Monday, May 23, 2011

Update to Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide

Thanks to all who have bought my Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide. The response has been overwhelming and I am really honored. I hope you're finding it useful.

Over the weekend, thanks to feedback from Barnes & Noble, I figured out how to get audio to work in both the iPad *and* NOOK Color, without having to resort to mp3 files: you create an m4a audio file and make sure to declare it in the OPF file as audio/m4a.

You might ask why I worry about NOOK Color at all if independent and self-publishers are not yet allowed to sell enhanced ebooks through Barnes & Noble's PubIt program. The answer is that I believe that it's important for your ebooks to work in as many platforms as possible. If there's a code that works in more than one place, that's the code we EPUB developers should be using. B&N doesn't accept enhanced ebooks now, but they may well do so in the future. And your books will be ready. In addition, you can always sell your enhanced ebooks on your own website, and you will want them to be usable in as many ereaders as possible. Finally, using universal code never hurts, it only helps.

I have updated the Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide to reflect this change, as well as some minor edits--including the erroneous holdover paragraph in the introduction that said I was offering the miniguide for free to current owners of my EPUB Straight to the Point book. The truth is that I dithered about how to offer this Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide right up to the last moment, although in the end, I decided not to give it away, but to sell it for $5. Sorry for the confusion.

I have sent download instructions for the updated version of the miniguide to all those who bought it already. If you don't get them, feel free to drop me a line and I'll send it to you again. I have also updated the file that is available from my store, so that if you buy the guide now or in the future, you'll automatically get the new version. It's labeled May 23, just in case you want to confirm.

As always, let me know if you have any doubts or questions.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tall Screen Video on iPad, iPhone, and NOOK Color

One of my greatest challenges as a technology writer is to keep my eyes wide open and continue to be able to see things the way they are and not how I think they are. Technology is changing so quickly that you just can't make assumptions about the way things work.

The other day, my mom, a photographer, was visiting us here in Barcelona. She had just gotten a new iPhone 4 (so jealous!) and was really jazzed about taking videos, and how different it felt to capture not only an image, but also the sound and movement.

When she emailed me one of her videos, I gently suggested, as upstart daughters are wont to do, that she should take her videos horizontally, because otherwise, they would be difficult to watch on a computer. That had always been my experience: photographers naturally rotate their cameras to capture vertically-oriented subjects (say, Gaudí's Sagrada Família or the Clock Tower in my square), but if you do that with a video camera, the video comes out sideways on your computer. Then you have to figure out how to rotate the video, and often that results in ugly black bars and a tiny reduced video within.

But my mom said her videos looked just fine on her phone, which is mostly where she looked at them. And indeed, in my email, it looked pretty great too. And that's when I realized that horizontal video is a construct born of horizontal video displays--namely televisions and movie screens--that are wider than they are tall. Screens probably began in horizontal mode because they are ideal for viewing stories, say, two people talking to each other, since there's enough room horizontally for both to fit on the screen.

And since all of our screens were horizontal, it made sense to make horizontal video to fit. We've now complicated matters by having various shapes of horizontal video—widescreen (16:9) and 4:3 proportions—but in general, the video we've created has been wider than it has been tall, so that it would fit without minimal distortion on a screen that was also wider than it was tall.

Enter the iPad and the iPhone. While they can do widescreen and 4:3 horizontal movies just fine, they can also be rotated vertically to display vertical video without distortion as well. All of a sudden there are millions of vertically oriented screens available for watching vertically oriented, or tall screen video. And of course, any tablet can be rotated to a vertical orientation. The NOOK Color also plays vertical video beautifully.

The iPhone offers one more important push towards tall screen video: it makes it really easy to create them. I watched interestedly as my parents took video after video in tall screen format—perhaps because we're in a big city with lots of tall things?—I am sure they're not the only ones. And now that there's a logical place to view them, there will be many more.

