Google Docs users are now able to export their documents in EPUB format, complete with the facility to convert Word indexes into clickable chapter indices.

The announcement was made yesterday by the Google Apps team, and although the feature’s introduction has been ushered in quietly, it’s a fairly significant step in achieving cross-device compatibility for a wide range of new and legacy documents.

Since the EPUB format is generally associated with longer works such as novels or academic treatises, one of the most essential features for EPUB producers is a reliable hyperlinked chapter index – the kind of initial indices that can be created (though not without some research into the method) by Microsoft Word, which draws the links and creates the menu based on the formatting styles applied to section headings.

exporting epub from google docs

Curious as to how a properly-indexed work of reasonable length would survive conversion from Word (.doc) format to Google’s EPUB export, I uploaded a 46-page work-related indexed 2015 Word document via Google Doc’s ‘upload file’ feature. Once uploaded the .doc is viewable in GDocs but not editable or exportable until you press a button to convert it to a Google Doc file.

update-table-of-contents-google-docsAt this stage, even in ‘viewing’ rather than ‘edit’ mode, the hyperlinks in the initial Word index do not actually work (i.e. clicking on Chapter 5 does not take you there), even though Google Docs is capable of updating the table.

stack-converted-to-epubHowever, exporting the imported/converted document to EPUB preserves the chapter indices beautifully, which – when viewed with an EPUB-capable reader such as SumatraPDF (see image right) – allows for a most convenient clickable sidebar index.

The EPUB format is a free and open XML-based publication standard, ratified by the International Digital Publishing Forum; its complete freedom from the kind of proprietary, semi-open format standards which can hamper Adobe PDF as a document format has led to it becoming the widest-used format across a range of reading and general devices – including Android’s Google Books and iBooks on Apple’s iOS platform.

Editing the EPUB format

Since EPUB is little more than tightly-wired XML-based HTML output, it is potentially highly editable with free software such as open source multi-format reader Calibre. Additionally any edits made will not cause the horrendous text reflow problems which have plagued the PDF format since its inception as press-ready output in the early 1990s. Other desktop-based products capable of editing the EPUB format include Sigil, the online eBook editor Papyrus and the less WYSIWYG-oriented Brackets. At a professional level there are InDesign plug-ins of varying complexity and cost that can edit and/or output EPUB (as well as native support in later versions), but the full potential of making the format as friendly as pure text or popular proprietary or OS formats has not begun to be realised – particularly in the mobile space.

Because of this, the general perception of the EPUB-formatted e-book is that of a ‘baked and finished’ product, to be consumed rather than amended.

Nonetheless it is notable that a product as popular as Google Docs can now effectively translate legacy indexed Word-style documents into EPUB.