Installing PubCoder

I’m leaving for the USA in a while for a holiday, so been busy preparing for that.

Why this post about installing PubCoder?

In my last post, I determined the first of 10 heuristics/criteria for choosing a tool that helps you create and publish ebooks. When critiquing an ebook creation tool, I ask:

  1. Does the tool support effortless writing?

I can’t answer that question before installing PubCoder. Also, the installation process is a herald of the kind of interaction design decisions designers made about the rest of the application. So if I struggle to set it up, I’ll likely struggle to get into it.

I’ll be using PubCoder as a tool to create fixed-layout interactive ebooks that can be published on a variety of platforms. I suggest checking out Non-Fiction Fixed Layout eBooks from my mentors, eBook Architects to get a sense of how complicated it can be to make these kinds of books. Which is why ebook designers ask a hefty fee for making them.


Installing PubCoder: A “meh” experience

Here are the screenshots and my thoughts about installing PubCoder as comments. My verdict so far is that PubCoder’s installation process is needlessly complicated, requires an internet connection, and leaves the user without much guidance at first startup.

However! I did play with PubCoder after installing it, and am finding a lot of promising interaction design decisions which, I think, will prove it to be a powerful tool for creating fixed-layout or interactive ebooks. But that’s for another post.


1. Requiring access through your computer’s safety net, the firewall, makes installation difficult, but isn’t the developer’s fault. Most users should be familiar with this dialog, and know what to do. 


2. First annoyance, a random crash. Errors are hard to explain to users, and the reassurance that “you will be able to send a crash report” is fine, but still doesn’t help the user feel in control. Why not add an option to send a crash report within that error message?


3. Requiring users to sign in online all the time is an understandable security precaution, but it’s also an added step. The more steps it takes to install software, the less likely users will be to complete installation (totally anecdotal, not a rule that I know of). 


4. Do you really need all this information? If company isn’t required, why have that field there at all?


5. A decent captcha. 


6. The verification email was pretty easy. Yet another step, though. 


7. Alright, one month to go! 


8. Confirmation that you may have to be online at all times. 


9. All done! Time to look at example ebook projects. 

Ten rules for evaluating book creation software. 1: Does the tool support effortless writing?

I tell people how they should fix their information products. When I do, I follow some obvious rules, and them some less obvious one. These tips are to enable customers (readers, clients, whatever) to more easily use one’s information product (book, web site, whatever). For example, this farm (where we’re celebrating a family member’s birthday; it’s his big 3.0.!) uses a clunky, slow and inaccessible Flash animation as a banner. That’s one of the biggest no-nos among web developers! But they’re not paying me to tell them that.

How do you decide which of these is the most readable? Go look up “kerning”. 

The tips and tricks that I’ve taught software developers over the years are as just as relevant to people who create publications such as print or digital books. Today, I’m writing specifically for writers.

Writing is complicated, and good writing is hard. When I write, I use dictionaries, thesauruses, search engines and all kinds of tools unrelated to me physically typing or scribbling. Assuming that tools such as these are part of the process of writing, then software should make it natural and effortless to use those tools, too.

Also, we need different tools — mental, physical or digital — for different kinds of writing. Educational consultant Eveline M. Bailey  uses this chart to demonstrate levels of critical writing.  There’s software available for all of this, but is any of it good? We’ll see. 

So how do I decide what software to recommend to writers? My desire to work naturally and effortlessly when writing, is the basis of my list of rules for writing software. My list of ten heuristics will help me evaluate the usability of the software you can use to make books.

So, here’s the first heuristic:

  1. Does the tool support effortless writing*?

More to follow once I actually try out PubCoder. The Windows installer is 168 MB, so we’ll see how this goes on my mobile connection.


Here I go.

* I chose the term effortless instead of the word natural because that leaves space for innovation in writing, such as speech-to-text technology, which might enable me to write while I’m moving around. Dictation-to-text, really. Such novel, unnatural ways of writing are welcome, but their utility shouldn’t make writing an effort.

Beating the drum for DRM?

I finished marking some PUB310 semester tests. In one of the questions, I ask students to suggest criteria that would influence their choice of ebook vendor. A criterion that is often used is the use of digital rights management (DRM) – or at least, the option of providing DRM for titles. According to the memorandum, this statement is part of an acceptable answer.

Given my personal feelings about DRM in general (feelings that are often compounded by Steam), this criterion worries me – especially when presented as a quick solution for  protecting intellectual property. Frankly, I want them to realise that selecting DRM as a default option without considering the effects of that choice is a very bad thing.

