's point, Seth Godin has an interesting take on this in his April 27 post, "quid pro quo, Santa math" at

jon said...

JR-I have it as a PDF, which you can download to a lot of readers, and in an e-pub format, which a friend formatted for me because I'm hopeless. Some people have trouble downloading it, some don't.
As for libraries, they've changed as the medium has changed. the easiest way to think of a library is as an information storage and preservation unit. the main issue with electronic stuff is, how good a medium is it for preservation? how does it relate to the cost of storage? and of course, do patrons want to read electronic books. there are different answers to all the questions and it is incredibly controversial.
anyway, i think it's great you're doing this, and that you have taken the time to learn the formatting. there are websites (can't think of the one i'm thinking of at the moment) with formatting tips.

Franz said...

While I plan to offer fiction in ePub format, perhaps when Scrivener 2.0 is released, our asking (iPad) users to download an ePub file on their computer, drag it into iTunes, then plug in their iPad, sync to their device, eject, load iBooks, then, THEN, read — that seems an inelegant solution for when we want to self-publish an ebook and let a reader get at it quickly. I find it simpler to refer someone to my site where they can then click a link and be reading right away, whether on a computer, iPad, iPhone, etc. A few stylesheet declarations and the reader can have sensible line lengths, leading, properly spaced paragraphs, etc.

jrlennon said...

Franz, I believe if you click on an epub link in Safari on the ipad, it opens right up in iBooks and lodges in your library. I do need to test this, though. I do know that you can download a pdf directly into goodreader, a 99-cent app that I read magazines on. And then when you sync, it backs the files up to your computer.

Franz said...


That would help reduce the friction immensely. For now, though, from

"Can I download books from other websites?

Yes, you can download freely available ePub files on your Mac or PC. Using iTunes 9.1 or later, add them to your iTunes library choosing File > Add to Library, or drag the ePub file to the Books library on your computer. To read these books, simply sync them to your iPad."

jrlennon said...

feh! That's a bit of a kludge, you're right...

jon said...

this is a free ebook site I link to, and she formats for different readers etc and has a lot of ebook info:

bigscarygiraffe said...

'member that time I wrote an anti-Microsoft Word poem?

it went something like..


Your Microsoft word wants me
to change
won't let me be creative your silly self your silly microsoft has
stunted my studious

& it was right-adjusted. I should rewrite that as the better, more hilarious (and hubristic), poet I've become.

Russell said...

Perhaps a question to ask at this point is, Why go to the trouble? Because, technically, your work is already available as a free e-book, readable on the iPad and any device with a browser, right? And if you wanted to, you could base your web versions on XML, using CSS to produce XHTML just as you do for EPUB. As for versions: once/if CSS3 comes to fruition, you’ll apparently be able to embed your preferred typefaces AND have a reasonable amount of control over them (think OpenType options, the sort of thing that’s a given with InDesign-to-print/PDF documents). No more Arial/Verdana/Trebuchet/Georgia/Etc. So your book, if slightly ugly in 2010, might become less so in 2015. Of course, those who visit your website can’t (conveniently) download your “book”: they need to go online to read it. But isn’t the whole world online, all the time? In sum (and behind all of this), Is the concept of “e-reader/e-book” itself perhaps a somewhat hidebound notion, rooted in our generation’s attachment to the printed-and-bound book? Or, to put it another way, What’s wrong with Safari/Chrome/Firefox/IE?

ed skoog said...

Was the arrival of your IPad concurrent with the drive to make this book? We just got ours and my mind is rearranging around it (not exclusively IT as a product, but the exciting question of what a "document" is, post-laptop).

jrlennon said...

Ed answered Russell's question: owning an iPad made me want to issue an e-book. It's a drastically different experience from reading on a web browser, even a web browser on the iPad. I actually like it a lot.

Franz said...

Two new options:

Erik said...

Why would the standard be immature? Have you considered the possibility the EPUB 'generator' (InDesign) you are using could be the trouble maker?

InDesign is bad at exporting to EPUB; every book publisher knows that. Additionally, most people start from a PDF, which certainly is NOT the way to go about creating a well structured EPUB publication.

The EPUB file which InDesign CS5 creates is not an EPUB file most online retailers and bookstores will accept
as it lacks completeness in many areas such as metadata and the correct structure if the underlying InDesign file is not perfectly styled.

How bad do you think then is converting a PDF file to EPUB?