Freedom for authors and readers: talking with Nicholas Bernhard of Nantucket E-Books
For this issue of the Bulletin, and as part of the FSF's commitment to a free e-reader, Greg from the FSF campaigns team (GF) conducted an interview with Nicholas Bernhard (NB), the founder and CEO of Nantucket E-Books.
GF: First of all, thanks for agreeing to talk with us about Nantucket e-books and Shanty! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
NB: I'm an author and filmmaker in Colorado. I've also worked with museums for the past five years, educating the public about history. I began learning web development and programming because there were things I wanted to do, creatively, that required those skills.
GF: For anyone in our audience who's unfamiliar, could you give a short description of Nantucket e-books and Shanty, and what you hope to accomplish with those projects?
NB: Nantucket E-Books is a platform that makes it easier for authors to create and share really great e-books. The first part is the e-books themselves: they can be read in the browser, so no special apps or devices are required. They are mobile-responsive, so they'll look good on phones, tablets, or laptops. They have interactive features you'd expect: dark mode, notes, text resizing, bookmarks. Audiobooks can be built-in. The platform also respects the reader's freedom: GPLv3 or later for all the software on the site, and the Web site is compliant with the GNU LibreJS browser extension. The e-books are written in a markup language called Shanty. The idea behind Shanty is that it lets the writer spend less time fussing with how the e-book will look, and more time writing. With Shanty, it's easy to learn the basics, and then there's a lot of special markup you can learn as needed. Since it's all plain text, files are small and future-proof. When an author's ready to make the e-book, they can just copy the Shanty text into a parser on the website, and it formats the Shanty text into an HTML document.
GF: Could you speak a little bit about why you think having free tools to read and edit e-books is important?
NB: When I started this project, I knew I would release it as free software eventually, which happened with v1.5. The most important reason, for me, was being fair to the people reading my e-books. Readers should be able to see how the e-book is made, and what makes the interactive features work. Even if they don't exercise that option, they should know the option is there, or know they can take it to someone who can repair it or improve it. Fortunately, there's more public awareness now, at least for hardware, thanks to the Right to Repair movement.
Stallman made some good points in his Danger of E-Books flyer. With most modern e-books, you don't really own the book. Sometimes there's DRM that prevents the reader from sharing the book. You can't pay anonymously. Any notes you make in a Kindle e-book can be read by Amazon. They can also pull the book from your device if they feel like it. I wanted to go against that trend. Just recently, a friend of mine was listening to an Audible book for book club. Suddenly, the book stopped playing. Later that day, the audiobook on their phone had been replaced with a newer edition that tied in with an upcoming movie adaptation. I'm sure your readers are familiar with the Amazon 1984 incident.
GF: Did you experience any kind of technical and/or social challenges during the development of Nantucket e-books or Shanty? What were they?
NB: I'll address social challenges first. I developed Nantucket E-Books during the pandemic, which meant quite a bit of isolation, and I found that to be very hard. In addition to the pandemic, there were mass protests, the election, the January 6th insurrection in the US, and Colorado's worst forest fire season ever. It was overwhelming at times. That said, developing Nantucket helped me. I said to myself, "There's so much happening in the world that's beyond my control, I'm going to focus on the things that are within my control, like this project." I kept thinking of something Steve Wozniak said, "It represents yourself when you do a great design." I decided to focus my energies on making Nantucket E-Books as good as possible.
For technical challenges, I had a lot to learn about maintaining a Web project: version control, coordinating help from volunteers to help debug, publicizing updates, and making sure links work. By far the biggest challenge was Arrowhead, which is a browser-based text editor for previewing Shanty text as e-books. In essence, it's a graphical interface for the text parser. They say that adding a GUI to a software project increases the complexity by an order of magnitude, and I can certainly confirm that!
GF: Are there any technical areas where you could use volunteer support from the free software community? If so, what's the best way for them to get involved?
NB: I am looking for authors who would like to use the platform for their own writing. The best way I can improve the site for authors is to get feedback from them, know what's working and what isn't. In addition, the next step for the site is a stronger back-end, where authors can create accounts and upload files through the site. If anyone would like to help with that, I would greatly appreciate it.
GF: If an author is interested in using the platform, how do they contact you?
NB: I can be reached at email@example.com. I can also be reached on IRC at nantucketebooks.com/6667.
GF: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, and best of luck with the project.
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