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Digital publishing should put design above file conversion

Joshua Tallent says it's time for ebook design to get the same attention as print design.

Digital publishing formats and processes seem to change daily, and keeping up with the times can be a logistical nightmare for publishers and ebook staffs. What are the best design tools? Which formats should be used? How do you meet current digital demand while building for the future?

Joshua Tallent (@ebookarchitects), owner of eBook Architects and a speaker at TOC 2011, makes sense of the confusion and frustration surrounding digital publishing.

Our interview follows.

How do you see digital book conversion changing in the near future?

Joshua TallentJoshua Tallent: To me, the big deal is that the conversion process is going to morph from conversion to design. We’ve been stuck on this idea that we have to get books developed and out in the market right now. We’re trying to get thousands of backlist titles produced, and the quality has suffered.

What’s happening, at least on a small level, is that conversion companies and publishers are starting to see that it’s not the conversion that matters, it’s the design. Ebook design requires the same quality and care that you see in print book design. I hope that’s the direction we’re headed.

How will a focus on ebook development affect different types of publishers?

Joshua Tallent: I see the cost of development, and even some of the requirements for development, going up. That’s something that a larger publisher could probably absorb better than a smaller company.

When it comes to independent authors, many think they can take a Word document and turn it into an ebook. That’s fine if you want a very basic book, and you can probably do it yourself. But things are getting more intense, and we have more functionality. If you want to include audio and video, you have to get into the code and know what you’re doing. That creates a higher barrier to entry. As that barrier goes up, self-published authors will have a harder time competing with the big publishers.

Across the board, we’re going to need more qualified developers. That’s where the big questions emerge: Who do you hire? Do you convert your book design staff into ebook developers? Do you find web developers who can be trained to create ebooks?

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Do you see the use of proprietary file formats increasing or decreasing?

Joshua Tallent: I see it becoming more solidified. Businesses look out for themselves before looking out for the community.

Let’s take a backwards view and ask what would have happened if Sony, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and all of the other major retailers — except for Amazon — had worked out a single and usable system for DRM, for formatting, and for ebook layout. If they had done that, Amazon would be number three or four in the industry right now.

I firmly believe that a consistent EPUB system would be beneficial to consumers, and consumers would see that. The problem is publishers and booksellers haven’t done that. Barnes & Noble has their own flavor of the Adobe DRM. Adobe has updated the DRM and said anybody can use it, but Sony didn’t do that. The Sony version of the DRM doesn’t interoperate correctly with the Nook. So, you can now buy an EPUB file from the Barnes & Noble store and not necessarily be able to read that on your Sony device. These companies aren’t going to let that go. They don’t want Adobe getting their hands into the mix and taking $0.20 per book download or something along those lines. They want to control that DRM themselves.

I would be surprised if more than a couple of big retailers are actually working on an interoperable business plan. Google has done that a little bit with Google eBookstore. They say you can take all of their books and put them on any of these different devices, including the Nook and the Sony Reader — and that’s good. But, then again, I’m not convinced that Google is going to be as successful in the ebook retailing world as some people project. I think customers are more likely to go to Amazon.

Is there a “best” software choice for developing digital book files?

Joshua Tallent: It really depends on your workflow. If you’re using Quark and your goal is to outsource to a third-party company and have them do the work, send them a PDF, and keep using Quark. If it’s going to take a lot of extra money and training for you to get your people switched over to InDesign, and you don’t intend to create your own EPUB files in-house, then there’s no real value in going to InDesign. However, if your plan in the next year is to produce your own EPUBs with an XML-based workflow, then you should make the switch to InDesign.

As far as developing a foundational EPUB file, InDesign is a better tool. Quark doesn’t seem to be moving toward an EPUB output. But even InDesign is not that good when it comes to EPUB: the InDesign EPUB export is really just the Dreamweaver HTML export packaged up as an EPUB file. It’s got some glaring issues.

Specifically, I would love to see InDesign’s EPUB export rewritten from the ground up so that the InDesign Markup Language (IDML) would convert to the XHTML used in EPUB, instead of relying on their current HTML output system.

What are the biggest conversion frustrations publishers currently face?

Joshua Tallent: Quality is the biggest issue I’ve seen. A lot of publishers are starting to see that the mass conversion route isn’t the best approach. In response, publishers are hiring people who can proof their ebooks, look through the converted files, make change lists, and then send those back to the conversion houses for corrections. That’s a good step for publishers who are using outside resources.

A constantly changing and morphing market is another frustration for publishers. Companies that have been doing things consistently for 100 years are suddenly forced to deal with digital development and design components that change every month. Now, they have to set up workflows that work both in the present and down the road. That’s a whole different model than what they’re used to.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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Comments: 10

  1. Great points here. Almost makes you want to not even go ePub at all and just publish your own designed book on just standard PDF format for all to read and to use.

