Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why I Don't Use eBook Creation Apps

Why I don't use ebook creation apps
(but you might want to anyway) 

 Many years ago I built my first website, using Dreamweaver. It was Version 8, I believe, back when it was still by Macromedia. The website was very basic, the program very complex. It suited my needs at the time, and had plenty of potential for expansion...if I wanted to learn how to code a complex website, that is.
I didn't.
So instead, when it came time to add a store with shopping options for buying print and ebooks to my site I switched to Yahoo SiteBuilder, since Yahoo were the top web hosting service at the time, and offered a simple add-on shopping cart package (for a fee, of course). But since Yahoo used their own proprietary code for web page layout and functionality, I had to rebuild the site from scratch, being unable to import the current site and build on that. However, after much tedious effort (not to mention learning an entirely new software interface) it resulted in a nice website that filled my current needs...for a while.
But web technology moved on and Yahoo did not. Eventually I wanted to upgrade my site to include some of the nifty new features made available by HTML5 and CSS3. But that could not be done in Yahoo.
So I moved my site to another 3rd party web platform...and built it all again from scratch, since Yahoo's super secret code matrix could not be transferred to another platform.
That new 3rd party service went out of business within a year (Yahoo has fared only slightly better treading water).
So once again I started over and rebuilt the site from scratch (that's four for those keeping track). This time I decided to use the popular "open" platform Wordpress, with its highly customizable theme-based structure, thinking it would be more "universal," since there were seemingly endless theme and expansion packages available for it.
But Wordpress proved to be slow and balky, crashing frequently and losing data with nearly every update. And because all but the basic layout functions are handled by adding third party plug-ins for each new feature, these tended to conflict with one other more often than not (not being tested for compatibility with anything but the base platform), causing features or entire sections of the site to malfunction (or not function at all), and crashing the site when any one of them were updated, even locking it up in a perpetual feedback loop on more than one occasion - a cycle which could only be broken by deleting one or more of the expansions, which naturally took all of my data with it.
Moreover, due to the very nature of this "plug-in" methodology, the site was once again not exportable to any other platform. So yet again I was faced with the seemingly inevitable task of rebuilding my site from scratch.
So after building the same site five times, I am now back to where I started, using Dreamweaver to build all my site content with universally recognized web code based on standard HTML and CSS. It is infinitely expandable, limited only by my time and willingness to learn, and can be transferred from one hosting service to another as I see fit. And it's the best site I've built yet. More importantly, the underlying code can be read and edited using any standard text editor. I can fix it if it breaks, and add new features as I learn to implement new code. If I see something I like on another website I can view the source code in my browser and see how it was done. I'm not limited by what the software can do, but what I can do.
You might be asking yourself at this point what this has to do with ebooks.
An ebook is, in essence, simply a portable website, designed as fixed or responsive page layouts, and based on a subset of the very same HTML and CSS that websites use. In general, if you know how to make a basic web page you can make an ebook too. You just need to learn the specific bits of code that makes the ebook work, and the rest is left to your imagination.
And best of all, the only thing you really need is a text editor.
The very same issues that plagued my web building experience for so many years also apply to building ebooks, so take heed. Programs that build your ebook for you do so by using their own proprietary code that often can't be understood by mere mortals such as we (unless you have the patience of a saint, or the wisdom of a god, which I do not). For example, they change the names of all your input source files, so that rather than having page23overlay2.jpg, you might find img000172.jpg instead, in your new HTML page called split0000159.xhtml. Good luck finding the correct file for page 23. Or the images it contains, if you happen to want to change one.
This is made all the worse by the fact that all of your carefully labelled CSS entries will have been changed in just the same manner, so that your styling instructions for #page23panel1 is now called data-app-amzn-ke-created-style0126, or some such nonsense. And more than likely all of your neatly organized HTML will be run together in an endless stream of code. Needless to say, this is not helpful in the least.
Unless you're a machine. And a very specific machine at that.
This applies not just to Amazon's proprietary Comic and Kids ebook creator tools, but also in varying degrees to iBooks Author, InDesign's ebook export function, and ebook editors such as Calibre and Sigil. The code they create can only be effectively read by them, thus locking you into using that same platform for all future updates to that file, until such time as their usefulness runs out, they become incompatible with your now-outdated file (or operating system) after an update, another software offers better features, or the company goes out of business.
Then you'll face the same dilemma I did building websites.
You'll have to build your ebooks all over.
From scratch.

