Medium, message, and beauty of web-based books

Capture d’écran 2014-03-26 à 18.36.27

I’ve been out of my blog for too long, and to decide to write in english is a try to give me a reason to blog again : I know it’s a little childish, but sometimes I need challenges to do things, and to be able to write in english is a big one for me.

Another fact gives me a reason to re-open my blog : the reading, yesterday, of two texts, that surprisingly collided in my mind.

One was posted on Medium, and has been written by a Medium’s developer, Marcin Wichary . I’ve blogged about Medium at the opening of this platform, when it was still invite-only. It opened up to every one in October, and there is now a Medium’s app.

- The other text is from Liza Daily, and you can read it on the Safari Flow blog.

Marcin Wichary describes in detail all the steps needed by the author to find the best solution to improve the rendering of underlining on Medium. As Marcin explains in the introduction : “This is a story on how a quick evening project to fix the appearance of underlined Medium links turned into a month-long endeavour.” I will not summarize here the post that you can read (Medium tells us it is a 12 min read). Why is this text interesting for you, bookish people caring about digital publishing ? Web developers, when building a platform dedicated to publishing, even if it’s web based only, become more and more like editors are : obsessed with details other people don’t have any idea about, asking themselves a lot of questions with the only goal of improving the readers comfort and pleasure. They also have to use the toolbox the web is giving them, and, because the purpose of this toolbox is very different from the purpose of publishing tools used for print publishing, they have in most cases to find creative ways to control the appearance of things.

The web toolbox priority was clearly not the appearance of text. It had more to do with ability to display text in different contexts, browsers, running on different OS, on screens with different sizes. And underlining is emblematic of web-culture : blue and underlined is the original code to indicate that by clicking on words you will access to another part of a document or to another document. Links were so magic for everybody in the beginning, that almost nobody did notice how ugly was this blue-underlined text. It was the indication of linking, and had, and has no equivalent in the printed world. But the testimony of Marcin is precious : it shows how seriously these questions are now taken by people that traditional publishers qualify as «  pure-players  » – when they don’t think to them as «  barbarians  ». Developers can revisit typography and lay out with fresh eyes. Hadrien Gardeur, who is in the list of the 100 french developers you must count with established by Tarik Krim in his report to Fleur Pellerin, is a good example of a computer engineer passionate by books… and how to make them look beautiful on screens… how to make to books a right place on the web.

As Hadrian, Liza is a very well known developer and entrepreneur in the digital publishing community. She is one of the excellent people you are never tired to hear in digital publishing conferences. Her post is (involuntarily) answering to Marcin’s one, even if Marcin is not using at all the ebook format. Medium is 100% web, and has nothing to do with ebooks (until somebody decides to publish some Medium posts as anthologies, as ebooks, and realize it could be part of Medium’s business model…) But ebooks have more and more to do with the web, and Liza is very well placed to know it, managing Safari Books Online and as co-chairing of the W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group. Among the questions that Liza is asking, one echoes to Marcin’s concern : “How can we preserve the beauty and order of professional typography in web-based books ?” As she says, the web is not entirely ready for books, and a lot of work has to be done to fix this.

Don’t you think it is more crucial to make the web ready for books, than to make books ready for the web ? To make the web ready for books will improve it. To try to make books perfectly ready for the web will make them run the risk of losing what makes them books. The real challenge is to keep the best of both worlds, not to merge them. And if new forms are invented, new kind of ways of sharing thoughts — and it’s already the case : that’s perfect.

This back-to-my-blog post is dedicated to Xavier Cazin : at the opening event of the Salon du Livre in Paris last week, we had one of these conversations about books, web and browsers that we love to have, forgetting to drink Champagne for one hour (but caught up after). And we concluded it saying : we have to begin new conversations on line, do discuss all these topics together again… At that moment, I decided to find a way to restart blogging.

This text has been posted simultaneously on Medium, here.

8 réflexions au sujet de « Medium, message, and beauty of web-based books »

  1. Xavier Cazin

    Hey Virginie, I am so glad that our conversation last week had triggered this post ! It triggers back so many thoughts that I don’t know which thread to pull :-)

    As we both know, what we call a book is simply the encounter of text and commerce, that is a mean to access text that is easy produce, easy to stock, easy to sell, and comfortable to use.

