The EBook Publishing – Technical Communication Mutual Learning Opportunity

An Interview with Joshua Tallent

During WritersUA, TechWhirl’s Keith Soltys sat down with Joshua Tallent, founder of eBook Architects to discuss the present and future of eBooks, the state of the technology, and how much the technical communication and eBook trade publishing fields can learn from each other to produce good, readable, accessible content.

Keith Soltys (KS): Why don’t you start by telling us about yourself and your company?

Joshua Tallent (JT): I got my start in eBooks in 2002.  I started out working at a software company that makes bible study software in the Christian bible software market. I got my start there doing eBook development for them and that’s where I learned HTML and CSS. It was kind of a fortuitous event. I got to learn everything on the job and I got to learn a lot about eBook development from that perspective, which is very unique in the eBook world. It’s not to the minimal level you see trade eBooks – it’s much more in depth; there are  lots of metadata and taxonomies built into the eBook files and very proprietary HTML and CSS approaches to things.

KS: I’ve seen some web-based bibles that are very good in terms of the cross referencing and annotations and so on. I’ve got a fairly nice one on my Kindle as well.

JT: It’s a great opportunity for the rest of the eBook world to learn something from that community. Bible software’s been around since 1980; in fact, before Microsoft Office or even before Windows came out. It got started back in the DOS days. I worked at that company for six years. About a year before I quit the big event was the Kindle coming out. One of the board members came to the end-of-year meeting and said, “Hey, this is the new device from Amazon. It’s kind of neat and everybody should be aware that this is coming down the path.” I played with it for a couple of minutes, built my first Kindle book in about 30 minutes, and I was hooked.

I was able to take some time and learn the Kindle format over the next month or two and just though that I could make a little bit of extra money on the side. So I put up my shingle, put up KindleFormatting.com as a little side business, and over the next nine months or so and it grew and grew into a really healthy side business. By the next year, I didn’t have any reason not to take it full time – it was already taking 30 hours a week in addition to my regular job.

I quit my job at WORDsearch and started eBook Architects January 2009, so we’re just over three years old. We focus on helping authors and publishers with eBook development and consulting, so our whole business is building eBook files, testing eBook files on different devices, and keeping up to date with what’s working and what doesn’t. We specialize in complex content, so we do a lot of children’s books, cookbooks, and technical manuals. This is mostly in the trade space, not in the technical, user assistance community, but coming to conferences like WritersUA gives me an opportunity to understand where other people are coming from and see what other tools people are using.

It’s interesting, because in the trade publishing community, you don’t hear a lot about FrameMaker or DITA, or any of the other things that you guys are using in this community. It’s always interesting to learn about those different technologies.

Do you think that there’s an opportunity here for technical writers who are looking for new challenges to move into this field? Tech writers have been working with various online formats for quite a while and we understand how to structure content and make it easier to display and use in various output formats.

JT: Yeah, that would be really good for the publishing industry to see. There’s always a lot of bleed over that would be helpful on both sides. As long as we can get past the single source idea, because I don’t think that single source will be possible in the near future. There are just too many proprietary display engines and proprietary formats that are coming out.

I think the technical writing community can teach the publishing industry a lot about metadata, a lot about taxonomies, a lot about the deep information that you have, and the capabilities that you have to draw that information out and to give people more data as they read. That would be helpful.

Also tech writers could help with interfaces. There are a lot interfaces used in technical writing, search interfaces, indexing interfaces, that would also be helpful in the standard eBook market.

The original formats, Kindle 7 and EPUB2, are well suited for trade books, but there seem to be some real issues with more complex formatting, the type of thing you might need for more technical books. Where do you see that going?

