What is markup?
Markup is literally the process of marking the key elements of a book using a set of standard tags. It’s the first step in the conversion to an ebook, once a manuscript has been through the usual editing, fact-checking and proofing stages.
The markup will be used to guide the conversion program as it takes the manuscript and converts it into an ebook. We’ll use Microsoft Word to mark up the manuscript because it’s simple and the most common, but there are other markup systems for advanced uses.
First rule of digital: Structure and consistency
Most ebook conversion is done in part or completely using computer programs rather than human designers. Computer markup has different requirements and needs to be more rigorous. In particular, markup has to be precisely applied to every instance of an element, not to just a few representative examples.
This means that all of the elements of a book — chapters, chapter headings and sub-heads, body text, captions, lists, footnotes, epigraphs, etc. — need to be explicitly marked.
The process of marking each structural element in a book is called, appropriately, ‘markup’. And, not coincidentally, you’ll also recognize the term from ‘HTML’ (HyperText Markup Language), the computer language that underpins the web and ebooks.
Content and presentation
A second benefit that comes from applying markup is that it enables the separation of the content’s structure from its presentation. What this means is that we can describe the content of an ebook and separately describe how it will be displayed.
For instance, instead of marking up a major heading as ‘Georgia 24 pt bold’ we can mark it as a ‘heading 1’ and separately specify that all instances of ‘heading 1’ should be displayed in Georgia 24 pt bold type.
This becomes important when we need to produce different versions of the book, or several books with the same house style.
Tools for manuscript preparation
Most manuscripts are written using Microsoft Word or a similar word-processing program. Because it’s so common and editors and writers are familiar with it, ebook production systems are usually geared up to accept source material in Microsoft Word format, so we’ll use this for our examples.
If you use another word processor, such as Pages on the Macintosh or the excellent and free OpenOffice for PC or Macintosh, you can usually export to MS Word format (.DOC or .DOCX) or to an open standard called RTF (Rich Text Format). RTF preserves most document formatting and is accepted by most ebook conversion programs.
Some systems use special markup tools, usually based on the advanced markup language XML (eXtensible Markup Language). These are most likely to be found in large companies dealing with complex or highly structured publications such as technical or legal documentation. We will not cover them in any detail here but will touch on XML when we look at the conversion process in the Production section.
Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.