Book review: EPUB Straight to the point

EPUB Straight to the point is a book written by Elizabeth Castro and published by Peachpit Press. As one could expect from a book that deals with creating ebooks, it is also available in the EPUB file format on the site of the author. I stumbled upon the book while preparing to create an EPUB file for the iPad. Since the book was just out, the author had some review copies available and was kind enough to send me one.

The content

The book is split up into 5 sections:

  • The introduction starts with a very nice comparison of print versus ebook versus web. It also contains a short introduction to the EPUB file format and the various readers that are available. What I missed is a clear explanation of the scope of the EPUB file format. It is obviously suitable for publishing books but what about text-centric magazines, newspapers or complex technical books? It isn’t always clear what EPUB lends itself for and when it is better to go with PDF or another solution, such as a dedicated app.
  • I skipped the chapter on using Word to write EPUB. I dislike Microsoft Word and avoid it whenever possible.
  • The chapter on using InDesign to create EPUB assumes you are familiar with the EPUB support in InDesign CS4 or CS5, even though that is not clearly marked in the text. You get a wealth on in-depth information on the way InDesign can be used to create EPUB files.
  • Inside an EPUB file documents the internal file structure of such files. The fact that this information is included and useful points to the immature nature of ebook technology. In the early days of both PostScript and PDF, you would find similar chapters in books on those technologies. They were needed because it was occasionally still necessary to fix problems directly within files. People felt it was necessary to understand the mechanics behind the technology. Nowadays you don’t really need to know anything about the XREF table to work with Acrobat or troubleshoot PDF files. Let’s hope that EPUB quickly reaches that level of maturity as well. The information provided is useful though, especially the description on adding a cover icon.
  • The previous chapter was needed so that readers can understand the next and largest chapter, which discusses advanced EPUB formatting. Here you find a wealth of tips and tricks that would take weeks to figure out yourself or discover on any of the forums that deal with EPUB.

The book ends with an index, something that is becoming quite rare – even in technical books. Since I had the print version of this book, that index proved to be very useful to quickly find back specific information. Kudos to the author for spending time creating it.

The subtitle of this book is ‘Creating ebooks for the Apple iPad and other ereaders’. The reference to the iPad is more than just a way of trying to lure more buyers. There are many pages dedicated to the specifics of Apple’s iBooks app. In the longer term, this does mean that the book will be fairly quickly outdated. I hope the author keeps updating this publication. When you buy an ebook from O’Reilly, you’re entitled to life-long updates of that book. It would be great if this book would be distributed using a similar mechanism.

Worth buying?

If you need to create EPUB files, if you want to go beyond what Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign or other applications can do and if you feel comfortable editing CSS and XHTM files (or are willing to learn to be become proficient), then do yourself a favor and buy this book. It is a huge time-saver. It may teach you about some aspects of ebooks that you are not even aware off.

Magazines rate items by giving them stars, mice or whatever. On a scale of one to five, I’ll give this book four and a half cross hairs. Highly recommended!

I recommend buying the EPUB version. In the printed edition the body type is a bit too large for my liking (Hey, I am not 60 yet!). You have full control over that with the EPUB version. With the electronic version you might also be able to swap the font that is used for titles. I personally think Bradley Hand is a bit too close to Comic Sans to be used for books. The cover of the printed book isn’t very scratch resistant – again something that will never be a problem with ebooks.

Other sources of information

With technology changing all the time, it is useful to have additional sources of information at hand. In the case of this book, its best companion is Liz Castro’s own blog which regularly includes articles about EPUB. Some of these, such as this list of reasons to tweak InDesign’s EPUB output, should really make it into the next revision of the book.

9 August 2013

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