    What are your thoughts on this? Self-publishing and just PDFs?

  2. I agree that because readers are consuming content differently, publishers should take that into account in the overall design and layout of the book. Font size, HTML5, flash elements, video, etc. all need to be incorporated to reach mobile and online readers.

    I would have to disagree with Joshua’s statement that you need to hire a designer or have one in-house to incorporate video and audio into a digital edition. There are many softwares available that enable you to easily insert these media formats without needing to know a lot (or any) code. When you start to get into Flash requirements and embedment on a website, however, you will need someone versed in these things.

  3. RE: PDFs. PDF is a print archive format, not an eBook format as the word is commonly used today. If you want people to be able to read your book on one of the new devices in a manner to which they are accustom, PDF will not suffice.

    As for audio and video, while there may be software that will aid in embedding them in websites, you very much have to know the code to embed them in an eBook yourself. Amazon and Apple have different requirements as to the code to be used in both the HTML and the XML metadata.

    I think the overall point is that this isn’t an area ready for automation or mass conversion. The ability to know how to go into the code and tweak it so that it will look good on various eReading devices is key.

  4. I disagree that InDesign is a better tools when it comes to ePub. You need to look at the tools available now from Quark. Check out this link…


    Also, look at their technology partners and the work they are doing with these partners:


  5. I’ve been asking this for a while now–What are the best practices in production/layout when you intend on publishing your content in both print and eBook format? When we produce content for print we do a lot of little things to the files to ensure that they print right, so why are we not including eBooks in the mix? How much extra time would it take to ensure your InDesign styles create clean XML styles. Why are production houses outsourcing to third-parties for a “conversion” rather than building the eBook into their initial files? How much money could be saved if you didn’t need to “convert” but rather just “republish”?

  6. PDF or ant other non-reflowable files as not suitable for ebooks where the text must ‘fit’ a wide variety of devices from iphones to PCs.

    The ePub format satisfies this requirement but the DRM issue is a considerable obstacle.

    I have found Adobe InDesign very inflexible for ebook creation – fine for developing print masters but over-complicated for ebooks. There is need for the development of dedicated ebook creation tool for the indie author/publisher.

  7. I think this is typical big business BS end over end.

    I see freeware ebook creation solution software being published within the year that allows for auto publishing to all major independent ebook stores.

    Its not hard, nor is putting audio and video in your ebooks beyond the average person.

    This hype is the last gasp of publishers to keep control of an industry that is spiraling out of their control at an ever increasing rate.

    Fact of the matter is that there are over 2-3 million free books you can access on the net now and that scares the crap out of industry.

    If they really wanted to, every major author could hire a promoter for 20-30k a year and publish their novels without any help from publishers. Others who are not as prolific could do all the work themselves even now and as better software solutions come out, even more prolific authors can do all this for themselves.

    I hate hearing this kind of industry pro crap.

    I own two ereader, one of which I actually use. One is a Kindle, the other is a cheap android tablet.

    The Kindle is useless to me because I cannot access public libraries or most of the ebook formats out in the wild atm.

    My tablet, I read on it every day and my ebook reading app is the only app I have ever paid for off of the android marketplace.

    I think the consumer will push industry to abandon multiple formats. Can you imagine the nightmare that DVD’s would have been with this fragmentation?

  8. I’m honestly a little surprised at how few articles, publishers, etc mention DocBook or a similar XML solution. It would take a bit of work upfront to get the processing chain moving, but once you do, you can generate ePub, PDF, etc from one common source.

    I’m pretty sure O’Reilly is already doing something like this, and wouldn’t be surprised to hear other online shops doing the same.

    Also, publishers, please pay attention to this:


    If I’m reading an eBook, I DO NOT WANT audio, video, advertisements, etc. Keep my audio/video separate from my books, thanks.

  9. True, some books are best as just text. But some content is enhanced by additional information, particularly children’s books. I’m excited by the things I hear and see happening in ebooks. I’ve seen some terrific integrated solutions that people are now developing. It’s important that whatever format a book is published in, that is designed for that format. All too often people try to save money and design themselves. We’ve all seen children’s books with text over illos, adult books with drop caps obliterating the first line, and other mistakes. Just like editors are still needed to edit work,designers are needed to design. The proliferation and democratization of publishing allows more to be published and more accessibility. Let’s not forget quality.

  10. Regarding: “Quark doesn’t seem to be moving toward an EPUB output.” I don’t think that’s accurate. They support every output format, because that’s a big part of the design of QuarkXPress. (They’re not stuck on any output format.)

    Be sure to see their big announcement on Feb 23: