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E-Book Conversion: When It Makes Sense and What Your Options Are

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“How should I handle e-book conversion?” In one form or another, I hear that question a lot, but it’s not the best question to ask, at least not by itself, because e-book conversion is primarily useful for backlist books produced before the e-book era.

For best results, ask two other questions as well:

Is conversion for older books worth the cost and effort?

What should I be doing about including e-book formats in my production processes?

In today’s publishing environment, e-book production should be integrated with production of titles in print-on-paper formats, and it’s smart to routinely create e-book versions of all new books. The time to start thinking about the e-book formats for a book is not after production but before, in the acquisition or editing stage—or, at worst, in the early production stages.*

*For more information and advice about producing e-books, check “E-Book Formats: The Basics” (January) and “Producing E-Books Isn’t Easy” (March) at ibpa-online.org.

Conditions That Favor Conversion

In several situations, e-book conversion may be an intelligent choice. For instance:

When you’ve exhausted your stock of an older book and a reprint wouldn’t be cost-effective, e-book conversion can keep the book “in print” at a relatively low cost. And if you combine your e-book with print-on-demand availability, you may find that e-book sales breed hard-copy sales.

E-book conversion may breathe new life into backlist titles that are still available in print. You will need to decide whether to spend additional marketing dollars in addition to conversion dollars; although that will raise costs, it could increase sales.

If you have powerful back-end systems, converting your backlist to e-books may give you a new way to leverage old content through anthologies and bundling (a topic for another day).

When you’re not ready or willing to produce upcoming titles in both e-book and print formats, you may need to outsource e-book conversion of new books, at least in the short term. In that case, ask the conversion service to assess the print production methods you’re currently using. Best practices, such as using paragraph and character styles, among other things, can minimize the cost of postproduction conversion (you’d be surprised how many production professionals don’t use styles properly or consistently).

Postproduction conversion will seem attractive as a quantifiable add-on cost (many service providers charge a fixed per-page rate), but bear in mind that it will mean sacrificing both quality and control over the resulting e-book. So the sooner you start thinking in terms of e-book production—rather than e-book conversion—the better.

How Conversion Works

E-book conversion entails taking a book that is in analog (print) format or in a digital format that is incompatible with e-book reading software—such as a press-ready PDF supplied to an offset printing press—and making it compatible with apps, device operating systems, and the like.

The usual process for digitizing print books is scanning, which involves running a scanner over the physical pages to read text. Project Gutenberg and Google Books are the two best-known digitizing projects. Of course, anyone with a scanner can digitize a book, but it is a tedious and time-consuming process.

Scanning is also prone to error, and without a human eye to proof the output, the result is wonderful infelicities such as “He was ill with the family goat” (not “gout”). The need for proofing adds to the time and expense.

Scanning—plus proofing—will result in a digital file that can be manipulated in some way, but a digital file, whether scanned or existing as a PDF, Word, InDesign, or other digital file, must be converted into XML or enhanced PDF. Many e-book retailers and wholesalers (such as library suppliers) still accept PDF files if produced to their e-book specifications.

Almost anyone with a good grasp of Adobe Acrobat can perform the necessary enhancements on a PDF, such as page cropping, Web optimization, and adding a bookmarked table of contents. Converting to XML is harder.

XML is the language on which most e-book formats are based, whether Kindle (.mobi), EPUB, or DAISY. Books in an XML format actually comprise a set of files “zipped” together and packaged with the correct file extension (e.g., .epub, .mobi). How tricky XML conversion is will depend on how well a book’s structure and content fit into an XML schema, as well as on the quality of the original file.

The XML package has several components, the main two being the marked-up content file and the stylesheet file. The content file contains the words arranged under tags like <chapter> and <para> to define the structure of the book. The stylesheet (often referred to as “CSS,” for cascading style sheet) defines how those structural elements are presented in terms of size, font, color, and so on.

If you already use defined sections and styles in your book files, it’s not a great leap from structured InDesign or Word to XML. For example, you might specify that the text style in your book will be Book Antiqua 11pt on 13pt with a first line indent of 1 em space, and give this style the name Body. As long as each paragraph has the Body style applied to it, a change to the style (say, changing the font to Times New Roman 10 pt on 12 pt) will be applied globally across all the paragraphs. In e-book production, the Body style would be mapped to the XML tag <para> and the CSS would define how the <para> content will look. This allows you to have one style for your print books and a different style for your e-books, or to control the style of your e-books so the versions match.

