Browser as typesetting machine
The change of the books basic carrier medium from paper to HTML (the stuff webpages are made of) has meant many changes to what we might still call typesetting. Kindle and other e-ink devices actually move ink on a display to form words, sentences and paragraphs. The moveable type of Gutenberg’s time has become realtime, in a very real sense each book is typeset as we read it. Content is dynamically re-flowed for each device depending on display dimensions and individualised settings to aid readability. Moving type in ‘read time’ marks a significant paradigm shift from moveable type systems, including digital moveable type manipulated by Desktop Publishing software, to flowable typesetting. We are leaving behind moveable type for flowable type.
The engine for reflowing a page in realtime is something we have seen before. It is the job of the browser. And, since ebooks are webpages, browsers have come to play a central role in digital ereaders. In the case of the iPad the iBook reader is actually a fully featured browser engine; Webkit, the very same technology behind the Chrome and Safari browsers. Browsers are the typesetting machines for ebooks.
CSS is the set of rules used by the browser to know where to place type, images and other elements on a webpage and style those elements. Typical rules define where an image is placed in relationship to text, what fonts used, the font size, background color of the page, and the maximum width of an image, etc. While designed originally for the exclusive application to webpages the CSS Working Group, responsible for overseeing the development and direction of CSS, anticipated the intersection of the book and the web some time ago. In the latest drafts of the CSS standards new additions are almost entirely focused on typography and page control. As a consequence this area is starting to blossom. In particular, the CSS Generated Content for Paged Media Module specification is astonishing for its reframing of flowable text into a fixed page. Cross reference and footnote controls, not needed on the web, are among many book-like structure controls being addressed by CSS. Table of contents creation, figure annotations, page references, page numbers, margin controls, page size, and more are all included. The definition of these rules precede their adoption in browsers, however they are being included in browser engines, notably Webkit, at a very fast pace.
Ease and efficiencies
The implications for this are enormous and possibly not yet fully realised. At publishing industry conferences and other book-focused forums the attention has largely been on the ebooks effect on distribution, ereaders and the demise of the so-called brick-and-mortar book stores. The biggest effects however are elsewhere, ‘bubbling under’ in the recasting of the browser as a typesetting engine, and with it the slow realisation that the technical ecosystem surrounding book production can be replaced by tools for producing webpages. We are beginning to turn our attention to the tools for making webpages, to make books, and this, it turns out, is much easier than with Desktop Word Processing and Publishing software. Additionally due to recent developments, all of this, as it turns out, can also be used to design print (more on in-browser print production in a future post). Book production once again is becoming faster and cheaper and on its way to achieving another leap of magical efficency.