The Familiar Is Best?

For the moment the best way to produce a multi-media presentation of your poetry might be something very familiar: the downloadable album.

There is and may never be a truly universal format. At present all the available multi-media digital publishing options are severely limited as to where they can be fully operational and how many hoops you have to jump through as a producer to make them worth your while (to me the Digital Publishing Suite, available with InDesign, looks like a nightmare).

Downloading albums has not been part of my entertainment repertoire. I don’t like them and find that they’re generally overpriced. But some online friends have been putting their recordings up for sale on sites such as iTunes and Bandcamp. Of course it triggered my curiosity and imagination. What really caught my interest is how many file formats Bandcamp has been allowing in the category of “bonus features”: text files, PDFs, videos, JPEGs. I forget what else.

Also, it was really easy to put an album on Bandcamp. Even an old guy like me can do it. The cool thing is that you can keep it as a draft until you’ve worked out the kinks and bugs and have tracked down all your typos and whatever other brain farts you’ve added to the page while you thought you were awake. (I also want to point out that the search engine on Bandcamp is superior to that on iTunes. Just go to the respective sites and try to find Dave Migman, on Bandcamp, and David McCooey, on iTunes. The only way I can find McCooey’s Outside Broadcast is to do a Google search and then link to iTunes. Maybe by the time you’ve read this Apple will have corrected things.)

In an earlier experiment, Essay, I tried giving you the example of an interactive PDF, which could contain audio and video files, plus internal and external linking. Unfortunately, Adobe still creates a Flash player for the audio and video, which severely restricts the utility of the book. It will be read only, like any other printable PDF, in Apple products and most mobile devices.

Uploading an album to Bandcamp (the album can be as long or short as needed, but if you’re doing an extended epic I suggest breaking it into sections since they do have a limit to the length of track upload, currently about 25 minutes long) allows you the luxury of higher resolution audio (compared to what you’d normally use for an interactive book). The PDF bonus book can be printed and bound, if you’re that old fashioned, or a rich experience on an electronic device (for instance navigation by thumbnails or by a linked table of contents, plus hyperlinks for users connected to the web). You can also add album artwork and posters. You can include videos. Basically, you can give your audience a lot to play with and enjoy for not much fuss. (Well, this depends on how difficult it is for you to create these things, how much time you have, and how obsessively perfectionist you are.)

I like the idea of giving the audience the richest possible experience. It doesn’t cost you any extra to upload more goodies.

My demonstration is a revival of a book I made in early 2001, when I was at the beginning of my computer experiences and in the process of archiving all my drawings, poems, and recordings: Six Sonnets and Some Wild Words Resurrected from the Last Century plus a Line without a Home. Originally I printed maybe five copies on an imitation vellum and hand bound them. This year I recreated the book in Adobe’s InDesign and exported it as a printable PDF, leaving in the hyperlinks of the table of contents (the nice thing about PDFs is that they are ubiquitous, there are free downloadable PDF viewers, most word processor and publishing (and photo?) programs will export PDF, so you could make rudimentary documents for free).

Though the site engages you to choose your own price I encourage you to download the album for free. Just type a zero (or zed) into that little box and you can go straight to download.

The album is just a test piece. I hope my example inspires you to make something magnificent.

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Multimedia Digital Publishing, Second Experiment

In the process of writing this post I’ve already encountered a major failure. More on that later. (A link to the finished book is at the end of this post.)

Last spring I made my first foray into multimedia digital publishing with an interactive PDF called Essay. The failures were as interesting as the successes, showing that it is not a universal medium even though some form of PDF is ubiquitous. The main problem is that the Adobe software used to create the multimedia PDF uses Flash. Since the arrival of the iPad Flash is on its way out, not supported on much of anything except desktop computers.

This time I am trying to create a book in HTML. The idea is to upload the book in a folder that can be opened or downloaded, making it accessible via the device’s browser. I think it should be available to all devices except for old-fashioned e-readers that only open EPUBs. Smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers should all be able to open the HTML and play the mp3 audio. (It did open properly on a NOOK HD. My first failure, however: I could not upload a folder as an attachment to this post, I even tried creating ZIP and 7ZIP versions. I still assume this could be done on a full blown website, where the folder is uploaded as part of the site and then linked to a page, such as a download button, but I’m not sure of how I would go about doing this.)

