The Future of Publishing From Books in Browsers 2014, Part 1

After attending sessions at the 2014 Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco last week, I’m excited about the future of publishing.

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This event is fun for me partly because it’s completely different from PePcon or The InDesign Conference (which are mostly “how to” practical events) or even MAX (which is about Adobe and creative inspiration). Books in Browsers is full of people who are thinking big, thinking different, and thinking long term. And they really care about publishing… not just books, but magazines, news, expression of all kinds.

There was a huge amount of material in two short days, so I’m going to break this up into a couple of posts, just to give you a sense of what I found most interesting or most important.

HTML Publications

The most exciting moment for me was hearing Markus Gylling (CTO of the IDPF, the standards body for EPUB) and Ivan Herman (Digital Publishing Activity Lead for the W3C, the standards body for the Web and HTML) present together on the topic of HTML publications. Well, that’s not what they called it, but it’s what I’ve been calling it for the past few months, as I’ve become increasingly convinced that the future of publishing is in HTML “web sites” packaged together into a single publication or document. (That’s different from an HTML file, which is just a single file written in HTML.)

After all, that’s basically what EPUB is (html, css, javascript, plus some other documents that help hold it together… all packaged into a zip archive and given the .epub file name extension). But while EPUB is terrific for many things, it’s far too limited for much of what people want to publish. Fixed layout EPUB (FXL) gets closer, but it’s still too much based on the experience of a book with pages you turn.

So why can’t we have a document (a single file that can be saved on disk, downloaded, viewed offline, emailed to a friend, etc.) that reflects just about everything a web site can do?! In other words, grab a whole folder, stuff it into a file, and call it a document.

That, in an over-simplified nutshell is what the IDPF and W3C announced. Well, “announced” might be too strong. They announced their intention. Now the hard work comes, of trying to build a specification and getting buy-in from everyone involved. But the idea is that instead of using HPUB or WAR or something like that, this could be done as an extension of EPUB itself — they didn’t go as far as saying “EPUB 4” but that’s what jumped out in my mind.

There are some difficult and fascinating challenges to the problem that I had not considered. Where EPUB is based on .zip, it’s important that HTML Documents be readable in a browser. And web browsers don’t read zips. My response is “well, teach them.” But they’re considering other options, such as using the MIME format instead.

HTML Publications are going to be very important to all of us. Stay tuned.

Better CSS Means Better Documents

Dave Cramer from Hachette then presented a great session on how the “new CSS” could implement many of the typographic niceties (some might say necessities) that designers have come to expect, including drop caps, text wrap, and the whole idea of pagination (laying out a page). Much of this discussion was based on the excellent work being done by the Adobe Web Platform team. Cramer was focusing on the web and EPUB, but it soon became clear to me that this has significant ramifications for print, too. After all, many publishers (including Hachette) are already using HTML and CSS to publish the same material in a variety of formats—from web to EPUB to multiple print versions (trade, large-print edition, and so on).

In fact, during the conference I had several conversations with publishers and developers who were focused on various pieces of this task, from developing browser-based page-layout tools and author-to-editor-to-production workflows using HTML (or other markup languages) as the intermediary “source” languages. While InDesign played a role in a couple discussions, I was surprised how much these folks focused on tools that avoided Microsoft or Adobe products and instead relied on open source tools as much as possible.

As far as I can tell, the tools aren’t there yet for high-quality typography and precision layout like we’re accustomed to in InDesign, but the mood among many people there ranged between “it’s good enough for some professional work” to “it’s coming… soon.”

Where InDesign Fits In

That said, InDesign did show up in a couple of presentations. For example, Micah Bowers and Patrick Keating from Bluefire demonstrated several interactive books and projects created entirely in InDesign and exported to Fixed Layout EPUB3 (using the new 2014.1 features, including animation, sound, and so on) and then displayed in the Readium EPUB reader. In fact, their whole presentation was actually EPUB3 running inside a browser window. Very impressive.

Michael Kowalski founder of Padify emphasized the importance of fine-tuning designs for excellence and showed his system which includes converting InDeisgn documents to HTML5 apps

I wish I had been able to demonstrate HTML5 export from InDesign using in5 or eDocker at the event, as I had the feeling that few attendees even knew this workflow existed. Perhaps by next year’s event, we’ll have compelling InDesign-to-Browser stories to share.

Here, in my next article, I share additional impressions from the event.

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at LinkedIn Learning (Lynda.com) are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at 63p.com.
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