In Beating the drum for DRM?, Appazoogle’s Leah Thompson summarises discussions for and against the use of DRM. Leah shows how the Triangle of Fraud – a model used to investigate accounting fraud – can be used to consider the relationship between DRM and piracy. One of the components of this triangle is rationalization: ‘I already own the book version.’ ‘It’s not worth as much as they’re trying to charge.” The other two, pressure (high prices) and opportunity (cheap bandwidth), might imply that lowering prices can play as great a role as reducing opportunities to pirate (such as litigation or access restrictions).


I’m a geek, but love books first and foremost (# 3) – Storieman and kids book apps

This is the third in a series of posts [1][2][3] that explain just how much I love reading, especially books.

Technology doesn’t discourage kids from reading. As a child, one of my favourite book series was enhanced with tape cassettes that read out the text and guided the reader through the pages. I knew the book series in Afrikaans as Storieman, published by Rubicon-Press in 1982, but discovered today that the original UK version is The Story Teller by Marshall Cavendish.

Storieman cover page

I was reminded of Storieman while reading the ebook version of The Schatzkin Files – a collection of posts about changes in the book industry – especially his thoughts on enhanced ebooks and juvenile fiction.

Storieman was a collection of children’s stories that came with a set of eight-track tapes. You (or a parent) would open the book, play the cassette, and read along with the narrators that spoke in the voices of the characters. Every now and then, a “priiiiing” would sound, prompting you to turn the page.

We -loved- Storieman. I recall getting excited when our mother called us to read and the disappointment I’d feel when the tape player would abruptly interrupt the story by asking us to turn it around to side B. Gobblino, the Witch’s Cat was by far one of our favourites.

Gobbolino, the Witch's Cat

In his post, Mike predicts that juvenile fiction will migrate to enhanced digital products much faster than narrative text. Also, these kids’ titles will be produced by new companies rather than book publishers. He mentions examples of publishers partnering digital media studios – the kinds of companies that film and TV studios have also been to create interactive experiences around their content – to create reading experiences for kids in the form of apps.

PopOut! PeterMonster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street bookMonster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street book

What if Storieman were available as an app?

I’ve noticed a significant growth in children’s ebook apps on both the iTunes and Android stores.  There are books that read out text, books that let you interact with illustrations (some rather useless; making each object in the scene wiggle and bleep is a distraction at the least), books with puzzles and books that emulate other “enhanced” children’s books such as virtual “pull-out” books.

I also showed some of these apps to my niece, a precocious and loquacious 7 old. Both she and her mom were delighted by these books and it took a bit of encouragement for my niece to part with the tablet.

The Reluctant Catterpillar, a Meegenius kids' book application.Four seasons kids' book applicationFour seasons kids' book application

Storieman was an enhanced book, and reading about Mike’s predictions about childrens’ literature and ebook apps, I wondered what Storieman could have been like today. Then I discovered that Human & Rosseau is planning to release the series again – this time on CD. So far, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to do anything else with the content viz. Pottermore, but I wonder what they could do…

In order to pass this course, you should publish an ebook.

I want to try out a different way of evaluating an ebook project, but there seems to be some resistance to the idea – the idea being that they should actually publish a ebook – get it “out there” – as part of their qualification.

In this post, I try to explain my reasoning behind this idea.

About the course

I teach publishing students about publishing in the digital environment. While the course covers various aspects of e-publishing, our focus lies in ebooks. As one of their assignments, students prepare content into an EPUB document, theoretically meant for publication in the ebook marketplace. They also investigate various ebook vendors in a theoretical assignment where they act as a publisher intending to distribute its titles.

The theoretical nature of these assignments bothers me. The publishing industry is inherently a production industry. If we expect students to play a role in preparing and distributing content in the real world, they should have some experience in it.

Academic vs. vocational training

This proposal underlies the nature of evaluation methods in higher education. Universities are playing an increasing role in vocational training: that is, preparing students for the workplace. The need to offer both vocational and academic training is a balancing act between research-focused and practice-focused assignments.

Employers in South Africa need skilled workers:

“In 2009, Higher Education South Africa (HESA) released a study titled “Graduate Attributes”, which was a study on South African graduates from the perspective of employers. It highlighted a disparity between the expectations of employers and the readiness of graduates, and while expectations outstripped readiness, there was some good news as some colleges were driven towards producing graduates fully prepared for the workplace.”

One way to give my students workplace experience is to encourage them to publish an ebook. This won’t shift the outcomes of the assignments and it will encourage the kinds of teaching methods I believe are useful in both vocational and academic training: learning done through actively engaging with the subject matter.

Also, various degrees require of students a certain amount of workplace experience. What better way to have students experience the ebook industry than having them publish?