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Producing E-books Isn’t Easy

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by Linda Nix, Founder, Golden Orb Creative —

Linda Nix

Linda Nix

Producing a book for e-readers is considerably more complicated than producing one for print. Instead of a familiar landscape easily navigated by experienced staff, you are confronted with an unstable terrain guarded by new gatekeepers, and you can’t find any reliable map.

Consider the print book. It comes in many sizes (and sometimes different shapes), on a variety of papers, with monochrome or color ink; it’s bound in cloth or paper or some other material. Generally the publisher selects physical factors to suit a book’s content and market as well as its budget, and choices are also influenced by physical constraints—what papers are available, what size book the printing and binding machines can cope with, and so on.

When publishers produce a print book, they make many production decisions in consultation with the printer, including consultations about the specifications of the digital file. Producing a print book that can be sold and used around the world requires only a single PDF that meets the standard set by the local printer (along with the necessary rights, of course).

Printers’ requirements do vary, and industry standards are by no means comprehensive; but in general, production decisions are made once (and maybe once again for a reprint or reissue) and are independent of where the book will be sold and used. Bookstores and libraries take all sorts of print books; a book isn’t rejected because the paper is only 80 gsm rather than 90 gsm, or because it’s a fraction of an inch wider than most of the other books on the shelves.

The wonderful variety of print books (made possible by the lack of comprehensive standards) allows printers to accommodate unusual production requirements to gain a publisher’s business. And it allows printers not to care whether the book sells out or is pulped. The production side is completely separable from the sales and distribution side of the print book business.

Moving to Multiple Files

By contrast, a publisher who is producing an e-book must know in advance where it is likely to be distributed, which digital formats it must be available in, and which standard(s) it must meet.

In addition—and this is a big change—the publisher must adapt to the fact that many production requirements are now being set by booksellers, including Amazon, Apple, Ingram Digital, and e-books.com, among others. (For a table showing the major formats and software for reading e-books, and their compatible operating systems and devices, see E-book Formats: The Basics, in the January 2011 issue of Independent.)

Whether the booksellers are wholesalers (e.g., Ingram Digital) or retailers (e.g., Amazon), they have a vested interest in the technical quality of the digital book and its suitability for their platform. That means that they can and do reject publishers’ files.

So it is not enough any more to produce a single digital file that a single printer is happy with. You need to produce multiple digital files—one for each and every e-book distributor—or risk losing the ability to sell through these new channels. Even if you have moved to a print-on-demand model, the file you supply must meet specific print-on-demand specifications.

Unfortunately, there is still no single e-book standard. Even within the two main formats, PDF and ePub, there are different settings, and some major booksellers are not interested in common standards. A casual read through any of the e-book production forums online shows that the technical and production communities at the forefront of e-books are still struggling with standards as well as with the challenges of validation, testing, and more.

Two Tasks to Tackle

The implications of this new world for publishers, and their production teams, are significant. There are two main challenges: digitizing the backlist and changing production processes for books to be published in the future.

Many publishers have been working on backlist digitization for years. But generally they have concentrated on converting to PDF e-books, that being the format the main e-book sellers were demanding at first. The conversion was generally set up as a side project and often outsourced to a company in the vast e-book conversion industry that has sprung up over the last 10 years. As a result, many books now exist as PDFs, even if they are only sitting in publishers’ archives.

Very few publishers digitized their backlist as XML, whose growing popularity has taken many by surprise. Of course, the e-book conversion industry will now convert publishers’ files from PDF to ePub (like Kindle, an XML format), but this will take time and entail extra expense. Most publishers are even less ready for the option newer than XML—producing a book as a standalone software app.

Producing frontlist titles in the new formats involves several actions:

reengineering production processes

  • retraining staff in new production methods
  • laying off some production staff
  • hiring new staff, particularly people with backgrounds in IT rather than in publishing
  • outsourcing some or all book production
  • changing organizational culture
  • investing in additional equipment or leasing additional software
  • making changes to business models and revenue projections

What’s Different with Books

None of these actions is easy, painless, or quick. And some publishers are simply not equipped to meet the challenges, partly because they don’t have the necessary knowledge, capital, business structure, and the like, and partly because of emotional issues. Like all other businesses, publishing is made up of people, but unlike most other businesses, it is made up largely of “book people” who are in the industry for the love of books, the love of information, the love of spreading knowledge, stories, and culture. (Librarians and booksellers are similarly motivated and have more in common with publishing people than they care to admit.)

Very few people go into publishing for money or a stellar corporate career, although publishing companies want and need profits, and just about everyone wants a bestseller. Support staff in big publishing companies—accountants, human resources workers, marketing and sales and IT people —may be professionals who move among industries, but generally the people involved in book selection and production—publishers, editors, designers—are book people through and through.

That means that some publishers are not good business decision-makers (beyond decisions about which books to publish). Some will not want to sack their entire book production team and hire techies instead, preferring to slowly retrain the staff they know and trust. Some will continue to put the print production process first and retrofit digital books as an afterthought, if at all. Some will embrace the digital world enthusiastically, but will lack the resources or expertise to manage it effectively.

Eventually the industry will settle again, and e-book production will be integral to all book publishing, possibly in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. Books from publishing companies that are the casualties in this process may still reach readers through Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other digitization projects.

But publishers may avoid becoming casualties by understanding and respecting the imperatives of e-books, including but not only those that apply to production. In an upcoming issue, I’ll focus on dealing with e-book distribution.

Linda Nix has extensive experience in online sales platforms and multiformat production systems, and more than 20 years of experience in publishing for print and online, across a range of production, editorial, marketing, IT, and business roles (many combined) for small and large organizations in Sydney and Seattle. She recently began consulting under the name Golden Orb Creative Services, a move allowing her the freedom to publish her blog Gossamers. To reach her, email goldenorb@me.com.

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