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Why Print? A Digital Enthusiast’s Answer

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by Linda Nix, Founder, Golden Orb Creative —

Linda Nix

Linda Nix

I can’t imagine a world without books. I’ve been a bookworm since I was three years old. My Ph.D. thesis was on book production in the early Middle Ages, and the interplay between text (the content), format (the materials), and layout (the design). That doesn’t mean I’m a traditionalist; it means I have a long perspective on book technology, and a fluid view of the concept of a book.

I’m also a digital enthusiast and a keen embracer of technology, including e-books. Almost every new book I buy is an e-book (often downloaded late at night from the comfort of my bed), but I frequently raid my bookshelves to reread old favorites in print. I can happily acknowledge that the experience of reading the “same” book is different in print and on screen; I also know it’s about the content regardless of the format.

As a new publisher, I’ve had to be less agnostic about format. While it is tempting to be a digital-only publisher, I’m convinced that print as a format is here to stay, for four very good reasons: production quality; supply chain processes; community perceptions; and accessibility.

Production quality

Production values strongly and directly affect the reader experience. For many types of content, print can deliver an experience that is unmatched by digital formats. Children’s books, coffee-table books, and beautifully produced cookbooks all present visual, aesthetic, and tactile experiences that can’t be replicated digitally.

But replication should not be the aim. Publishers should hold production quality of digital content to the same high standards as print, and e-books should offer something that print does not. Digital content should be produced in ways that make it a better experience, or if convenience is the main benefit, the experience should not be worse.

Evaluating e-formats in that context, I think fixed-layout EPUBs are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. A format that presents a fixed “page” layout, in which you can embed multimedia (video, audio) and interactivity, that can be read in special readers/apps or browser plug-ins on desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets—isn’t that a PDF? Or, more to the point, isn’t that HTML 5? (EPUBs are really just packaged HTML files anyway.)

As others have pointed out, the alternative format for a children’s print book isn’t an e-book, it’s an app. I believe the same goes for textbooks and travel books—and for any other content that engages readers in nonlinear, nonimmersive ways. Unfortunately, producing a quality app is expensive, as well as being otherwise problematic (see Apps: An Overview for the Undecided).

The issue of cost is critical to deciding whether to produce books in print or e-book formats or both, but not in the way that some people think. When you produce a print book, you can be confident that it will look and function much the same no matter where it is sold. Producing a PDF of that print book involves minimal extra cost, even if what you produce is an enhanced version with multimedia (although the creation of the multimedia components will add some expenses), and, again, you can be sure that the finished product will function as intended. Print is a proven technology with most design issues resolved long ago.

The same cannot be said for digital books, even those produced to EPUB standard, and that is because e-book platform implementation of the standard is not uniform. Producing an effective EPUB involves testing the file against all platforms—which may not be practical or even possible—and if you really care about quality, it involves producing multiple versions of that EPUB.

Even the simplest text-only books have some basic design elements. Think, for example, about the use of serif and sans-serif fonts to distinguish different types of text such as headings, the use of italics and bold for different types of emphasis, and the use of spacing and alignment.

In an EPUB, as for Web pages, these aspects are controlled through the stylesheet (CSS). Superior EPUB platforms, such as Apple’s iBooks and the Nook, apply the CSS perfectly, including allowing for page-break-before properties. Few other EPUB platforms do. Most ignore font embedding and other HTML 5 features. Many also ignore alignment and spacing. Some even ignore serif/sans-serif distinctions and relative font-sizing (so there go your headings) as well as font styles such as italics. It may or may not be a big deal for novels, but for text that relies on layout for meaning it can be an issue (see “Lost in Translation” below).

In short, it is impossible to produce one EPUB file that works satisfactorily, let alone beautifully, on all platforms, and impractical, if not actually impossible, to test your EPUB versions on every current platform, let alone future ones. In practice, the publisher who cares about production quality can produce maybe one or two EPUB versions of content: a well-designed version for the superior platforms and a bare-bones version for all other platforms.