What I’m trying to do is almost the same as if I’d created an interactive book in EPUB3. The bonus is that it should be something close to universal access, as mentioned above. The downfall is that the publication is not bound, or packaged, as an EPUB would be (from what I’ve read an EPUB is little more than a packaged HTML document). (Of course, the other problem with all the things I’m trying out would be marketing: how do you sell it? After you’ve jumped through all the proprietary hoops you can upload your EPUB to one or all of the online sellers, which I don’t think you could do with a raw HTML file.)

So, for the past four months or so I’ve been compiling my documented dreams, recording readings of them, gathering photos, and piecing it all together in Adobe’s Muse.

One of the problems I wanted to tackle is the recording of the readings. Normally I work with a Røde NT-1 microphone mounted to a boom mic stand. The issue is that the mic and pop filter obstruct my view of the text so that I have to position my neck and back at odd angles to speak into the microphone while maintaining a clear view of the text. The first thing I tried was setting up a Zoom H1 portable recorder on my desk. The sound was odd, probably from reflections (echoes) off the desktop and nearby furniture, making it sound like I was in a small box. This led me to buy a new microphone, an Audio-Technica PRO 8 HEx headset mic: hands free and line of sight clear. Unfortunately I don’t like the sound of it. There’s no lower range (most microphones give you a proximity boost which makes all of us sound a little like radio announcers). I had to tweak the EQ to cut back on the middle frequencies, which I usually boost, and boost the lower frequencies. The sound is still inadequate because of the lower bit-rate mp3 format I used for the HTML download (128 kbps, which is a compromise between small file size and clear audio). (It sounded better on my NOOK than it does on my computer’s speakers.)

Another problem I faced was that I hadn’t been able to get audio files to work when linked to a button in Muse. The answer was to have the media file open on a separate page or tab. Now you can hear the narration while reading along.

And, of course, there’s the issue of navigation. Starting with the cover page there is a link to the table of contents. All pages have a link to the table as well as to the cover. (My intention was that when opening the folder you would open the file called index.html to access the cover/home page, to give you something of an EPUB experience…though opening any file at random would be like opening a real book at random, except that you use the links rather than flipping the pages.) Then, as you would expect, each title in the table of contents links to its respective document. Because this is not a PDF or EPUB where you can swipe from page to page I added previous and next page links. Beyond that, there is a button to open the appropriate audio file in whatever media player your system uses. See the sample pages below:

Cover page of Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on opening the file and using the links.

Cover page of Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on opening the file and using the links.

Typical text page from Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on using the links.

Typical text page from Dreams, by Swampmessiah, with instructions on using the links.

I think I’ve said enough.

Higher quality audio files will be uploaded to my page on soundcloud.com. They will be compiled as a set and downloadable as individual tracks (they are copy righted and made available only for your personal use).

I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the folder as an attachment to download into almost any device. Instead, I will provide you with a link to Business Catalyst, a feature of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, where I can post up to five live websites (small ones) as part of the overall service: dreamlog.businesscatalyst.com.

 

No Universal Format for Digital Publishing

Was there a time in which anyone inventing new technologies was stoned to death for violating tradition? I imagine there was. And every time I have to deal with a new battle of proprietary products I start looking for something to throw.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not idolize old technologies (with the exceptions of the bound book and a manual transmission in my car). I’ve lived with oil lamps and wood burning stoves and outhouses and having to haul in water. I’ve written with a manual typewriter (it’s sort of a printer/keyboard combo without a monitor and very limited editing capabilities, primarily involving the crumpling of paper). I’m not someone who misses the sounds of clicks and crackles on vinyl or the hiss of tape. My desk no longer sags under the weight of a CRT monitor. Et cetera.

I do, though, tend to embrace technology when it has stabilized a little, when one developer’s offering has won the battle in the market place and we can all settle down to enjoy the content rather than fussing over the medium.

