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Nellie McKesson

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Hey all!

I'm the eBook Operations Manager at O'Reilly. I do a range of things involving web tech and I also manage our internal tooling team--two awesome ladies who are great at XSL, python, ruby, etc.

I started speaking at conferences last summer. My most recent talk was two days ago, about using HTML and CSS to make print books (, which has been my latest huge project.

I'm at the O'Reilly office in Cambridge.

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Some notes on my first hour with xhtml2pdf (python pdf processor):

This is an open source tool built on python for converting html documents to pdf. For those without access to for-pay PDF processors like Antenna House or Prince, it could potentially be a viable option. (Prince also offers a demo version of their tool, which adds a watermark to the first page of each document but otherwise is fully functional.)

The code is all up on GitHub: I tried following the instructions in the github README first, failed (I'm not really
great at installing command line tools piecemeal), and only then decided to look through the docs, where I found these easy installation instructions:

To install: $ easy_install xhtml2pdf
To run: $ xhtml2pdf --css=/path/to/cssfile.css /path/to/htmlfile.html

Here's what I learned in my first hour:

* If the script starts to run and then errors out, you probably have either an error in your css, or you're trying to use css that isn't supported.
* Use the test css provided and the html docs to get the hang of things. When you clone the repo, you can find them here:
xhtml2pdf/doc/pisa-en.html, pisa.css
* Define all your block elements with display: block; (for some reason it's not built-in). This will also allow your block-level formatting to work (e.g., borders).
* Most of CSS3 paged media spec is not supported, but there are extensions that duplicate a lot of the paged media functionality. For example, to set up page size, you'd use "-pdf-page-size: letter;" instead of "size: 8.5in 11in;".
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The Need for Continuity in the Classroom

The announcements first of iBooks Author ( and then of inkling Habitat ( force a largely (though increasingly less) ignored issue in the publishing industry: continuity between formats. There’s a great deal of excitement about the future of books, and the new opportunities for content in digital devices, but here’s the catch: print is not dead (at least not yet).

This issue is crucial for educational publishing, where continuity is especially important. Content providers need to provide equitable and easily relatable learning experiences—they need to provide print customers with a learning experience equal to the one received by digital customers. In addition, the bridge to discussion needs to be seamless and effortless. When a classmate reading from the print book refers to the third paragraph on page 256, digital customers need to have a clear path to this destination. This may mean codifying and including page number references within the ebook text, as running footers or in the margin or even as an extra navigational menu, or it may mean changing the way locations are marked in the print book to correspond better to the options for digital reading. (However, if you choose to reinvent the print numbering scheme, you run the risk of pushing beyond the limits of what readers will accept. Print pagination schemes are old and established to the point of unconsciousness, so any new scheme would need to be so intuitive that readers are willing to step out of their established norms.)

Similarly, when a digital customer refers to the intro video for chapter 5, print customers also need a clear path to this content. Some ideas off the top of my head for the latter scenario: a link to ancillary content that they can view on their smartphones—maybe by scanning a QR code or via an app that accompanies print book sales; perhaps a transcript of the video with screenshots (though this treads the very fine line of providing an inferior learning experience).

Perhaps the solution is simply to offer the content in only one format and force readers to adopt that if they want your book; or maybe we should just continue pumping content into multiple digital formats, adding enhancements and ignoring print until readers finally catch up; but my gut tells me that readers won't accept a single format (considering the range of devices available), and that readers are going to need a bit more hand-holding and guidance while transitioning to digital learning experiences. Because the real question is: is print ever going to die at all?

As a semi-related sort of epilogue, here’s a list of reading/study behaviors that were most important to me when I was in school (most of which are possible or even easier in the digital world):
Find passages referred to in class discussions
Find my notes and the sections they referred to
Flag sentences, paragraphs, or mark pages
Highlight words or passages
Add notes in margins or in the front or back of the book
Cite passages in research papers
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