This is the fourth installment of a series of articles. To read the previous one, please click here
The basics of HTML
Finally, with all the preliminaries out of the way, we are finally ready to descend into the real machinations of eBook creation, but since we will be working with HTML for the next few chapters, let me explain some of the basics first. I will keep this very short because ultimately it is not all that relevant to creating eBooks but it certainly helps understand why things work the way they do. I’m an inquiring mind by nature and I always feel more comfortable doing things when I fully understand what is going on under the hood, and why. It is the reason why I always loved machine code programming because it truly lets you get down to the wire… but I’m straying.
When working with HTML there are two basic layers of information that you need to be aware of because they need to be kept separate for best results. The first layer deals with the structure of the information in an HTML document while the second one deals with its visual presentation.
The structure defines, for example, the titles of a chapter and the actual text of that chapter. If your book is a bit more complex, the structure will also define where images might be embedded in the text. But that’s usually as far as it goes. The facts, only, Ma’am, if you please…
The second layer, the one that is responsible for the visual representation, then takes that structural information and determines how it should look like on a screen, whether you chapter title is in bold typeface, for example, and whether it should be somewhat enlarged, perhaps. It is in charge of creating proper page breaks, indentations and line feeds, as well as possibly margins around your text. It will determine exactly how to place the images embedded in the text, whether text should flow around them or if they should be centered on the page, breaking up the text flow. All these things that are responsible for how your book will look like are handled by this second layer.
As you will learn, the separation of these two layers is crucial because not only will it create in more robust HTML files, it will also make your life a lot easier.
The structural layer
HTML is a basic mark-up language that allows you to insert certain information into text to give it certain properties. All HTML tags are bracketed by < and > signs. One of the easiest ways to understand this is perhaps the following example.
This is an example for <strong>bold</strong> text
As you can see, we have inserted the tag
<strong> before the word “bold.” The
<strong> tag tells the display device that we want the text following the tag to appear in a “strong” typeface – what exactly that is we will discuss later. For the time begin, let’s just say, it means we make it bold. On the device, the result of this line will look something like this…
This is an example for bold text
Naturally, we will also need to tell the display when to switch back to the regular typeface, and we can simply do that by inserting a
</strong> tag. It is like a toggle. Turn bold typeface on… write… turn bold typeface off.
Most of HTML works this way, as you will see. An opening tag starts an action, a closing tag ends it. Look at the following example and I am sure you will understand what it does as soon as I tell you that the
<em> tag means “emphasize,” which in HTML is equivalent with italic.
This is an example for <em>italic</em> text
Yeah, I assume you see how this works, don’t you? In your eBook reader, the result of this line you look a lot like this
This is an example for italic text
Let’s try something a little harder. Make this more interesting, so to speak.
One of the major elements of a book are paragraphs. A number of sentences that we bunched together and that we usually want to appears as some kind of unified block. The best way to tell HTML that it is dealing with a paragraph is by using the
<p>This is a paragraph. It might be a short one, but computers are intrinsically stupid and surely won’t care.</p>
Note the opening
<p> and the closing
</p> tags that tell the display device exactly where we are beginning and ending our paragraph. With this knowledge, we can later tell the device exactly how we want it to treat and display these paragraphs.
Another very important HTML tag that you will most likely come across when building eBooks is
<img>, used to embed an image in a document. Its use looks something like this.
<img src=“/images/cover.jpg” alt=“Cover” />
Its usage is very simple. All we do, is tell the device where to find the actual image file — the file “cover.jpg” in the subdirectoy “images” in this case. Unlike HTML you would create for web pages usually, when we create HTML for eBooks we need to be a little more mindful of some of the smaller details. The alt parameter, for example, is essential in eBooks and cannot be left out — unless you want to create a flawed, broken eBook file that will be rejected by various distribution outlets. So, simply include a brief one- or two-word description of the image. It doesn’t really matter what you say here, as long as you have the parameter included. If you wish you can even leave it empty, and make it look like this
<img src=“/images/cover.jpg” alt=“” />
In addition always make sure to close the tag properly with the slash at the end, like such “
/>”. eBook readers are very picky about these small details, so make sure you do it right the first time around and turn it into a habit.
For the most part, these are the key tags we will be using to build our eBooks. While there are many other tags in the HTML vocabulary, from my experience, the ones I just showed you are pretty much the core of what you will need. For certain, more specific tasks you might have to make use of others, but I prefer to introduce and tell you about those as we get to them over the course of this series. It will be easier to understand and memorize them when you see them within their proper context and in actual use.
For now this will suffice and as you can see, this has been very easy and straight-forward, has it not? Like I said, easy as burning a marshmallow over an open fire.
In the next installment of the series we will begin to take a closer look at the second layer of HTML where I will show you how to affect the actual look and layout of the text elements we discussed above.
Part I • Part II • Part III • Part IV • Part V • Part VI • Part VII • Part VIII • Part IX
Also, don’t forget to check out my book Zen of eBook Formatting that is filled with tips, techniques and valuable information about the eBook formatting process.