It’s all about structure!

I was trying to think of a better title-One that would grab you and draw you in. But, it’s late on a Saturday evening here in Pemaquid, ME so I took the simple approach. But, if you got this far, this link should keep your attention:

Yeah, maybe I’m in the wrong business too.

So, if you have something to say, you can say it. Working for Adobe as I do, I am blessed with the opportunity to show people in K-12 and Higher Education how to create eBooks. One the topics I often questioned into to covering is about the best way to create an eBook—what format is best?

The answer is, and should be, all of them. PDF, ePub, HTML, JPG (yup, sometimes JPG), xml, Bobs-house-of-ebooks-and-emporium (it’s a proprietary format) ((no, it’s actually made up, but there are proprietary formats and you should consider them.)) The more access to the work you give the world, the more people will be able to access it. Seems simple, no?

But, to return to the question at hand, the best format cannot be predicted. In the next 5 years, I am certain that there will be new options and one of them might guarantee you a paying audience like no other. So, what I like to do is to better prepare people to move their content around and use whatever distribution format makes sense to them. To accomplish that, you need structure—and lots of it.

Use styles like they are going out of style
Because they are not. Styles help you to format text by tagging a paragraph with a name. Then, by describing what the style should look like, you can apply that formatting to entire paragraphs at a time. As a bonus, when you need to adjust formatting, you simply change the style’s definition and the application you are using (in my case Adobe InDesign) will update all of the text that has been tagged with that style. They have been around since before the desktop publishing revolution started. There was such a time. I was there, and it was terrible.

An image showing the style panel in Adobe InDesign

The Paragraph Styles panel (Window: Styles: Paragraph Styles) allows you to apply styles to your text.

However, a new reason to take the time to set up style sheets has emerged for the common user. By tagging a paragraph, you are also determining what the content is. Not what it says, but what it is. For example, Heading 1, as a tag tells me that the content is a Heading 1 paragraph. Visually, that information is conveyed by the font choice you have made (usually BIG and/or BOLD typefaces). Since machines cannot (yet) see, when you need to use a machine to convert the project from one format to another, a human has to sit there and do it by hand. I have done this work for a living. It’s tedious, boring work.

If you have content that is structured with styles, it will be many times faster for you to convert it from one format to another—opening up the opportunity to use someone’s new distribution service. There are more reasons:

  • Automatic table-of-content generation requires it (InDesign will create a TOC automatically if you just ask it)
  • Bookmarking tools often ask you identify the style you want to have become bookmarks (make everything tagged with the Heading 2 style a bookmark. (If you create a PDF with the PDF Maker Acrobat installs into Word, a simple checkbox will create bookmarks—even nested bookmarks—for you.)
  • Find and replace features often allow you to select a style sheet as a way to grab specific content. (Both Word and InDesign do this along with just about any text or page layout program you might find)

There are almost certainly others.

Once you have the styles created, you get two huge operational benefits. On the front end, you can more quickly move the content from a standard text editing tool, such as Microsoft Word (although, I use InCopy for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post) and then drop it into your layout document. If your InDesign and Word content both use styles with the exact same names, InDesign accepts the text and applies the formatting you set in InDesign. Why the split? First off, layout has overhead and copywriting is fast. Writing without the overhead of formatting, page layout objects, etc. is faster. Plus, as an older gentleman (stop laughing) It’s hard for me to stare at a screen all day as it is. Having to read 13-point body copy is no fun. So, I write—using styles—with BIG SANS SERIF typefaces. Headings are BIGGER and bolder but the overall effect is that it is easier for me to see what I am writing. So, if you use style sheets in a consistent fashion, you can pour the text into your InDesign document and let the style sheets in the InDesign file format the text for you.

Map style sheets in Adobe InDesign
The next thing to do is to map the style sheets in InDesign to standard HTML tags.

The Paragraph Style Options dialog box with the Export Tagging Options selected.

Among the options (double-click on a style in the Paragraph Styles panel) for a style are the Export Tagging settings.

Doing this makes it easier to convert your content later if you need to. Heading 1, for example, likely maps to H1 in HTML and ePub. Because InDesign also allows you to add class names to the mix, the tags for the content you create get specific enough to allow you the flexibility of converting the text to a variety of formats and readies for whatever formatting that converted copy can provide. If it’s a web page or an ePub, Cascading Style Sheets control the look and layout of the piece.
This is what the text looks like as exported HTML. Note the tags (bolded for emphasis) around the three paragraphs. With this structure it is easier to use the text in a variety of ways because the text is tagged to describe what it is.

This is what the text looks like as exported HTML. Note the tags (bolded for emphasis) around the three paragraphs. With this structure it is easier to use the text in a variety of ways because the text is tagged to describe what it is.

Once you have done this, your text is much more portable—even if you decide to export it from InDesign and, for example, add it to a blog post. All you need to do is to come up with that 6,000 per-month topic and start raking in the dough.

2 Responses to It’s all about structure!

  1. NickBangO says:

    Great to remind users of structure, especially as it is a big problem today when it comes to convert print to digital –a lot of people not using styles at all.

    That being said, three small questions I hope InDesign dev team will hear one way or another:

    1) when will InDesign push its own “export tags” limits? HTML markup is not just headings, paragraphs, emphasize, strong and span. This limitation actually is a problem as it means we can’t rely on InDesign export: structuring doesn’t lead to proper semantic markup.

    2) is there any way the team in charge of InDesign can talk with the team in charge of EPUB RMSDK as it is just incredible that InDesign can’t export a CSS 100 % adapted to the RMSDK, used by the vast majority of vendors and apps. At first I thought it was some kind of joke, but –alas– it seems it was not.

    3) is it possible an export method for pictures a human being can understand at first sight be used in InDesign? This is so terrible that I actually embed pictures in the EPUB file, not in InDesign


    • Timothy Plumer, Jr. says:

      Hi NickBangO,

      Thanks for the note(s) and suggestions. Taking them one-by-one (collectively, I will share them with the InDesign team—they love feedback like this).

      Regarding #1. Tags—I am not sure what the future plans are. The basic idea is to at least give you a tag and, if need be, a class that can be remapped outside of InDesign. I suspect in cases where people need more specific tags, they will either edit the HTML or crack open the ePub and edit the HTML in there. However, it is a nice feature request I will share for future updates.

      #2 Another great point. I will share this as well. I believe (though I certainly don’t speak for them) that the first goal was to give you structured content that can at least be predictable enough to allow for consistent remapping when needed. To create for specific ePub solutions (even our own) may require more (continuing effort).

      #3 I’m not sure I 100% understand your question. Can you clarify?

      Thanks for the information and feedback. I will send it along to the ID team to see what they have to offer.