Time was when creating an ebook in EPUB format required some high-end tools and knowledge of XHTML and XML coding. Today, however, EPUB creation apps are increasingly available to anyone. I have on my Mac a number of apps that can produce attractive EPUBs without forcing me to touch a tag. Nor are these apps only for high-end professionals; they’re designed to be used by so-called “normal” people. For example, Pages and Nisus Writer Pro are aimed at general users, iBooks Author is targeted at teachers, and Scrivener is designed for writers — okay, maybe it’s stretching things to call this last group “normal” but I think you get the point.
You can now add to this list of EPUB-creating apps Google’s word processing Web app, Google Docs. Recently making its way onto the File > Download As submenu in Google Docs is this new option: EPUB Publication. Choose that and — presto! — your document is downloaded to your computer as an EPUB ebook, ready to be opened by iBooks or any other EPUB reading app. No muss, no fuss, and it takes just seconds.
Sounds great, right? Not so fast: while the menu command does produce an EPUB as advertised, you may find yourself disappointed with the results unless your document is simple text with little or no special formatting.
Take, for example, the EPUB created from the dissertation file that a friend of mine had in Google Docs. The strict margin requirements that dissertations require were too much for the Web app to handle, producing an EPUB that chopped off the text at the end of each line.
Okay, so maybe dissertations and their finicky formatting requirements are beyond this export feature. How about a simple text document that adds in an occasional image, as a school or business report might? Even then, problems arise. For example, a simply formatted TidBITS article about iTunes, when downloaded from Google Docs, produced an EPUB that, while not truncating text, fell apart when it came to the images: almost every image in the article extended beyond the margins — and not just the text margins but the page margins, causing portions of images to spill over onto the next page.
Maybe simple documents without graphics can make it through Google Docs’ EPUB-exporting mill. To test that, I tried a page of a novel I wrote recently, a book that contains no images and precious little special formatting. Even something this simple broke when the exporter encountered italic text, adding an extraneous space after each italic.
In short, there’s no chance that Google Docs is currently capable of creating something as complex as a Take Control book, where we have styled text, lots of graphics, and a lot of internal and external links.
Although the capability to export a document as EPUB certainly has its uses, especially if you want to share the document with people who will view it on a mobile device where a PDF may be too awkward to view (remember, PDFs provide the images of printed pages, which on a small screen can be unreadably minuscule), the EPUB export capability currently provided by Google Docs is unlikely to provide satisfactory results for most people. Doubtless, Google will improve the exporter over time, but until it gets smarter about EPUB exporting, I can’t recommend it for any purpose beyond amusement.