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Reports from the Field

On May 4, I taught an Enriching Scholarship session called The Care and Keeping of eBooks.

The title–which I made up when I proposed the session back in December–may not be the best description of what we did. The workshop was really more like “The Dissection and Creation of eBooks.”

My goals were that the attendees would:

  • better understand the place of the EPUB format in the landscape of digital publishing
  • have a sense of what, exactly, EPUB is, and understand that they can create and edit EPUB of their own
  • become familiar with some of the tools and services for creating and distributing EPUB, and questions to consider when selecting a tool or service.

After some general discussion about eBooks and eBook formats, we downloaded an EPUB from the Internet Archive (LuLu’s Library, by Louisa May Alcott, if you’re interested!) and looked inside it, to better understand its parts and structure. EPUB is a free and open format for publishing electronic content to display in devices that read .epub files.

This slide illustrates how the parts of an EPUB file relate to one another

We used unarchiving software to unzip the EPUB (which is really just a renamed .zip file) and a text editor to look at the files inside. Together, we discovered that EPUB is simply a grouping of XML and HTML files (plus images) that point and link to one another in specific ways–though this may have been cold comfort to those in the workshop entirely new to markup languages! By looking at the EPUB in an EPUB reader alongside of the files in a text editor, I think we were all able to get a sense of how the content of the EPUB controls the appearance and behavior of the book when displayed by ereading software.

The toc.ncx file (left) controls how the table of contents looks and behaves in an ereader (right)

Next, we used a few different freely available tools to try generating our own EPUB–I offered up my undergraduate thesis as a sacrificial lamb for this experiment. Results were mixed: we discovered that using different source files (either .doc or .pdf) and different conversion tools (such as OxGarage and 2EPUB) led to different EPUB outputs–none of them quite representing the original paper accurately.

Though I think this was frustrating for some participants, I really wanted to demonstrate that while tools like this are very useful, no out-of-the-box, automated conversion will get your eBook exactly right–and that’s why it’s valuable to understand how the format works, and how it can be edited by hand.

Finally, we looked at several services, such as LuLu and PubIt!, that not only can help authors create EPUB, but also distribute it to major sales channels like Apple’s iBookstore and Barnes & Noble’s Nook store.

The materials from the workshop are available on the Digital Publishing Production workshops page, and my slides are also available to download from Deep Blue, under a CC BY 3.0 license.

  • Josh

    Wow! The deconstruction/creation (esp. via free web-based applications, etc.) method you used for this class is really impressive and such an amazing way to learn EPUB (and a lot of other things). I learned a ton just from reading this post and can only imagine what the participants came away with. Digging into the workshop materials now. Thanks for sharing!

  • rebecca

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks so much for your kind comments! I was really inspired by some of the EPUB tutorials that I found online (most prepared and made available by self-published authors), and hope that the participants found it useful.

    This was the first time I’ve given this presentation–and I learned a lot along the way myself–so if you have any feedback, suggestions, or comments after looking through the materials, I’d be glad to hear them!