For more in-depth reviews of Amazon's Kindle Comic Creator and the newer Kindle Kids Book Creator (for those still intent on using them), follow those links to my posts on the subject. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Kindle Kids' Book Creator - An Analysis

Amazon today released something of a companion to their Kindle Comic Creator application that, like its predecessor, allows for relatively easy graphic layout of Kindle illustrated ebooks, this time geared toward producing children's content rather than comics. Like Kindle Comic Creator (KCC), the new Kindle Kids' Book Creator (or KBC for short) presents a very stripped down interface with a rather limited array of tools. However, this is somewhat deceptive, since users also have access (in both programs) to direct HTML/CSS editing within the application, which makes it useful both for those with some coding skills and those who only want a basic drag-and-drop style interface. For those without, however, the options for styling are somewhat slim, though they should suffice for most cases.

A companion User's Guide is available from the KKBC home page, which details in the usual sketchy technical outlines how to use the program, so I won't go through that here, but suffice it to say that the user guide isn't really necessary, since there's very little that you'll need to learn to use this thing, and most of it is fairly self-explanatory from a cursory glance at the menu bars and buttons; a half dozen random clicks will teach you all you need to know in fifteen minutes.

I ran a quick and dirty test to see how the program fared, and for the most part I was pleasantly surprised, although not without a healthy handful of caveats. Foremost of these right from the get-go is the lack of support for epub as an input source: KBC only accepts PDFs and image files, which means that if you have a nice layout to export from InDesign your only option is to make a PDF and start over from there. You can import pages with text embedded and create text pop-ups to cover them up, or import image-only pages and create both the base text and magnified text from scratch, and then move it around and size it all to fit. If you cut and paste text from another document any styles applied in the original will not transfer, since the underlying CSS will not be copied as well, but any tags you've added to the code still will be in the HTML, so you can manually add the CSS rules to the KBC file easily enough. This, of course, implies the need to delve into the underlying code, which somewhat defeats the point of using a program such as this. But that's the last we'll see of that necessity if you actually want to add some style to your work.

Unfortunately, even though you can add text as a separate layer in KBC, the "childrens" book-type that is automatically added to the output OPF renders the text inactive in the Kindle readers, so that dictionaries, highlights and word search will not work, rendering it essentially the same as text embedded in the image. This is why I discourage the use of a book-type value in fixed layout files as a general rule, but that's a choice each content creator must make for themselves. You can, however, delete the book-type entry from the OPF manually and all the text will then be active. Why Amazon has crippled this ability in children's books and comics is beyond me.

If you create the base text from scratch KBC will automatically add it to the pop-up at 150% magnification (if you add a pop-up, that is, since you don't have to), but you can "unlink" the pop-up from the base text and add any other content to the magnified region that you want. It will still be magnified at 150% of the base text, however, so if you simply want to have the base text change you'll have to learn to do some custom coding in the HTML/CSS editors to make it work (for example, if you want to produce a bi-lingual ebook, or use the pop-up like a question/answer flashcard). Unfortunately, KBC's behind-the-scenes code is a little balky, so unless you already know your way around a KF8 fixed layout file archive pretty well you'll be looking at a lot of gibberish, and even for those of us who do it's pretty messy in there. Also, to create clever tricks like using mag regions to replace one image with another isn't something that can easily by done in KBC. If you're wanting to add that kind of interactivity into your project, KBC is not the tool for you.

Other detracting factors against using KBC for anything but very simple projects are its lack of an Undo button (!), so you better be sure you want to make a change before you do, because there's no way to get it back once it is gone. You can "re-link" a base text box to a pop-up, but this deletes any other custom changes that you've made to the pop-up, replacing them with the default text, and that change cannot be undone, so whatever you had created will be lost. This is a horrendous oversight on the programmers' part, and truly unforgivable in this day and age.

Even though you import images of a given size (that you have no doubt chosen for a reason), KBC will automatically re-size them to a seemingly random dimension of its own choosing, over which you have no control. In my sample test file, for example, all my images were 1118 by 1788 in size. This was chosen as the largest size for which I could achieve the highest quality setting in Photoshop and still come in at just under the "standard resolution" image file size limits the Kindle has in place for older devices (which KBC apparently does not support - only the Fire devices are listed as supported, and available for previewing). At any rate, KBC arbitrarily assigned a landscape layout page size of 1920 wide by 1535 high for my test project, making each half page image only 959 by 1535 rather than 1118 by 1788. Curiously, however, the auto-generated "scaled-images" folder contained both the original, unchanged images, as well as "thumbnail" versions scaled to 625x1000 pixels and compressed to down around 100 kb in size, rendering them utterly atrocious in quality. Which ones the reader will see is anyone's guess, but since KBC files are apparently not compatible with the eInk devices (even though those devices do support fixed layout KF8 files) my guess is that the larger ones will be delivered to the Fire devices and the smaller ones to Android and iOS apps for phones. But I'm only guessing there, so don't quote me.