Given those facts and the fact that production quality matters, print provides better results, in the main. Print does not guarantee quality, of course. There are print books with spines that break, pages that tear easily or fall out, font sizes that are too small to read, gutters that are too narrow, ink that fades, and lack of navigation such as no index or an inadequate index. It may be a good thing if cheap and nasty design migrates to digital formats and paper and ink are no longer wasted on poorly produced books.

Supply-chain processes

Many of the book metadata systems that are essential for both physical and digital distribution are still set up to reference e-books as alternatives to preexisting print books. In an age when publishers are still converting backlist books, such systems are necessary so that the converted e-books are not flagged as new releases.

These systems don’t cope well with digital-first publications, and they don’t cope at all with digital-only publications.

Purely digital publishers often need to bypass the whole industry system and deal exclusively with dedicated e-book platforms. Many are doing just that. But for publishers distributing books via established supply chains, print remains the primary format.

Community perceptions

Publishers who want their books to be acknowledged in the cultural record cannot afford to be exclusively digital. The record of a work’s existence in the cultural landscape—the acknowledgment that it forms part of cultural history—appears only when there is visible evidence of its existence, in library records, in reviews and articles, in prizes.

No record is likely to appear while relatively few professional reviewers cover e-only books and most literary prizes require (several) print copies of a work. Even though copyright is format-neutral, when a book is produced in both print and digital formats, print is the format required for deposit, a single p-book copy if it precedes publication of the e-book, and two p-book copies if it follows e-book publication. In some countries, books that exist only in e-book format are ignored for the purposes of legal deposit and even for copyright license payments.

Many authors still want to see their work in print. Often they do not consider their work published until they are holding it in their hands. Since they have lived with digital versions on their computers for some time, it’s quite understandable that the work needs to take another form for them to perceive it as having gone through “the publishing process.” For such authors, the impact and satisfaction of receiving physical copies delivered to the door is as much a part of publishing as receiving royalties.


The digital age has made more content accessible to people in general via infinite virtual shelves, and, at least in theory, to vision-impaired people and those with reading or learning disabilities. However, only publishers with an accessibility mandate (including government agencies and public education providers) generally produce their content in accessible formats such as tagged PDF and DAISY. And although e-books allow font resizing and some e-book platforms include read-aloud functionality, what happens if the publisher hasn’t included good quality alt-text with the images?

More important, accessibility is a word that means many things. How accessible are e-books when batteries run down? When readers live in a remote area with no, or very poor, Internet access? A physical book has portability and durability that in certain situations make it much more accessible.

Benefits with Both

Distinctions involving power sources and the Internet seem immutable, but I hope that the other reasons for printing that are outlined above will disappear so that e-books will stop being second-class citizens in terms of production quality, supply chain processes, and community perceptions.

As a new publisher excited by the possibilities digital technology affords for both production and distribution, I’m committed to producing our authors’ content in digital formats. As a publisher who wants our books reviewed, stored in libraries, and available from bookstores, and wants to keep our authors happy, I realize that this content must also appear in print. We are using both print-on-demand and short digital print runs to satisfy immediate print requirements, to stimulate demand, and to create an enduring cultural legacy. And to offer readers choice.

Lost in Translation

These three screenshots show poetry (from the book Ghost Armies by Andrew Sneddon) provided in the same EPUB file on three different e-book platforms.

The poem “Sydney City” displayed on iBooks. This landscape view shows the page-break-before attribute applied to poem titles (headings). Note also the indents in “Proving Ground,” the serif and sans-serif fonts that distinguish poem titles from verse, the spacing that indicates stanzas, and the italic font styles that indicate voice, all as defined in the EPUB’s stylesheet.

“Sydney City” displayed on a browser-based e-book platform. The attribute page-break-before is ignored so that the poems appear continuously. Although the headings are slightly larger in size and bold, the sans-serif instruction in the EPUB file has been ignored. Italics and line spacing appear, but indents do not.

“Sydney City” on a popular e-book app. All formatting has disappeared, so that it’s impossible to distinguish verses and voice. Only the poem titles in bold serif distinguish each poem from the next.

Linda Nix is a professional editor, book production specialist, a publishing consultant at Golden Orb Creative, and the publisher of imprint Lacuna, based in Sydney, Australia. To contact her email linda@goldenorbcreative.com.

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