Understanding Electronic Publishing: Part I

by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell
The Internet Writing Journal, September 2001
Poor Richard's
Creating Ebooks by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell
Ordering information:
Amazon.com
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E-publishing is nothing new. Take a look at any site on the World Wide Web, and you see a page that has been published electronically. But even before that, and closer to the world of books, the idea of e-publishing has been around for a while. Early on in the computer world people were tossing around the idea of shipping books on disk instead of in printed form. Unfortunately, a single floppy disk didn't leave much room for an entire book, especially the images. But in the early 1990s, with the increase of CD-ROM drives, several paper-printed books (typically books about computers) shipped with an entire copy of the book stored on an attached CD-ROM. It was the goal of some people to completely remove the paper book altogether and ship only a CD-ROM. But it turned out that shipping only a CD-ROM gave no financial benefits to the publishers over shipping a paper-printed book. They still had to deal with the distribution and warehousing costs. (Key point: CD-ROM distribution provided no financial benefits to the publisher.)

Meanwhile, some publishers (particularly smaller publishers) realized that if they included a CD-ROM with their book, they could provide a total multimedia experience that would be far more exciting for readers than just having the words and text of the book on the CD-ROM. Some publishers ventured into the world of multimedia, but soon realized that while the product was certainly exciting, it (again) wasn't cost-effective. It cost the publishers too much money to produce the big multimedia production for the CD-ROM, and they would in turn have to charge far more for the book and CD combination than what consumers would be willing to pay.

And so the world would have to wait.

Flying Cars and E-Books

So here we are with a new millennium starting, and we're not riding in flying cars and we're still reading almost every book on paper, including books like this one, which is not only about e-books but was typed in using a computer and lived on a computer all the way to the printers. It was essentially an e-book living in its authors' and editors' word processors. Bummer it couldn't stay that way.

But that's not to say electronic books don't exist. As you read this, hundreds of companies out there are working to make e-books a reality. Companies are creating little electronic gadgets and gizmos that are specifically for reading books, much like the things people carry on Star Trek. (Not the things they wear on their chest to instantly teleport them miles away. Poor Richard's Guide to Teleporting About the Universe is scheduled for print in 173 years. Place your orders today!)

In the sections that follow we take a brief look at the different hardware and software you can buy right now. But first, some thoughts about this whole e-book thing and what it's all about and . . .

Why Would Anyone Want an E-Book?

Being active in the e-book community, we get asked this question a lot. One day Jeff was having lunch with some friends, and one of them didn't know that he had anything at all to do with e-books. She suddenly went on a rant about how she'd heard that some people are trying to take books and put them on the computer. She said, "Why would I want to do that? I don't want to sit there at my computer reading a book!" She was plain mad about the thought that anyone would take her cozy paper books away.

We agree. (But we're not mad.) A few years ago Jeff read an article in a computer magazine that said, "Imagine sitting down at your computer and reading the latest Stephen King book." (It's ironic that several years later Stephen King really was one of the first big-name e-book authors! Maybe the computer magazines have a bigger influence on famous people than they realize?) After reading the article, Jeff scoffed. Yeah right, he said, having recently completed a week-long course titled "Human Factors of Software Design."

Here's the problem (which he learned in the week-long class, so he knew he was an expert!). It's the ergonomics and the screens. First, people don't want to sit at a desk to read the book. To quote Peter Kent, author of Poor Richard's Web Site, "Try Kent's Electronic Book Bathroom Test: An electronic book is not a real book unless it can be read while sitting on the can." People want portable books, they don't want to lug around a computer and monitor. And many of us sit in an uncomfortable position when looking at a computer screen. The other problem is the screen itself. The resolution of today's computers is far better than it was, say, in 1992 when Jeff first read that article, but it's still nowhere near as good as a printed book.

Back to lunch: Jeff told his friend what he was doing. She proclaimed him to be directly descended from the Evil One, straight from the bowels of the underworld, where they read all their works on computer screens and paper is nowhere to be found. He realized that she heard that our goal was to wipe out paper books and make all these poor myopic people with back problems sit at their computers and stare into the glowing screen late into the nights. If that were the case, then perhaps she really had reason to call us evil.

