Morris Rosenthal, owner of Foner Books and author of the Laptop Repair Workbook, is blurring the line between books and Web content by embedding clickable hyperlinks within the margins of his PDF-based ebooks. Rosenthal discusses his linking process in the following Q&A.
Q: What inspired you to insert links into your ebooks?
I was forced into large margins for the Laptop Repair Workbook due to the flowcharts that make up the meat of the book, and I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to include the links if I hadn’t been staring at all that white space.
Q: Do you recommend inline links or links in the margins? Is one form or the other easier, from a production standpoint?
For a large size book, 8.25 X 11 or 8 x 11, I think links in the margins make the most sense because they can do double duty as design elements. Since the ebook is printable and since most people will be printing on
letter size paper, I kept the design nearly identical to the soon-to-be released paperback version. Inline links would be much easier from a production standpoint, but they would tend to interrupt the reader, making people stop and think “should I click on this?” In the margins, they are clearly labeled as supplementary illustrations of procedures. And since the printed book requires full URLs to be shown, it would make the text pretty ugly to show them inline. For the ebook, I could have hyperlinked words without showing the URL, but again, the ebook is printable, and seeing that some words are underlined in blue doesn’t get anybody anywhere.
Q: How much time did it take to create separate Web pages and insert links into the Laptop Repair Workbook?
Around half of the Web pages were created before I even started on the book. But in general, a photo illustrated page takes anywhere from a few hours to a day to create. A test procedure takes longer, as there’s quite a bit of experimentation behind any given test.
Inserting the 25 or so links, once I settled on the large-margin format, only took a couple hours. I used the text box tool in Word.
Q: Are you able to track visitors from the links?
No. I suppose it would be possible to add an extra anchor argument that would separate the PDF visitors from direct traffic and bookmarkers, but I haven’t done it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more sophisticated ways to identify visitors through links, and it certainly would have been possible to link to duplicate pages that are excluded from spidering, but I didn’t see a reason.
Q: Do you think embedded links help thwart or offset piracy?
I don’t think anything short of full DRM helps to thwart piracy, and then, it’s really a question of thwarting casual vs professional pirates. The embedded links may help offset some unauthorized distribution in two ways:
First, anybody who clicks on the links will find out that there’s a book for sale, and that might be the first time it hits them that the file they downloaded from site X or received as an attachment from a friend is really a published book that they haven’t paid for.
Second, if the links aren’t carved out of the PDF, they should help the search engines keep track of who the originator is, if the PDF should end up hosted for a while on a university domain or other authoritative site. When I published ebooks a few years ago through Lightning Source, I went with full DRM primarily to impress upon the customer that the ebooks were a commercial product protected by copyright law. This time around, I’ve gone with no DRM beyond my embedded copyright notice, but I do send customers through a click licensing agreement.
I should mention that shortly after the New York Times quoted me and mentioned the ebook in an article on laptop repair, I saw signs in Google that some people had been checking filesharing networks for it, as the queries sometimes result in an indexable page. While I take my copyright rights seriously and have the Federal court experience to prove it, I know that the majority of my potential customers will only find out about the ebook through visiting my site, and I’m sure most of those who are willing to pay for an ebook will get it from me. I don’t think that most people go trawling through pirate sites when they’re looking for a book, but maybe I’m out of touch. I did get some grief from customers during my full DRM years, and while I’m not a knee-jerk “customer is always right” type, I understand that customers have a valid point of view that a publisher ignores at his peril.
Q: What’s the upside to embedded links?
For the reader, there are multiple upsides. I’m able to illustrate troubleshooting and repair procedures on my Web site with color photos, updating them at will, without having to charge an arm and a leg for the book ($24.95 paperback, $13.95 ebook). While I could have embedded quite a few photographs in the ebook, most of them would have been irrelevant for any given reader with a different laptop model, different problem, or information that they already knew. When all of those illustrations appear in a book, the customer is paying for them one way or another, and many publishers (especially of textbooks) load up on color pictures just as an excuse to up the price. In this case, it’s all supplemental material, a fraction of which may be useful for most readers, but none of which is necessary for core troubleshooting procedures of the text and flowcharts. And from a practical standpoint, I’m able to create a larger number of illustrated procedures because the standard of photography and editing required for a Web page isn’t the same as for a book, or ebook.
Q: Any downside to linking?
The only downside I can see is if some readers conclude that the links represent material that has been left out of the book, and that the links are a sorry excuse to make up for it. The book simply wasn’t designed that way, but you can’t please everybody.
Q: Do you have any formatting best practices?
I did keep all of the links in the root directory of my fonerbooks.com domain, and all of the file names are less than eight characters, though in truth, that’s an artifact of doing most of my Web design with my old GNN Press editor (thanks O’Reilly) from 1995. Since the links appear in the margins, I ended up breaking them over two lines, with the domain on the first line and the filename on the second line. I could have force-fit them on a single line; it was just a visual design decision.
Q: Will links be a standard part of your future books?
Certainly a part of future ebooks. For print books, it would depend on whether there was a large enough amount of supplementary material on my Web site to justify a page layout that supported links.