Thursday, April 16, 2015

Kindle Textbook Creator Updated

Amazon released a major upgrade (1.5.14.0) to the fledgling Textbook Creator app this afternoon that adds two significant improvements: support for embedded audio and video (as well as popup images), and simple table of contents creation. There are also new rulers and guides to help you align the inserted content.

You can find the official announcement here, and download the updated application here. The User Guide has also been updated from edition 1.1 to 2.0, and can be downloaded from the link on the lower-right of the application page.

A quick look at the Revision Notes shows several new sections have been added to the User Guide:
Before looking at the specifics of these changes (and several others that are curiously not listed), I should point out that the files created with KTC are currently only readable on newer HDX Fire tablets, since they are by nature higher resolution fixed layout files that the older (and smaller) Kindle readers are not well suited to view without some means to magnify the text, which KTC does not yet provide - unless you use the new image pop-ups to do so; but this is cumbersome at best, as it employs a clunky icon rather than actual interactive text as in the standard KF8 fixed format. The program outputs the unique Kindle Package Format (KPF) file type, rather than the standard AZW3 or other fixed mobi formats that are supported on nearly all Kindle devices and apps. Note, however, the following detail from today's announcement:
Access to the interactive features in these textbooks...will soon be available on other free Kindle reading apps for iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and Android tablets, as well as Mac and PC computers.
Notice that they do not include any additional Kindle devices, only Kindle mobile or desktop apps. Still, this will greatly broaden the usability of these files, and bring them to the majority of screens most readers of digital textbooks are likely to use. Textbooks are, of course, the intended purpose of this file format, although in the KDP Help Topics the listing for KTC is found under the somewhat ambiguous heading Publishing Illustrated Content. Even more confusingly, this page has long had interactive content listed as available in this format, even though it has not been until today. But then, this is hardly the first time Amazon has gotten ahead of themselves: note that the KTC Beta page already states that the KPF format can be read on all of the Kindle free reading apps, which is dramatically enforced by the included promo video. Note, though, that the page still lists the app as being in Beta.

In addition to the output format issue, your source input file for the page layout can still only be PDF, either as single or multiple page files. Individual pages can be added or deleted, but you cannot change the page layout from within the program; it is solely used to compile the source files into a Kindle-compliant output format - though now, of course, you can also embed multimedia content in those pages. And that is the big news here today, as outside of reflowable ebooks in the Kindle for iOS app, this is the first time that media files have been supported on the Kindle platform. So let's take a closer look at some of those details.

1.1 Import Format

Kindle Textbook Creator now supports the addition of the following multimedia file formats:
  • Video: .mp4
  • Audio: .mp3
  • Images: .jpeg or .png
Images can now be embedded as "figure pop-ups" to supplement whatever graphic content is already designed into the PDF source file. These and the audio/video content are displayed as icons that can be placed wherever you would like them on them page by simple drag and drop. Tapping on the icon in the published ebook will activate an internal plug-in that will play the content. Additionally, when previewing the packaged content, the interface provides you with a preview of the currently selected file in its native plug-in. But more on this in a minute.

1.2 Export Format

Even though it is not listed in the Revision Notes, a new paragraph has been added to this section that could use a bit more explanation. In essence, it says that you can update a KPF file on your KDP content page, so long as it was initiallyt created using KTC - presumably you would want to do this if you go back and add new interactive content to a title you have already published - but, if you create a new version of a title published in a different Kindle format you will have to publish it as a new title.

Unfortunately, that is all the information that the User Guide provides. However, if you go to the Help page for this topic you will find some additional (and rather critical) details, including a link to the KDP Customer Support contact page that you can use to have them link that new edition of your work to the previously published version, so that you do not lose accumulated reviews, etc. But as it states on the Help page, sales rankings for the two editions will still be calculated separately for each.

1.3.2.1 Rulers and Guide Lines 

As mentioned, there are now guide items to help you align your embedded content on the page. There is a Show/Hide check-box on the View menu that surrounds the Document Window with rulers, and if you hover your mouse over one of these you can click and drag out guide lines for horizontal and vertical alignment. A tool tip tells you the current position of your cursor. Units are in Points, which unfortunately I can see no way to change. Grab a guide line with your mouse and drag it to the ruler to remove it.

1.3.3 Properties Panel (Previously titled "Right Panel")

The newly renamed Properties Panel on the right is where you'll find the new option to add a page as a linked location in the Table of Contents, as well as all the functions for adding and editing your interactive content. A couple of screenshots give examples, which we'll look at further in the sections below. The panel content here changes depending on what is selected in the windows on the left.

