Who is a publisher and How do you define publishing?

What happens when a publisher has a tight, direct connection with readers, is able to produce intellectual property that spreads, and can do both quickly and at low cost?

Seth Godin About the Domino project

From western4ul @ Flickr

Digital tools have expanded the definition of publishing to something I would have never thought possible 10 or even 5 years ago. For every author that makes a big publishing deal (like those mentioned in this Mashable 2009 article) there are hundreds if not thousands of niche authors selling their books directly to interested audiences either through their websites, through an aggregator or through the big vendors like Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.

We are able, if we choose to, to connect directly with our audiences and interact in ways that were not possible before the advent of web technologies. We can turn our blogs and wikis as our communication channel with the audience, using their feedback and engagement as a measure of what content we should work with, edit and refine over time; maybe even using audience engagement as the metrics for additional content and conversion to other formats.

Some examples of this new publishing medium include, among others:

PressBooks

PressBooks uses WordPress as the engine behind a multi publishing paradigm. It gives authors a familiar interface, many people are used to WordPress as either a blogging or content management platform so how we write our content doesn’t change much from how we write traditional blog posts.

The interface produces web content (hosted in the Pressbook platform), epub and PDF content. Pressbook has also entered in partnerships with book distributors to provide a turnkey solution for people interested in self publishing.

The Atavist

Atavist is a media and software company at the forefront of digital, mobile publishing. Our mission is to enable the next generation of multimedia storytelling, reaching readers across mobile devices and the Web.

Our flagship publishing arm, The Atavist—built on Creatavist—features original pieces of longform, nonfiction journalism. Sold individually on mobile devices and e-readers as “e-singles,” The Atavist is digital-first, pushing the boundaries of multimedia publishing while always emphasizing the story above all.

https://www.atavist.com/our-story/

The Atavist is as close as I’ve found to what I envision a future publishing enterprise. It is clean, multi format and it’s never a cookie cutter exercise; not all stories are available in all formats but when they use a format they take full advantage of available capabilities.

Formats supported by the Atavist application for given article

Hi

Hi takes the opposite approach to The Atavist. Hi uses short 30 word moments with required location and an optional photograph. Other community members can request that you expand the moment with additional text; you can accept or decline the request.

I particularly like the way that Hi builds community by allowing users to request additional information about moments and subscribing to people who you’re interested in: every time they write an expanded moment. I like this concept as much, if not better, than Twitter.

Docbook, XML and ebooks:Creating eBooks the old fashioned way

One of the most traditional ways to author content for multiple distribution channels is to roll up your sleeves, write XML and then convert it to your target format. For this exercise we will use Docbook. Without going into too much detail, Docbook was initially created in 1991 as a means to create computer software manuals and other technical documentation. Over the years Docbook has evolved into a general purpose XML authoring language. Along with the authoring standard, what structures we can use to author our content, the authors of the Docbook standard have also created a set of stylesheets to convert our base XML files into different formats. One of the formats that you can convert your XML files is epub.

More information about the history of Docbook can be found in the Docbook: The Definitive Guide website

Getting Started

Below is a skeleton XML file for a Docbook-based book.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?> 
<book xmlns='http://docbook.org/ns/docbook' version="5.0" xml:lang="en"> 
<title>The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes</title>
<info>
 <author>
   <personname>
     <firstname>Arthur</firstname>
     <surname>Conan Doyle</surname>
   </personname>
 </author>
</info> 
<chapter>
 <title>A Chapter</title></chapter></book></p>

<p><para>Content is required in chapters too.</para>

Once we have the XML document ready (filling out the skeleton with as many chapters as we need to complete our content), we need two things:

  • A set of XSLT stylesheets to convert our XML into HTML and ePub
  • A processor to actually run the transformation The stylesheets are located at

http://sourceforge.net/projects/docbook/files/docbook-xsl-ns/1.76.1/ where you can choose if you want .zip or .tag.gz compressed archives. In addition download the file at http://sourceforge.net/projects/docbook/files/epub3/docbook-epub3-addon-b3.zip and http://sourceforge.net/projects/docbook/files/epub3/README.epub3. To enable ePub3 support follow the instructions on the README.epub3 file.

The stock Docbook style sheets produce ePub 2 compliant books. This is ok for now as most readers that support ePub support this version. There is experimental support for ePub 3 compliant books, which we will follow for this article as it gives us access to all the multimedia features of ePub3.

As far as XSLT processors there are two that I recommend. One is Saxon; currently at version 9.4 and available from its publisher Saxonica on a trial basis. Yes, it is commercial software but after years of using it I highly recommend the investment. It is written in Java and provides a full set of features, extensions and advanced implementations of XML related technologies. For our purposes it’s enough that it will take the XML, process it with the style sheets and give us the output we want.

