Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kindle Comic Creator - An Analysis

Last week Amazon released the public version of its newest addition to the Kindle creation suite, the Kindle Comic Creator. KC2 is a graphic user interface that allows you to create KF8 fixed layout ebooks using a drag-and-drop approach, which makes it simple, fast, and - with a number of exceptions - efficient. And, of course, one it's best features is that it's completely free.

The first and most obvious caveat to point out is that KC2 will only create comics. That is, you can only create Kindle fixed layouts files that have the "comic" book-type. There is not even an option to change this: it is simply a built in feature of the program. This means there can be no live text functionality (dictionaries, search, etc.), no bookmarks, and in some cases, no hyperlinks or background image zoom (even though KC2 ironically embeds images using the <img src> insertion method, against the recommendations of the Kindle Publishing Guidelines). Refer to my Kindle Fixed Layout Functionality chart for specific details.

An equally important point to make, however, is that you can really only use Kindle Comic Creator to produce very simple layouts, with minimal formatting. KC2 provides a Rich Text Editor that only allows for basic text styling features such as bold, italics, and underlines, as well as changing text size and color. You can alter the line height, and the letter-spacing, and embed your own fonts - although the preview window will NOT show them, making accurate layout impossible (embedded fonts will appear on the compiled device, but not in the KC2 preview window). Moreover, you cannot change the alignment (all text is left-aligned) or add styles for headers and sections, making it less than adequate as a text creation tool. You can, however, add inline images for such things as drop caps or unsupported glyphs.

Several additional points should be made regarding claims stated in the User's Guide or on the KC2 page. A significant one that I've seen running through the Kindle Forums this week is the page spread issue. Amazon states that you can "create books with double page spreads or facing pages," and this is true with one huge exception: you can only do so when there is no region magnification present. That is, you must choose "No" to the question "Would you like to create Kindle Panel View" during the title setup process:
Note that this valuecannot be changedonce the title has been created. If you later change your mind, you'll have to start all over (or manually alter the settings in the OPF and re-import the title into KC2).

Also notice that on page 48 of the KCC User Guide, under Section 3.4 Joining Pages, the first line states explicitly (if not as boldly as it might) that the information that follows in that section applies only to ebooks "withoutKindle Panel View" (my italics). This is the one and only place that this is mentioned! However, notice that these instructions for "Joining Pages" and using page spreads appear only in the User Guide in this section - Section 3 "Creating and Editing Books without Kindle Panel View" - while Section 2, which covers "Creating and Editing Books with Kindle Panels," does not contain any information regarding page spreads, because they are not available when Panel View is present.

Those who have referenced the Kindle Fixed Layout Functionality chart will know that this is the case with RegionMag in general when the "comic" book-type is chosen: page-spreads only work on the HD7 and Gen2 Fire, as well as the Android app, when RegionMag is absent, while on the HD8.9 and Paperwhite they work more or less correctly (see the chart footnotes for details). And, of course, two-page spreads do not work in any case on the Kindle for PC app or Kindle 3 (and I would guess the Kindle for Mac app as well).

Furthermore, you can only select "Unlocked" for the orientation value if you chose "No" to Panel View: which means any titles that have Panel View must be locked in either Portrait or Landscape orientation. This is a shortcoming of region magnification at present, which does not translate well from one orientation to the other when auto-orientation is allowed. Thus, Amazon have eliminated this option here.

As a final note on this subject, I should point out that page spreads do not work at all with any other book-type but comic, including (for some unfathomable reason) children's books! The only exception to this at present is the Paperwhite; even the HD8.9 no longer accepts two-page spreads in children's books, even though it did prior to the last update.

Another aspect of this that has been running through the Forum threads is that that orientation icons on the Display panel in KC2 will only show up when the "No" and "Unlocked" configuration is selected: in all other cases, these icons will be absent. 

