Thursday, November 27, 2008

EPub State of the Practice, Part 1: Links

[Here "EPub" refers to electronic publishing in general, not specifically to the epub format for electronic documents. At the time I wrote this blog entry, I was not aware that "epub" already had a meaning for many people in the world of, well, EPub.]

I've spent a fair amount of time recently playing around with various electronic versions (primarily PDF) of technical books in an attempt to get a handle on the special "beyond print" features that are offered. In addition to the PDF versions of my books, I looked at the following books (listed in no particular order):
All of these are in PDF format except for C++ in Action, which is published on the web.

There was nothing scientific about this selection. Some books are available for free, some I had purchased for my own use, and some were given to me by the publisher for one reason or another. I choose to assume they are representative of what is available, though that may not be true. Publication years range from 2001-2008, with newer titles generally offering more features. If you know of other books I should take a look at, please let me know.

My primary interest in looking at these books was to get a sense for the "reader experience," with a focus on (1) things I need to keep in mind as an author in order to be able to offer the feature and (2) "obvious" features that were missing, i.e., things I want to be sure to avoid. An example of (1) would be initial definitions of terms that link to glossary entries (much easier to create when writing the book than to go back and add later). An example of (2) would be URLs in the book that aren't live links.

I generally refer to "obvious" features -- the things readers should be able to expect -- as the "Well, duh" features. At the top of the list is that "linky" things should be live links. That includes TOC and index entries, cross-references within a book, and URLs and email addresses. Readers should be able to take for granted that they can click on all these things and be magically whisked to the right place. As a general rule, most books make most of these things links, but I was surprised that only my books make the "see" and "see also" entries in the index live. Color me picky, but I can't understand why, if I see this in the index,
  transaction, see atomic transaction
I should have to manually slog my way back to the beginning of the index to find the entry for "atomic transaction". Hello, computer! You know what entry I want to look at. Freakin' take me there! (Having gone through the process of making these links live in books never written for electronic publication, I can tell you that it was a lot of work, but failing to support the "Well, duh" epub features would be embarrassing, and I hate being embarrassed.)

I was also surprised to find that only my books make email addresses live. I don't get it. What's the point of putting an email address in a book but not making it clickable to send to it?

As a general rule, page numbers in the indices were live, but they were treated in different ways. If, in the index, you see that "transaction" is discussed on page 44 and you click on the 44, where do you expect to be taken? Some books take you to the top of page 44. Some books take you to the beginning of the content of page 44, meaning that the running header on the page has just scrolled off the top of the window. Still others take you to the precise point on page 44 where you discuss "transaction." (To be more precise, they take you to the point on the page where the metadata causing the index entry to be generated is located.) From personal experience I can tell you that where you go when you click on a page number in an index can be determined by the author, the indexer, the software used to write the book, the PDF generation process, or some combination of these. What I don't know is what the "proper" behavior is. Jumping to the point on the page where the metadata is located sounds like it's the most accurate, but making sense of the text you find there generally requires backing up to at least the beginning of the paragraph to pick up the context of the use. Physical books have this problem, too: if the index refers you to page n, but the discussion on page n is at the top of the page, you often have to start reading on page n-1 in order to make sense of what you read. If you have ideas on how links from index page numbers should behave, please let me know.

I checked only four of the books (beyond mine) to see how footnotes were handled, in part because it's generally not that easy to find footnotes (especially if the book doesn't have any). Of the four, only one made the footnote number a live link, and none had a back link from the footnote text to the point of reference. (My books don't make footnotes live in either direction.) For books with static page breaks (such as PDF) non-live footnotes may be defensible, but where page breaks are dynamically determined and pages may be long (e.g., web pages), links in both directions (a la Wikipedia) seems like a more useful approach. I'm inclined to think that bidirectional footnote links should be provided. After all, if they're not intrusive, readers who don't want to use them can just ignore them. If the links are missing, of course, and a reader wants them, that reader is out of luck, and I have a strong disinclination to render my readers unlucky.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what this blog entry has to do with the epub publishing format. Maybe it should have been titled PDF State of the Practice?

Scott Meyers said...

At the time I wrote these blog entries, I was unaware that there was ambiguity in my use of the term "EPub," which, at least among the people I generally run with, refers to electronic publishing in general (as opposed to the a specific document format). I've since amended the three blog entries in the series to clarify my use of the term.