Nine truths about e-book publishing

I fell into digital publishing after doing freelance work for various online business start-ups based in East London. At the time, I was looking for a full-time job and not thinking so much about career progression, but it occurs to me now that my background with the online businesses left me peculiarly suited for working with e-books.

The main reason for this is that, since the traditional publishing industry has been forced to go digital, it has found that the Internet Age has changed consumers’ expectations of digital products for good and it is no longer enough for the e-book just to be the electronic manifestation of the printed book. E-books and websites exist in the same world, competing for the top spot on Amazon or Google respectively and drawing similar expectations from the consumers, about their appearance, functionality and interactivity.

So, as a former online business-type and e-book (and publishing) novice, here are the most important things I have picked up and worked out about e-book production since I started nearly two years ago:

1. An e-book is not just an extra, tacked onto the production of the printed book. As much work needs to go into it as would a new edition of a printed book. That is, a design specification, editorial checks, and reflection on the target audience. 

2. Leaving aside arguments about aesthetics and tactility, an e-book can be so much more than a printed book, without any of the print production considerations and costs. A straightforward e-book can be designed with colour, contain extra pictures and text, and be completely linked internally as well as externally.

3. Involve the design department. Although it is tempting to reproduce the look of the printed book, this may not be possible or even advisable. Rather than stripping out all design features, work with your book designers to find alternatives or even a completely new appearance for the e-book. For a series of books or an imprint, you could create an e-book stylesheet to save time.

4. You must check your e-books. Firstly, unless you have an XML workflow in place, the transition from the print-ready materials to e-book may introduce errors such as rogue spaces within words. If you’re producing the e-book from old scanned books, there will probably be OCR errors (‘the’ -> ‘die’, ‘then’ -> ‘men’).
Secondly, formatting varies from e-reading devices, so what looks fine on the Kobo may look strange on the Kindle. Checking in the first place will save time later, as if customers complain and you need to arrange proofreading retrospectively, a whole new administrative task will be created.

5. Metadata is extremely important, for e-books and printed books. Online businesses never stop going on about SEO (search engine optimisation) and their website’s searchability, and good metadata for books is important for the same reason: you need your books to be able to be found by the people who are looking for them.
For publishing, this means detailed BIC and BISAC codes, keywords in book descriptions and supplying cover images. Unlike some online businesses, the problem isn’t so much about creating ‘good content’ as remembering to put it in the right places. e-book-specific metadata seems quite rare at the moment, but I think it has the advantage of assuring the customer that the publisher has thought about the e-book (c.f. the description for The Incomplete Tim Key, from Canongate).

6. Consider the customer expectations for e-books, as they are different to those of the printed book. The relationship between print publishers and the readers is quite one-way, but people’s expectations of e-books are fed by webpages and so they expect more interactivity. For example, indexes and internal references should be hyperlinked, the text should be searchable and the font size changeable. I think it will increasingly become the case that, if an e-book contains errors that are then corrected, customers will expect their purchased copies to be updated automatically.

 . . . which brings us on to point 7:
Understand the e-reading user experience: you really need to try buying and reading e-books yourself. Again, website owners think about this all the time, planning the ideal user experience from the moment they arrive on the site and working on points of action, navigation and usability. You can’t understand the frustration of clicking/swiping through unnecessary pages until you’ve read a whole book on an e-reader.
Equally, if you’ve not bought and looked at an e-book on a Kindle, you won’t realise that the device takes you straight to the beginning of chapter 1, which avoids the endless prelim pages to click through but raises a whole new problem if there is a prologue or vital epigraph.

8. Get involved with the code. Even a basic understanding of how EPUB files work will make it easier for you to communicate your preferences and understand why something doesn’t work and what is currently possible. For example, you can’t have text aligned in two different ways on the same line without it being a table, which poses a problem if you want to recreate the ‘Praise’ page where the sources are often aligned to the right on the last line of the quotation.

9. Finally, expect constant change and accept that you will have to adjust your practices as new devices and EPUB standards come along. At the same time, don’t innovate for the sake of it: be excited by the new possibilities thrown up by EPUB 3, the Kindle Fire and iBooks Author, but always start by considering what would make sense for the title and the material.



Tim Key

Emma, Enjoyed this post. I too looked up the description on Canongates w'site hoping for a killer SEO blueprint to use with my own book but having read the one you've just supplied as well I feel like I'm still missing something.

Is the SEO coded into this on a higher level that I'm not 'getting'? I read recently that ebook blurbs should be written in a more 'product-that-meets-the-needs' manner. is this what Canongate are doing here?




 "I think it will increasingly become the case that, if an e-book contains errors that are then corrected, customers will expect their purchased copies to be updated automatically."

Given the screams I've heard from friends who've been in the middle of a story when an update came through, and completely lost their place, I think I'd dispute this. I'd suggest that a better alternative would be a user controlled update. Either a pop-up on the screen, or an email to the registered account, offering the user the opportunity to update, but allowing them to retain the original if they so choose (after all, it's the mis-printed stamps which are worth the most to the collector).

I'd also suggest that as the industry moves forward, and people want to upgrade from one unit to another, the concept of DRM will become a much bigger issue. Generally in retail, once a customer has bought something, it belongs to them. In the current publishing world, you can only read the e-book if you're still on the same make, model and unit that you bought it for. I think the consumer backlash from this issue will lead to significant changes in the future, and the industry had better have a think about what it's really trying to accomplish. 

Similarly, the concept of different distribution dates for different foreign markets looks really odd when you have authors on blogs and Facebook talking up their new releases. The internet has brought the whole world closer together. 

Excellent advice

Thad_McIlroy's picture

Thanks for this: great observations. A question:

"c.f. the description for The Incomplete Tim Key, from Canongate"

I looked on Canongate's site and on Amazon.UK and don't see anything ebook-specific.

So, assuming I'm just looking in the wrong place...

Are you suggesting the the main description for the ebook, in cases where there's also a print book, reference one or more features particular to the ebook edition? (This is certainly possible if it's assigned a separate ISBN, as it's supposed to be.)


Re: Tim Key

EmmaWright's picture

Thanks Thad. I spotted the description when browsing on the iBookstore; having looked on Amazon the description is actually not formatted very well there so it's not terribly clear. Anyway, here it is - I thought it was rather good!

"This is the e-version of Key’s most up-to-the-date collection of comprehensive poeticals. Everything from the book is contained in this piece of e, but there are also some trinkets and other little weevils involved that might sugar the pill. These, poems (by award-winning Key) are primarily about love, sex, dreams, death and fruit (strawberries, beans etc). This ebook has come out as a sort of accompaniment to the audiobook and the actualbook because, in truth, if you stop and think about it for ten seconds, this is the way that the book industry is going and we all have to accept that and try and get on with it. I suppose, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s probably nicer to have the actualbook in our hands or on our shelves or in a bag full of other books and unwanted clothes to take to the charity shop, but, increasingly, words are found on memory sticks and we have adapt to this and stop looking for people to blame. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of fondling the book itself, you should know that it weighs about three quarters of a kilo, has a photo of Key stood on the cover and is the sort of size that would fit into almost all handbags and almost no purses or pockets."

Great articl

Having worked on the production side of ebooks, I can say first-hand that it is no easier than working on a print book. Nice to see more and more people spreading awareness of this.

Besides, understanding the code and then getting to look at books on pretty devices is the fun part! :)

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