My parents were here just as I was trying to finish up my new Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide. My first thought when I realized that tall screen video made sense was whether it would work in ebooks. And it does. Beautifully. Both in iBooks on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, and on the NOOK Color from Barnes & Noble. I assume it will work in other tablets with ereaders as well (Samsung Galaxy?), but I haven't had a chance to test it elsewhere. You have to adjust the size of the video player so that it doesn't come out squished in a 300 x 150 box with big black bars, but once you overcome that piece, it works really well. Capturing and formatting tall screen video also has some tricky bits, since all video editing tools to date expect that you're creating horizontal video. I explain all the details in my new miniguide. (Of course, I explain how to add regular horizontal video, as well as audio, in the guide as well.)

As I found out when preparing this blog post, it's not easy to post tall screen video on the web. You can upload a tall screen video to YouTube, and you can play it there, but if you try to see it full screen, which is sort of the point on the iPad, it displays as if it were in a horizontal box. I tried changing the size of the player, and that worked in Safari on the Desktop, but not on the iPad.

Of course, you can always post a video on your own server, but that has complications of its own. Video files are huge, and you can run into problems if a lot of people view your video. Second, you have to know some HTML.

The answer is Vimeo. You can upload tall screen video there AND it plays fine on iPad/iPhone, both at normal size and full screen. I wish I were a better videographer, but hopefully you can still see the potential. I did have a great time walking around Barcelona yesterday morning looking for tall things to film. You can view it on any screen, but of course, it looks best on an iPad or iPhone, held vertically.

Barcelona Tall Screen Video from Liz Castro on Vimeo.

I think tall screen video is as big a revolution as adding sound was back in 1927. All of a sudden, videographers have a totally new medium. It should be really interesting to see what people create, and how they take advantage of the vertical orientation. I hope my Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide gives people a good start.

Thanks, Mom.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Amazon will fully support EPUB (I think)

I've believed for a long time that Amazon couldn't possibly stick with what is clearly an inferior format (Mobi). Mobi vs EPUB is like Mosaic vs Firefox 4. There is simply no comparison.

And lately there have been more and more clues that something is shifting.

A few weeks ago, Overdrive said that they would be supporting Kindles and most importantly, that libraries wouldn't have to buy new files. Indeed, their "existing collection of downloadable eBooks will be available to Kindle customers" and "work for existing copies and units".

Most everyone pooh-poohed the EPUB angle and said that it didn't mean that Amazon would support EPUB. In particular, they said that Amazon wouldn't want to leave behind its legacy readers... the Kindle 1 and 2, and all of the customers who already use those readers. Instead, they said Kindle would simply convert the EPUB files on the fly to Mobi, and then display the Mobi formatted ebooks. They said that Amazon has been accepting EPUB files from publishers for years and converting them.

Then yesterday (was it only yesterday?), there was a post on what I fear now is a pretty questionable blog, that claims that “soon the Kindle ereader will have the full capability to read ePub books”. Much of the wording in the article was almost intentionally ambiguous, and didn't necessarily rule out Amazon continuing to convert EPUB files to Mobi. But the post still generated enormous interest and discussion.

And then today, I found a comment to one of the discussions about whether or not Amazon would truly support EPUB (without conversion to MOBI) that mentioned that the Kindle Previewer has been able to open EPUB files since September.

I downloaded Kindle Previewer (again) and opened up my new Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide. (Sorry, had to get that in there :). Kindle Previewer converted my EPUB file to Mobi in a few seconds. It didn't look amazing, but it was readable. And the videos played:

Kindle for iPad Previewer

Now why would Amazon want its Kindle Previewer to be able to read EPUB files, albeit in a simplified way? It's because of the legacy readers. If a Kindle can convert EPUB to Mobi on the fly, that means all of those older Kindles are still viable (if barely). And all of those customers are still happy.

More importantly, it means that new Kindles can embrace EPUB whole-heartedly. Perhaps on a new color tablet. (With Mobi? I don't think so.) With audio and video. With all the interactivity that seems imminent with EPUB3.

Again, let's look at what happened on the web. Browser developers wanted to upgrade their offerings without leaving legacy websites behind. They figured out ways of reading those old sites while embracing all the new features available in succeeding versions of both HTML and CSS. Some of those systems were more successful than others, but not a single one said, "No, we can only support HTML 3.2 because that's what our users' websites were written in."

