I’ve been using an ebook reader for the last year and a bit. And, to be honest, it’s pretty rare for me to pick up a dead-trees book. In fact, I joke that when I do read a physical book I get confused trying to find the power button and the buttons to turn pages.
Since getting that reader, and even before that, I occasionally pondered how portable reading could impact technical communication. I haven’t really been able to come to a conclusion.
Scott Abel reginited my interest in that question. A few weeks ago, Scott pointed me to this article on using ebooks for business-to-business documents. Reading that article, I thought If they can be used for B2B, why not documentation?
Admittedly, this idea isn’t new or even original. O’Reilly Media has been offering many of its books in PDF, MobiPocket, and epub formats. The folks at FLOSS Manuals have been experimenting with epub output.
And while I’m still somewhat ambivalent, my attitude has been slowly changing the more I think about this.
Is this even a concern?
The signs are there of a shift to mobile reading. Not just with dedicated ebook readers, either, but with devices like netbooks, tablets, the iPhone and the iPod Touch. And I’ve been known to read PDFs on my Blackberry using RepliGo Reader.
As someone who rides transit daily, I see more and more people reading on those kinds of devices. Not multitudes, but more than I did a year (or even four months ago). The change is gradual, and will undoubtedly be picking up the pace.
Where we stand
I did a little (and I do mean little), superficial research and couldn’t find any software firms that are putting out ebook versions of their documentation.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are publishers and projects that are delivering technical content in ebook formats. Obviously, there’s some demand or, at the very least interest, in delivering technical documentation that can be easily read on mobile devices.
Ebooks and documentation
I’m still not 100% sure what types of documentation are best suited for delivery as ebooks. Here are some ideas:
- How tos and tips & tricks
- Field manuals
- Technical marketing documents and white papers
What about administration and operational documentation? Or programmer’s references and API guides? I’m on the fence about those at the moment. To be honest, I’m not sure what demand exists for them in ebook format as compared to the types of documentation that I listed above. Of course, there could be considerable demand and there’s no saying that the demand won’t grow.
This is personal preference, but I really don’t like ebooks that are delivered as PDFs. I’ve yet to run into a PDF that displays well on my ebook reader, and which doesn’t create orphaned pages when I increase the size of the text. Mobipocket and epub do a far better job of that, but they don’t support images or complex formatting very well.
The latter isn’t all that important; how much formatting do you really need in a technical document? But images can be an important part of a document. I’m not just talking about screen captures, but also diagrams and flowcharts.
And you obviously need to think about how you’re going to get documentation from a set of source file to an ebook format. XML is the obvious choice for the source format. You get a separation of style and content, and also the ability to mix and match content. I liken it to building with LEGO. You’re not just stuck with one type of block and only one colour. You can combine blocks of different sizes and shapes into interesting combinations.
I haven’t taken a detailed survey of all the tools on the market, but I don’t think that many (if any) support output to an ebook format. If you have any information about this, please share it by leaving a comment.
Remember what I wrote about proper flow of pages? Well, that is definitely an important factor. Remember that people won’t be reading ebooks only on dedicated ebook readers. They’ll also be using their PCs, notebooks, netbooks, smartphones, and even devices like the iPod Touch.
You’ll be dealing with differing screen sizes, differing resolutions, and differing font sizes. You don’t want to run into the problem that I’ve had with PDFs creating orphaned pages. You want ebooks to look the same (or as close to it) regardless of the device on which they’re being read.
Content: the most important piece of the puzzle
Content is king, no matter what people tell you. You need to ask whether or not your content is right for converting or remixing into an ebook. I don’t want to bother with a tedious novel or academic tract. And I definitely don’t want to read documentation (or anything else) that leaves me wondering why I’m wasting brain and eye power on it.
The content of a documentation ebook, like any other work, needs to be clear, consistent, and concise. It should be sort and to the point. Just as readers don’t want to flip through page after page of printed documentation, they won’t want to scroll through screen after screen of electronic documentation.
The documentation also needs context, and that context will depend on the reader. The human touch is essential. No amount of tagging or transformations into multiple formats can convert bad or bland content into something worth reading.
Ebooks are definitely a delivery format the we can’t afford to ignore. And not just technical writers, either. Writers of all stripes will soon have to consider whether or not to publish their work electronically.
The biggest hurdle, though, is that the format used will need to provide a consistent experience across all of the devices a reader — from desktop PC to laptop, from netbook to tablet, from dedicated ebook reader to smartphone. Once that happens, I can see a more and more documentation — from entire doc sets to custom manuals — being delivered in ebook formats.
Thoughts? As always, comments are welcome.