35+ Tips for Quality and Streamlined E-Book Production
Regardless of format, platform or pricing model, e-books have secured a permanent place in the publishing landscape. The growth of other digital/mobile platforms, in which some see shortcomings of digital book apps, serves to highlight e-books' and e-reading devices' unique value proposition.
"We did a … bunch of apps 18 months ago or so, but have largely stopped," says the head of the publishing arm of a major information technology and software company. "App stores are still difficult places in which to locate things. The various resellers of e-books (and our own website) make it a … lot easier, so we see many more sales via those channels."
"One thing we particularly like about e-books," he continues, "is the ability to include color. For our time-sensitive publications, overseas print production is impractical, and on-shore [four-color] printing too expensive. With e-books, we can offer color to enhance our titles at almost no increase in cost."
Time and cost savings, sophisticated graphics, visibility and ease of distribution on a variety of platforms—all qualities that make e-books great products, but also a challenge to produce. The challenges are forcing publishers to rethink workflows and reallocate resources to handle creation, conversion and distribution.
"There's two pieces of this," says Ken Brooks, senior vice president of global production and manufacturing services at Cengage Learning. "One is the front list, and the other is the backlist. [For] the front list … we were getting requests at different times for different formats, and finding we were paying for the conversion to those formats multiple times. So we implemented a consolidated and pre-planned conversion program."
E-book conversion is a challenge that requires each publisher to map out a strategic plan, often in partnership with an outside vendor. For Cengage, this meant focusing on three "families" of formats: PDF-based, EPUB and XML. A DocBook-based XML schema, Brooks says, best accommodates the various complex elements that go into textbooks—charts, graphs, images that span pages and so forth. EPUB 3, also XML based, has the potential to work as well as DocBook for technical titles. "We are looking at taking some of our more complex titles with MathML embedded in it and turning it into EPUB 3 just to see what it looks like," Brooks says.
As for arriving at a standard e-book format, "EPUB 3 is the best shot that we have so far," he says. "But the big companies that are out there—Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others—compete through their format, so it will be difficult to get people from that side to agree on one format. … Every time I think we've got some way to trim the number of formats, somebody introduces another that we've got to pay attention to."
And there's the rub. As good as EPUB 3 may turn out to be (it is in the late stages of development under the auspices of the International Digital Publishing Forum), currently no reading devices work with this format—though those that run EPUB (which include Kobo, Nook and Sony) are likely to upgrade to accommodate it. EPUB 3 promises expanded applicability for global language support and is designed to work with interactive, media-rich titles like textbooks, scientific, technical and medical (STM) books and magazines, but, as things currently stand, won't work on the Mobipocket-based Kindle.
Whatever the final platform standard may turn out to be, it will be wise for publishers of all stripes to eventually adopt an XML-based workflow (as Cengage has), according to Bill Trippe, vice president and lead analyst with consultancy and research firm Outsell.
"Certain markets, such as STM and legal, have a head start, but XML adoption is important across the board, with the possible exceptions of primarily pictorial formats such as children's books and graphical novels," he says. "We are seeing increased adoption among trade and educational publishers."
The reason, he says, is the need for flexible content systems that can adapt to future changes. "Publishers will face a growing requirement to publish to many channels and formats, with print, EPUB, and various flavors of HTML, including HTML5, perhaps just being starters," Trippe says. "Publishers who digitized 'straight to EPUB' now face a challenge of how they will get to EPUB 3 (and beyond …). They would be … better off considering their overall needs for digital products and designing an XML strategy based on that. Publishers who have a robust XML master version of their content can readily generate EPUB 3 and other formats as they need."
It's also important to know which formats are likely to see major changes or be replaced, Brooks says. "Mobipocket is embedded in the Kindle platform, but you don't hear about it so much anymore," he says. "Kindle is built on it, but it's got to change. It can't handle really complex tables except as images … so … that's got to be in Amazon's plans."
Choosing a Vendor
Because many publishers outsource their e-book conversion, it is challenges like these that make choosing the right vendor so important. For Indianapolis-based independent publisher Hackett Publishing, the most important factors in choosing a vendor are client list, references and price. Open lines of communication are also critical, especially when dealing with design issues or problems with an e-book's performance on a device, says Liz Wilson, project editor at Hackett. "You must … be confident that they understand the problem, even if you aren't tech-savvy enough to understand it yourself, and … that they will fix the issue in a timely fashion," she says.
