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ePubs and the Future

I have been working on various ebook projects and am frustrated by the amount of "hand coding" required to make an ePub book work well with several reader applications. When a book looks just right on one reader, it looks odd on another. Yet, we know the future is digital.

Most computer users are familiar with Adobe's ubiquitous Portable Document Format (PDF). The benefit of using PDF files is that a file includes all graphics, fonts, and layout information. A file appears nearly identical on every computer, tablet, handheld device, et cetera. A magazine in PDF looks like the designer intended — and design is the emphasis of the entire Adobe product line. Adobe's Creative Suite applications are for designers, not writers.

ePubs take a different approach, closer to the original intentions of HTML and similar document "markup" formats. Yes, you can put words in bold or change a few colors, but the intent of ePub is to allow the reader, the computer user, the ability to control specific font choices and even some layout choices. Content, not visuals, are the focus of ePub files, which are coded in a mix of HTML, CSS, XML, and plain text.

Both ePub and PDF have their roles in the digital age. ePubs let a reader easily change the appearance of a text to improve readability (the speed at which text is decoded), while PDF maintains original artistic intent. For example, most magazines are visual publications and the text is somewhat subordinate to visuals. A classic novel? The words matter. One way I consider which is the better format is by asking myself if a text would be appropriate in audio format. Audiobooks definitely don't emphasize visual design.

While I can create "perfect" PDF publications using almost any application on my computer, I can't seem to create an ePub that doesn't need some tuning. It is annoying and even absurd that software companies cannot accurately and completely generate a basic document format. Come on, software developers, HTML has existed since 1992 and SGML traces its history back to GML of the 1960s. You cannot create a good ePub editor based on more than 40 years of markup history?

There is no excuse for ePub generation to be so sloppy from most word processors, layout software, and XML editors. When a program gets the actual pages right, it doesn't include proper metadata. When the metadata are correct, the order of book elements is either incorrect or poorly maintained. I've tried InDesign, Pages, eCub, Sigil, and Oxygen. Each one is almost, but not quite, standards compliant.

We know that the ePub format, along with the .Mobi/PRC (Kindle) format, is where publishing is headed. Right now, ePubs are still in the early days, similar to the first years of HTML editors. That's a shame.

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