This has not yet happened in the world of electronic publishing. The primary forms are: EPUB and its variants; interactive PDF; interactive magazines; and HTML. I think the only format that works on all computer platforms and on almost all mobile devices is HTML. At a glance PDF also seems almost universal.

My first foray into both reading and production was overly optimistic. ePublishing with InDesign CS6 by Pariah Burke is an excellent work, digging rather deeply into things not exactly specific to the book’s title, with an abundance of information and tips. At the time I was looking into buying his book I was also looking at Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CS6 by Sandee Cohen and Diane Burns. Cohen and Burns’ book looked as though it did little more than walk you through the InDesign menus. This is more or less true, though there are a couple pages in their book that I wish I’d read (pages 224-225). Burke has charts with the pros and cons of each format and spells out their limitations. Unfortunately he’s not really looking at the market and what is typically being supported.

For instance, the EPUB: version 3.0 supports more layout options as well as audio and video. Very encouraging. Cohen and Burns point out that very few e-readers or mobile devices recognize EPUB 3.0 and, to date, that most of the electronic book sellers do not market it. (I think my next project will be a new collection, a dream log, created in both versions of EPUB and probably PDF. I’ll post them here, but until I get a website of my own this will be the extent of availability. And that’s another problem for independent publishers and do-it-yourselfers: where to publish and how to make your work available to as many devices and operating systems as possible.)

On the surface PDF would seem to be the ultimate format for an electronic book. You can do almost anything with it, it’s been around forever, and almost all devices and operating systems can open it. But there’s the catch: often they can only open it. Cohen and Burns have a long list of things that don’t work, for instance in Macs and mobile devices. Hyperlinks usually still work but multimedia and buttons only work on your PC (I found this to be true on my NOOK HD as well as on my partner’s iPad3, and I’ve gotten reports from friends that my first foray was a bust on their Mac laptops). Except on a PC an interactive PDF is likely to be opened as a flat, printable PDF (your basic, boring user’s manual-type PDF). If you’d gone ahead and created a printable PDF your images would at least be higher quality.

Interactive magazine is very interesting and very versatile, with all kinds of interactivity, linking, multimedia, and viewing options. Two catches: one is that, at present, they are not viewable on computers, just on tablets (both reference books were saying the same thing); the other is that you have more hoops in terms of processing and integration to create an app for your publication and potentially much more work and expense. For instance, to create an app for an Apple readable publication you have to have an Apple computer. I don’t think I’ll be creating any kind of interactive magazine for years to come.

What about HTML? It’s capable of doing just about everything the other formats are promising, and maybe more. It’s viewable and functional on everything but some of the older e-readers.…I think the problems are threefold: packaging, distribution, and know-how. I think for me packaging and distribution are the more difficult to overcome. Unlike the general subject of digital publishing creating a downloadable packet of HTML is a deeply buried sub-genre that is not featured in how-to books or videos. It’s something that’s always “outside the scope of this book”. It’s probably not much more than creating a folder, as you would for a website, and maybe ZIP-ing it. (Once again I’ll mention that I subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and its incredible assortment of software. Muse is still under development—at least as far as I’m concerned—but it’s already an extraordinarily easy tool for creating HTML. It’s a lot like using InDesign for creating print and electronic books.…I still find it doesn’t work well for adding audio files (and also video?) and that I need to do that in Dreamweaver.)…I have no idea how to tackle distribution. None of the online bookstores market HTML books. If they did we’d probably end up with another proprietary nightmare (for instance, even though EPUB is a common format Amazon’s Kindle will not read it, you have to convert your EPUB to their file system).

So, yes, I will keep working through these issues. And, yes, I will keep you posted as to the results.

In the meantime, I’m having vicious fantasies of throwing things at the developers of proprietary systems. I’m more of a mind to pelt them with our ever-dwindling supply of Twinkies than with stones.

Interactive Books, First Excursion

For over 30 years I’ve wanted to produce books that include not just my words but also my drawings/paintings. Back then it was impossibly expensive, even to do it in black and white. Adding audio to my repertoire in 1996 put it even farther out of my reach.