"As with any service provider, that back-and-forth is key," she notes. "Just because an ad claims a company can convert your books doesn't mean they will do it well or with care. I cannot recommend strongly enough that a publisher looking to start converting a backlist begin with one or two of their more difficult titles as a trial, like an audition. The last thing you want is to blast off a ton of titles and get back a big mess. A small trial will not only let you see how the conversion house works, but it will be a big lesson for you in learning how to prepare files and conversion instructions."
Larger publishers have similar needs, but on a different scale.
"In our vendor-selection process, we take into consideration the quality of the vendor's work in terms of design and technical validity, their ability to meet deadlines, their communication skills, and their experience with and knowledge of e-reading devices and software," says Samantha Cohen, director of digital content development at Simon & Schuster.
"We also greatly appreciate vendors' ingenuity," she adds. "It's a real boon if they can come up with solutions or shortcuts we haven't thought of."
For Brooks, a deep understanding of technologies and market trends is key. "You've got to have somebody who knows where things are and where they are going, and you can kind of tell by the degree in which they participate in the standards bodies," he says. "If you have a conversation with them, and they stare at you blankly and talk about, say, 'Peanut Markup Language' or some [format] that's a bit out of date, then you know these aren't the right guys."
Cengage has multiple key vendors with whom the company has long-term contract relationships. All have the ability to anticipate and adapt to industry shifts. "What we want to think about is the architecture of what we are trying to create, who are the appropriate vendor partners to work with, and then slotting the volume in. So if … we have to introduce a new format—say EPUB 3—we work with [vendors] we've got in reasonably long-term contracts to make sure they can add EPUB 3 as one of the branches they are already doing for us."
"Our goal is to end up with the best possible electronic version of our print book, and we'd rather be slow to market with a quality product than fast with a mediocre one," Wilson says. "We proofread every single conversion. Whether this is done in-house or farmed out to our freelancers is decided on a case-by-case basis."
For Wilson, as with other publishers contacted for this article, the two main quality control issues are accuracy of the content itself and how well it renders on a device. Hackett Publishing, for its part, has built into its vendor contract a clause that all titles will work on an array of devices.
A key challenge for Cohen is creating the smallest number of files that can render accurately on all platforms. "It's a fairly simple task to create an EPUB file that looks great when rendered in iBooks, and another that suits Kindle 3, and another that's appropriate for Nook. But creating a single EPUB that looks good on all platforms—not just good enough—is a skill that we are constantly developing," she says.
(Simon & Schuster stopped making device-specific platform files in 2008, instead creating one (EPUB) file that is converted by vendors to a proprietary format.)
Because no file-creation tool takes into account all unique characteristics of each reading platform, certain design elements have to be dropped and compromises have to be made, Cohen says. "These differences are not just the obvious ones like color versus black-and-white. I'm thinking of more subtle issues like differences in the display of charts, graphs and tables; indentations; drop caps; text alignment; fonts; and images. I could go on, but the truth is that nearly every element of a book will display differently from platform to platform unless the e-book developer explicitly accounts for that. And even when we do, we can only control so much; if a device doesn't display embedded fonts, it doesn't display embedded fonts."
Quality control can be especially challenging with backlist titles. Texts that were carefully proofread and copy edited in their original print editions may not translate perfectly when scanned for digital conversion, and "you can't expect a data-conversion vendor to have the same understanding of your content as your editors did the first time through," Brooks says. He gives an example of a textbook on logic, which is the last place you would expect to see verse—but as it turns out, Medieval logicians used verses as mnemonic aids. "Sure enough, there was a verse in the middle of [a logic textbook]," he recalls. "It got tagged wrong, and it was only when we were doing a design review that we spotted it."
Even worse, a symbol converted incorrectly in a math equation will go unnoticed to all but a few experts—but for them, the mistake will "just jump screaming off the page," notes Brooks.
For Cengage, the solution is partially low-tech—having outsourced proofreaders painstakingly compare the original to the digital version ("Luckily, proofreaders are easier to come by than mathematicians," Brooks says)—and partially automated, through technologies that run multiple passes to check characters, links, formatted tables and multimedia features.
While most publishers will not have quality control issues this complex, there is much publishers can do to decrease the chance of problems later on. "Our Digital Content Development team reviews every e-book on all the major reading platforms before it's published," Cohen says. "We look for content consistency with the print book, quality in design, technical validity and cross-platform functionality. It's in this process that we account for the differences between reading platforms. In general, we try to aim high. If we always pander to the lowest-common-denominator platform, we cannot expect to see our e-books render better in the future."
Wilson says that Hackett "spend[s] a good amount of time with each book discussing … options and coming up with the best solutions for each title." She adds, "I would advise publishers just beginning with e-book conversions to really know the limitations of the formats as well as the limitations of the reading devices."
