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Tech Publisher Asks "Are Ebooks Ready for Technical Content?"

Dave Thomas from the Pragmatic Programmers is mulling whether to make their books available on the Kindle, and encountering many of the same issues we faced here at O’Reilly regarding technical content and the limitations of current ebook devices:

In fact, we’ve had a prototype form of that capability for a while now, but we’ve always held back. Frankly, we didn’t think the devices worked well with our kind of content. Basically, the .mobi format used by the Kindle is optimized for books that contain just galleys of text with the occasional heading. Throw in tables, monospaced code listings, sidebars and the like, and things start to get messy.

Dave’s post has sparked a great conversation within the comments, including one from Shelly Powers, whose book Painting the Web was among those included in our pilot program:

I think that providing the package deal that O’Reilly does (with PDF, epub, and mobi), in addition to downloadable code is the way to go. If you sell Kindle books, you definitely need to make both your figures and your source available, separately. For instance, I have my Painting the Web figures in an online gallery and the examples are available at O’Reilly–takes care of a lot of issues related to Kindle. Another approach could be to make available (for no additional cost) a PDF of just the figures, or the figures and code.

Preparing a book for the ebook market may seem like a lot of work, but you have the potential to reach a new audience of book buyers. Buyers used to the internet and having access to immediate information; who may not want to order a book and wait a week for it to arrive, but who will buy a book if it means they can have access to it now. I wouldn’t have considered myself an "impulse buyer" when it comes to books, but I have probably at least a dozen books I bought because the ebook format was cheaper (that’s a key element), and I could get the book _right now_.

On one hand, merely working to replicate a print experience isn’t the right way to exploit the benefits of the new platform; on the other hand, publishers (and as usual, I use that term quite loosely) should be able to expect at least minimal rendering of common elements like tables, along with support for at least the same core 14 fonts available in Acrobat (speaking of fonts, if you’re looking for a laugh check out this mock "font conference").

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Comments: 4

  1. I think that making ebooks available in the PDF format is the way to go. Especially technical books, that are read by a user while sitting at a computer.

    The advantage of ebooks is that the physical heft of books is avoided (technical books have a short half-life anyway, so there is no need to preserve a paper book for your heirs). I will absolutely not buy a DRM’ed book… not because of any philosophical arguments with DRM, but because of practical ones… if I can’t move it from my work laptop to my home laptop to my home computer, then I won’t buy it.

    There is always the concern of piracy, and wide dissemination via the Internet. Possibly one way to deter casual piracy is to embed the purchaser’s name and address into the PDF. In any case, piracy is just as easy today with printed books and automated feed scanners.

    Ebooks are an environmentalist’s delight because they reduce the cost of distributing books — there will not be a need for physical media, distribution logistics, and oil to move all those dead trees.

  2. It is not true that epub is insufficient for technical materials and high quality typography. I have posted a few samples at http://www.hindawi.com/epub.html that contains lots of mathematical equations and graphics and some tabular materials. epub is capable of embedding OpenType fonts (which makes me surprised when people complain about the lake of a fixed width font for computer codes). epub also supports Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), which enables content creators to do almost anything that can be done in PDF documents.

  3. @Ahmed — It’s not EPUB that’s the problem, it’s the Kindle (which does not support EPUB natively, nor does it support tables or a fixed-width font). Our hope is that the device makers (like Amazon) will catch up soon and implement full support for all the features of EPUB.

  4. Andrew: I am glad you say that epub is not the problem, because I certainly understood from your post above “… encountering many of the same issues we faced here at O’Reilly regarding technical content …” that you mean epub as well. I understood that Your book bundles are also released in epub format, and I understood from your post that you consider them to have the same limitations as the Kindle edition.

    I also looked at one of your book bundles by purchasing your book “Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide,” and I believe that you could have done a bit better with the format. For example, it is easy to create a SVG that will have a natural width (say 200 points) which makes it mix well with surrounding text. If the user screen is wider, you get white margins to the left and right of the graphics. However, if the user screen does not have that many pixels, the graphics shrinks to fit the screen. This is, IMHO, better than the graphics being chopped from left and right or overlapping with the text in the left and right columns if there were left and right columns (such as the ADE implementation), which is what happens with Web 2.0 book that I got.

    Another problem is that there is no styling for the tables in your epub book. No styling at all! When is the last time you can across an html table on a web page with no styles of CSS? No wonder if someone looked at this book in epub, and concluded that PDF is a higher quality format. It is not the format, in the case of epub, but the craft that went into creating the files.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate O’Reilly efforts in releasing these books in epub and the lake of the DRM. I know that within many publishing organizations (including my own), many designers and production people are willing to put a lot more into the print edition (and its PDF file) creation than to the equivalent digital edition. I love typography and I love digital books, and am sure we can create both typographically beautiful, and digitally highly functional books. epub gives us this possibility, may be for the first time, and I would like to see all of us making the best our of it.