eBook Basics for Technical Communicators

As mobile devices like Kindle-type eReaders, tablet computers and smartphones proliferate in homes and in the workplace, eBooks are becoming a legitimate platform for delivering documentation and instruction. We’ll look at two mobile document  formats, EPUB and PDF and discuss how they stack up for technical communication. We’ll also look at the steps that lead from eBook creation to publication.

eBooks in EPUB

EPUB is probably the more flexible eBook format because it can generate text readable on just about any display.  Text re-flow treats the text as a continuous block and allows the reader to customize font, type size and line spacing to suit screen size or reading conditions. Pagination is irrelevant in EPUBs but well constructed eBooks have navigational aids like bookmarks, annotations, linked tables of contents, indexes and glossaries that make up for pagination loss.

Tables and figures should be used sparingly because they don’t shrink or enlarge like text. Remember, in EPUB you’re taking an existing, printable document and turning it into HTML with all of its formatting limitations. This is tricky if your text, like much technical documentation, relies heavily on images and non–text figures. As you’re experimenting with EPUB, you might find it better suited to delivering long-form text for expert users who can do without visual aids.

If you have Adobe’s InDesign CS5.5, you probably won’t want to look any further for an EPUB conversion tool. If you don’t own InDesign you’ll find it a very pricey solution if all you want to do is create eBooks. Assuming you have created your document in InDesign, simplify your tables, resize graphics as necessary and use the “Export” command to save as an EPUB file. This Adobe whitepaper describes how to use InDesign to create eBooks for Apple’s iPad.

Word users have several choices for creating EPUB files. ePubMaker is an inexpensive tool that will directly convert Word documents to EPUB. Another method is to import your Word file into LibreOffice, then use the Writer2ePub extension to save your file in EPUB format. If you have less-than-perfect output, use Sigil, a free WYSIWYG eBook editor to clean up your HTML.

Calibre is a popular, open source EPUB conversion application available for free download. If, for instance, you’re beginning with a Word document, save it as HTML. Next, import your file into Calibre, modify the settings as necessary and click “Convert” to save as EPUB. Use Selig to clean up the file as necessary.

eBooks in PDF

PDFs always have a specific page size and can be difficult to read on anything but a full-sized computer monitor. As you can imagine, it is difficult to make out a letter-sized page through the tiny window of an iPhone. The reader must scroll down and right to read and page turning means repeated downward scrolling. While also a weakness, faithful formatting is the strength of PDFs because pagination, tables and graphics are faithfully preserved.

If you don’t have Adobe Acrobat, these free programs can turn your documents into PDFs. Adobe’s CreatePDF will upload your file and mail you a finished PDF but you are limited to 5 conversions. Other services,  PDF Factory Pro trial version and Neevia PDF Converter are desktop applications that convert your files on a remote server and post them online for pickup. File converters like PDF995, CutePDF, Jaws PDF Creator work like print drivers. All are free and offer varying features and functionality.

Publishing

Regardless of format, test your eBook on as many devices as possible and tweak your file to get it clean and functional when viewed on most platforms. From there, what you do with your newly minted eBook depends on your goals. If you have created documentation or user support material, you would likely upload to your company’s website.

If you are self-publishing a novel, you can send your eBook to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes and a myriad of online publishers who will promote and distribute for a percentage. Take a close look at your publisher’s Digital Rights Management policy because you may need to decide whether and for how long you can allow a third party rights to your work.

Looking Ahead

For technical communicators, eBooks will become ever more in demand and the EPUB format will command a larger share of output. The PDFs that we use today won’t be replaced anytime soon but expect EPUBs to become more popular as programs like Calibre become more user-friendly and produce HTML that is more streamlined and stable. Explore the different types of eBooks and play around until you find a technology that works for you.

Sources

Keith Soltys. (2012, February 08). Building e-books: A tool overview for technical writers. http://techwhirl.com/skills/delivery/e-books/building-e-books-a-tool-overview-for-technical-writers/

Nad Rosenberg. (2011, November). What to know about ebooks. Intercom http://intercom.stc.org/2011/11/what-to-know-about-ebooks/

EPUB specifications. International Digital Publishing Forum.http://idpf.org/epub