What would Gutenberg do?

The other day, Teleread featured a post lamenting what the author saw as poor typography and formatting in converting book content.

There are some inaccuracies in the post about what Bookworm can and can’t do (these are addressed in the comments), but throughout there is an underlying premise that an ebook should “look” like books long have looked. I’m not favoring hyphenating question marks, but do we really need to worry about four-word orphans at the top of the next page, when “page” really has little or no meaning?

In our XML project, we found that publishers planning a migration to XML need to start by answering five questions, the first two of which are:

  • Where are we now and where do we want to end up (faster? better, as in fewer errors? more agile? with what relative emphasis?); and
  • How much benefit do we want to obtain from content reuse and repurposing?

Books that were created without having answered these questions first (typically, books created before repurposing seemed like a valuable activity) present the greatest conversion challenges. Beginning with the broader end in mind, which is what we encourage publishers to do, opens up a dialogue about the potential of a new medium, more so than the problems of making the new medium work for the existing content.

With Epubzengarden, Liza Daly has done great work to demonstrate the potential for reworking content to fit the reader’s preference. Her work suggests to me that some of the lament about appearance may be less about quality and more about loss of control.

It’s a limited analogy, but I see html as a tool that enables control over appearance and xml as a tool that enables control over use.

A variation on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: you can specify appearance, or you can support use, but you can’t really expect to do both simultaneously. Between html and xml, control moves from appearance of content to the rules for presentation of content.

Folks laboring mightily in html to craft the perfect e-book remind me of the monks of the middle ages, carefully copying pages of previously published manuscripts. The works were often beautiful, but they took time to produce and there were just a few of them around.

I think there is a place for works of surpassing beauty, and there is a (probably limited) market of people who would pay for them. Illustrated manuscripts today are essentially priceless. But I imagine that in 1439, monks standing around the first sheets of Gutenberg’s (lovely) Bible were shaking their heads, clucking their tongues and saying (in German), “But look at the kerning…”

Updated September 27 to add: Kassia Krozser of Booksquare has a post up about accessibility from the reader’s perspective. Very on-point and without all this egg-headed stuff about Heisenberg. Check it out. Also, here is a New York Times piece on format proliferation that amplifies both the challenge and the opportunity.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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