October 21, 2014

9 Truths About EBooks

9 Truths I Have Learnt About EBook Production: Advice to Publishers Starting Out in EBooks

I fell into digital publishing after doing freelance work for various online business start-ups based in East London. At the time, I was looking for a full-time job and not thinking so much about career progression, but it occurs to me now that my background with the online businesses left me peculiarly suited to working with ebooks.

The main reason for this is that, since the traditional publishing industry has gone digital, it has found that the Internet Age has changed consumers’ expectations of digital products for good and it is no longer enough for the ebook just to be the electronic manifestation of the printed book. Ebooks and websites exist in the same world, competing for the top spot on Amazon or Google respectively and drawing similar expectations from the consumers, about their appearance, functionality and interactivity.

So, as a former online business-type and ebook (and publishing) novice, here are the most important things I have picked up and worked out about ebook production since I started nearly two years ago:

Two General Points

1. An ebook is not just an extra, tacked onto the production of the printed book. As much work needs to go into it as would a new edition of a printed book. That is, a design specification, editorial checks, and reflection on the target audience.

2. Leaving aside arguments about aesthetics and tactility, an ebook can be so much more than a printed book, without any of the print production considerations and costs. A straightforward ebook can be designed with colour, contain extra pictures and text, and be completely hyperlinked internally (to references within the book) as well as externally (to websites).

Seven Specific Points

3. Involve the design department. Although it is tempting to reproduce the look of the printed book, this may not be possible or even advisable. Rather than stripping out all design features, work with your book designers to find alternatives or even a completely new appearance for the ebook. I found working with the book designer on Jo Frost’s Confident Toddler Care (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Frosts-Confident-Toddler-Care-Practical/dp/1409113345)—who you Americans know as a super nanny—particularly helpful because she could explain the reasoning behind the print design and instantly knew which features were essential and which we didn’t have to work to preserve.

For a series of books or an imprint, you could save time in the long-run by creating an ebook stylesheet, either as a list of style preferences or a more precise CSS.

4. You must check your ebooks. Firstly, unless you have an XML workflow in place, the transition from the print-ready materials to ebook may introduce errors such as rogue spaces within words. If you’re producing the ebook from old scanned books or early PDFs, there will probably be OCR errors (‘the’ -> ‘die’, ‘then’ -> ‘men’).

Secondly, formatting varies from e-reading devices, so what looks fine on the Kobo may look strange on the Kindle. Checking in the first place will save time later, as if customers complain and you need to arrange proofreading retrospectively, a whole new administrative task will be created.

5. Metadata is extremely important, for ebooks and printed books. Online businesses never stop going on about SEO (search engine optimisation) and their website’s searchability, and good metadata for books is important for the same reason: you need your books to be able to be found by the people who are looking for them.

For publishing, this means detailed BIC and BISAC codes, keywords in book descriptions and supplying cover images. Unlike some online businesses, the problem isn’t so much about creating ‘good content’ as remembering to put it in the right places. Ebook-specific metadata seems quite rare at the moment, but I think it has the advantage of assuring the customer that the publisher has thought about the ebook (c.f. the description for The Incomplete Tim Key, from Canongate).

6. Consider the customer expectations for ebooks, as they are different to those of the printed book. The relationship between print publishers and the readers is quite one-way, but people’s expectations of ebooks are fed by webpages and so they expect more interactivity. For example, indexes and internal references should be hyperlinked, the text should be searchable and the font size changeable. I think it will increasingly become the case that, if an ebook contains errors that are then corrected, customers will expect their purchased copies to be updated automatically.

… which brings us on to …

7. Understand the e-reading user experience. You really need to try buying and reading ebooks yourself. Again, website owners think about this all the time, planning the ideal user experience from the moment they arrive on the site and working on points of action, navigation and usability. You can’t understand the frustration of clicking/swiping through unnecessary pages until you’ve read a whole book on an e-reader.

Equally, if you’ve not bought and looked at an ebook on a Kindle, you won’t realise that the device takes you straight to the beginning of chapter 1, which avoids the endless prelim pages to click through but raises a whole new problem if there is a prologue or vital epigraph.

8. Get involved with the code. Even a basic understanding of how EPUB files work will make it easier for you to communicate your preferences and understand why something doesn’t work and what is currently possible. For example, you can’t have text aligned in two different ways on same line without it being a table, which poses a problem if you want to recreate the ‘Praise’ page where the sources are often aligned to the right on the last line of the quotation.

9. Finally, expect constant change and accept that you will have to adjust your practices as new devices and EPUB standards come along. At the same time, don’t innovate for the sake of it. Be excited by the new possibilities thrown up by EPUB 3, the Kindle Fire and iBooks Author, but always start by considering what would make sense for the title and the material.

This article first appeared in the FutureBook blog.

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Emma Wright

Emma Wright

Emma Wright has worked in ebook production for 2 years. Previously she worked for MiniBar London and Twig-It.com. She writes for FutureBook, The Bespoke Blog and also on her own website, What Emma Learned. You can find her on Twitter as @emmadaian.

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  1. Emma:

    Thank you for this article. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot! I was born in Hampstead, London, England many years ago!

  2. Hmm.. I was crazy about ebook publishing once… not anymore! :)

    Your article was a nice read. It enlightened me with some new stuff about the ebook publishing word. Jeez… I never thought it would be this complicated…

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