1.4 Keyboard Shortcuts

Rather than listing "Delete Page" as the Action for the Delete keyboard command, the new edition of the User Guide gives it as "Delete Plug-in" instead. This means you can no longer use the keyboard shortcut to delete unwanted pages from your project by highlighting them in the Pages Panel on the left and simply hitting the delete key, but must now use the option in the Edit menu drop-down instead, or right-click on the page thumbnail on the left to bring up a context menu that contains a Delete Selected Page option. In a way this is really best, since it keeps you from deleting a page by mistake when you meant to delete a plug-in that you thought was selected instead!

2.3 Building Your Table of Contents

This new section details the fairly simple and straightforward task of adding pages to a Table of Contents. As mentioned earlier, a new check-box in the Properties Panel provides the option to "Include Page in Table of Contents" whenever a page is selected, along with a box in which you can include a Page Title label of up to 100 characters for each entry.

Bear in mind that this does not create an actual TOC page, but only produces the Kindle device menu links. These can be seen (and tested) when you preview your project by selecting a new icon at the bottom of the Inspector. Select the little device icon on the left to return to the Preview options tab.

2.7-2.11 Plug-ins

Five new sections have been added that go into all the gritty details of adding and editing the three new media types that KPF supports. I won't go into all the specifics here, since that is the purpose of the User Guide, and it's all a fairly intuitive process. Amazon has provided new options for adding media files in a couple of places: from the Edit > Insert Plugin menu drop-down (where there is also a Delete Plug-in option), or from the Insert icon in the menu bar next to the Undo/Reco icons. As mentioned earlier, you can also delete the plug-in by selecting its icon and either hitting the delete key or right-clicking to get the option from the context menu.

When you add a media file you will get a suitable file type icon which you can drag around the page to a suitable location. In Amazon's delightfully annoying editorial style, they have provided an entire new section (2.8) of nearly a page in length to state (in four numbered steps) that you can change the location of an icon at any time if you change your mind.

Once you have added a media file icon to your page (or selected one already there), the Properties Panel on the right will provide you with a number of options, as well as a bit of info about the file, including its size. An important note on this point is that the KDP file upload size is limited to 650 MB (a restriction that was recently increased substantially from its previous 50 MB limit), and should you attempt to insert a file larger than this you will receive a warning that the file exceeds the allowed size. However, you will not receive a warning should two or more files exceed this size! It will, in fact, actually package the project and produce a file that will not be accepted for upload to the KDP portal.

Below the file info is a Replace button that allows you to exchange the current file with another, and below this there are several text entry boxes for adding a title and descriptive content to your media. Again, this is all very simple and straightforward, and does not even require reading the User Guide.

3.1 Previewing Your Book

Just a slight bit of elaboration has been added here to explain the new TOC and Device icons and their respective tabs, as mentioned above.

3.3 Uploading Your Book to KDP

Another reiteration of the KPF file replacement protocol has been added here, which adds nothing new to what was said above. The hyperlink to the KDP webpage has been removed from the Properties Panel (as has all of the previous Help text found there) and moved to the Help drop-down menu instead. The remainder of this section is the same.

Conclusion

While KTC is still clearly a Beta program with few frills and even fewer customization options, this first update makes a very significant leap in terms of content. The possibilities of what can be done with interactive media in a Kindle fixed format file have improved three-fold at one fell swoop, although it would be far more useful were it also available in the far more developed, and EPUB-based, KF8 format, rather than the PDF clone stamp that it is. But most average content creators don't have the time or interest in learning HTML/CSS coding, so the PDF input is a plus for them, making it easy to create print and ebook editions from a single file - one that can now quite easily have bonus content added in its digital incarnation. The icon-driven UI leaves a lot to be desired - particularly when held against the graceful interface produced by iBooks Author. KTC is clunky and old-school in many ways, but it's simple and it's easy, and for many users simple is best.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Kindle Publishing Guidelines 2014.3

The latest update to the Kindle Publishing Guidelinesis out, with a lengthy change log that includes a few important changes. While consisting primarily of editorial revisions to specify which Kindle device a given formatting recommendation applies to, there are two specific changes to Kindle content production that are significant, these being sections 4.3.7 and 4.3.9 as given in the Revision Notes shown above.

4.3.7 Recommendation #7: Do Not Include an HTML Front Cover

The first of these reverses a long-standing error in Amazon's Kindle production policy. Until now this section heading read Include an HTML Front Cover, while it now emphatically says not to (as I have long advocated). Including one has always resulted in two cover images appearing, causing reader confusion due to the apparent unresponsiveness of the first page turn. Moreover, there has never been a good reason to include an HTML cover page, since all Kindle devices and apps render the jpeg cover image correctly, as well as using it for the bookshelf image.