In addition, the "Add Blank Page" option will only be available with this configuration. I have tested the functionality of the Layout-Blank value, which is added to the OPF Spine item in a somewhat different manner than described in the Kindle Publishing Guidelines. Here, KCC adds both the "facing-page" value along with the "layout-blank" as a single property:
<itemref idref="item-4" linear="yes" properties="facing-page-right layout-blank"/>
However, this makes the blank page function just like any other page that you might add, which shows up in both portrait and landscape orientation, rather than only in landscape as is supposed to be the case with the "layout-blank" value. In none of my extensive tests have I ever seen the layout-blank work as it should, with the sole exception of the Paperwhite when the "comic" book-type value is not chosen (i.e. it works correctly with the "children" book-type, or none entered). The only reason to add a blank page is so that it retains a two-page spread in landscape, rather than centering a stand-alone page, but if it's going to show the blank page in portrait orientation as well, there's absolutely no point in adding the "layout-blank" value: it's just another page at that point.

I also want to point out here that the inner margin issue is still present using KC2: that is, on every Kindle Fire model except the generation 1, and also on the Andoid app, when the "comic" book-type is chosen, the inner margin is removed from two-page spreads, regardless of whether you use the "facing-page" or "page-spread" Spine value: they are all treated as page-spreads, and "facing pages" simply do not exist.

Another point I'd like to make here is that, contrary to the claim made on page 34 of the KCC User Guide, ebooks made using KC2 do NOT appear on the Books tab of your Kindle device. Because KC2 uses Kindlegen for its conversion, the same reservations apply here as they do when doing any conversion through Kindlegen. In this case, the required EBOK value for the "CDE Type" is not added, and so the files produced will appear on the DOCS tab when side-loaded. Only when these files are uploaded and put on sale via KDP will the downloads appear on the Books tab.
Finally, I want to mention the two features that actually make this a reasonably useful tool, and these are the creation of Panels and the built-in HTML/CSS editor.

Kindle Comic Creator not only lets you create text and image pop-ups using a graphic interface to visually layout and adjust the individual panel size and placement, but it will do this automatically using an auto-detect feature that is very handy. And regardless of the method used, you can always alter and adjust them later, even after saving and reopening the project. My tests have shown that the auto-detect function works only when there are white spaces between panels, not black ones. The page in my Advanced Template that has five panels divided by black borders, for example, was seen as one panel using auto-detect. This may simply be due to a lack of contrast between panels, however, and some adjustment in the settings is available, although I have not tested them extensively.

Also useful is the fact that you can also drag-and-drop the panel thumbnails to quickly change their reading order, which is rather handy. Ultimately, however, I found the manual panel creation process more cumbersome than helpful, and not useful at all for complex layouts. You cannot, for example, add a different image or fill to the zoom region, or change the formatting of the lightbox effect without resorting to manually modifying the code, which essentially undermines the entire point of the application.

On that note, however, the other feature I will mention here is that KC2 does boast a nice HTML/CSS editing feature that allows you to alter the underlying code from right inside the program. This could be its nicest feature, were the preview able to actually show the embedded fonts correctly. But instead it will only show your custom fonts as system defaults, for which you can set the one that is the closest as a "fallback" using a drop-down menu beside the embedded font in the Rich Test Editor. Unfortunately, previewing pages is a less than adequate experience, as far as accuracy is concerned, and I ended up having to continually export the KF8 converted file to an actual device so I could see what it really looked like. If you're only using simple fonts like Georgia or Tahoma, KC2 should suffice, but if you want to add in more artistic fonts like Marker Fine Point or Eraser you're out of luck.

Ultimately, Kindle Comic Creator might be useful as a way to set up your initial layout, before adjusting the underlying code by hand. But I still recommend you do most of your coding manually, unless you're building a title with very basic layouts. KC2 only adds a small amount of extraneous entries to your code - primarily kindle generator references (such as "data-app-amzn-ke-created-style") - all of which can be deleted during cleanup. For image-only pages it will also add the CSS styling to the HTML tags, which can be a nuisance, but nothing that can't be easily replaced. The main place where KC2 will prove most useful for many Kindle comic creators is in the placement of Panels, which will generate CSS positioning data that can then be massaged for optimal placement.