JT: Part of it is just that there are inherent differences between HTML and CSS and print design. If you look at print design products like InDesign or Quark, they can do some really amazing and really interesting things with design, but it’s all static content, and it’s all designed in an environment that’s intended for the page. If you look at HTML and CSS, there has to be a lot more flexibility to handle reflowable content in eBooks. If you want to take your content and make it look the same as a print book, there’s still a lot of things you just can’t do yet.  That’ll change with CSS. Some of the things you can do are really good. But the emphasis on that has dwarfed the emphasis on some of the things we should have had, like HTML content that’s valid and has good metadata and taxonomies and accessible content that can be read by people who have vision impairments or who are dyslexic. There are a lot of things that we can do with our content that are more important than the visual display.

I do see the visual display being a detriment to the sales of eBooks over time because right now the majority of eBooks are sold as fiction, not non-fiction. Granted, that’s the same if you look at print, but if you look at the percentages, it’s a little too weighted on the simple side, so it would be nice to see some of those things happening. And it is happening, very slowly. You’ll see the devices pick up EPUB3 and KF8 and other newer standards that have support for better quality development.

But there’s a limit to how much we can do in those areas and there might be a limit in how much we should do. That is, this isn’t replicating the print page; this is a new environment, a new technology. Re-envisioning and re-imagining your content for the different screens and the different consumption media is really important.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think the lack of the higher formatting capabilities is going to hinder the adoption of eBooks in my area, the technical communications field. Complex tables would probably be the biggest issue. And from what I saw of your presentation today, there’s a lot more tweaking involved than most technical writers would be comfortable with. Would you agree with that?

JT: It’s less the formats themselves rather than the display engine. That’s actually where one of the biggest hurdles we have is. The HTML5 and CSS3 that we have in EPUB3 and KF8 are pretty good, as long as the display engines can do something valuable with them and interact with them in a better way.

For instance, look at tables. There are a lot of things that tables could do in those formats, if the devices were built to handle it properly. On a Kindle, a table is wider than a couple of columns is going to go off the edge of the page, and you have to use a little arrow button to scroll over to see it. That’s not user friendly. User friendly would be to go into a full-screen mode or to be able to zoom in and out on that.

I think the limitations are not in the formats as much as they are in the devices, which is actually beneficial to us, because over time that’ll be easier to fix than the formats themselves. At least you can do a software update to update the device.

You looked at InDesign in your presentation, but that’s a fairly high-end tool and might be out of range for a lot of people’s budgets. What about open source tools?

JT: It’s not difficult to build an EPUB file, if you have HTML. The real key is to get it into HTML. There’s lots of open source and free text editors which can be used to do that. A lot of tools out there are not quite ready yet. They’re available and they’re something that you can use, but I wouldn’t rely on them too heavily because they can turn your content into mush and cause lots of issues. Calibre’s one that I usually recommend against, although if you have content in some format and you need get it into HTML or into EPUB format to edit it, then you can use Calibre and open up the EPUB and make the edits inside.

In general, if you’re dealing with FrameMaker already, or if you’re dealing with any kind of content development system, then usually you can get it into HTML from one of those. Then you have to build some files by hand like the .OPF and .NCX, but that can also be automated. You can write stuff in Perl to deal with a lot of that.

What role has lack of a common eBook format had? With music we’ve now got DRM-free MP3s, but with eBooks we’ve got EPUB, the Kindle format, Apple’s iBook format, and variations on those depended on who you buy from. Has that held back the growth of the market?

JT: I think that a lot of the growth of the market is not due to that at all, because consumers don’t care. As long as they have a device that works, they can buy their books on that device, and they can read them whenever and wherever they want to. I don’t think most consumers know what format they’re buying. They’re buying a Kindle so they’re buying a Kindle book, but the format is less important than the device or the ecosystem that they’re reading them in.

On the eBook side, EPUB has been touted as this universal format, like you mentioned, but Barnes and Noble puts their proprietary spin on it. Apple puts their propriety spin on it, including DRM. Then you have iBooks Author coming out from Apple which is a completely different format. It’s similar to EPUB but it’s not the same thing. Amazon has their own format, the MobiPocket format, but it’s been around for a decade, so at least they’ve got a foundation in the eBook world.

