Buyer's Guide: Ebook Conversion Strategies Buoyed by Vendor Partnerships
This article is from the Book Business Buyer's Guide which is a publisher's reference on emerging technology in the book industry. You can find other Buyer's Guide Sections here:
Back in the day, books were just blocks of paper, typesetting involved typing, and every step of getting from a manuscript to a book involved handoffs between silos of specialists. Those days are long gone.
Digital technology demands that publishing processes become much more integrated. The author does the typing, and those digital keystrokes now get turned not only into the paper books we all know and love but an ever-expanding set of digital products. (Remember when people wondered whether ebooks would ever catch on?)
Those digital files are now generated, tweaked, and transformed in many ways. Who does that work? Lots of different players. But arguably those that have been most instrumental in making all this happen are the workflow and conversion services you see listed in this section. Why? Because doing digital well requires expertise in areas quite separate from that required by traditional print publishing.
The way most digital publications were initially produced was post-print. The publisher provided the final print PDF files to a conversion service, who converted them to the required digital format: a PDF optimized for the web, an EPUB that works most everywhere, and a Mobi file for Kindle being the most common three.
The next stage involved workflow. Many of the vendors who provide conversion services also provide upstream services like prepress, typesetting, and even editorial and project management services. These vendors can often help publishers make the technological and organizational changes needed to optimize digital-first workflows, which enable publishing to a plethora of platforms to be truly scalable.
In the early days of the digital revolution, vendors were often the only ones who knew how to do that work. As they struggled to make the transition from print to digital, publishers had to rely on that. It worked then and it still does. It's how the vast majority of digital publications are made. The problem is that when publishers just threw their content over the wall and let a vendor get them their ebooks or XML, publishers lost control of important parts of the process. Along with outsourcing the things that still make sense to outsource, they inadvertently outsourced some things they might have been better off keeping in-house.
The publishers did usually get what they had contracted for. These vendors would not be in business if they didn't reliably deliver what they promise to. But too often, the publisher's lack of involvement in the process resulted in disappointment.
I work with a lot of publishers, and a lot of different types of publishers. Let me share with you some deliberately unattributed quotations of things I've heard over the years.
- "We've been getting XML from our vendors for the past ten years. I have a drawer full of CDs. Every book we've published. We've just discovered that we have a mess on our hands because the XML is totally inconsistent. We're going to have to start over."
- "We sent our top 5,000 books out to get them converted to EPUBs. We thought we could use the XML—EPUB is XML, right?—for archiving and repurposing. Turns out it's useless for that. We're going to have to start over."
- "We've been careful to make sure our EPUBs work in every possible device. So we've pared down the specs so there's nothing in them that doesn't work in the most brain-dead ereader. The problem is that they are terrible. Our customers hate them. We're going to have to start over."
Those are all true stories. Did their vendors cheat them? Absolutely not. All of those publishers got exactly what they contracted for. So what was the problem? The problem was that they treated the vendor like a sausage machine. They probably bid the work out to a bunch of vendors with few if any specs and picked the cheapest one. They just dumped their content on the poor vendor and said "give me XML," or "give me EPUBs," or "give me EPUBs and make sure they work everywhere." What did they get? Sausage.
What's different now?
Publishers are realizing that they need their vendors to be true partners. They need to collaborate. They need to figure out what parts of the process make sense to have the vendor do, and which parts they should take responsibility for. And they need to listen to the vendor!
Most of the leading vendors still have more expertise than most of the publishers, although this is changing fast as publishers realize that they need in-house staff that may not do all the work but must understand all the work. The publisher needs to take responsibility for the specs. Even when the publisher relies on the vendor to develop the specs, or advise on their development, ultimately the publisher owns the specs. If the publisher just lets the vendor do whatever they do when not given real specs—and especially if they split the work among several vendors, as many do as a matter of policy—they're going to wind up with sausage.
The publisher also needs to take responsibility for quality. Yes, the vendor needs to meet the quality requirements, but the publisher needs a way to know whether they have or not.
And the publisher needs to take a fresh look at what parts of the process it may make sense to bring back in-house. A good vendor will help you think that through. Does that mean they'll lose business? A good vendor realizes that the more they help you, the more you're going to stick with them.
Here's another true-life story: The company I work for was digitizing a lot of content for a big client. Millions of pages, much of which had important images. The customer said they wanted low-res images of the pages for web rendering and OCR of the text. We asked them if they wanted high-res images too. They said no, they didn't have the budget for that. We said "but we have to scan all this at high res anyhow to get a decent result for the OCR."
They got the high-res images for free. That's partnership. That's how to do it.
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