The second processor I recommend is XSLTProc. written in C and bundled with Most UNIX/Linux/OSX installations it can be downloaded/updated from the xmlsoft.org web site. Download and install both LibXML and LibXSLT and install them in the same order (LibXML first and then LibXSLT) or it will not work as you think it will.

The commands to create the ebooks using Xsltproc are:

xsltproc /Users/carlos/docbook/1.0/xslt/epub3/chunk.xsl ebook.xml

This produces an output that should look like this:

Writing OEBPS/bk01-toc.xhtml for book 
Writing OEBPS/ch01.xhtml for chapter 
Writing OEBPS/ch02.xhtml for chapter 
Writing OEBPS/index.xhtml for book 
Writing OEBPS/docbook-epub.css for book 
Generating EPUB package files. 
Generating image list ... 
Writing OEBPS/package.opf for book 
Writing OEBPS/../META-INF/container.xml for book 
Writing OEBPS/../mimetype for book 
Generating NCX file ... 
Writing OEBPS/toc.ncx for book 
< ?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> ' 

Final Details

We are done generating the content and the files we need in order to generate the eBook. To finish the process we need to do the following (taken from the README.epub3 file):

Manually copy any image files used in the document into the corresponding locations in the $base.dir directory.

For example, if your document contains:

<imagedata fileref="images/caution.png"></imagedata>

If the base.dir attribute is set up to the ebook1/OEBPS, you would copy the file to: ebook1/OEBPS/images/caution.png. You can get a list of image files from the manifest file (ebook1/OEBPS/package.opf in our example) that is created by the style sheet.

Currently the stylesheets will *not* include generated image files for callouts, header/footers, and admonitions. These files have to be added manually.

cd to the directory containing your mimetype files, which would be ebook1 in this example.

Run the following zip commands to create the epub file

zip -X0 sherlock-holmes.epub mimetype 
zip -r -X9 sherlock-holmes.epub META-INF OEBPS [/bash] 

The first command adds the ‘mimetype’ file first and uncompressed. The -X option excludes extra file attributes (required by epub3). The numbers indicate the degree of compression. The -r option means recursively include all directories. The “sherlock-holmes.epub” in this example is the output file.

Validation

Because we have done most of the work manually we need to validate the result of our work. For that we will use the epubcheck3 tool available from its Google Code Project repository.

java -jar /Users/carlos/Java/epubcheck-src-3.0b3/dist/epubcheck-3.0b3.jar sherlock-holmes.epub

Hopefully we’ll see a result like this

Epubcheck Version 3.0b3 No errors or warnings detected.

Rethinking the future of books

With the introduction of all iPads and other tablet readers we are left with some big question: Are books still relevant? If they are still relevant, how do they need to change?

Craig Mod has written and spoken about the future of books and what we can do with books online with the new technologies for both creating the content and financing the production of the content.

Craig presented the Do Lecture below in 2011 and it caught my attention for a variety of reasons. How do we leverage the new technologies for books and the new devices we use to read these new books.

[jwplayer mediaid=”1161″]

Some of the things that caught my attention:

New ways to produce content

We can create more interactive content as part of our books. The new ePub 3 standard includes multimedia content (audio and video) as part of what we put in our books. While iBooks uses a somewhat different format than the standard ebook format it already allows for the inclusion of audio and video.

We can incorporate external video or we can produce our own as part of the book creation process. Whichever way we choose this prompts a new way of thinking about books. If we can embed multimedia content directly into books, how are they now different than regular web pages? Sure, we can’t embed java applets or flash video but we can easily link to pages on the web that have the content.

Are we requiring our users to be constantly online in order to interact with our content? If we add multimedia content to a book, does it mean that users have to be online while reading? For most tablets this is not an issue as internet connectivity is bundled with the device. As designers, however, we need to keep in mind that not all users have wireless connectivity for their devices.

Using Bibliotype as a starting point we can explore alternatives and options for putting content into web browsers and other devices without having to author a full eBook.

What tools do we use to create the content?

One of the things that attracted me to creating ePub content is the variety of tools that are available to do so. Starting with relatively simple tools like Sigil or Pages to create ePub content we can get as sophisticated as we want or need to be. Tools like iBook Creator can provide a high level of sophistication at the expense of being cross platform.

For those of us used to creating multiple versions of a document using an XML base; it is good to know that tools like Docbook can now create ePub 2 and ePub 3 content from the same basic XML document that we have used to create HTML and PDF versions of our content in the past.

Whatever tools we use we need to decide if the multimedia features or access to our content by a specific device make it worthwhile to create multiple versions of our content

Project funding as a means of engagement

We can use sites like Kickstarter as both a fund raising site and as a way to engage our community of users.