I don’t think the prevalence or lack of prevalence of a standardized eBook format is the key. I think what it comes down to is whether people can publish eBooks. Granted, everybody would love to be on the same format because it would be a lot easier for the publishers, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. I think it would be a lot better for us to focus on helping people understand the market better, helping people understand that there are differences and what the benefits and detriments of different platforms are. Focus on getting people to read on the devices they have or in the way they want to read.

Where are the devices going? Amazon started with the Kindle and we have the other variants of the e-ink readers, but then Apple came out with the iPad and Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire and tablets seem to be becoming dominant. And then there are the color e-ink devices that are just starting to come out.

JT: I see the e-ink devices, whether they’re color or not, staying for a long time. The low power consumption is a real benefit of that type of a screen, and if you can read a book on your Kindle for a month or two months without having to charge your battery, that’s a pretty big deal. And for a lot of consumers, especially long-form readers, they don’t need a tablet. They don’t even want a tablet. They’re bigger and in a lot of cases they’re heavier. Even if it’s a 7’ screen, it’s bulkier, and it does more and it has more distractions than the e-ink reader will.

I do see the technology heading in a way that’s very encouraging if you look at the Pixel Qi screens or the Mirasol screens. Those are really good technologies for screens that I think will catch on in the next year or two. The Mirasol plant is supposed to be online this year in Korea and that’s the kind of technology I could see in the Kindle pretty easily. It’s reflective, high resolution, and it’s got 40 frames per second video capabilities. So you can have en eBook device that’s low power, has a reflective display that people like, but at the same time can handle color pictures, can handle video, can do audio, all of these other things that you want to be able to add into eBooks. You want to have these capabilities on every device out there but you don’t want to take away from the reflective screen capability.

In terms of the publishing industry itself, there seems to be a lot of resistance to eBooks and eBook publishing. Why is that?

JT: I think if you look at how publishing has grown over the years and how it got its start and how it got its foundations beneath it, the print side of things has been the key. It hasn’t been about content; it’s been about print. If you look at the models of the industry, you get the content from the creator, the author or whoever, then turn it into a print book. If it’s printed in hardback, you have a plan for how long it’ll be in hardback and how much it’ll have to sell before putting it into softback, and there’s a plan for softback publishing as well. There’s this whole process for what you do with books that are returned.

As a community, especially the bigger ones, publishers haven’t focused as much on the digital side of things even when they could have in the early days of eBooks 10 years ago or more. They got sideswiped by the Kindle in a sense – Amazon became the market leader just because they took an opportunity and ran with it.

I think what happened was that the publishers said: “We really can’t handle this. It’s going to ruin our sales if we sell our eBooks for a lot less than our print books. We’re not ready for it yet.” So in the course of developing their strategies, they basically have said: “We don’t want eBooks to succeed as nearly much as print because we make more money on print and that’s where the value and our whole focus is.”

It’s taken a couple of years for a lot of the publishers to adopt an eBook-centric model, or at least a model that can accept eBooks as part of the bigger picture. Thankfully, there’s been a lot of smaller and mid-size publishers who have been adopting eBooks much more readily and actually engaging the market on its own terms.

It seems to me there’s a real similarity between what’s happened with eBooks and the publishing industry and what happened with the music industry and digital distribution. On the books side the disruptor has been Amazon and on the music side it’s been Apple with iTunes.

JT: Not intending to be provocative, but I think that there’s a good case to be made that the music industry has adjusted to that change much more readily than the book industry has. Steve Jobs came out and said: “Hey, we want to sell this stuff DRM free. We want to sell it on 99 cent terms. We want to be able to give people what they want, where they want it, how they want it, as easily as possible”. And when they approached the music industry with that idea, the music industry balked at it, but eventually they conceded. And we haven’t seen that same kind of concession in the publishing industry. Amazon, on the other hand, in the eBook world has been painted as the evil empire. No one really complained too much, not at least the big music guys, when iTunes was selling 90 percent of music files, but when Amazon has 60 or 70 or 80 percent of the market, all the publishers see Amazon as evil, something to beat down, not as a company to co-ordinate with and to work with and help make the industry grow.

