EPUB and eBooks: Formats, Setup, Production Workflows and Foreign Language Text Lessons from WritersUA

TechWhirl’s coverage of WritersUA 2012 is sponsored by Madcap Software. Find out more and download a trial copy of Flare 8.

eBooks are a hot topic for technical writers and user assistance professionals right now, and WritersUA  2012 featured three sessions about eBooks and electronic publishing.

  • EPUB: Putting It All Together, by Scott Prentice
  • eBook Production Workflows, by Joshua Tallent
  • The Current State of Foreign Language Text in eBooks, by Joshua Tallent

EPUB: Putting It All Together

Presenter: Scott Prentice, Leximation

Scott Prentice will be familiar to many technical writers as the president of Leximation, developer of many useful FrameMaker plug-ins. Their best known tool is probably DITA-FMx, which makes DTIA much easier to use with structured FrameMaker. Recently Prentice has been working on a plug-in to convert FrameMaker books to an iPad-friendly format.

Prentice began his presentation with a high-level overview of eBook readers and the EPUB file format.  (Prentice’s presentation should have been scheduled before Joshua Tallent’s session, as most of the WritersUA audience wasn’t very familiar with the details of the EPUB format).

EPUB is an open-source standard that’s readable by almost all e-readers, except for Amazon’s Kindles. He pointed out that an EPUB file is a zipped archive of XML and XHTML files and unzipping an EPUB file and looking at the contents is a good way of learning about the format. You can find out more from the resources page of his website, epubtest.com. Although the EPUB3 standard has been released, it’s not supported by most e-readers, so you are best to stick with EPUB2 for now.

Prentice described several ways to produce EPUB files, including Adobe InDesign, the open source tool Calibre (which he does not recommend for final production work), or DITA for Publishers if you’re working from DITA source files. There are tools that will convert PDF files to EPUB format but the results aren’t very good.

He pointed out that you are unlikely to get a production-quality EPUB file without some tweaking of the source files. At the very least, you’ll need to update metadata to suit your publisher’s requirements, and this varies from publisher to publisher. He recommends Oxygen XML, which works directly with EUPB files and can save them without any extra packaging or validation. If you’re looking for an open source alternative, there’s Sigil, which has been designed to be an EPUB editor.

You can do it the hard way, by editing the source XHTML, CSS, and XML files directly. It’s best to keep the HTML and CSS classes simple, to support the widest variety of e-readers. Scripting, either in your editor or with a scripting tool like Perl, will help you avoid repetitious edits. Code samples, tables, and setting the size of your cover image are areas that may require manual tweaking.

He recommends doing a sanity check on the book’s OPF and NCX files to review the metadata and check links to topics.

Prentice points out that packaging the content files into an EPUB file has several specific  requirements—it’s not a straight ZIP archive, and he suggests that you  use your editor to create the EPUB file.

He talked briefly about creating Kindle files for Amazon, and recommended following the instructions found on Joshua Tallent’s website or in his book, Kindle Formatting.

Prentice’s presentation covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It was a good introduction to the complexities of the EPUB format – something that many technical writers are just beginning to learn about.

eBook Production Workflows

Presenter:  Joshua Tallent, eBook Architects

Joshua Tallent is the founder of eBook Architects, a company specializing in eBook conversion, formatting, and consulting. He’s also the author of the book Kindle Formatting, which is the guide on how to format eBooks for Amazon’s Kindle e-readers.

His presentation on eBook production workflows was an eye-opener for some of the audience, who were used to the simpler and more reliable production methods of their familiar online help tools. Tallent comes from the book publishing world, where the content is lovingly designed in Adobe InDesign and eBook files are hand-crafted.

As it became clear early in his presentation, they’re different worlds.

He started by describing some of the weaknesses of InDesign when it comes to creating EPUB format eBooks and strongly recommended using the most recent version, InDesign CS 5.5. Even then, you’ll still need to do some manual editing of your EPUB source files, for example, to add metadata that InDesign doesn’t create.

He recommended testing in Adobe Digital Editions, which is used by several eBook publishers, and also testing on Barnes and Nobles’ Nook platform.

Amazon is the biggest eBook retailer, so you may want to convert your EPUB file into their Kindle format. There are now two variants of the Kindle format: the older MobiPocket format and the new Kindle Format 8. You can use Amazon’s KindleGen tools to convert eBooks into their format, but you may need to add media queries to your CSS code to handle formatting differences between the formats. You should test your books on actual Kindle devices, including the new Kindle Fire tablet.

Technical writers used to working with well-developed XML standards like DITA will be disappointed to learn that there is no standard workflow for creating eBooks from XML files. Although InDesign can import XML files, changes you make in XML won’t be round tripped back into your original XML files. Tallent suggests using scripting tools to make wholesale changes when necessary.

If you have standard formats based on templates, you have a better chance of setting up a standardized workflow. For example, both RoboHelp and WebWorks ePublisher can create EPUB format eBooks from FrameMaker source files.

Tallent closed by suggesting that writers who are looking for more information on eBook publishing tools and techniques should look at the eBook Production Wiki or follow the #eprdctn hashtag on Twitter.

The Current State of Foreign Language Text in eBooks

Presenter:  Joshua Tallent, eBook Architects

Joshua Tallent’s second presentation covered some of the issues faced by authors and eBook designers who are working in languages other than English. Technical writers who’ve dealt with translation of online help files have faced similar problems.

He began by describing the language support provided in the specifications for the major eBook formats: Kindle 7/MobiPocket, Kindle Format 8, EPUB2, and EPUB3. As you might expect, the newest formats (Kindle Format 8 and EPUB3) have the best support for foreign languages, especially non-Latin languages, but the older formats are still the most commonly used.

When it comes to e-readers, Apple’s iBook format has the best support for foreign languages, although this varies by font, and some languages will require embedded fonts.

Adobe’s Digital Editions software is used by several eBook vendors including Barnes and Noble (Nook) and Sony. The default fonts don’t support Latin Extended characters so even some European languages have issues, and there’s no support for right-to-left languages, even with embedded fonts. You should test fonts on different e-readers to see how they look. For the best results, choose fonts that have bold, italic, and bold-italic versions.

Embedding fonts is often the best way to support foreign languages, but you have to be aware of licensing restrictions. For commercial fonts, the license must include embedding. Most embedding licenses require that the font be copy protected. Some devices, like the Kindle, do not copy protect the font even if they apply copy protection software to the book. Where possible, use an open font like Gentium. You can find more open fonts at Font Squirrel or Google web fonts.

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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