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June 9th, 2010:

EPub and Word Processors

Well. Got your heart medicine handy? Jeff is considering a Mac. Well, not exactly. (Put down that nitroglycerine.) I’m strongly considering getting an iPad. And I’ll bet you didn’t know that I already have an iPod, thanks to Jim Strickland, who may in fact persuade me to get a Mac someday. I worry about some of Apple’s cultural issues (like not providing clear guidelines on what you can sell in their stores and what you can’t, and changing your &!$#*% mind about it every other week) but their engineering is extremely good. I spent some quality time with an iPad at a recent Enclave Meetup, and basically, I’m sold. Those guys pretty much nailed the ebook experience, or at very least came up with the best possible compromise between fixed-page and reflowable presentation that anyone might strike. And I want my books out there in the iBooks marketplace.

This means that I need to be able to create EPub files, and good ones. What boggles me is the scarcity of visual tools for that purpose. Among the mainline desktop publishing apps, only InDesign CS4 and CS5 can export finished EPub files, and some people think the feature itself isn’t finished yet. (I don’t have either version so I can’t do my own testing–and at $700 for the app, I don’t expect to get it.) Some odd comments I’ve seen online suggest that the Scribus developers don’t think that reflowable document export is a suitable task for a fixed-layout desktop pubber, and that they’re not going to do it. There are lots of converter programs for taking various types of files and turning them into EPubs. As best I can tell, most people code their EPubs up manually, as though they were writing a C++ program. Gakkh. But also as best I can tell, affordable WYSIWYG EPub editors begin and end with Sigil.

The format itself is not a skullcracker. You’ve got one or more XHTML files expressing content (plus image files, if present), one or more CSS files defining styles, and one or more XML files describing document structure and metadata, all placed in a container file that’s not much more than a .zip with a different extension. There’s an optional DRM layer in the spec, but it’s technology-agnostic and not much used. The spec is simple enough so that people write the damned things by hand. I can’t imagine that parsing and generating the XML/XHTML/CSS would strain any sort of editor.

My point here is that you don’t need a fixed-layout desktop publishing program like InDesign or Quark to create and maintain EPub ebooks. In a sense, EPub is a modern XML-based word processor file spec, and even a middling WYSIWYG word processor could be twisted a little bit to read, render, edit, and write EPub files that could be loaded right into iBooks without further processing.

Sigil comes close. I’m using it and I’m reasonably impressed, considering that the team is basically writing a brand-new word processor from scratch. What boggles me is that it’s the only WYSIWYG EPub editor in the universe. And as a word processor, well, it’s pretty spare.

There’s no reason for this. Existing word processing apps like OpenOffice Writer and AbiWord could easily be extended to import and export EPub files, or forked to create a ramcharged ebook development system using EPub as its primary file format. Fork or not, I’m convinced of this: All word processors will eventually become ebook editors. The ebook market is closing in on reality. We now have the file format we need. The software will follow.

But sheesh guys, how about picking up the pace a little!