The Future of the Book: Time to Learn Some HTML/CSS

Among technical communication teachers, there is a long running debate regarding whether or not students creating web pages need to learn HTML/CSS. Or can they just use WYSIWYG's?

I just finished attending the O'Reilly Tools for Change conference this past week. Whether or not students need to understand HTML for building web pages aside, it's definitely now important for technical writers interested in working in the book publishing industry. The sense at the O'Reilly conference is that ebooks are about to become the dominant publication format over print: Bold Predictions: Half of US Publishers Expect E-books to Be Dominant Format by 2014

Maybe it won't happen in 2014, but it certainly does seem to be coming in the next 5 to 10 years. At the conference, Qualcomm representatives predicted 200 million tablet and ereader devices by the end of 2013. Tablets flooded CES 2010 (see a few of them). People are reading books not only on their iPads and ereaders, but their phones as well.

Epub, the dominant ebook format for iPad, Nook, Kobo reader, etc., is a collection of xml metadata files about the book, with the text itself formatted in HTML and CSS. Meanwhile—based on what I learned at the conference—there are apparently NO effective tools for producing an epub out of a print-based workflow. For instance, InDesign's epub conversion is awful. Moreover, Amazon Kindle uses a crippled subset of the epub standard, making it difficult to go from epub to mobi files for Amazon without redoing some of the coding, unless one is publishing something with very simple formatting like a novel.

Here's an example of a text that was obviously converted at some stage using software: Ginsberg's Howl. That was made available for sale to people. Did the publisher even proofread it? LOL

Now the leading consensus of the people I talked to at the O'Reilly conference is that HTML will need to be the base format for manuscripts going into a design workflow that results in digital and print versions of a book. This makes a lot of sense for the future, as the new epub3 standard draft—released this past week and due for formal adoption later this year—is based on HTML 5, CSS3, and the DAISY accessibility standard. Also, once epub3 is adopted and ereader devices support it, designers will be able to create rich multimedia texts that cannot be duplicated in print. For those that believe Dreamweaver an effective tool for creating web pages, Dreamweaver does not work well for the epub2 standard, unless the creator can read the code and work around Dreamweaver's idiosyncrasies, and it's certainly not ready for HTML 5.


I don't think extensive HTML/CSS is warranted, though the basics are certainly useful even when using RTEs. I'd at least want them to know how to format a link and use headings and such, though I'm sure in a few more years it will be rare that you'll ever be called upon to write tags by yourself.

I've made a point of teaching students to use styles and such even when using Word to write essays, just to get them in the habit of thinking that way about documents.

Well, my students who have done internships working with companies that have CMSs have found it useful to know some basic HTML. And then, as I pointed above, if students are interested in working in publishing, a solid understanding of HTML and some CSS could be very helpful over the next few years.