In the Beginning, There Was EPUB Boot Camp

It’s finally happening. The eBook is coming to fruition as a thing that some people want. It didn’t work with Rocket EBook, but with new technologieseInk, wireless readers, smart phones, etcpeople are reading books off of a screen.

If you’re like me, a pseudo-techie with a penchant for fine literature and a B.A. in English (well, creative writing, whatever) you’re probably thinking a lot about ebooks, and specifically epub.

BookNet Canada and the Association of Canadian Publisher’s EPUB Boot Camp was a great introduction to the format and general overview of the available tech. The presenters ‘took us under the hood’, so to speak. But they also walked us around the car, kicked the tires, and let have a seat in the Italian leather bucket seats.

There were a couple of skeptics in the audience, and they brought up some very good points. How can we be sure that EPUB is worth investing in? This question was answered multiple times throughout the day. EPUB is XML-based, and XML is easily translatable into different formats. It’s just tags, so it’s easy to change or adjust any tags to match any standard, which EPUB is; a bunch of rules for creating a standardized document.

The other answer is that all ereaders use EPUB. There’s even a native Kindle app being developed to convert EPUB into MOBI. We also have an overwhelming support from mainstream publishers. Last May, the Association of American Publishers came out with a letter to the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum, the standards-creating body that is pushing for the EPUB standard) supporting EPUB. Kind of a big deal.

Of course, the timeless question asked at any metaphorical twist in the trail came up. Why now? It’s true that in a few months the tech will be better and we can expect tons of Adobe plug-ins fine tuned to publisher need. A simple drag and drop system, similar of the WAV to MP3 conversion on iTunes.

That’s fine, but ebooks are happening right now. According to the IDPF, eBook sales more than doubled in 2008. There is proof that there is a market and publishing companies are taking note and developing ebooks. It’s quickly becoming a matter not of being a cutting-edge company, but being a company that is relevant and competitive, and missing out on the opportunity to help shape the ebook market.

So what’s the first move here? There are a lot of options for publishers. You could hire someone to work on data full time, send it out to a conversion house to create the files, or even start writing conversion into your workflow. Figure out what works for your company. If you’re a smaller house, you may be able to learn it yourself, or hire technologically bent interns to fix you up a couple of books.

The very, very first thing you need to do is look at some ebooks. Visit publisher’s sites like O’Reilly and Harlequin and see what the houses with the tech are doing. Then decide for yourself what you want your eBook program to look like.

Example: chunking. Every single person at the Boot Camp suggested (Indigo Shortcovers all but demanded) that EPUB documents be separated into chunks. This means each chapter of the work would be it’s own separate file. This enables the book to load quicker so it doesn’t stall during scrolling, especially on smaller devices. Now do you want to tag each of these chapters with a keyword (aka semantic tag) or do you want this every paragraph. How is your book used. Are you writing a guide where you can resell bits and pieces, chunking more that a chapter, chunking every side bar, column and illustration?

What is going to work for your company? More importantly, what is going to work for your reader?