You can add single pages in portrait or landscape orientation, or two-page spreads in landscape using either two image stitched together or one image spanned across both pages. This is very nice feature made very easy during the image import stage. However, auto-orientation is unfortunately not an option here; you must choose one or the other. I should also mention that you can add or create additional pages at any point in the process, and insert them anywhere in the page sequence, and even re-sequence pages already added simply by dragging them to a new location. You can also delete pages, but once you do they are gone for good along with any content you included in them, and again this cannot be undone.

You cannot open mobi files that were not created using KBC, even if they're KF8 format children's book-type files. So KBC can import a PDF but not it's own native KF8 format. Go figure.

Above is a snapshot of the formatting toolbar available in KBC, and as you can see the options are somewhat limited. The "Add Pop-Up" button creates a mag region with no underlying text, while the "Add Text option creates both at one go. Just add your text to the base layer text box and it is automagically magnified at 150% in the pop-up box, both of which can be moved around and re-sized to your liking. You can embed custom fonts easily enough using an Add Font menu option, with any added fonts appearing in the drop down menu here. You can also change their size and color very easily here, which is a plus. There is also the slightly unexpected line height and character spacing options to help you make your text fill up the page just right, but be aware that these apply to all text in a single given text box and no others, so if you want all the text throughout the book to look the same you'll once again need to dive into the code and create a custom CSS rule for your base text. It's also not possible, of course, to only change the character spacing for just one line without embedding that line in a separate text box, thereby breaking any pop-up windows into pieces also.

Other than that you have the basic bold, italic, underline, and four standard text alignment options to choose from, and nothing else. There is no way to wrap text around images as in iBooks Author, or even to automatically align text boxes to a standard margin without resorting to advanced CSS editing. Text boxes can be moved and re-sized easily enough by dragging on their corners or edges, but there is no ruler or grid system by which to align them. Also, unless I'm blind I'm finding no color picker to alter the background color in the magnified text boxes, so again you'll need to learn some CSS to use this tool that Amazon is hyping in their promos as being designed for those who don't know any HTML or CSS, and theoretically don't need to learn. In other words, KBC is fairly dismal as a graphic design tool, and if you're used to using Adobe products or iBA for your layout work you'll feel as if you've been drugged and had your arms chopped off while trying to produce something genuinely inventive here.

There is a Console panel available that shows the log file which Kindlegen produces during conversion, but if you're advanced enough to understand that you don't need to be using this kid's toy. Honestly, I was hoping for an adult app at some point from Amazon that can create advanced layouts and complex motion graphics, but all they've given us so far are simple widgets only good for making very basic layouts. And that's probably good enough for beginners, but it's not something professional ebook formatters will ever use.

So to summarize:

  • Easy user interface for a quick and simple learning curve
  • Easily create magnified text pop-ups from base text
  • Text layers isolated from background art (for potential live text upgrades)
  • Editable CSS/HTML code from within the program
  • Two-page spreads with facing pages made super simple
  • PDF / image input for really simple import most users can manage
  • Generates the necessary file structure, including OPF & NCX, which can be edited externally

  • No epub or mobi file input
  • Cannot edit mobi files not originally created with KBC
  • Very limited layout and formatting tools
  • Only basic text interactivity (pop-ups) without advanced HTML/CSS coding skills
  • No support for eInk devices (exports only to "Fire-compatible" KF8 according to the guide)
  • Auto-Orientation not available (locked to landscape or portrait)
  • Auto-resizes images without your input (cannot select your own "original-resolution" value)
  • No Undo!
  • Previews only available for Kindle Fire devices currently
  • Did I say No Undo?

A few notes for the more advanced users:

There are a couple of new "ke-" prefixed entries in the metadata section of the OPF that are interesting:
<meta content="doublepagespread" name="ke-layout-type"/>
<meta content="start-right" name="ke-start-side"/>
<meta content="true" name="ke-hd-images"/>
The first is what allows two pages to be knit together into one page spread or a single image to be spanned across two pages, but I haven't had the chance to dive into the generated CSS to see what's being done just yet to know what all the options are, or why this is necessary when the KF8 code already has the ability to create facing pages from two images. In this case it's a two-page spread consisting of two individual images, so "doublepagespread" is the value. The value is for a two-page spread made from a single image is, not surprisingly, "singlepage".

