Publishing with ePUB at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)


Quaderns portàtils

The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) began publishing its digital series of Quaderns portàtils (portable notebooks) in 2006. From the beginning, the goal was to make these publications easy to read, distribute and share. Originally offered in PDF format, the MACBA is now making the QP series available in ePUB format. ePUB is an open e-book standard that can optimize content for different display devices. We spoke with Sònia López, head of the Web at MACBA, about their experiences publishing with ePUB.

You can see the complete series of Quaderns portàtils online at

What were some of the reasons why the MACBA decided to start providing access to your Quaderns portàtils series in an e-book format in addition to PDF?

We want to make it easy for our readers to access and use the content we provide. The more formats we can publish in, the more we will respond to the many needs of our users. This is related to our goal to be as “open” as possible.

Quaderns portàtils (QP) is one of those surprising projects that started from a very simple idea: we wanted to produce a low-cost and well designed line of publications, easy to distribute and share. As soon as they were launched, the QP became one of our digital “blockbusters”. In 2006 when we launched the series, it was very common to have a printer handy at home, and it looked like PDF was the format that best fit our needs: you could read the publication on screen but the common behaviour was to print it. The design is also made to be able to bind the printed pages as a classical book.

The download of PDFs has been consistently high since 2006. Twenty eight issues have been published and more than 18,000 QPs have been downloaded to date. This encouraged us to extend the range of formats for the series.

Why did you choose ePUB as an e-book format?

ePUB is free and open, and the accepted standard for e-books. It allows CSS styling which is something important for us (we like to make usable editions but still pretty). It also supports metadata, something we started to care about some time ago.

The idea of providing Quaderns portàtils in different formats came up early on (we started talking about it in 2009) but back then, the scenario of reading digital formats was confusing and the resources for conversion were difficult to manage. Designers didn’t have sufficient experience yet and tablets and e-readers were still something very new and uncommon. So we left the idea in the fridge.

But when Sigil, Calibre and some other software tools emerged that made the conversion to different formats seem very easy, we thought it was time to experiment. Sometimes I have the feeling that real life moves much faster than “institutional life”: I was converting my personal readings to ePUB at home, but I did not at the museum? Why? Senseless. Somebody said that the QP essays were too dense to be read on a screen. But I think the cost of working with ePUB is so low, that it is worth it to let the readers decide where and how they want to read the essays.

Will previous issues of the Quaderns portàtils be converted to ePUB format or will it only be used going forward with new issues?

The Quaderns portàtils series released 27 titles to date only in PDF and I think in the next 12 months we will be able to convert the older issues to ePub as well. We now have an XML template to use and open source software to work with, so it’s only a matter of time to progress with the conversion.

Have you encountered any challenges, technical or otherwise, in producing ePUB files?

We commissioned the development of the XML template to the studio that designed the PDF format for the series ( and they did the “hard work” of dealing with the particularities of the format. There are some factors to take into account. For example in an ePub footnotes are always at the very end of the document and therefore the contents that used to go to the back-cover now have to be presented slightly differently. But in general, I think the process was easy from a technical point of view.

I think the bigger challenge for the designers was to accept the loss of control in the general look of the e-book. But, on the other hand, they realized that their loss of control was a gain for users, so the final balance was fair enough. In this case, content and its easy access is the main interest.

They tried very hard to make a template that is usable but still well designed for a comfortable reading. I think they succeeded.

Quaderns portàtils

How has the use of ePUB changed your digital publishing workflow?

It hasn’t really, but this has to do with the fact that we use the “pure text” possibilities of the ePub format. For the QP series the text is edited and proofread by the same standards used for other publications. We divide (or maybe the word should be identify) the content into different units (cover, index, title, body of text, colophon, notes, etc) and we give it to the designer who first works with an Adobe InDesign template prepared for a double output (PDF and ePUB). Once we have the PDF layout back we proofread it again once or twice. Then, when we are ready to finalize the PDF, we get the ePUB file for a final revision in a tablet. If everything is ok in the PDF, normally the ePub will be ok too. We check the metadata as well. This is something I admit we didn’t take into consideration when we only had the PDF, I guess that’s because unconsciously we had the printed product in mind, not the digital one.

This workflow is similar to any other non-digital publication, and it works for the QPs because they are mostly plain text content. But just this week I started some conversations for a new publishing project that might require an enriched ePUB format, with some videos and other dynamic resources. We will have to see then if the classical workflow will work.

What tips would you give to an organization that wants to publish in ePUB format?

I would encourage any organization to give to ePUBs a try. If you cannot afford a designer to help you, there are some handy tools available that you can experiment with on your own. If you are a bit geeky, you can take an ePUB with a structure you like and open it with Calibre or Sigil to see how it is made and borrow some ideas to make your own ePUB XML template.

Metadata is a very important thing. Take good care with it. Here I can point to some articles that might be of interest on the subject of metadata and its importance in different contexts:

Tony Gill, Introduction to Metadata, Online Edition version 3.0

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