Browser-Based Ebook Publishing: How Come and How-To

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

In the past few years we’ve seen the sales figures of tablets and phones begin to eclipse those of the e-ink e-reader, and in many developing countries access to mobile phones is often a reader’s best or only access to a digital device.

Many publishers and retailers have responded by creating apps for each platform, each requiring a dedicated team of developers to create and maintain. But there’s another option: the web browser.

Unlike operating system-specific apps that require discovering and downloading said app, the web is available to readers on just about every digital device—all they need is a URL. And every tablet, phone and desktop comes equipped with a web browser—almost all of which are more powerful than even the most sophisticated e-reader.

And we can’t talk about books in 2014 without mentioning the Amazon-Hachette standoff. Eyeing the distribution  landscape, many publishers are working harder and faster than ever before to develop direct-to-consumer sales channels for their ebooks. But those efforts remain missed opportunities if they don’t coincide with serious attention to web-based e-reading.

Publishing, no less than selling, books on the web puts a little more power back into the hands of publishers; your readers are your readers when they read a book on your site. Many publishers already agree that investing the time and energy now into creating their own digital bookstores on the web can have potentially large long-term payoffs, but the fact that that’s as much a publishing challenge as a retail one can sometimes recede into the background of the conversation.

So Why the Web?

If your job is to manage the creation of ebook files, you might be asking why you should spend the extra time producing a web-based version of your ebook when there are already so many other outputs you need to consider. It’s a fair question, and one that should be weighed in terms of both its benefits and its risks.

Some benefits of putting your book on the web:

  • Ubiquitous access
  • SEO optimization
  • Better design control
  • Analytics and user acquisition

There are also some major hurdles that publishers will need to overcome to make the web a great place for attracting readers. These include but are not limited to:

  • UX/UI considerations
  • Technical considerations (offline use, bookmarking, etc.)
  • Setting up an e-commerce system
  • Attracting a reading audience

None of these challenges, though, are insurmountable. And many publishers have already put systems in place that can be developed further in order to meet them.

The Process: How to Move Your Ebooks to the Web

The next obvious question in producing books for the web: “Just how do I do it?” The easiest—as well as the most problematic—method would simply be to unzip an EPUB file and host those files on a web server. There are a number of reasons why that might not be the best option, either for publishers or for readers.

A few things that we’ll struggle with if we just put EPUB files on the web include:

  • Design issues (no margins!)
  • How to navigate between chapters
  • The “Library”
  • To CMS or not to CMS?

Instead, ebooks can take a number of cues from the trajectories that blogs and websites have taken. So rather than manually posting your ebook files to a server, publishers and readers will in most cases both be better served by ebook content managed in a content management system (CMS). Systems like PressBooks, O’Reilly’s new TK, Creatavist and others allow ebook publishers and developers to manage content in one place and generate multiple outputs from that content.

To learn more about the strategic upsides to browser-based ebook publishing and a close look at the technical skills required to do it, join me at 12pm EST on Tuesday, October 28 for a Digital Book World webcast, “Building Ebooks for Web Browsers—Tools for Developers, Strategies for Publishers.”

Click here for more information and here to register.

Digital Production & Technology, Expert Publishing Blog
Derrick Schultz

About Derrick Schultz

Derrick Schultz is a designer and developer working at the many edges of digital books. He is the Digital Design and Production Manager at Atavist Books, a new publisher that creates digital and print books—many of them created specifically for digital media. Alongside Atavist Books he contributes to Creatavist, the publicly available digital toolset used to create award-winning publishing for The Atavist and Atavist Books. Previously he was VP of Design at Open Air Publishing, an early digital-first nonfiction publisher creating books for the iOS platform. Derrick’s work has won awards from Apple, AIGA, and Print magazine.

5 thoughts on “Browser-Based Ebook Publishing: How Come and How-To

  1. Nick Marsden

    I don’t think this will be any better than ereaders. Web Browsers have just as many differences between them as ereaders do. You’d have to build a different book for Safari, IE, Firfox and Chrome to get it looking exactly the way you want it. Not every browser supports all the HTML tags out there, especially the more advanced HTML5 tags. It will be the same mess we have now with the readers. Also, every retailer and dev out there has a ereader app that works on any computer, windows or mac. There is no point opening your browser, going to a website, signing in, etc. when all you have to do is click on an app and you are looking at your entire library in an instant, or even looking right at the last page you were on when you left.

    Web browsers are just too clunky to be successful ereaders.

  2. Linton Robinson

    Kind of funny to me, in some ways because I have said from the get-go that proprietary readers are not the long-term thing. And I have been dabbling in html-based and web-based serials, poetry, and fiction for many years. Web Fiction Guide lists over a thousand projects of serials online, Authonomy, a bunch more. BIG reading audience, some monetized.
    I’m a big fan of pdf books (which kind of eliminate Nick’s problems with epub, etc), myself, but have also created books that come in .zip and .exe formats.
    I don’t see many of the “hurdles” in the article being much of a problem, actually. Certainly not the browser support issue. I think one problem here is that people who are invested in ebooks for Nooks and Kindles have acquired a mindset that doesn’t really apply to files that can be read in browsers (or Adobe reader). There is a large community of writers who have been doing this all along, mostly unknown to the mainstream of publishing and promoting electronic books. You can do a LOT with pdf… take a look at this ebook freebie

  3. Julanna

    I usually format fiction and poetry. I hadn’t considered making sure there was a html copy as well, silly of me. I usually stick to very simple formatting so they tend to display good enough across devices and formats and I don’t try to make the book display exactly the way I (or the author) want it to display, choosing instead to respect the reader having choice. Being fiction the way it displays is less of an issue. Mostly it’s the words that matter. I’m going to go back over the ones I’ve done and create html versions as well but the same will apply: fiction, simple formatting, let the reader have a choice, test in different browsers. Doing this means I won’t need to create separate copies for different browsers. I’ll also be making them downloadable / available for offline reading so signing into a website won’t be an issue. Complicated non-fiction with inclusions would be a different matter, and I don’t have experience with those, but I suspect the same applies. Stop trying so hard, KISS principle, allow the readers choice, test.



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