Betting on the future of the book

Booktype continues to evolve as a world-class production platform

Visiting London Book Fair last week, many of the stands offered ebook technology or outsourcing for legacy format conversion services. Ebooks might seem a seductive bet to the publisher looking anxiously towards the all-digital future, but I find it hard to imagine them as the total solution for every reader and situation.

Jenn Webb’s post on the digital divide pointed out that authors who go ebook-only may be excluding readers. In my own rural community in England, public libraries are closing or under threat of closure, but hard copy books still circulate widely and re-circulate for pennies in thrift stores and informal markets, or for free among friends. Competing with an almost-free status quo looks like a tough sell, given the up-front cost and limited lifespan of e-reader devices.

Fortunately, Booktype is output agnostic and produces a pre-press PDF as easily as it produces EPUB, .mobi or ISO standard OpenDocument XML output, thanks to the Objavi renderer. Booktype 1.6.0 includes the output option of the beta BookJS-based renderer in the latest Objavi. Publishers will now be able to compare PDF output side-by-side with the output from wkhtmltopdf.

It’s a no-brainer that authoring tools are moving from stand-alone PCs to the web, given the torturous workflow involved in sending chapters back and forth between contributors in the conventional way. A few independent authors may perform every single task from drafting the first page to mailing out the hard copies, but in truth most books have multiple contributors even when there is only one name on the cover. We now take real-time collaboration and social features for granted on the web, so any authoring environment that lacks these features is likely to lose. At the same time, it can be immensely distracting to switch between apps and browser to communicate when you are trying to concentrate on a writing project. This is why Booktype has an integrated messaging and notification window to the side of the book editor.

While most, if not all, web-based authoring tools will use at least some open source software on the server side, Booktype is unusual in that the entire platform is open source and available for download under the GNU AGPLv3. Cloud authoring tools will no doubt be used to lock some writers into a particular publishing chain and sales channel, but a cloud using Booktype code is required to make any modified source available to its users. This variation on the standard GNU GPL is an attempt to close the virtuous circle of software improvement, rather than see web services evolve in closed clouds, without benefit to the public codebase.

Booktype 1.6.0 includes a cover manager, and an interface language menu which enables authors and editors to switch to their preferred localization quickly and easily. Within an authoring and translating community we might have contributors who read and write in multiple languages, but people that don’t read English or the default language installed on the server are no longer at a disadvantage. This localization potential makes Booktype one of the most accessible tools for creating books, since if writers and editors have a recent web browser available, no special software is required on the client side.

I’ve been working with the user community to localize Booktype into Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian and Albanian, and Finnish is under way. Booktype has a total of 873 strings in the authoring and control centre web interfaces, so with the help of a semi-automated tool like Google Translate Toolkit, a new localization can be added in a day or two. Other language localizations would be very welcome, so please get in contact if you would like to help. If you’re a developer who knows a little Python, you can dive straight in and send us a pull request on GitHub.

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