Thursday, November 7, 2013

The e-Writing Jungle Part 1: LaTeX to pdf to the Web

LaTeX and MathML and MathJax and Python and Sphinx and IPython and R and Knitter and Firefox and Chrome and ...

My head is spinning with all this stuff. Maybe yours is too.

One thing is clear: The traditional academic book publishing paradigm (broadly defined) is cracking and will soon be crumbling. In the emerging e-paradigm there will be essentially no difference among books, courses, e-books, e-courses, web sites, blogs, and so on. With no loss of generality, then, let's just call it all "e-books," filled with text, color graphics, audio/video, animations, interactive learning tools, massive numbers of internal and external hyper-links, etc.

An interesting question is how to create (``write"?) and distribute such e-books. The amazing thing is that the answer remains unclear. Both pitfalls and opportunities abound. Here are some thoughts.

Part 1:  LaTeX to pdf to the Web

One obvious e-book creation and distribution route is traditional LaTeX, compiled to pdf and posted on the web. Effete insiders now sneer at that, viewing it as little more than posting page photos of an old-fashioned B&W paper book. I beg to differ. What's true is that most people still fail to use the e-capabilities of LaTeX, so of course their pdf product is little more than an e-copy of an old paper book, but that's their fault. All of the above-mentioned e-desiderata are readily available in LaTeX/pdf/web; one just has to use them!

Moreover, LaTeX/pdf/web has at least two extra benefits relative to a website (say). First, trivially, the pdf is instantly printable on-demand as a beautiful traditional book, which is sometimes useful. Second, and more importantly, the linear beginning-to-end layout of a "book" -- in contrast to the non-linear jumble of links that is that is a website -- is pedagogically invaluable when done well. That is, good authors put things in a precise order for a reason, and readers benefit by reading in that order.

OK, you say, but how to restrict access only to those who pay for a LaTeX/pdf/web e-book? (It's true, a pdf web post is basically impossible to copy-protect.) My present view is very simple: Just get over it and forget the chump change. Scholarly monographs and texts are labors of love; the real compensation is satisfaction from helping to advance and spread knowledge. And if that's not quite enough, rest assured that if you write a great book you'll reap handsome monetary rewards in subtle but nevertheless very real ways, even if you post it gratis.

[To be continued. Next: HTML and MathML and LaTeXtoHTML5 and MathJax and ...]