Second up we have the "start-side" which for the first time allows a Kindle fixed layout file to have a single standing first page on the right side (or presumably left in rl-horizontal writing mode ebooks). Previously this was attempted with the page-id "layout-blank" value, which never worked correctly, and single pages always appeared centered in the viewport rather than to one side or the other.

Finally, we have an "hd-images" entity that I presume is part of the new "standard resolution" versus "high resolution" image distribution for old model versus HD devices. Here the value "true" tells me that only the HD images are going to be transferred to whatever device the file is destined for, regardless of the model. Or perhaps it means that only HD devices are supported for this file, as implied by the absence of any mention of eInk screens in the documentation. But if "false" is also a legitimate value for this entity it begs the question of just what the heck is going on here. Of course, each of these is generated automatically by KBC, so you really aren't intended to alter them outside of the settings found in the program menus, and there isn't one for this third entry. But here they are for what it's worth.

Incidentally, KBC only produces a toc.ncx rather than a nav doc with landmarks, and the OPF contains none of the EPUB3 additions that had previously been implemented in KF8.

Well, that's all I've got for now after a quick first look. I'll ponder on it more and maybe play with it a bit tomorrow. But I doubt I'll ever use it much, except for previewing my HTML/CSS code on the fly. And honestly, that's the best use I can see right now for this thing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"How To Make Kindle Comics" Update 2.0

A newly revised and updated "2.0" edition of "How To Make Kindle Comics & Children's Books" has just been published, with additional content and revisions to include the recent changes made by Amazon to the allowed image file size limits in Kindle fixed layout ebooks for HD devices, as well as other details uncovered during file testing since the first edition was released.

I have also taken the opportunity to make some editorial changes, textual polishing, and adjustments to the relevant charts and sections affected by these recent changes. Much of this has been documented on this blog, but it is now all housed together in the published guide.

In addition, an ePub edition is now included in the downloaded zip archive for no extra charge when purchased through my website (along with an updated PDF). The ePub and PDF are not available if bought through Amazon! However, the Kindle edition sold there has also been updated, so you should see an "update available" button for this title in the "Manage Your Content" page at Amazon (to the right of the title).

When you click this button you'll receive the following info message box:

If you've made any notes or highlights in the book, these will be lost, since the content on the pages doesn't actually match up with the previous version anymore. In addition to a substantial number of revisions, additions, and alterations, the book is now two pages longer. This is why Amazon don't automatically push updated versions of a title to your device.

For those of you who have already purchased the book directly from my site, you can download the updated files via the link you received when purchased. If you no longer have that link, drop a line via the Contact page and I'll resend it. Be sure to include your full name and the email address you used when you bought the book.

The sample pdf download has also been updated, so for those who have not yet acquired a copy, you can click the "Read Sample" button on the product page (or just click that link) to read a 40+ page excerpt of the book.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kindlegen "-dont_append_source" Option

I discovered this week that there is a command line option for Kindlegen that keeps the source file zip from being added to the compiled mobi archive. It was hidden in the Kindle Publishing Guidelines under the "Building Dictionaries" section (7.5), appearing first in Version 2014.1 back in January, and was not specifically listed in the Revision History, where it simply said "Dictionary Overview (and all subsections of same)." I went through that section, noting all the changes but this one. Go figure.

At any rate, if you add this option to your kindlegen command it will bypass the addition of the source file archive to your output file:
Kindlegen will output this message as the first line in the conversion log:
Info:I9018:option: -donotaddsource: Source files will not be added
I tested a fixed layout file to be sure it worked, and what I found was that a 19.6 Mb source epub which normally converts to a 44.9 Mb file, resulted in a 25.2 Mb mobi when appending this conversion option. Extracting the contents using KindleUnpack showed that the source zip file was indeed absent.

So for those who have been using KindleStrip to remove the bulky source files from your files, you can now just add this option during conversion instead. KindleStrip is no longer necessary.

Bear in mind, however, that with the larger image file size allowance, if you're including higher resolution images for HD devices that are over the standard definition limits (i.e. 127/256/800 kb), these source files may be required by Amazon in order to send them to the end user's HD device.

UPDATE: 5-27-14

In fact, the archive is not required in order for the HD images to be delivered, as these are stored in a new HD Container section of the converted mobi file. So you can safely remove the zip archive (or keep it from being added in the first place) when distributing the files outside of Amazon. Of course, there's no real reason to remove them if uploading to KDP, unless your converted file exceeds 50 Mb in size.