Because Quality Counts

E-book conversion brings its own set of challenges when it comes to quality control: text, images, navigation, and display coding will all need to be checked for errors. Some processes and some source files are more error-prone than others; it can often be easier to code a book in XML from scratch (yes, e-book production beats conversion, again).

Converting from PDF to XML generally produces the worst results, unless competent humans check the output thoroughly and are able to clean up the messy code generated in the process. Images usually need individual manipulation and optimization too.

Converting from Word or InDesign produces better results, especially with a recent Word or InDesign version that uses XML, but a human still must be involved to check that the mapping process has worked and to find any other coding errors.

Whatever process is used, and whatever type the source file is, quality control is as important when you’re converting to an e-book as when you’re producing a print book.

Companies That Convert

Finding e-book conversion services is not difficult—a quick Internet search will deliver many results. Finding one you trust and can work with is much harder.

And, of course, Internet search is a bit random. You may get better results by spending some time looking at e-books within and across genres. This will give you a good sense of what does and doesn’t work well in an e-book, and also provide a basis for conversations with prospective conversion service providers.

Contact the publishers of e-books with high production values and find out who handled production. Even if production was done in-house, you can ask about formats and processes—most people are willing to share some of their expertise and experience.

As you continue to explore service providers, be mindful that cheap conversion services generally lack quality control and additional services such as distribution. If you are confident that you can handle these aspects yourself, cheap may suit you. If not, you may need to budget for a premium service.

Can you go it alone? You may have noticed that cheap and free automated conversion tools are readily available. Don’t be tempted to use these unless you are familiar with both XML coding and CSS, and unless you are prepared to spend time cleaning up the output file.

Evaluating Conversion Services

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for choosing an e-book conversion service. Some services look after the entire process for you, including file validation and upload to your e-book distributor(s). Others simply return your e-book file for you to distribute. Some work closely with you on style elements, producing tailored designs that work for the screen. Others reproduce the style of your print book, whether it works well or not.

Here is a brief checklist of things to look for:

What file formats are accepted? The best e-book converters will accept a range of common file formats, including InDesign. Be wary of converters who accept only PDF files (even if this is the only format you have), as they may be using automated software. Automated software is fine only with competent humans doing clean-up, proofing, and recoding (see next point).

Who is responsible for proofing and error-checking, and will you get any e-reading tools to help you do the kind of proofing that you can do? You will need to proofread the entire converted e-book from start to finish at some stage—but you want to do this once, to pick up any minor errors, not again and again, as may be necessary if the conversion team does not have its own checking procedures. And although you will be able to check the words and structure, you will need the conversion team to check the code—errors in the CSS or the XML may not be obvious until both are rendered on-screen in an e-reader.

Are additional services such as file validation offered, or are you on your own once you receive the converted file? Either way, does the service take responsibility for meeting e-book vendors’ file validation requirements?

How much consultation is offered? That is, how personal is the service, and is the process presented as a partnership? If your book has complex elements that can’t be preserved or easily rendered in e-book format, will the service suggest alternative ways of presenting those elements?

Will all files be returned to you? Most conversion services provide the converted e-book files, in the same way your printer provides you with the books after printing. However, services offered by some distributors—often free or at very low cost—may not include returning your e-book files to you, instead locking the e-book into their systems.

If part of the conversion service you select is maintaining an XML database and managing your e-books on your behalf, you may not have access to the files. This can be a good thing if you do not have the capacity to manage your new files, at least in the short term. But it’s essential to make the intellectual property arrangements clear, because relationships do sometimes sour.

Does the conversion service offer multiple e-book formats? While there are differences between Kindle and EPUB formats, the underlying architecture is similar. A good conversion service will offer at least these two formats. A premium service will provide other formats as well, such as DAISY and fixed-layout EPUB.

Calculating the Costs

For the sake of argument, let’s put the cost of e-book conversion at $500 per book, which is somewhere in the middle of the range of costs. Also, let’s say you keep 25 percent of sales revenue for yourself (after taking out distribution and agency fees and author royalties). You will need to sell 200 copies of a book priced at $10 to cover just the conversion expenses. Of course, you’ll have other expenses to cover too, including marketing costs, plus costs in time for proofing and other supervisory functions.

Whether the expense of e-book conversion for older or current titles is justified is a decision you may want to make book by book. But the ROI for producing all upcoming titles simultaneously for dissemination in all formats is a lot better and clearer.

Linda Nix is a print and online publishing professional with particular expertise in e-books and digital publishing. Although she will broker e-book conversion services on request, she notes that she much prefers providing e-book production services and helping publishers integrate e-book production into their everyday publishing operations. To learn more: goldenorbcreative.wordpress.com and goldenorb@me.com.



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