Kickstarter allows content creators to setup their project with the following parameters

  • A description of the project
  • The Fund raising steps/stages both the amount and what benefit do you derive
  • The amount to be raised and how long we have to do it
  • A discussion area for the project

Kickstarter acts like an escrow service. If the full amount is raised in the allocated time then each individual contributor’s credit card will be charged for the amount they pledged; otherwise nothing happens.

More than fund raising, Kickstarter allows you to create a community around your project. It’s not just the monetary support that brings the supporters together. They are interested in seeing the project funded and completed for whatever reason they have. They are your funding agency or agencies and they can be your sounding board and your reality check when needed.

Another interesting site is Indiegogo which provides one additional feature that I find interesting: The option of flexible funding where you get all the fund pledged by the target date regardless of whether you met your fundraising goal or not.

How do we engage with book in a digital format?

How does self-publishing change the way we see authorship and authors?

Seth Godin asks the question:

What happens when a publisher has a tight, direct connection with readers, is able to produce intellectual property that spreads, and can do both quickly and at low cost?[ref name=”godin”]Seth Godin created the Domino project as a way to put the publishers closer in contact with their audiences. This is one of the questions he asks on the site.[/ref]

We have to start by accepting that, in this context, we are all publishers and we all have networks or hives of people who can support us in our creative endeavors. Being exposed to feedback early and often is a great way to eliminate uncertainty and provide a sounding board even before the project actually begins. [ref id=’fields’]See chapter 5 and 6 in Jonathan Field’s book Uncertainty for more on creating hives and using them as support mechanisms[/ref]

Blogs as book drafts

We are not only publishers but we’re experts as well. For those of us who blog or maintain a professional or business related website the expertise is right there. We can use blogs to author content, to measure interest based on comments and get feedback from our hive of users.

Does this work for everyone? Probably not. After all we are not all alike in the way we handle criticism and feedback for something that’s not necessarily complete and in a way we’d like people to see it and comment on.

But that’s they key… it is not ready which means that the feedback we get at the early stages of the project will allow us to change the content or even change the project we are working on and this will definitely make the project better.

Creating multiple delivery methods from the same content

When I first started working with Docbook one of the things that attracted me to it was the fact that from the same source, using different XSLT style sheets you can produce different formats for your document.

In the last couple years, the Docbook community has expanded the range of formats and it now includes ePub3. It’s easier than ever to create content in a document neutral format and then convert it to HTML, PDF and ePub without bigger effort than creating customizations to the stock style sheets which we can then reuse on future projects.

Notes and References

[references class=”compact” /]

Why ePub matters

eBooks are way more than text

Currently eBooks are a combination of both images and text… except for the Apple iBook reader. iBook borrowed from the draft ePub 3 specification (or was it the ePub standard group who simply adopted Apple’s technology?) and allowed for the inclusion of audio and video using HTML5 audio and video embedding technologies. As a result of this early adoption ePub-based ebooks for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch can view embedded audio and video content directly on the device.

With the ePub standard now being considered a Proposed Specification (See http://idpf.org/epub3_proposed_spec_released For more information) it is time for us to reconsider what we do with our eBook content.

Why go with ePub eBooks?

With tablet PCs and smart phones becoming ubiquitous the market for ebooks and multimedia content has grown just as fast if not faster. You can now provide a single access point for all your content without having to make it public in the open web.

You can make the book look the way you want to without having to resort to large PDF files (before you mention it I have nothing against PDF; when used properly it’s a wonderful and flexible tool, I just happen to think that eBooks are not the right place for PDF content.)

  • PDF is for the most part a fixed flow layout. You can’t really move and re-flow the text to accommodate different resolution and screen sizes. What looks fine on your desktop PC may not look the same in an iPhone without major vertical and horizontal scrolling.
  • MOBI is popular (Amazon selected it as the format for the Kindle) but, from my perspective it has several drawbacks:
    • It is a binary format which means that once create the only way to make updates or changes is to edit the original sources and then re-compile into the binary format again.
    • The format is DRM encumbered.
    • Encryption locks users to one account and one device.
    • Large vendors like Amazon.com can remove books already downloaded to devices (See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html for more information about this incident)

ePub on the other hand remains a text-based format where the files are bundled together in a zip file (easy to generate with any number of modern compression tools) that requires little or no tools depending how familiar you are with generating XML and XHTML content. What’s more important is that with ePub 3 you can add multimedia and accessibility elements finally making books as accessible as regular websites.

You can provide your clients with content as engaging as that on your blog or website. The only limitation is that ePub 3 is not widely adopted yet… that is about to change.