Some other companies, like Barnes and Noble, are coming up and starting to have some say in the market. Barnes and Noble and Apple are both doing interesting things in the eBook world but I don’t think that Amazon gets its fair due. They took what was basically a non-existent eBook market that was just Baen Books, All Romance, FictionWise and a couple of smaller retailers like that, and turned it into a consumer product. eBooks are now mainstream in the consumer market because of Amazon’s influence and I don’t think they get enough credit for that.

Publishers seem to be conducting a bit of a war on libraries right now. Random house just tripled their prices. Harper Collins limited the number of downloads on their eBooks to 26 because they figure since their print books wear out their eBooks should to. What’s going on with that?

JT: It’s that whole print model being taken to its extreme in the eBook world. What kills me most about the war on libraries, which I think is a great way to put it, is that libraries are already strapped for cash. It’s not like libraries are the place to go to make money. And if libraries are already paying a standard fee, they’re paying 26 bucks for an eBook when everybody else is paying 14. So why would you charge them more in order to get more money out of them when they can’t afford to pay? It just doesn’t make any sense.

I’d go to my local library and tell them, “Look, don’t buy any Random House books. Don’t buy any Harper Collins books. Go to indies and let the indies be the ones you get your content from. They’re more willing to work with you and less likely to do weird crazy things about limitations.” And 26 downloads is really an arbitrary number. Supposedly they did some kind of research to come up with that number, but there are lots of librarians who came along and did YouTube videos and said “Look, here’s a book that’s been loaned a hundred times and it’s fine”.

We’re talking about bits and bytes here; we’re not talking about a physical good. They don’t wear out, unless you get some sort of virus in your system or whatever. It’s time for the publishing industry to take another look at the models that have been around for a couple hundred years or more and start to reassess them. They may have worked in the past, it may have worked post-Gutenberg, but we’re now post-post-Gutenberg. It’s time to move on to the digital media market and think of ourselves as content generation companies, not just as publishers.

Publishing is an industry that’s too static, it needs to adjust and change with the times, and there could be a lot of value to publishers in looking at how other content creation companies, whether they’re news media outlets or bloggers or people in other industries like technical writing, can learn from those other content creation sources and adapt to the new environment we’re living in. I don’t think that they’re doing it enough. I really wish we’d see more of that.

Do you think we’ll see pushback from people who are complaining that they’re paying $18 for an eBook when a paperback is $10 and they’re not getting as much value?

JT: Over time, as we develop more functionality in eBooks, then it’ll make sense to charge more. Now when you’re giving someone an eBook, it doesn’t have the same value. They can’t sell it to someone else. They can’t copy content out of it. There are limitations on it that you don’t have in print and that don’t make sense in an eBook world. Hopefully as the quality of the content gets better, as the metadata and the taxonomies that are built in get better, then they’ll be worth more.

Thank you, Mr. Tallent. 

Joshua Tallent began developing eBooks in 2002. He got his start in the eBook market working for 6 years in the eBook development department at a Bible software company, including 2 years as the department manager. In February 2008, Joshua launched KindleFormatting.com with the goal of helping independent authors and small publishers create eBooks for the Kindle and other retailers. In January 2009, Joshua founded eBook Architects, his eBook design and consulting company. Kindle Formatting, Joshua’s guide to developing eBooks for the Amazon Kindle platform, is regularly cited as the most informative source on that topic for eBook developers, publishers, and authors.

 

Keith Soltys

After a series of sales and office jobs, Keith Soltys discovered technical writing in 1987 and never looked back. He currently works at the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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