As the Kindle Publishing Guidelines itself now states:
While Amazon previously recommended an HTML front cover page for fixed-format books, this is no longer necessary. 
Kindle books should only have one visible JPEG cover. This cover should be a high-resolution JPEG image that has the same level of quality as the subsequent pages. Any instances of HTML cover pages should be deleted to avoid a repetition of the cover image.
Presumably the HTML cover page was originally included in order for the Guide to point to the cover as the first page the reader sees, if this was so desired (since it could not point directly to an image at that point, as it now can). But since the implementation has been inconsistent, opening to the jpeg image in many cases, as well as the reader being able to swipe back to the cover image anyway, this has caused confusion and frustration for many readers.

The recommendation to include a high resolution cover image is now all the more important, since it will be rendered as a full page image on first opening.

4.3.9 Recommendation #9: Do Not Include Start Reading Location

This is an entirely new addition which addresses an ongoing issue with the first page to which a Kindle ebook opens on first reading. This has been erratic and seemingly random, since the same ebook would open to different pages on different Kindle iterations, depending on a number of confusing factors (including, among other things, the appearance or absence of a "toc" entry in the Guide, as detailed on pages 74-5 of my Kindle formatting manual).

While Amazon has repaired several of these errant instances, some have continued to persist (such as the perplexing inability of the "Go to Beginning" entry to open at Page 1). This issue is now eliminated with the newest Guideline recommendation:
In Kindle fixed-format books, the OPF file should not include the start reading location (”Go to Beginning”) guide item. Amazon now sets this guide item to the JPEG cover for Kindle fixed-format books.
All fixed layout Kindle ebooks will now open to the cover image (which should now only be a jpeg image), rather than to the title page, the table of contents, the first page after the table of contents, or any other random location in the publication. This provides for a consistent user experience across devices and platforms, as should have been the case all along.

Note that Section 3.5.1 on "Recommended Guide Items" still lists the "Go To Beginning" entry as a valid item. This is likely an editorial oversight, but since the removal of the start reading Guide item is only a recommendation, the entry is technically still valid, though not advised.

Note also that you can still include a "bodymatter" element for the start reading location in the Landmarks section of a nav doc, though this will not affect the page to which the book first opens, but only create a linked menu entry to the chosen page.

2.2.2.3 Using KindleGen

Among the other changes made in this edition is the inclusion of Dutch as an optional language in KindleGen (using the locale option nl during conversion).

3.6.3 Image Guideline #3: Use Color Images

Removed the line describing the difference between eInk and color tablet devices, and added a statement that photographs must be in the jpeg format. Specifically, the line removed stated that:

The Kindle e Ink devices currently have a black and white screen, but color is available on the Kindle Fire, Kindle for iPhone, and Kindle for PC.
This is curious, since the removal of the reference to a greyscale display hints at the coming of a color eInk screen. Although this has long been awaited, to date there is no evidence that a reflective color display is forthcoming, and we have already missed this year's pre-holiday release window, so presumably it won't appear for at least another year.

The appended statement that photos must be formatted as jpegs is followed by further image clarifications in the next section.

3.6.5 Image Guideline #5: Use GIF or PNG for Line-Art and Text

This entry has been extensively revised to make it adamantly clear that line-art and text images should not be formatted as jpegs, which blur sharp edges when adding compression, but should instead be embedded as either gifs or png files, which preserve crisp edges - and even enhance them, in the case of gifs, by reducing color values and grayscale contrast (as the added line "including black-and-white drawings" makes clear).

One line has been removed here that bears comment:
The automatic conversions applied by KindleGen are best avoided.
This statement was always inaccurate in this context, since all supported image formats are converted to jpegs during the KindleGen conversion, and therefore cannot be avoided. What was meant instead was that the cleanest possible image should be input in order for KindleGen to apply the best conversion possible. If an already compressed jpeg is embedded, its quality will only get further reduced by the additional compression applied by KindleGen when converting to the low Mobi 7 image standards.

This requirement is emphatically repeatedly in this section several times, culminating in the conclusion that
Amazon insists on GIF or PNG file formats for line-art.
Finally, a lengthy section has been added to the description of the MINIMUM size requirements for lines of text contained in images (which is 6 pixels for a lowercase "a"), including the addition of a new example image:
The added text states that the image should be taller than the 6 pixel text itself, such that
the image should be at least 45 pixels in height so that it displays proportional to surrounding text content.
This assumes, of course, that the surrounding text content has not been modified by the user's font size and line height settings, but the intention is clear: make your text images big enough that they can be clearly seen, and leave some margin space around them so they preserve the line height and don't encroach upon surrounding text.

