6 Ways To Ensure Quality in the Face of Complex Digital Publishing
In the 1990s, consumers got their first taste of ebooks, and it was a thrilling novelty. Reading a novel on a computer screen was so mesmerizing to early adopters that details didn't much matter. Design issues like missing lines, poorly rendered text and images and typographical errors were all overlooked in favor of this exciting new way to read books.
Two decades later, not only are consumers more discriminating, but ebook capabilities have grown increasingly complex, as have the types of content being made into ebooks. That ebooks allow significant personalization is just another complication that publishers need to reckon with. There are also the physical and technical constraints of the ebook reader—color vs. black and white, screen size and format, memory, and processing speed—all of which means that some aspects of a print book don't work well when it is converted to an ebook and need to be redesigned.
Most importantly, ebooks are no longer a novelty; consumers expect an experience that competes with—or surpasses—the experience of reading a print book.
Complexities in the Ebook World
Because of the constraints imposed by e-reading devices, as well as the new dynamic features that are available to ebook readers, ebook production today is a complex process with many moving pieces. Following are six common concerns publishers now face when confronting digital intricacies.
- There's more than one ebook format. While EPUB is the standard format in the industry, the Amazon Kindle—which has the largest market share—uses its own proprietary format. That leaves authors and publishers with two basic choices. They can create a standard EPUB version, in which case Amazon will convert it to the Kindle format for its audience. Or if they want more control over the reading experience, they can optimize one version for the Kindle and create another in EPUB for everyone else. You also need to keep in mind that not all e-reading devices support all features in the same way, so you may need to test results on multiple platforms. While this is all subject to change over time, a single universal ebook standard won't happen any time soon.
- Forget about old concepts like "pages" and content "above the fold." They don't apply in the ebook world. While you might design your content to fit onto a screen or page layout with an associated word count in a particular way, your readers might adjust their ebook preferences and reflow your content in a different way. You need to design your books so that they still look good no matter how someone chooses to display your content.
- Anything other than straight text leads to complexities in ebooks. Styled text, tables, lists, figures, photos, foreign characters, math, and indexes all introduce issues that must be addressed in the production and design process. For example when using tables, you can either use an image of the table or code the text using table coding. Coding of large tables allows them to be dynamic and to reflow as needed, but this increases costs and won't necessarily work on all viewers. Using images of tables is less expensive, but the tables will not reflow and adjust in size, and sometimes may not be readable if they are too small. All of these issues are addressable, and there are best-practice approaches that have been developed, but the proposed solutions should be tested before larger-scale ebook conversion efforts.
- Not all ebook content is created equal. While the considerations discussed in this article assume fully-featured reflowable content, there are lower-cost approaches that are suitable for some applications. For example, creating ebooks from images and PDF files, without conversion, is less expensive than fully-featured ebooks. And while they don't provide the same reading experience, this could be the right solution for some books. For example, it may be the perfect approach for specialized titles with limited distributions that otherwise are cost prohibitive to produce. My personal bias is that quality is critical. So if you choose to economize, going to a simpler format with fewer bells and whistles is preferable to doing bells and whistles poorly.
- Links should make navigation easier, not more difficult. One of the great things about ebooks is their ability to link. Backwards and forward links, and links from the table of contents, are terrific navigational aids. If a chapter has subsections, these should all be listed in the table of contents so readers can easily click back and forth for reference. But since many readers don't have a back button, it is up to the content developer to create links that take the reader forward to a topic you want to reference elsewhere and then back again.
- The difference between success and failure is often just good planning. As publishers will often spend thousands of dollars designing a print book and making it work, there's no reason to think that ebooks don't require at least some of that same level of attention. While the quickest way to an ebook often is to just take a PDF image, this results in a poor reading experience. In a recent example, a client had put such a book alongside the print book. While the print book had great ratings, the poor experience a handful of people reported with the ebook was enough to drive ratings down across the board.
Addressing the Complexities
Print publishers have always taken great pains to make the end product as professional looking as possible. Ebooks are no different; they need professional attention to get professional results. When it's not done right, the results are obvious and detract from the product.
Related story: Digital Content Can Be More Intelligent
Mark Gross, president of Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL), is an authority on XML implementation and document conversion. Prior to joining DCL in 1981, Gross was with the consulting practice of Arthur Young & Co. He has a B.S. degree in Engineering from Columbia University and an MBA from New York University. He also has taught at the New York University Graduate School of Business, the New School, and Pace University. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of automated conversions to XML and SGML.