There’s a new article over on The Economist website this week which details the problems one creator experienced while trying to produce a paper book and an ebook for a Kickstarter campaign, and it’s well worth a read (beware the paywall).
While the article is written from the viewpoint of being frustrated with the process of producing an ebook, it is actually a cautionary tale in how not to produce ebooks. All of the problems were grew out of a single mistake which the creator still doesn’t realize that he made.
The tale starts out simple enough; the creator needs both a leatherbound paper book and an ebook to award to the various backers of a Kickstarter campaign. Creating the paper book was largely farmed out to experts, and the process went off without a hitch:
As the result of a Kickstarter campaign, Babbage hired designers he knew and a recommended printer, and contracted to have made 1,500 copies of a 216-page book with a clothbound hardcover and dust jacket. While the process took longer than he’d hoped and expected due to his own bandwidth limitations, once the digital files went into the printing firm’s operations, there was little to do but wait as a series of specialists carried out successive tasks at the printing plant. The final result exceeded his expectations, and as the project’s backers have received the tome, delighted e-mails and tweets abound.
The ebook didn’t fare so well, and that was largely the result of the creator assuming that making the ebook was so easy that he didn’t need to hire an expert to do it for him:
However, once the layout files had headed to far Wisconsin (Babbage is in Seattle; his designers in Maine), your correspondent turned to what he deemed to be the easier task of converting the layout file first to a hyperlinked PDF document, and then to the EPUB format used in most e-book hardware and software, and to MOBI, Amazon’s proprietary and simplified analogue of EPUB.
I know that the phrase is “familiarity breeds contempt”, but in this case I think it was ignorance of the technical issues that lead to the problems.
The PDF came off without a hitch, but things fell apart after that:
The PDF proved simple, requiring a few hours of fussing to get the right combination of metadata and image compression to produce a reasonably sized file (measured in megabytes) that also retained image fidelity. It also featured a clickable table of contents and other paraphernalia.
And that is where the trouble began. Accustomed to creating InDesign layouts for which the ultimate destination is either print or PDF, Babbage and his designers (under his direction; the e-buck stops with him) made myriad tiny choices that refined the presentation, but which made EPUB conversion tedious. Choices as simple as the width of a text container for a headline, repeated 28 times throughout the book, once per story, affected the flow of text that InDesign created. The opening spreads with overlays of photographs, illustrations and type work in a PDF, but had to be deconstructed and rendered into flat image files for EPUB.
Your correspondent hired a friend, an early employee at Voyager and one of the people who, in the 1980s, set the standards for “enhanced” books that have developed to the current day, to do the lion’s share of the conversion. Despite having produced dozens of e-books in EPUB and other formats, the colleague had worked mostly with a firm that derived its workflow from Apple’s Pages ’09 page-layout and word-processing software.
As we worked through the underbrush of our own making, and cut a clear path from the source file form which the print book and PDF were made to export an EPUB, we faced a “fork” in the road. Should we create an almost-done EPUB from InDesign and then twiddle it further? Doing so would break the chain, and require any typos or other fixes to the source document to be made separately in the EPUB file, which increased the chance of other errors. In the end, InDesign proved malleable enough. …
There’s a lesson here, and it’s not that ebooks are difficult to make.
Okay, they can be difficult and technically complicated, yes, but so is the production of a paper book. That was farmed out, and much of the ebook pain experienced by the creator could have been avoided by hiring a digital expert from day one.
That is the one lesson worth learning from the tale, and unfortunately the creator didn’t learn it (or at least that is the impression I get from the article).
P.S. What’s more, the creator could probably have cut his digital costs to a minimum by hiring the expert. Rather than costing him 3 weeks of time, the expert would have charged a negotiated fee and produced the ebook in a timely fashion.
P.P.S. This post is not intended as a criticism of authors who create their own ebooks, but if you griped like this guy I would tell you the same thing: go hire an expert. Or at least buy them coffee while you pick their brains.