Now we have digital publishing. The possibilities are overwhelming. They are more titillating and frustrating than satisfying, because there is no universally readable format. (Pariah Burke lists the current formats, their pros and cons, in ePublishing with InDesign CS6. Discussed are: EPUB, PDF, digital replica, interactive magazine, and HTML—and the variations of each.)

But, it’s fairly affordable.

I decided to start with something already in existence, a chapbook I produced in 1984. It was called Essay (verb, to try something difficult) and was my first foray into self-publishing. Originally it was printed by a quick printer in black ink, no half-tones, on highly acidic paper. The text was done on an old office typewriter (manual, not electric) by a not-so-competent typist (me) with drawings that were pretty basic and, so I thought, easily copied (they weren’t, because I couldn’t afford to do half-tones). I knew so little about making books that I even botched the binding (see photo below), stitching from the side rather than through the spine (side stitching is common in traditional Japanese binding, I love the look of it and use it from time to time, but what I did with Essay was nothing but incompetence).…I made 50 copies. A few friends bought them. The Amazing Alonzo’s paperback exchange in Duluth put a couple on the shelf on consignment (I was a good customer). Cheng-Khee Chee, then head librarian of the UMD library, graciously bought a copy.

Chapbook cover. Essay. With inept binding.

The cover of Essay, 1984, showing the inept binding.

The first step was to scan all my original printer spreads (yes, I still have them) and then break them into individual pages. The awkward part of this book, and what makes it a poor choice for a first try, is that it’s all images. Ordinarily you’d create a book in InDesign or QuarkXPress by creating text and image boxes that will reflow to fit the screen of the viewing device, depending on what format you choose to export this as. I still might try to do this one as a fixed image epub, like a children’s storybook.

The first attempt at interactivity was to add navigation. Because I didn’t want to do anything to conflict with the look of the original I did not create visible buttons. So far everyone who’s played with this has found the navigation buttons pretty quickly (most of them are what you’d find in any format of epublishing).

Then I decided to take a step into the future (or recent past) by adding audio. I read a description of each page or read the poem. Conscientious artisan that I am, I cleaned the background noise from the recording (that would be the fan on my computer), compressed the vocal to make it more consistently audible, tweaked the EQ (also to make it a little easier to hear), and added a pinch of reverb to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Of course almost all this work disappeared as soon as I converted the files to 32-kbps MP3 files—sounds like shit but it makes the overall document file more internet friendly (it’s still about 10MB).

It’s easy to embed any kind of media file into an InDesign document. A little file player is created that can be placed anywhere on the page.…On playback of the finished PDF I found it becomes an ugly gray box that won’t go away until the file is reopened. It took some fooling around to find a place that was consistent from page to page but would never cover any of the text.

A replica of the table of contents where I define all the navigation points and the button for the audio player.

Here I define all the navigation points and the button for the audio player.

What seemed like an almost universally supported file format, the PDF, has failed everywhere except on PCs. It only worked the way a printable PDF would on Macs and mobile devices, both Android and Apple operating systems. That is, the navigation buttons still worked. It seems that InDesign creates a Flash player when embedding the audio. (I need to further explore what’s happening. So far my searches have not been informative, much less suggesting alternatives.)…I tried attaching the audio files in Acrobat, which also worked on my desktop. On my NOOK HD this version would no longer open the PDF reader navigation with page thumbnails.

Click the link below for a fully operational copy of the book. Your feedback is welcome.

essay interactive electronic 2013

Okay…I tried a preview on my computer, a PC running Vista 64-bit, and everything worked.

As I continue to explore electronic publishing I’ll keep you posted at this blog. I’m looking into other possibilities as well, such as a bonus feature with a CD download (a printable PDF with images and text).

Addendum, March 7, 2013: Because people are running into the same difficulties playing the uploaded PDF as they had at home when various family members tested it (no audio on Macs or mobile devices) I’ve uploaded the audio to soundcloud.com. To hear the continuous set go to the sets tab or to the sounds tab for the individual tracks (which can be downloaded, for your convenience). One thing to say in favor of the recordings posted on SoundCloud is that they are higher quality than the 32 kbps mono versions embedded in the PDF. They are 256 kbps “stereo”. Supposedly CD quality.