For instance, while most devices read EPUB files, not all have the same display capability or render styles the same way. "Really know where you'll have to make compromises, and really know if you will actually want to make those compromises," Wilson says. "Don't be afraid to send a long list of specifications (non-technical, of course) and notes to the conversions house for each title. Also, plan, plan, plan, but also be ready to be flexible—you won't be able to plan for everything. Working with the right vendor will allow your plan and strategy to grow and change as necessary."
"Decide your quality control strategy before you start," she adds. "Know the capabilities and limitations of the people in your organization responsible for conversions. Will they need outside help? How many books can they handle at one time?"
The shift toward a true multiplatform approach will happen as publishers move away from an emphasis on backlist conversion and focus more on new titles. "I think publishers need to consider both backlist and new titles as one parameter, and then the level of investment in a given title or set of titles as another parameter," Trippe says. "A backlist title that sells very well deserves consideration for conversion into XML and then into many other formats, where a backlist title that may only move a few units a year probably only needs to be digitized in the simplest way."
"Moving forward," he adds, "at some point, publishers will have digitized all of the backlist they need to, and can focus on really optimizing their production of new titles. A broad range of book publishers can move to a model of producing the digital at the same time as the print, just as many STM publishers have."
Some publishers are already part-way there. "We treat backlist conversions as we do front list conversions—with the utmost care for the final product," Cohen says. "… We've moved away from discrete backlist conversion projects, and integrated backlist conversions into the front list schedule, so regardless of the print book's publication date, the e-book gets the attention any e-book published today deserves."
Market and revenue cues will determine the speed with which smaller publishers move into a seamless multiplatform workflow. "We still view print as our standard and main product," Wilson says. "Therefore, our production practices are still mostly print-centered. … We're starting to have a few of our new titles prepared simultaneously as print and electronic versions, but this is still done on an ad hoc basis."
The IT publisher referenced earlier outsourced much of his (now completed) backlist conversion, but produces new titles in house. "New titles have been handled by changes to our authoring templates so that the process can move relatively smoothly," he says.
Naperville, Ill.-based independent trade book publisher Sourcebooks Inc. handles "about 80 percent" of its e-book conversion in house, according to Sarah Cardillo, senior managing editor. The company shifted resources, replacing an external vendor with a new staffer for page production and converting another staff member to e-book production and project management. "We focused on being as efficient as possible and as technically sound as possible, and that allowed us to add work without adding resources," she says.
Sourcebooks outsources its titles that are most complex from a design standpoint. "It's important the vendor be well-versed in how to convert those designs to digital format," Cardillo says.
Backlist conversion can be a formidable logistical challenge, whatever the publisher's size. Gollancz, an imprint of London-based Orion Books, recently announced its digitization of a huge cache of 5,000 out-of-print science fiction novels (titles it previously owned as well as those it has recently acquired the rights to) as part of its SF Gateway project. "To bring entire backlists back into print using traditional publishing mechanisms is simply not feasible, but the rapid developments in digital publishing have allowed us to do just that: to rescue authors' entire backlists and republish them … as e-books," says Darren Nash, Gollancz's digital publisher.
Nash expects the project to be complete in a little over a year. "We will produce EPUB files and, from there, they'll be optimized for iBooks, Kindle, etc.—all the major commercial platforms," he says.
There was no question for Gollancz that now was the right time to make this investment. The newly digitized titles will be available in combination with the release of an all-digital third edition of the "Encyclopedia of Science Fiction," allowing readers of the encyclopedia to instantly purchase e-book versions of classic novels.
It's a great example of how conversion projects can be integrated into an overall publishing strategy. "E-books are basically here to stay, so, to us, it is part of publishing process," Brooks says. "How do you get the material out there that your customers need, whether [they are] professors or students? You have to [create] a pipeline for print and various forms of e-books, and it's better to synch and coordinate those than patch it up afterwards. In the beginning, in trade, when e-books were less than 1 percent of revenue, you could easily do a post-production process and be satisfied with that. But these days, there's no reason not to do it from the beginning."
For Brooks, the shift has as much to do with mind-set as anything else. "When do we start talking about e-books as books?" he asks.
This type of workflow integration, combined with formats that work as publishers need them to, could usher in a fully-mature e-book production cycle whereby the process can once again take a back seat to the product. "Beyond developing standards, what we really need is for the reading platforms to become more consistently capable," Cohen says. "Integrating EPUB 3's features into existing and upcoming devices and software would be a good start. That way publishers can move beyond the less interesting, 'How do we make this work?' issues, and focus on what we're really good at: publishing excellent books in innovative ways." BB