But that's not our intention at all. First, we want e-books to be portable, not just for desktop computers. Second, the resolution of computer screens gets better every year. Third, people have pretty much gotten over their unwillingness to stare at the computer reading for hours and hours. Look at how many people surf the Web and read Web pages online for hours. Next, Jeff had the chance to read a book on a little handheld computer, and to his surprise, it turned out to be a rather pleasant experience. He had to get used to the idea of turning a page, where a whole page would appear on the screen with each "page turn," rather than scrolling like most Web pages. And it was great to be able to read in the dark, since the LCD screen lit up. All in all, it was like bowling. Once you've tried it you realize: You know, it really isn't that bad! And finally, we aren't trying to remove paper books. They aren't going away anytime soon.

Jeff explained all this to his friend and to everyone's surprise she became fascinated with the idea of e-books, and her husband is now eager to go out and buy a little handheld e-book device! (We don't know about her, but she doesn't seem to object.)

E-Book Devices

These small devices we're talking about are usually called e-book devices. They range in size and features. Some are slightly smaller than a sheet of notebook paper and an inch or so thick, others are about half that size. Most have no keyboard; instead, the entire front of the device is a touch-sensitive LCD display. Some are in color, others are in black and white. Two such devices that have been very popular are the Rocket eBook and the Softbook Reader. The companies that created these two devices have been purchased by the same company, Gemstar, which has replaced both devices with equivalents bearing the RCA brand (the same brand that shows up on televisions). The Softbook has been replaced by the model REB1200, and the Rocket eBook has been replaced by the new model REB1100. At the time of this writing, another is forthcoming, one by Franklin Electronic Publishers called the eBookMan, shown in Figure 1.1. The Franklin eBookMan is an inexpensive reader, which also has "PDA" (personal digital assistant) features; that is, it has an address book, schedule, dictionary, and so on. In Chapter 2, "What's an E-Book?" you'll be seeing more details about these devices.

E-Book Software

Companies are creating software for handheld and palm-size computers, for laptop and notebook com-puters, and for desktop computers that allow you to view and read e-books on these computers, without the need for a separate e-book device. Some are the huge, well-known companies (Microsoft, Adobe, and Xerox, to name a few), others are high-tech dot-com start-ups pushing forward with nearly as much force as the bigger companies. Some of their software lets you view books saved on your own hard drive, while others let you view books out on the Internet.

Viewable books sometimes make use of sophisticated software to prevent people from copying without paying. If you view such a book, you aren't supposed to be able to give it to your friends. Other books don't have such software and you can freely copy them. It's usually up to the publisher to determine whether you can copy the books or not. Some publishers believe it's very important, in the interest of profits (say it again: in the interest of profits), to bar people from copying, ensuring that payment comes in for each and every copy out there. Others believe in the honor system, figuring that if they let people send the books all over the planet, a certain number of people are likely to pay up, thereby maximizing the profit.

A Matter of Principle-Are you starting to see a common theme revolving around the publishers' interest in profit? Because you should. We're not saying that's a bad thing, but we are saying it's important that you understand that fact if you're going to take part in the business. Few companies, especially among the big, monster-size publishers that opened shop 250 years ago, do things out of the goodness of their hearts or out of an excitement for new technology; rather, their major motivation is in making money for the shareholders.
At this point you might be wondering what happened to the big production, multimedia books mentioned earlier on. Where are they? Believe it or not, in this particular area the industry has taken a couple of steps backward. The problem is not a lack of capabilities. Certainly even most laptops and handheld computers are quite capable of fancy multimedia. (For instance, my tiny palm-size Casio E-100 can play videos and CD-quality sound.) The problem is simply the size of the books and the time it takes to download them off the Internet. A full multimedia presentation can take as little as ten megabytes. On a CD-ROM, that's nothing. But when you're using a standard modem, it could take a very long time to download. Of course, the download problem is changing with the increasing popularity of cable modems and high-speed DSL, but still not everybody has high-speed access. When they do, then you can expect to see much bigger multimedia presentations. Until then, plan on seeing books that are mostly in the style of text rather than multimedia.