Publishers want the control over what their books are going to look like. They don't want to depend on KindleGen. And they want the features, call them bells and whistles if you must, available in EPUB.

I believe that Amazon's strategy is to convert EPUB to Mobi for legacy Kindles and support real EPUB in the next Kindle. I could be wrong, but I don't think I am.

P.S. Do I have a horse in the race? Sure. I wrote a book about EPUB. But I wrote the book because I think EPUB is awesome. I love that people can publish their own beautiful ebooks with audio and video with little more than HTML and CSS. I love it that you can tinker with the code. I love that EPUB is growing and changing and adapting. Sure, I want Amazon to support EPUB, but I also think it's the logical thing to do.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Audio and Video in EPUB - New Straight to the Point Miniguide #2

One of the most obvious and impressive advantages that electronic books have over their print counterparts is the ability to contain moving images and sound. While at first the EPUB spec didn't contemplate multimedia much at all, Apple's decision to use the new HTML5 video and audio elements in order to incorporate multimedia in ebooks clearly pushed the EPUB spec in that direction. Barnes & Noble now also supports these same tags for creating enhanced ebooks in its NOOK Color.

coverAVshadowMy new 29 page Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide explains just how to create enhanced ebooks with video and audio files, and includes information about how to choose and set the aspect ratio, format, and size, and then how to embed these multimedia files into EPUB format ebooks that look beautiful and play properly in iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and also in Barnes & Noble's new NOOK Color.

With the information and techniques you'll learn in my Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide, you'll be able to create enhanced ebooks that satisfy Apple's requirements for the iBookstore, and if Barnes & Noble ever accepts enhanced ebooks from independent and self-publishers, which it doesn't yet, but it may someday, your code will pass muster there as well. Of course, you can also sell ebooks directly from your own website (as I do), and thanks to this guide, they'll look good in whatever ereader your audience has.

One of the cool things about tablets like the iPad and NOOK Color is that they make sense for viewing so-called tall screen video, which is taller than it is wide. Tall screen video is great for showing things that are, well, tall. Imagine a video of the Empire State Building or Gaudí's Sagrada Família. Part of this Audio Video miniguide explains how you can create and insert tall screen video in ebooks that again, work in both iOS devices and the NOOK Color.

The Audio and Video in EPUB miniguide costs $5, and includes the 29 page miniguide in EPUB and PDF formats plus several example EPUB files. You can unzip any of the files to look at the code they contain. It is only available directly from me. I hope you enjoy it. One of the things that I love about EPUB is that it enables us all to publish books with very little infrastructure or up-front investment. I think it's about time we were able to create enhanced ebooks as well.

I thought a long time about whether to offer this miniguide for free like I did the Fixed Layout Miniguide in the hopes of encouraging people to buy my EPUB Straight to the Point book. In the end, however, I've decided that this miniguide is worth every penny and more of the $5 I'm asking for it. I hope you'll agree.

As always your comments are more than welcome.

Hyphenation in NOOK Color

What I really wanted to be writing about today was my new miniguide about, uh, well I'll tell you soon, which is all ready to go, but unfortunately not yet available on my shopping cart site. As soon as it is, I'll announce it here. (It's pretty cool :)

Meanwhile, I've been working a lot with the NOOK Color and noticed that it was mangling my headlines, putting hyphens in even though I don't want them, and even cutting off the end of words sometimes. This despite using the standard CSS hyphen controls that I explained in this article here in February.

Hyphens in NOOK Hyphens on NOOK Color

The standard CSS for controlling hyphens is not currently supported by NOOK Color, but thankfully, there was a guy from B&N on Mobile Read who offered a solution. Non-standard CSS, but a solution nonetheless. He says you can add:

adobe-text-layout: optimizeSpeed;

in order to force NOOK Color to use an older RMSDK which has a text engine which doesn't do hyphenation.

I added it to the rules for the headers in my book and it worked like a charm:

No Hyphen in NOOK No Hyphens on NOOK Color

And it doesn't seem to have a deleterious affect in iBooks (or indeed, any effect at all):
Hyphens in iBooks

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