6 Audio and Video Guidelines

Several additions have been included to reiterate the fact that, no, audio and video is not supported on eInk devices, and KDP does not accept Kindle Editions with audio/video content included. Still.

This is simply a shortcoming of the slow refresh rates of eInk screens (and one of the primary reasons reflective color displays have not been adopted), although why audio is forbidden is beyond me. Probably for the same reason Amazon stopped bothering to include speakers, or even a headphone jack, on the eInk devices. Or perhaps because of it.

9 Kindle Best Practices

Here again some lines have been removed, and the terms "e Ink" and "tablet" inserted to more clearly differentiate between the two. There is also a revision of the formats supported for viewing on devices and in Previewer, via the removal of two lines.
The Kindle Fire device view displays the content in Kindle Format 8.
This applies to Previewer, and was probably removed due to the fact that it is no longer relevant, since virtually all Kindle devices now support KF8, and Previewer displays content as such.
You can test Mobi 7 content on a Kindle e Ink device and on Kindle applications for PC/Mac/Android.
This line was made more or less redundant by the fact that Mobi 7 content is now only sent to the oldest of the old Kindle devices, and is very likely soon to be eliminated. Moreover, there is no way to actually chose which version of the converted file is being tested, since the device reads whichever one it has support for. Again, virtually all Kindle devices now read KF8, so the distinction is no longer relevant.

The subsequent line that stated KF8 could only be tested on the Kindle Fire has also been appended to include the eInk devices, but interestingly not the apps. This implies that you can no longer use (or rely on using) the desktop and mobile apps for testing files, which is sound advice, since they are the least consistent in rendering content correctly, or supporting features. Best Practice is, and has always been, to test on an actual Kindle device, followed by Previewer, and only as a last resort to use a desktop or mobile app (although the Android app is better than the other apps by far, as far as feature support goes).

All in all, these updates pave the way for future moves away from the outdated Mobi 7 format and into feature-rich KF8 support across the board (more or less), and address some outstanding issues with the format itself in order to make the reading experience more consistent.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

iBooks Image Size Increased

Although they have not yet updated their iBooks Asset Guide to reflect the change, Apple has just announced an increase to the total pixel limit allowed for interior images in ebook files published through iTunes Connect, upgrading it from 3.2 to 4 million pixels.

This follows the increase in August of last year from 2 to 3.2 million pixels, and at long last brings the overall image size allowed more in line with the actual size of the device on which they are intended to be viewed.

The increase to 3.2 million from 2 million pixels was itself, of course, a long overdue attempt to address a contradiction in Apple's recommended image size as given in the iBooks Asset Guide. With a resolution of 2048 x 1536 since the 3rd generation iteration of the full-size iPad (giving it a total pixel count of 3,145,728), the long-standing limit of 2 million pixels was nowhere near enough to fill the screen with a full bleed image in portrait orientation, let alone to zoom in for greater detail, as the Asset Guide somewhat ironically recommends:
Apple recommends providing images that are at least 1.5 times the intended viewing size up to a maximum of 3.2 million pixels.
A quick bit of math will show that 1.5 times the standard iPad display resolution is 4,718,592 pixels. So while the new 4 million pixel limit does not provide for quite that much leeway, it gets us very nearly there, and at least allows for full bleed images that can be zoomed to some degree without completely losing fidelity. The official announcement for the newest update reads as follows:
Increased Pixel Limit for Book Images
The pixel limit for all images within a book has been increased to 4 million pixels. This limit does not apply to images delivered separately from the book, such as cover art or screenshots.
Amazon, of course, has also recently increased the allowed image size in Kindle ebooks, although they use an overall image file size in megabytes rather than a pixel dimension limit. This allows for a much higher image resolution to fill the bigger 2560 x 1600 HDX 8.9 device, which boasts over 4 million pixels, before zooming (4,096,000 to be precise). By comparison, that would require an image containing 6,144,000 pixels in order to zoom to 1.5 times without interpolation! This is why the individual image limit in Kindle files has been increased to 5 MB. Converted mobi files for upload to KDP, however, are limited to an overall file size of 650 MB, which puts something of a practical limitation on the included image files (130 5Mb files to be precise, which is admittedly more than ample for most projects).

Conversely, by employing a pixel limit, Apple are restricting the total image dimensions, but not the image quality itself, which can be embedded with no compression whatsoever, if so desired, up to a total ebook file size limit of 2 GB (which is a limit imposed by the zip format itself). So while the new 4 million pixel limit does not quite allow for full 1.5 times zooming with pixel-perfect accuracy, it does come very close, and the absence of a file size limit for individual images allows for the highest quality setting possible, which might be of great benefit for art books and photography collections (in case you want to see those brush strokes on the Mona Lisa, for example).