In Chapter 2 you'll see more detail about the different software available for reading books. But just a quick mention: One that's sure to be big by the time you read this is the Microsoft Reader. Other big ones are Glassbook Reader and Peanut Reader. (As you can see, if you're not sure about the name of the soft-ware package, it's probably called Reader. At least it's clear what the programs do.)

File Formats

So you can see there are lots of different kinds of software and devices for e-books. And as you can probably imagine, there are also lots of different ways for the creators of the e-books to save these books on a hard drive. In other words, there are lots of different file formats they can use. And often, for each file format, you need a different viewer or device. Imagine if every videotape production required its own brand of VCR. You want to watch this movie, you'll need that VCR; you want to watch that movie, you'll need this VCR. So you better check out which movies are available for which VCRs before you buy a VCR.

Now imagine that for e-books. Sound messy? It is. Right now, most of the different companies in the e-book world are either working together or fighting with one another, trying to come up with a standard file format that they can all use. The ultimate dream is to be able to download any e-book and read it on any viewer of your choice, whether the viewer is a handheld device or a piece of software sitting on a desktop or laptop. At the moment, it looks like the industry is narrowing things down to two different standards, called Open eBook (OEB) and Portable Document Format (PDF). OEB is created by a government-headed consortium at the Open eBook Forum (http://www.openebook.org), of which Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com) is a major player. (One of Jeff's former co-workers thought he wrote the Open eBook spec. As flattered as he was, he actually had nothing to do with it whatsoever.) The Open eBook site is shown in Figure 1.2. PDF, on the other hand, is created primarily by (and owned by) Adobe http://www.adobe.com. Each format has its strengths and weaknesses. We'll look at these in more detail in Chapter 4, "The Production Process." And just to make things messier, there are lots of companies doing their own thing, too.

Making E-Books

So how are e-books made? It depends on who you talk to. Typically the companies that create the e-book reader software also produce the tools to create e-books, or they work with some company who produces the tools. These tools range from converting existing printed books by scanning their pages one by one and then carefully converting them, through taking the original computer files for existing printed books and converting them to the necessary file format, to starting from scratch-going straight from the word processor to the e-book and bypassing the printed stage altogether. We'll look at the different tools available in Chapter 4, "The Production Process," and talk about how to create your e-books.

Next Month: Part II of Understanding Electronic Publishing.

Excerpted from Poor Richard's Creating E-books, by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell. Copyright ©2001 by Chris Van Buren and Jeff Cogswell. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction or dissemination in any manner whatsoever is strictly prohibited.

Chris Van Buren began his career as a computer documentation writer and went on to become an editor at CompuSoft Publishing, one of the first computer book publishing companies in the United States. He later wrote and published several computer industry newsletters, including The AppleWorks Journal and the Microsoft Works in Education Newsletter, co-published with Microsoft Corporation. Chris also spent many years as a computer book author and has written more than 15 books, including Using Excel for the Macintosh, The MacWorld Excel 5 Companion, and The HTML Quick Reference. Currently, Chris is a literary agent with Waterside Productions, Inc., and has represented a wide variety of books, including many bestselling computer books, cookbooks, and spiritual books. He is also the publisher of the E-Publishing Opportunities email newsletter.

Jeff Cogswell programs computers, writes books, and plays the piano and guitar. Early on he had some ideas for how e-books could be made to happen when his first book went out of print and he continued to get letters from people who wanted it. Being more of a writer than a programmer, he prefers to write about e-books and let other people build the e-book software. He has written several books including Simple C++ and Delphi 32-bit Programming Secrets (with Tom Swan). His Beginner’s Guide to E-books website can be found at http://www.geocities.com/jeffcogs/.

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