    My feeling is that if we want to find a digital equivalent of the paper book, we should apply the same criteria.

    Ebooks are less easy to sell than paper books, and far from being comfortable to use, at least by our Web standards : not all devices can render them, they have poor layouts and poor font choice and rendering ; mixing with other medias is difficult ; there are almost no links between each other, let alone links to social network activity ; no interoperable ways to annotate, nor version tracking, etc.

    Given that all this already exists on the Web, a place where 3 billions people navigate easily, wouldn’t it be more efficient to make books Web products rather than trying to improve ePub ?

    I’m afraid than the only reason for ePub and sub-ePub (aka Mobipocket) is that they are easier to control for Apple, Amazon or Kobo. As a distributor, I provide retailers with links to files. I could as easily provide them with urls to websites.

  2. TheSFReader

    «  I’m afraid than the only reason for ePub and sub-ePub (aka Mobipocket) is that they are easier to control for Apple, Amazon or Kobo. As a distributor, I provide retailers with links to files. I could as easily provide them with urls to websites.  »

    Unfortunaltely, giving access to websites would LOOSE one particular point in which (sub)epub shines with regard to the web : version control. With (sub)epub, an ebook is self-contained, and even if the version is not necessarily identifiable, it is at least fixed.

    Granted, external links could be used, or annotations added, but I think they need to be kept outside of a «  core  » which consists on what is for the moment contained in epub books (plus strict version control), with perhaps an additional modifiable (standardized) metadata layer too.

    With (sub)epub, you get some «  atomic  » property, which makes the book an independant piece of work. By going all webby, you’d loose that.

    (end of rant)

  3. TheSFReader

    No, but not ALL of the web is versionned like the example you give is… In fact, Wikipedia is one of the few places where some kind of version control is made/available.

  4. René Audet

    Quite stunned to see that the versioning functionality is the main aspect discussed here – do we really bother with the actual edition of Balzac’s Père Goriot ? I know that it is a major dimension of digital works (as they often are works in progress), but not for the «  general  » part of literature. My 2¢…

    Another drawback is the absolute impossibility to elabore our own personal library with our books/files. Everyone who reads on tablets/phone/computer has experimented the problem of finding where is that #$%@# file : in this app ou another one ? on what device ? Since we must find back where is the book/file, it is a major problem. Could we use a relative system as DOIs to build a list of our books, to be driven to them without having to remember where they are located ?

    (And : for who are we, French-speaking people, writing in English ? ;))

  5. Xavier Cazin

    Okay. I was not talking about any website, but websites maintained (or at least controlled) by publishers and authors. My Wikipedia example was meant to show that maintaining several concurrent versions is possible on the Web, and, I should add, rather common.

  6. TheSFReader

    Xavier «  websites maintained (or at least controlled) by publishers and authors  » … And hence the definitive slide to selling a licence and not a book… With all the «  conservation  » problems that come from it. #MO3T here you are !

    René as we say in France : In Rome, l do like the romans. It’s the hostess that gets to decide the language used on her blog, right ? (But would happily switch to French ^^)

  7. René Audet

    Désolé d’avoir joué le rôle du ronchonneux :) Suis parfaitement d’accord qu’il faut parfois ouvrir à des lectorats non francophones. Et qu’il faut se donner des défis !

    Je crois qu’il est de plus en plus capital d’admettre cette réalité du terrain :

    Savoir si cet ensemble pourrait fonctionner en substituant complètement des URLs aux fichiers epub et sub-epub ? Je ne suis pas très sûre que la réponse à cette question soit identique pour tous les segments éditoriaux. L’édition STM ou SHS se développe largement en ligne. Pour la littérature générale, c’est le monde epub et dérivés qui a porté pour le moment son développement numérique.

    On a longtemps voulu confondre, dans un quasi aveuglement, tous les segments de l’édition, alors que les pratiques sont souvent bien différentes entre l’édition scolaire, culinaire et littéraire – dans la production, dans la distribution et dans la commercialisation. Certains paramètres sont communs, mais les différences tendent à s’imposer de plus en plus. Dans ce contexte, comment gérer l’extension étourdissante du mot « livre  » ?

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