By David Skurnik, DCL (Contact David via e-mail)
Though the e-book and e-reader industry is still young, already the adoption of electronic print technology is impressive, and growing fast. But it’s likely that the e-book products that we have seen so far are really only the first wave of electronic print — precursors of what’s to come. Significant changes to e-book formats and devices lie just around the corner.
The market’s treatment of e-books can be aptly compared to that of the first automobiles. First dubbed horseless carriages, a term that seems silly today, the first cars fit perfectly the trend by which new technology is more palatable to consumers if it starts off as an extension of the old and familiar. Thus, the e-book: new because it is electronic, but still somewhat mired in the familiar concept of book.
But this will change as consumers get used to the convenience and other benefits associated with reading books in electronic format. Just as cars evolved into technological entities of their own, no longer tethered to the idea of a horse and carriage, so will e-books soon begin to make use of all the advantages that an electronic format has over paper. E-books will soon find their place within the increasingly connected network of information that comprises the web and its extensions. The next wave of e-books will not be static and passive, but rather dynamic and interactive.
Features consumers can look forward to include multimedia integration (think high-definition, 3D images that you can zoom in on, spin, and rotate by touch), links to external sources of information (find and read a referenced article with one click), and even social media integration (the potential for this is manifold; not only could you and your friends have discussions about the book within the margins, but think about how this could change the entire peer-review process for scholarly or professional publications).
But as is often the case, rapid growth and innovation come at the expense of stability. New technology breeds a chaotic marketplace in which standards have yet to be set. Numerous proprietary formats are competing for dominance, but so far none seems to have established itself as a permanent front runner — it’s like VHS vs. Betamax times ten. And new devices and proprietary formats aside, different types of content can also require their own specific formats and standards.
When you’re a publisher looking to meet the market’s demands (they want e-books, and they want them now), the plurality of different e-book standards in use can become a real problem. Converting your content to an e-book format costs money. Having to re-convert every time a new device and its exclusive proprietary format gains popularity is undesirable, to say the least.
The best course of action? Remain flexible while minimizing your costs. A tall order, but doable with a little creative thinking. One approach is to minimize the cost and time required to convert your content into e-book formats by first converting all of it into a marked up intermediary format like XML.
Paradoxical though it may seem, adding an extra step to your initial source-to-ebook conversion process, by first converting your content to XML, will greatly improve the efficiency of subsequent e-book conversions. This is because converting from one e-book format to another is a complex and costly procedure, which involves “un-converting” the content in order to get back to the source format, which must then be re-converted into the desired e-book format. Starting from scratch — that is, working from your original source format — each time you need to publish for a new device or standard isn’t much better in terms of cost and complexity, and for most publishers it is not practical to repeat this process again and again.
But you can use the fact that most e-book formats are very similar to your advantage; this can be achieved by converting your content to an intermediary format like XML. If source content is converted to a marked up XML standard first, 95% of the work of converting your original content to an e-book standard is already done — but because you haven’t committed it to any particular exclusive e-book format, you are able to retain a high degree of content flexibility. Moving your content from your intermediary standard to the e-book format-of-the-year (or season, or whatever) is a far simpler and less expensive process than a source-to-ebook conversion or an ebook-to-ebook conversion.
Another benefit of moving to XML before converting to an e-book standard is that XML is more robust and can accommodate more information than e-book standards can currently support. However, as e-book standards evolve, there will be no need to go back and mark up your content, since all the information you need will already be in the XML.
As for what specific XML standard serves best as an intermediary, pre-ebook format, there are a number of free, public domain XML DTDs from which to choose. Some are specifically tailored to fit the content needs of particular industries, while others can accommodate a range of different types of content. To name a few, NLM, DocBook, TEI Lite, and DITA are all robust XML standards that can serve as great starting points for a painless conversion of your content to whatever e-book format you need.