Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sigil User Study


Since taking over as the maintainer of Sigil I have spent some time reaching out to specific people in the ebook community to ask them about Sigil. Specifically if they use Sigil? Why or why not? What do they see as Sigil's shortcomings? How do they use Sigil in their work flow? Why doesn't Sigil work in their work flow. Basically, their thoughts and opinions on Sigil.

I asked specific people privately because I didn't want to be inundated with responses. The people can be broken down into three different groups: self publishers, power users, and professionals. After talking to professionals I've come to realize that they can be broken down into small and large. The size relating to the size of the company and production volume. I spoke with about 8 people total and I tried to keep it even between the various groups.

I wanted to find out who is using Sigil, who isn't using Sigil and why so I can determine where I want to take Sigil in the future. The only ebook editing I do is cleaning up a few books here and there. Learning how people use Sigil will help me to determine the best direction to take the project.

Self Publishers

Self publishers are authors. These are people who write their book and then want to sell it as an ebook themselves. Typically these people are using Word for writing. they export their work as HTML, then import into an ebook editor for final adjustments and savings as an ebook file. The two biggest things self publishers are looking for are easy and high quality .doc or .docx import and one click send to store functionality.

Self publishers are also interested in WYSIWYG editing and don't want to know about the internals of ebooks. They are primarily writers who see ebooks one of many distribution methods. They don't care about the intricacies of EPUB for instance, they just want their work to look good and be readable by their audience.

The typical tools I hear being used by self publishers are calibre for format shifting. Atlantis Word Processor and Jutoh for formatting and base ebook creation. Atlantis and Jutoh both provide very easy to use WYSIWYG interaction and you can use these without ever seeing a line of code.

Power Users

These are people who prepare works in their spare time as a hobby. They are not motivated by money and do not sell the works they publish. Typically the works power users deal with are public domain such as Shakespeare. This group also encompasses people who do not distribute works covered by copyright but spend their time cleaning and reformatting their favorite books strictly for their own enjoyment and personal use.

Power users are comfortable using either WYSIWYG and code editors. The biggest feature requested and talked about by power users is robust regular expression support for search and replace. Many of the books power users work with have terrible and often non-existant formatting. These works typically started life as either a scanned copy of a print book or a PDF file. Both of which typically leave broken paragraphs and misspellings thought the document. Which leads to spell check being the next most common request from this group. They are trying to take a jumble of half sentences and put them back together into a visually appealing layout.

The tools used by power users are Sigil, calibre, Word or Open Office macros, and many custom scripts. Also an advanced text editor like BBEdit and Notepad++ are must have tools.


Professionals format ebooks for one purpose, money. This is what they do for a living. An author comes to them and pays to have the company turn their work into an ebook. For a modest fee an author can have a beautiful ebook produced without any headaches or hassle. Many authors prefer paying someone to do this portion of publishing for them just like they will pay an editor to edit, a print house to print, cover artist to design a cover and so forth. Authors write and typically want to concentrate solely on writing. Many self publishers format their own ebooks out of necessity because of the cost of hiring a professional.

With both small and large professionals I'm specifically talking about ebook publishing and digitization services. I'm not talking about huge publishers like Macmillan that do everything. However, the larger publishers I talked to makes me believe their process is the same as the huge publishers. The big difference between small and large professionals are the tools they use.


Small professionals tend to use either Sigil or Adobe's InDesign for a good portion of their work. Both fill a very similar role in ebook creation. The big draw of InDesign over Sigil is InDesign supports print book layout creation. It's an all in one tool. This type of professional tends to use off the shelf tools that are readily available. Sigil and InDesign are not the only exclusive tools they use but one or the other tends to be a heavily used tool in their tool box.


Large professionals tend to use custom tools. They staff people who's sole job is to develop and maintain ebook creation and formatting tools. They can afford to have custom tools that integration directly into their process. They don't use off the shelf or vanilla tools. This group is all about custom everything. This allows them to quickly adapt to changes.

Professional Tools

Sigil or InDesign and custom tools are all I know. Many professionals are vague about their process and tools. Some even declined to talk to me at all. They use tools in some way that works for them but their methods and implementation are proprietary.

What Does This Mean For Sigil?

Out of all of these groups I have little desire to target self publishers. There are existing tools that do a great job of meeting this groups needs. Sigil has a WYSIWYG editor and it can certainly be improved but I don't want to tie Sigil to a particular store or stores like Amazon or B&N. Also, I want to keep Sigil as an EPUB editor and not a generic ebook editor. I believe that Sigil's strength lies in being able to manipulate the internals of the EPUB format itself. I want to target this aspect more.

Power users are the major group I want to target. Out of all of the people I spoke with power users use Sigil the most and get the most out of it. Advanced editing of an EPUB's structure and code is where I want to take Sigil. That along with advanced text manipulation. Think expansion of calibre's heuristic processing.

Small professionals are major users of Sigil and I do not want to discount them. I believe that their use of Sigil overlaps with power users enough that targeting power users will also target small publishers. I do not want to alienate small professionals and will continue to take their needs seriously. From what I've learned about small professionals tools that make code manipulation easier will be a benefit and hopefully reduce their need for other formatting tools.

The last group, large professionals, do not use Sigil. I don't believe that changing Sigil to accommodate this group will get them to use Sigil. They use their own custom tools and Sigil doesn't fit into their work flow and I don't see it ever doing so. Thus I don't see it being worth while to work toward making Sigil "the tool" for this group.