eBook Production is Hard – Especially if it is an After Thought to the Paper Book

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.

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Paul17 April, 2014

    What he should have done, would be to take the file to easy press and used their atomik plugin which works with indesign

    1. Nate Hoffelder18 April, 2014

      See, that is an example of hiring an expert. And I agree, that would have been an option.

  2. Valentine18 April, 2014

    Epubs are zip archives that contain chapters in html format.
    Html is easy to work with IF the book is only a large body of text. Add images, columns, tables and other stuff, and it becomes something as complicated as a website that costs thousands to design and create.

    1. Nate Hoffelder18 April, 2014

      That is the most succinct explanation for why ebooks are sometimes difficult and expensive to produce I have ever read.

  3. fjtorres18 April, 2014

    As Jerry Pournelle was so fond of pointing out in his BYTE columns: “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pay somebody who does.”
    This guy clearly didn’t and still doesn’t; pdf is an archjval format designed to be the end of the workflow. It is a roach motel format: information goes in, but rarely clmes out.
    His use of inDesign also shows his admitted print bias and the fact he doesn’t understand that ebooks aren’t pbooks minus paper or an afterthought to be hacked out after the “real” book was formtted. The proper workflow should have started with the ebook, using a proper feedstock–the original document–preferably clean html or failing that, rtf, odt, doc, or docx.
    He should have used a commercial ebook creation tool (I’ve heard authors swear by JUTOH, for one) or at least a freebie tool like Sigil or a converter, say an epub plugin for Open Office and its derivatives, or even Calibre. Any if those could’ve led go a better result than what his print-centric ways got him into.
    The whole “InDesign for epub” issue is sooo 2008 it shows a total lack of understanding of where ebook publishing stands today. And this from The Economist’s technology columnist, too.
    Instead of demonstrating the limits of epub creations he merely exposed his own limitations.
    Major fail.

    1. Rob Siders19 April, 2014

      InDesign to epub, from what I read, is getting better and Adobe’s made improving it a top priority. Still, as you know, there are many luxuries print design affords that don’t yet work—at all—in ebooks. This fact alone is the primary reason I won’t flip my shop’s work flow from ebooks-to-paper to paper-to-ebooks.

  4. Robert Nagle18 April, 2014

    The problem is one familiar to technical writers: the “single-sourcing” problem. The author wanted a solution which could result in a decent print layout AND also a flexible and versatile ebook layout.

    InDesign tries to be that solution, but it still is pretty messy when fine tuning the ebook copy.

    My solution to that problem is XML-based (Docbook), but it doesn’t have to be that complex. It’s much easier to import content from HTML into a desktop publishing tool than vice versa. It’s fairly easy to paste HTML content into MS Word and then use that for creating a print copy.

    I would add another requirements for books: the ability to revise the book for another edition (and possibly another generation of ebook readers). That’s pretty easy to do if you have already separated content from styles. If you have a lot of auto-generated styling (with a tool like Indesign), that makes revising the ebook very difficult.

    The article said, “Amazon muddied the waters by adopting the newest form of EPUB, version 3, but applying its own secret sauce and labelling it KF8.” I disagree; KF8 was a godsend to publishers and introduced a bit of rationality into the production process. Despite the proprietary nature of Kf8, the specs are pretty straightforward.

  5. Rebecca Allen18 April, 2014

    The author’s name is given as G.F. in Seattle. It’s got to be Glenn Fleischman, right? And the book in question must be the book form of The Magazine, presumably? Which makes the whole situation extra special fun, because the original of what ultimately saw publication this was was _published digitally_.

    Also, Fleischman is well aware of all the technical issues he was triggering. He is correct in noting that no matter what workflow you choose, you’re going to hit problems on the digital side, the paper side, or both, and the choices he made are relatively common ones for small publishers (I’ve seen plenty of online commentary about exactly this workflow from people working for college presses that haven’t contracted everything out).

    1. Nate Hoffelder18 April, 2014

      Thanks. I saw the initials but didn’t know who that was. And you’re right, that does make this doubly amusing.

  6. StevH19 April, 2014

    Heck yes…technical pitfalls abound for the uninitiated to in doing cross-platform ebooks. Choices of starting formats, tools used and workflow chain enable a smooth transition to an ebook converion or create a production nightmare.
    FJ really nailed it above and is right on with both his suggestions and assessment of using In-Design (unless you are well skilled in its ‘quirks’ as applied to ebook production – see the expert on that here: http://www.pigsgourdsandwikis.com/search/label/InDesign)

    I remember one similar project were the author and their print designer tried for a week and failed to just extract all the raw text from their finished Indesign project for me to create the ebook (a complex layout full color cookbook), and then gave just up.

    For savvy authors who can follow a recipe and are doing something straight forward like genre fiction it is totally do-able to learn yourself and make it look good (if you choose the right tutorials, and QA test your work before unleashing it on the public).

  7. Will O'Neil20 April, 2014

    Bizarre. I just published a book both in print (CreateSpace) and e-book (Kindle) forms, a book with illustrations, running heads, nice typography, tables, endnotes, live-linked tables of contents and figures, an index, and various special formatting, and I paid $0.00 for the services of experts. Well, OK, I paid for how-to books by some experts (Aaron Shepard and Tim C. Taylor), but that added a total of less than $10 to the cost. I wrote the book in MS Word 2010, made the PDF for print with Nova PDF, and did a little editing of the PDF in Serif PagePlus X6. I did the cover in Adobe Photoshop (but could just as easily have used GIMP.) Then I uploaded the edited PDF to CreateSpace, resulting in a very nice, professional-looking paperback.

    Then I went back to the Word file, made some very minor format changes and a few text changes (taking a whole four hours) before using Word to convert it to HTML. Then I used KompoZer to add some internal links before uploading to Amazon.

    You don’t have to take my word about the result. If you go to http://www.amazon.com/The-Plan-That-Broke-World/dp/1481955853/ you can use Amazon’s Look Inside to see what the paperback looks like. And if you then switch to the Kindle edition (same page) you can use Look Inside again to see its formatting.

    I cannot tell you how many authors have given me elaborate rationales for why D-I-Y publishing is not for them. Certainly if you’d rather pay for the services it’s a nice option to have. But with skills you can acquire from reading a couple of short books, any author can prepare his/her book for CreateSpace and Kindle publishing in less than a week. The trick, as Nate suggests, is a logical workflow, but that’s simpler than he lets on.

  8. […] eBook Production is Hard – Especially if it is an After Thought to the Paper Book […]

  9. […] Here’s a cautionary tale from The Economist Babbage blog. The Digital Reader, and some of the comments to the original post, point out that much of Babbage’s angst is in fact self-induced, by focussing on the old-fashioned way of things, and finalizing his print book first. See the piece here. […]


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