Wednesday, August 11, 2010

EPUB Straight to the Point (Book Review of the Paperback)

EPUB Straight to the Point
Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders
by Elizabeth Castro
Peachpit Press, ISBN: 978-0-321-734686
Available Formats:
Paperback, 192 pages
PDF (watermarked with buyer's name)
EPUB (unencrypted, direct from Castro's web site)

Reviewed by Michael Pastore, Epublishers Weekly

We can dance on the moon, probe the depths of space, transplant organs, make maps of the murky mysteries of the deep seas and the 25,000 human genes, communicate instantaneously around the entire Earth, and — in minutes or less — access an unimaginable quantity of the world's accumulated knowledge.

Nevertheless, right now, it is impossible to find, borrow or buy any software that lets you push a few keyboard keys to create a perfectly valid, ready-to-read ebook in the format known as EPUB. Even the latest CS5 version of Adobe's omnipotent InDesign — listing for $ 699 — cannot get the EPUB files quite right.

That is why I am wildly enthusiastic about this new book by Elizabeth Castro: EPUB Straight to the Point. Beginners will learn all the essentials, thanks to the many illustrations (screen shots) and the step-by-step instructions that never fail to be clear. EPUB professionals and experts — and I am one of these — will find dozens of ideas for transforming ordinary-looking ebooks into ones that are beautifully designed.

Ye of little faith can easily see for yourself. Visit Castro's web page about the book, then download either of the two free sample EPUB ebooks (of Thoreau's incomparable classic Walden) created by Castro. Now open this EPUB ebook on your favorite ebook reading system: your iPad, dedicated device, smartphone, or computer desktop. You will see (as in the screen shot above) an example of an EPUB ebook with many eye-catching aesthetic touches along with practical features that improve readability: large colorful titles, the right amount of line spacing, headers, images inside the ebook, and even — in one of these EPUBs — a specially-chosen font.

You don't need to spend megabucks to make ebooks. You can use free text editors and free zipping software; however that no-cost solution works only when you understand a good amount about XHTML and CSS. To allow readers without XHTML-CSS skills to painlessly make the EPUBs, Castro's Chapter 1 describes how to use Microsoft Word for the first steps in the EPUB-making process. Don't worry that MS-Word's export to XHTML adds all kinds of bizarre coding to the file: the book tells you how to meticulously clean and polish the funky Word-export until it shines as a well-formed file of XHTML.

Because so many publishers use InDesign to lay out their paper editions, it makes sense to use InDesign to make the ebooks, and that is the subject of Chapter 2. Castro points out an annoying InDesign bug that corrupts the EPUB links; she writes "hopefully, Adobe will fix this". But until they do, you can use the workaround explained in the book.

The heart of the book is Chapter 3 — Inside an EPUB File — which, in just the right amount of detail — explains all the facets of every EPUB file. Whatever you choose to use to create your EPUBs — MS-Word, any text editor, Adobe's InDesign, or any EPUB-making shareware or freeware — such as Julian Smart's admirably simple eCub, or the superb program by Kovid Goyal named Calibre — you will still need to make many (and I do mean, many) changes and tweaks to get to a finished EPUB that is valid and works. This chapter tells you how to make all the necessary changes. The chapter also contains useful tips (such as how GREP-enabled editors can save tons of time); and a vivid explanation about how to understand and work with the dreaded "content.opf" file — the file, in my experience, that has been by far the most complex and troublesome file to create, fix, and update.

The subtitle of this book is: Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders. A smart approach, in my opinion, because the iPad offers the very best ebook reading experience; and yet the ebooks that you create with this book's guidance will look great on any EPUB-supporting device, and anywhere that EPUBs can be read. Although Amazon's much-hyped Kindle cannot read any EPUB at all, Castro has you covered: in a thoughtful afterthought to Chapter 3, she explains how to convert your EPUB to a format — .MOBI — that Kindles can happily understand.

You have probably heard the joke about the very amateur Shakespearean actor who, while playing Puck in the middle of A Midsummer Night's Dream — was booed and pelted with organic tomatoes. The actor ripped off his mask, stopped performing, turned to audience and then shouted: "Don't blame me, I didn't write this junk!" ... For a while, EPUB ebooks shared the same fate as the Bard: some hasty critics looked at some badly-made EPUB ebooks, and then griped that the EPUB format is a failure because it cannot make nice-looking books. Castro dispels that myth; her Chapter 4 — Advanced Epub Formatting — covers advanced topics including how to prevent ebook reading devices from overriding your CSS; how to choose the fonts in your ebook; how to create drop caps and small caps; how to control spacing and indents (essential when formatting poetry); how to insert images and their captions; and how to enhance (or, as some people might say, increase the distractions in) your EPUB ebooks by adding links, tables and videos.

Publishers, authors, book designers — everyone interested in making EPUB ebooks — can buy Castro's book with complete confidence; the book will teach you to build a better ebook than you've ever built before.

Michael Pastore, editorial Director, Epublishers Weekly
Author of 50 Benefits of Ebooks:
A Thinking Person's Guide to the Digital Reading Revolution

== Story Links ==

The Book on the Publisher's Web site:

Elizabeth Castro's website for the book:

Elizabeth Castro's blog:

Sigil: A WYSIWYG ebook editor, with full EPUB support

PADILICIOUS.COM: Creating Digital Books for the iPad (Mac only)