Saturday, November 29, 2008

EPub State of the Practice, Part 3: Special Features

[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.]

Fundamentally, live links and reasonable applications of color -- the topics of my last two posts -- are both "Well, duh" features in electronic publication. Along with full-text searching, the ability to print excerpts and copy text, and, for PDF documents, the ability to add comments and define new bookmarks, they should surprise readers only if they are absent. That they are missing from many of the books I examined is a commentary on how badly the publishing industry trails what readers have a right to expect from ebooks.

However, I found a few features in a few books that take advantage of the capabilities of epublication in interesting ways -- features that go beyond the "Well, duh" threshhold.

The first of these is one-click access to code examples. In an earlier post, I remarked that CodeProject articles allow code to be copied to the Windows clipboard in a single click (for IE users; the option is unavailable for FF users, sigh). This is one way to give readers access to code, but it's not the only way. C++ in Action offers single-click downloads of zip files that contain one or more source files, and several titles from The Pragmatic Programmers (e.g., Programming Erlang and Google Maps API V2) open web browser windows on code examples when the correspoinding download links are clicked. These are steps in the right direction, but I think what readers would really like would be single-click access to ready-to-run code examples in their preferred development environment. Selecting a code example in an ebook might, for example, open Eclipse or Visual Studio or, for throwbacks like me, Emacs (or, God forbid, vi) on the code. The "ready-to-run" proviso means that if the code requires auxillary code or other scaffolding before it's ready to execute, that code or scaffolding would automatically be provided. (For my C++ books, virtually every code example would require such scaffolding, because I almost always show code fragments that won't compile by themselves.)

An interesting feature offered by Programming in Scala is that clicking on the introduction of a term (indicated to readers both by the traditional italicization of the term as well as the application of link color to the term) whisks the reader to the definition of that term in the glossary. I think a better approach would be a pop-up window containing the definition (such as I've seen in some Windows applications), but the notion that readers of ebooks shouldn't have to waste time looking up term definitions strikes me as a good one.

Programming in Scala also has a set of navigation links at the bottom of each page, making it easy to get to the beginning of the book, a course-grained TOC, a fine-grained TOC, the glossary, and the index. This is similar to the navigation links typically found on web pages, but I didn't see a similar feature on any of the other PDFs I looked at. I might quibble with the choice of including a link to the cover of the book, because my PDF viewer (Acrobat) already gives me such a link for all PDF files, but, well, there's a reason I say it'd be a quibble.

Programming in Scala includes two other links at the bottom of each page, one of which is also essentially present in the newer titles I saw from The Pragmatic Programmers: a one-click mechanism for offering page-specific feedback. Clicking on "Suggest" (for Programming in Scala ) or "Report erratum" (for the PragProg titles) opens a web form prefilled with book information (title and version) and the page number on which you're offering feedback. Nifty! The PragProg form even lists the errata that have already been reported for that page, a feature that cuts both ways: it can save readers the trouble of reporting a problem that's already known, but it also performs a subtle shift of the burden of filtering out duplicate reports from the author/publisher to the readers. (The author(s) and publisher have to do the filtering, anyway, because there's no guarantee that readers will read the list of known errata before filing a report, but with the way the web form is currently formatted -- known errata above the fields for filing a new report -- I'm reminded of how I feel when I call tech support and have to wait on hold and be chided by a disembodied voice that I should check their online FAQ and knowledge base before trying to actually talk to them.) It's possible that Programming in Scala behaves the same way, but I don't know. I never saw that behavior, but maybe I just didn't try it on a page with known errata.

I will say that I prefer the more generic "Suggest" link from Programming in Scala to the PragProg "Report erratum" link. I've been getting feedback from my readers since 1992, and while most comments come in the form of bug reports, not all do. Making it easy for readers to offer page-specific feedback seems like a great idea, but I don't think it should be limited to errata reports.

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