EPUB and technical communication at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Scott Prentice presented a session titled EPUB and Techcomm – Are We Ready? EPUB is a standard for ebook publishing. In other words, the EPUB standard defines a format the ebook readers can interpret. Scott’s talk focuses on the current state of EPUB tools and technologies, and how technical communicators can make the most of EPUB as a content delivery option.

Quick audience survey

Scott asked for a show of hands for how many people were already delivering EPUBS. A handful of people put up their hands. A couple of others responded when Scott asked how many were producing EPUBS but not yet delivering them. There were approximately 50 people in the room.

What is an EPUB?

Scott started by explaining the EPUB format. He encourages people to get hold of an EPUB file and unzip it (it’s just a zip file) to see what’s in it. This is a good way of understanding what’s going on. At the end of the session, Scott opened an EPUB file in an Oxygen XML editor and walked us through the content of an EPUB file.

Interestingly, there’s a fixed layout format, approved in 2012. This is useful where you need a fixed format output, such as a comic book.

EPUB and tech comm

Scott says tech comm is late to getting into the area of EPUB. The tools are slow to move in this direction. EPUBs are best for linear content, where you move from page to page, like a book. There isn’t really the concept of a topic. EPUBs are also not great for tabular data, because it tends to truncate tables.

EPUB will probably not be your primary deliverable, but it may be useful as another format available to customers.

Readers

You can make custom readers and embed them in your product. But typically, your customers will be using existing devices such as mobile phones and Kindles. Each brand of mobile phone has different apps for reading EPUBS. There are also desktop readers. For example there are plugins for browsers like Firefox and Chrome.

Scott recommends Chrome Readium as a good reader to test your EPUB content.

The EPUB document will look different in each reader. This is one of the big challenges, and something to be aware of when developing content.

Scott showed us some screenshots of the same document on a few different devices, with slight formatting differences. The screenshots come from Tony Self’s book, DITA Style Guide.

Technologies and tools

An EPUB file is a collection of XHTML, CSS, XML, and media files. Most technical writers will be single-sourcing their content, and using EPUB as just one output. Most other people writing EPUBs will really craft their content for the EPUB.

You could hand-code your EPUB files, but Scott doesn’t recommend this, because there are many interdependencies amongst the files. Instead, use a tool and then tweak the output. You will need to tweak it, because no tool is perfect. You’ll find it’s missing metadata, for example, that you need for your publication.

EPUB 2 or 3?

EPUB 3 has plenty of new features, but the tools don’t yet support it fully. For now, Scott recommends sticking with EPUB 2 or using simple EPUB 3.

EPUB 3 is based on HTML5, so you can use scripting and get a lot of interactivity. You can use JavaScript, for example, to modify the content. For example, a table could start off small, or convert itself to a list. But at the moment, to take advantage of these features you have to hand-code them. Even the tools that claim to support EPUB 3 don’t really use the new features.

One of these new features is the “read aloud” feature, one of the “media overlays”. Others are fixed format, and flow from right to left. Scott thinks an EPUB could replace PDF, because it contains all the information in your help system and is now available in fixed format.

Formatting

The most important thing is to keep it simple. This is the best way to ensure your content will work on as many readers as possible.

You can embed fonts, but Scott says don’t bother. You’re adding to the download size of the file, and adding the possibility that it won’t work on all readers.

If you do use styling, don’t use the style attribute on elements. Use CSS selectors. Note that many tools use the style attribute.

Kindle and EPUB

Kindle does not support EPUB directly. They have their own format. Amazon provides a tool called KindleGen that will convert EPUB to MOBI or KF8 for use on a Kindle.

But you may need to modify your EPUB file, and some things may not work on the Kindle.

Always test your content after converting to Kindle. Don’t rely on the emulators. The Kindle desktop app will render the content differently from the Kindle device.

Keep it simple!

EPUB publishing tools

Scott gave us a list of tools that offer EPUB generation and that he considers suitable for tech comm, giving an overview of the pros and cons of each.

  • Adobe TCS
  • Doc-To-Help
  • Help & Manual
  • RoboHelp
  • MadCap Flare
  • Webworks ePublisher
  • DITA Open Toolkit with the DITA for Publishers plugin. In Scott’s opinion, this tool provides the cleanest EPUB output of all the tools.
  • DocBook, with various scripts e.g. Python scripts
  • FrameMaker with the ElmSoft EPubFm2 plugin. Scott says this does a good job at a low cost.

Problems with publishing tools

This is an overview of the type of problems you’ll find when generating EPUB from the tools Scott discussed:

  • Some tools find the EPUB file structure difficult to handle. Keep your document simple, so that you can make manual adjustments.
  • Most tools provide you with “fake” lists i.e. styled lists, instead of real HTML lists. These don’t work well in an EPUB.
  • Many tools use the style attribute on HTML element, instead of CSS classes. If you use proper CSS styles, these will typically follow through into your EPUB. But the tools prevent this.
  • EPUBs allow you to provide many different types of metadata, such as author name, dates. The tools typically don’t allow you to add this metadata, or offer only limited parts of it. You’ll need to add metadata later.
  • Inside an EPUB, each HTML file starts a new chapter. This will start on a new page in an EPUB. Some tools give you the ability to specify the topics that start a new page. Other tools give you no control at all.
  • As already mentioned, the tools that claim to support EPUB 3 don’t really offer more than EPUB 2 tools.

Other tools

You’ll need other tools:

  • EPUB editors. Scott recommends Oxygen XML editor, BlueGriffon EPUB Edition, and Sigil.
  • Calibre, a multi-purpose tool for cataloging and organising your EPUBS. It has a server, which you can use to make your EPUBs available. It has a reader and some conversion options too.
  • epubcheck, a validator. You should always validate your EPUB file after generating and tweaking it.
  • KindleGen, for converting EPUB to MOBI or KF8 for use on a Kindle.

Where does an EPUB best fit in

Because of its linear nature, an EPUB is not useful for “just in time” learning, or solving a problem. Rather, for conceptual information and guides. Something you want to take away with you and read on the train.

An audience member suggested it would be useful for installation guides, when you don’t yet have the app installed.

Conclusion

Thanks Scott, this was a useful session, with plenty of take-away information from an expert in the field.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 7 May 2013, in STC, technical writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Sarah

    Great review of Scott’s session. Thanks for posting it.

    Author-it also has a publishing extension for ePUB (disclaimer: that I developed). Here is the link on the Author-it website: http://www.author-it.com/index.php?page=epub

    Thanks
    Hamish

  2. robert desprez

    Hi Sarah,

    Sounds like a great talk.

    I also delivered a presentation on formatting ePub files at the recent WritersUA conference in Seattle. Here’s the related blog entry:

    http://www.robertdesprez.com/2013/04/05/controlling-page-breaks-in-an-epub-file/

    Thank you for summarizing Scott’s talk!

    Robert

  1. Pingback: See what Techcomm Bloggers are saying about the STC Summit on Day 1 | Dateline Houston

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