Designing for E-PUB

coverMedical textbooks are notorious for being large and expensive, and many if not most require annual updates. Many professors use their own, self-published course text in lieu of a primary textbook,giving them complete control over the book’s contents, and potentially saving students money. This fall, the University of Washington School of Medicine decided to make a trial run at converting a course textbook into an e-book format, so students would have the option of reading and annotating their course materials using their iPads, Android devices or other e-readers.

The medical school hired me to manage the conversion of a sample text, create style guidelines, and train departmental staff to do most of the manuscript preparation themselves for future e-book conversions.

While different e-reader platforms still have separate, proprietary formats, the collaboratively-maintained EPUB format is widely considered the best cross-platform standard. EPUB formatting can be styled using conventional CSS and XML, and can be authored and tested using free, open source software tools.

For the UW medical school, one of the most attractive aspects of converting textbooks into e-books was the prospect of being able to embed videos. While video embeds are still not an official feature of the EPUB standard, embedded clips are an increasingly common feature of e-books on certain platforms. I developed a way to incorporate videos which uses new features of HTML 5, allowing the smartest e-reader devices (iPads and Android devices) to view videos in the book, while providing external links for other readers.

Other challenges included replicating the course text’s complicated taxonomy within the stylistic confines of e-readers’ variable-width and variable-font size screens.