Booki to Booktype, BookJS and beyond…

Many years ago I was the Product Manager and Project Lead for Booktype at Sourcefabric. We developed many interesting technologies including Booktype itself, Objavi, StyleJS, BookJS, Booktype Renderer, and Booktype Designer, amongst others.

Booktype is still going very well and has also spawned the very interesting Omnibook service. Due to the recent interest in this project, I revisited this old video which documents some of the exploratory thinking I had when leading the Booktype team at Sourcefabric. It was recorded May 2012 at #dev8ed in Birmingham, UK. At the time I was leading a small team, having just migrated Booki (FLOSS Manuals) to Booktype (at Sourcefabric).

I found the video really interesting as it covers my thinking at the time, (developed over many years of experimenting in this area) over many issues, including rendering books in the browser and using the browser as a design environment for books. There are some nice quotes which accurately reflect how I was thinking then which are interesting:

"there is no one taking responsibility for designing environments where you can target both flowable text as an output like Kindle or EPUBS, and at the same time, target fixed page outputs like paper books. So we are trying to work this out at the moment. How do you deal with this? .[...] We are trying to work out how can you possibly find a paradigm that fits both flow-based, and fixed page, design" [36min 25s]


"what we want to see [in the browser] is when you are outputting to book-formatted PDF, we want to see like you see in Google Docs - exactly the page dimensions that you are going to get when you output the PDF. Google Docs does some sort of magic where that is possible, we haven't yet cracked it ourselves, but for fixed page design we think it is quite important that what you see in the HTML page is what you would eventually get in the PDF. [41min 37s]

" do you actually render one to one representation of a book-formatted PDF in a browser?" [49min 49s]

"...we can have JavaScript playing a role in rendering elements of pages for book-formatted PDF." [16min 58s]

"...we take the Booktype content as HTML, HTML as the base format, and Objavi formats that into one long HTML page for which we have specific CSS rules to structure the book in a specific way. Then we run WKHTML over the top of it, and a number of other tools, and we assemble a book out of it, book-formatted PDF" [18min 38s]

"Thats because WKHTMLTOPDF is webkit, the browsing engine behind Chrome and Safari, ... so you can use CSS, and JavaScript and everything from webkit, and turn it into a PDF" [19min 50s]

"...the advantage of using webkit as part of the rendering environment, as webkit is a browser, [is that] if you design in the browser you have a one to one co-relation between content creation environment and output environment" [33 min 49sec]

To be clear, we were already using browser engines to make books for quite some time, and Douglas Bagnall, a friend who also worked with me at FLOSS Manuals, even investigated collaborating with the Gecko (Mozilla layout engine) developers to add widows and orphans controls and the CSS page-break control (which we needed for books), in 2010 or so. Actually, it was pretty cool because Douglas, myself and Robert O’Callahan (Mozilla layout engine dev) were all New Zealanders. But FLOSS Manuals had been making books for many years with browser engines since Behdad Esfahbod advised me to explore this, many years earlier. We knew browsers could be used for producing book-formatted PDF and we had been doing it for years.

However, as I have learned over the years, there is an important role for vision, experimentation, and theoretical exploration prior to developing good software. Hence, I was now exploring how you could take these positions further to design books in the browser client. Rendering PDF was one part of the story, the other was working out the tools to take book design to the browser. This was what Adobe was also after, I believe, when they implemented CSS Regions in webkit and started on their Adobe Edge Reflow line of products that leveraged the browser as a ‘design surface’. They were interesting times.

But back to the Booktype story. The video is a demo in May 2012about a month before I hired anyone (in June) to start on what eventually became BookJS. It took us a while to get there but after much discussion, further experimentation, and some months of development, I was able to introduce BookJS in Oct 2012 on the Sourcefabric blog.

Terrible profile pic of me!
Terrible profile pic of me!

While BookJS didn’t quite get to be the design environment I was (and still am) after, it was still a good tool. In an attempt to get to a design and rendering solution in the browser, we later took the Booktype Designer (demonstrated in the video) ideas to a JavaScript prototype called StyleJS for integrating with BookJS but, unfortunately, it didn’t make it to production. StyleJS enabled a kind of ‘WYSIWYG’ tool for styling a page live. Which is an interesting prototype for future in browser book production exploration.

Work continued on BookJS and it has had a useful life despite some quirky turns in the road. During this time, the Booktype team worked with several people on the development of BookJS and received good advice and contributions from Mihai Balan (from the Adobe CSS Regions team), Phil Schatz (from Connexions), Maria Fraser (University College London) and others. As with many software projects, contributions like this deserve a lot of credit, as I have written elsewhere, since these contributions are not always preserved in the code.

Another quirk that happened is that the Google team, in an unexpected move which surprised many people and turned into a bit of a CSS heavy hitters ‘discussion’, removed CSS Regions from Blink. Many people were pretty shocked. This, I think (but I don’t know the inside story), spelled the end for Adobe’s vision of the browser as a design surface using CSS Regions, and the Adobe Edge Reflow product has been discontinued.

In the Booktype world, Juan Gutierrez (who worked on BookJS at Sourcefabric, and now works with me at Coko) extended BookJS to support the CSS Regions polyfil. It is still in use now with Book Sprints for rendering books. Consequently, we are still very grateful that Booktype and Sourcefabric kept the BookJS product AGPL after I left the project so we could extend it. Hurray for Open Source!

It is good to see Booktype going strong, Sourcefabric still invested in Open Source, and a growing interest around Omnibook. I know the team there, Micz Flor (co-founder of Sourcefabric and Managing Director of Booktype) being an old friend, and Julian Sorge also makes a great Booktype Managing Director. They have brought their own vision to the Booktype products, pushing them in new directions, and it is really great to see. I’m hoping they will continue to go from strength to strength.

In summary, these were interesting, productive times. Sourcefabric provided the opportunity for Booktype to grow, and I experimented a lot, as I had done at FLOSS Manuals (and continue to do now), with new ideas and approaches. There was some great software, books, and ideas that came out of that period. Some of the books we made I have even kept with me through my travels. In the video, for example, I demonstrate the Booktype Designer. We built the Designer before and during the Sandberg Institute workshop I led in Amsterdam and used it in the same month as I did the presentation to create this wonderful artist’s book. I carried it with me all over the world and still have it on my bookshelf now!

Waag Society/Remko Siemerink 2012.
Waag Society/Remko Siemerink 2012.

Nice to find this old vid.

Original url for the video:



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