Web-first Book Production
John Maxwell & Kathleen Fraser
Simon Fraser University
September 27, 2010
In the 21st century...
Content lives online.
Readers certainly do!
Where do books live?
The Web is where we...
Hear about them;
Find out more about them;
Talk about them;
How about reading and writing them too?
Building books on the Web
A four-part argument...
- Be agile.
- Manage Content Online.
- Use the Web as an XML toolchain.
- Build a community before the book is even done.
SFU research into how to conceive an environment for creating books that is native to the web, native to the 21st century:
These four points outline the advantages of this approach.
1. Be Agile
“regular adaptation to changing circumstances.”
If anything is certain in publishing today, it is that uncertainty rules. There are so many destabilizing forces at play. Peter Brantley calls it the "asteroid from outer space" characteristic ("Organizational Fields and the Book Industry").
The only sane solution is to attempt to keep your organization and your processes agile; to be able to move quickly and adjust according to feedback.
The Web is a great platform for being agile.
2. Manage Content Online
Version control as job #1
The Web is also really good at content management. It works really well. VASTLY better than old "pass the file to the next person in line" method we've been using since the 1980s.
Web Content Management allows multiple people access to a centrally managed content store, from wherever they may be. It starts with version control, rather than trying to figure that out later. It is based on open, transparent media formats, rather than proprietary files that become an archival disaster.
This makes it vastly easier to do things like producing e-book formats.
3. Use the Web as an XML Toolchain
Separation of content from formatting.
There is much hand-wringing about XML. "You need an XML-first workflow," we are told. But nobody actually knows how to do that, or how one might go about moving from a traditional model to an XML-first one. So it's largely a non-starter.
There is a simple solution. The Web is and always has been an XML system—it just hasn't been used as one for the most part. No reason why you can't, though.
The key is separation of content from format—that's what an industrial-strength XML system does; that's also what a decent web CMS does.
Bonus: you already know how to use the web; you have web developers on staff, probably—or at least on contract? The web's native XHTML is a great "gateway drug" to the XML world.
4. Build community before the book is done
Make development and promotion reinforce each other.
If your emerging book already exists in a Web CMS (even if you don't give any of it away), you are many steps closer to promotion and marketing success, because the web is where most of this is going to happen anyway.
So we want to gather all the dialogue about a book around the book online: the author, the advance press, incidental and contextual content, reviews, bloggers, and so on... the book itself shouldn't be removed from this.
This is the huge opportunity of the web: pull the community to you, rather than having to reach out to find them.
Book of MPub narrative...
We need ePubs, or so we're told...
But what about the next thing that comes along?
And what about the last thing (PDF)?
You need an agile process much more than you need a particular file format. Fortunately, the two are not exclusive.
ePub in a nutshell.
(shhh... it's web pages!)
The ePub standard is web-based. The IDPF isn't dumb... they based it on existing standards that make sense: the standards that make the web work: html + css.
ePub out of InDesign?
No separation of content from format.
That's why it's such a hairy process creating ePub from InDesign (or, shudder, PDF). Because you're trying to create a document with a backbone out of an exoskeleton-based file format. (what the hell does he mean by that?)
InDesign is a page layout program. It does that very, very well. But it doesn't do anything else very well. No one even bothers to try to get it to produce web pages, although it purports to 'export' web content. But no one takes that seriously.
Enter ePub: a web page with a huge set of limitations imposed on it in order to make it more like the kind of singular objects that publishers are used to dealing with (and being able to sell). InDesign might have a chance at exporting one of those, yes?
A Twitter channel devoted to wrestling with InDesign...
Turns out not so well... the whole #ePrdctn channel on twitter (twitter used as a chat room) is devoted to a group of production people honing a very, very specialized skill- and tool-set for making this work.
Trouble is: (a) as soon as we get a new version of either, it's back to the drawing board; and (b) it still relies on someone hand-editing absolutely everything.
(c) There's a better way.
Forget InDesign (for the time being); create ePub content as web content in the first place (where there are vastly better editing and production tools), and then just wrap them up as ePub files.
Then take this content and go INTO InDesign with it. Yes, this is possible, and it actually works MUCH better than the reverse, because it leverages InDesign's core strengths, rather than trying to turn it on its head.
The sane version:
- extract core XHTML content
- package it up in an ePub wrapper
(we used eCub and later Sigil to do this)
With Book of MPub, we built our content in WordPress. Then we simply extracted the core content (leaving the WordPress stuff behind), and wrapped it into ePub using a little tool called eCub (which just assembles a wrapper around it). Later, we found a better tool called Sigil.
With Farewell My Concubine, Kathleen did the same thing -- with Sigil. It's so easy.
Print Production from the Web
Get InDesign working for you, not the other way around.
Transform your XHTML content into IDML for InDesign
Because web-based content is XML, you can easily transform it to other kinds of XML.
Adobe specified an alternative file format for InDesign as of CS4. Called IDML.
So we transform XHTML from the web into IDML structures for InDesign. And it works. Pretty much flawlessly.
This is not "importing" XML into InDesign. Rather, creating InDesign content out of structured XML.
This is the way this is supposed to work. It leverages InDesign NOT as a content management tool, but as a page-layout tool. InDesign is an output format.
Wouldn't it be great if there were a truly open, universally-supported standard for ebook production and distribution?
Four reasons why you should be thinking about building books web-first.
1. ePub production—for as long as it lasts, anyway—will be vastly easier. Or should you do it the hard way because everyone else does?
2. To take advantage of powerful version- and access-control features provided by Web CMS tools. Or would you rather e-mail Word files back and forth?
3. To gather a community around a book while it is in development. Or would you rather wait until after the book is done?
4. To take advantage of the web and Internet—the most radically powerful communications technology ever conceived. Or should you shun that?