By the way, for those wanting to know, 2309 x 1732 would be the largest dimension image you can now insert into an iBooks file at the standard 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad display. That gives you an image containing 3,999,188 pixels. Just one pixel bigger at 2310 x 1733 puts you over at 4,003,230 pixels. A nice round numbered 2300 x 1725 gives you an image with 3,967,500 pixels.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

BISG Field Guide to Fixed Layout Update Errors

The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) this week released a revised edition of theirField Guide to Fixed Layout for Ebooks (Version 1.2), but it is still fraught with errors not fixed from the last edition, as well as adding new confusion via poor editing and worse research. You can download it for free from the link above (once you register for an account), which is worth doing, as it does contain some useful information in among the rest; you just have to know which is which.

A new section has been added, for example, called "Authoring Tools & Limitations" which, sinceTools is plural, would presumably purport to outline a number of the primary applications currently in use for the production of fixed layout ebooks, such as iBooks Author, Jutoh, CircularFlo, MadeFire, or at the very least the two free programs offered by Amazon, Kindle Comic Creator and the Kindle Kids Book Creator. But in fact, the only tool actually discussed is InDesign CC's ePub export feature. No other program is discussed, or even mentioned. That said, the extensive list of InDesign's limitations is well worth a read, since it details exactly the reasons why I do not use InDesign for ebook production, nor recommend it, at least for the creation of Kindle fixed layout source files.

And on the topic of KF8, the following are just the primary errors to be found in the section on the Kindle fixed layout format...

1.) In the information regarding the Orientation Lock options (page 26, item #3), it states that none is a valid option, along with portrait and landscape, but then later contradicts this with a paragraph stating (incorrectly) that "you cannot have a book that can be viewed in both portrait and landscape modes," which of course, is exactly what the none value is for. Moreover, the statement that "Orientation is a required value" is only partly correct, since it is optional in comics, and only required for children's ebooks, but in either case can be set to none (which is, in fact, the default value). Granted, auto-orientation does not function on many Kindle devices, but it does on some, and it is the none value that allows for this.

2.) Item #4 states incorrectly that the values of the "Book Type" entity "can only be set to children or comic." Since this entity is optional, it can also be left out (or set to none), in either case of which the effects of the fixed layout functions vary greatly from those of either of the other two book-types. See my Fixed Layout Functionality Chart for specific details on this, if you have not already. There is good reason not to include either book-type.

3.) The last sentence on the bottom of page 26 cuts off mid-steam at the top of the following page, but seems to suggest that two-page spreads are possible only with the comic book-type. This is incorrect, since it works on some devices and not on others for both children's and comics, as well as those containing no book-type value (or a value of none), as can be seen in item #2 in the Fixed Layout Functionality Chart referenced above. However, the comic book-type does support two-page spreads more widely than either of the other two options, though not consistently. While I am sure it is beyond the scope of the Field Guide to provide these specifics, such universal statements as those given tend to be misleading, and are therefore less than helpful.

4.) The Region Magnification entity is irrelevant, since the value is set automatically by Kindlegen based on the presence or absence of region mag code in the converted file itself. The value will be set to the correct value regardless of what the content creator enters in the OPF - even, in fact, if no value or entity is added to the metadata at all. Therefore, there is little point in adding it manually, one way or the other.

5.) The statement that "KF8 fixed-layout format lacks pan and zoom" is incorrect. No, you cannot pinch and zoom pop-up regions, but you can pinch and zoom background images inserted using the <img src= > embedding method after double tapping the image (while those referenced via CSS div id's are locked). This is shown by Amazon's own Comics Sample file, which uses the unlocked insertion method almost exclusively. Moreover, pinch and zoom is a fundamental feature of the Virtual Panels function for KF8 comics that don't include any custom magnification regions: the pinch and zoom is automatically applied by Kindlegen without any active effort on the content creator's part. Refer to Item #4, Notes 6 & 7, on the Fixed Layout Functionality Chart for specific details on this.

This is just a sample of the errors and misleading information found in BISG's Field Guide. For this publication to be truly useful each of the sections and sub-sections provided needs to be greatly expanded, with detailed discussions of each specific topic, and the particular details pertaining to each platform and format, particularly if they actually expect readers to donate up to $50, as prompted by the "Pay What You Want" radio buttons on the download page. I'm not sure who in the publishing world would feel satisfied paying that much for so little rudimentary information when much more detailed data is available on blogs such as this for free. But it's your money, you can spend it as you like. I recommend the free option.